The dogged rise of Asia as the globe’s dominant economic force will likely be mirrored in the restaurant world. Big on flavour, relatively healthy and cheap to produce, Asian cuisine has a lot going for it. Already a significant power within all levels of the UK restaurant scene, it’s considered a major growth area, in marked contrast to some European cuisines that are rapidly approaching saturation point in certain areas.
Analysts have predicted a rise in demand for Asian concepts over the coming years with 24 per cent of restaurant executives questioned by research firm Allegra Strategies citing Asian as the fastest growing cuisine type in the next three to five years.
Broadly speaking, the UK Asian sector can be split into three distinct markets. The largest and hardest to analyse effectively is the one-off independent sector, which remains dominated by family-owned Indian and Chinese restaurants.
Next up are the small and agile branded groups. Typically London-based, these operators have tightly written menus and tend to offer a specific branch of Asian food. This could be niches within a particular country’s cuisine – sushi, sashimi and katsu curry (Tsuru, Feng Sushi) or Vietnamese street food (Pho) – or simply a single country or area such as Thai (Busaba Eathai, Thai Square) and Korean (Kimchee).
Then, finally, there are the national Asian restaurant brands: the big buffet players, noodle focused pan-Asian brand Wagamama, Yo! Sushi and Manchester-based group Tampopo. In sharp contrast to their smaller counterparts, these larger players are seeking to diversify their (already broad) food propositions. The buffet behemoths are adding more and more cuisines and dishes; Yo! Sushi is experimenting with ceviche and Wagamama is treading on Yo’s toes by moving into the sushi space with a trial menu at three of its central London sites.
Of course, these bigger brands need the mass appeal that makes a national business viable, but they’ll also likely be watching these younger groups closely. In fact, pub and restaurant giant Mitchells & Butlers’ (M&B) debut in the Asian sector’s increasingly lucrative middle market shows it has been paying very close attention indeed. Following a bid for Tampopo that hit the buffers back in 2011, M&B has developed its own pan-Asian concept in the London suburb of Ealing and has even poached the brand’s executive chef.
The odd dalliance with Japan aside, Tuk Cho majors on the cooking of south-east Asia with the tagline ‘Asian market eating’. The short menu is grouped into street snacks and bigger plates with each dish assigned a country or region. Dishes include pork ribs marinated in lemongrass and pepper (Cambodia), red curry with roasted duck and lychee (Thailand) and chargrilled prawns in tamarind sauce (Malaysia).
M&B has picked up on a number of key trends. A big deal is made of street food-style dishes with a ‘street snacks’ section standing in for starters, while detailed provenance information is attached to most dishes. The recipe for Tuk Cho’s Thai jungle curry is said to come from the Chiang Mai in the north of the country, for example. A feeling of authenticity is fundamental to the brand.
The concept of street food in particular has been embraced with great enthusiasm by operators across the sector. It's easy to see why - the term neatly connotes both authenticity and value – though it’s in danger of losing some of its potency.
“When we started Pho back in 2005 nobody was using the term, but now it’s popping up everywhere,” says Juliette Wall, co-founder of the six-strong Vietnamese restaurant concept. “It’s very fashionable and that’s because it hints at authenticity, and operators certainly want to be perceived as more authentic.”
The Tuk Cho team has also cottoned onto the relative fashionability of south-east Asian and Japanese concepts in the branded space. Buffet restaurants aside, such outfits are growing much faster than their pure Indian and Chinese counterparts, with London-based dim sum specialist Ping Pong scaling back its national estate and no major Indian chains to speak of.
While the Chinese sector is arguably under-performing on a national branded level, a possible route to better growth has been identified in the capital. Most Chinese restaurants in the UK serve a heavily anglicised version of Cantonese cuisine. While familiar, the formula has become generic and lacks authenticity, paving the way for region-specific restaurants that largely stay true to the source material. Specialising in hot and numbing dishes, Sichuanese restaurants are a reasonably well-established segment of the Chinese sector in London, but the other provinces are now beginning to get a look-in too.
Devoted to the cooking of the Xinjiang Uyghur region of north-west China, Chinatown’s Wulumuchi is the latest in a string of regional eateries from Oriental restaurant outfit Restaurant Management UK. Wheat-based preparations such as noodles and naan bread take the place of rice, while lamb – an ingredient rarely sighted in the UK’s Cantonese restaurants – is the key meat, typically flavoured with chilli flakes and cumin.
Restaurant Management UK executive director Geoff Leong believes that London’s appetite for region-specific Chinese food will continue to grow. “People are being more adventurous. They are starting to understand the flavours and appreciate the differences between the regions,” he says.
Malaysian, Korean and Sri Lankan
More open-minded and better-travelled diners are also opening up the market for national cuisines that remain largely untapped on these shores, including Malaysian, Korean, Indonesian and Sri Lankan. Norman Musa, an ambassador for Malaysian cooking in the UK and operator of the two-strong Ning brand, says it takes a lot of coaxing to get customers to try less familiar dishes.
“It is a cuisine that has the potential to confuse people. Malaysian cooking is a melting pot of Thai, Chinese and Indian food, and is consequently diverse,” says Musa, whose restaurants in Manchester and York also offer some Thai and Chinese dishes, a common trait of Malaysian restaurants in the UK.
“Business would be a lot tougher without the more familiar dishes,” he continues. “But it’s a wonderful cuisine with strong but balanced tastes; we look to harmonise salty, sour, sweet, spicy and bitter in much the same way as the Thais.” Key dishes include rendang (the beef curry that’s braised and fried in coconut milk and spices), daging masak kicap (beef cooked with curry leaves, cinnamon, star anise, potato and dark soy sauce) and laksa, a spicy noodle soup made with either coconut milk (curry laksa) or as a soured fish soup (asam laksa).
Musa’s York restaurant opened last month with Edinburgh and Birmingham now mooted as the next locations for the mid-market concept.
Korean food is also gaining momentum. In the US Korean is a bigger segment of the market and that’s largely down to immigration: the UK simply doesn’t have a significant Korean population to set up and initially patronise Korean restaurants.
Korean cuisine on these shore has been given a considerable boost by Korean entrepreneur Dong Hyun Kim, founder of London fast-casual pan-Asian chain Wasabi. Kimchee – a 300-cover restaurant in London’s Holborn that opened late last year – is intended as a showcase and has been a
huge hit with Korean expats and diners in general.
The menu is wide ranging. Signature dishes include yuk hwae (raw beef with sesame, egg yolk and pear), pa jeon (spring onion pancakes), bibimbap (a rice dish served in a hot earthenware pot with vegetables, egg, red chilli paste and a choice of proteins) and bulgogi (a range of grilled meats to be wrapped in lettuce). There are also Korean-style curries, stir fries, hotpots and a wide selection of grilled meats.
“Korean food has enormous potential in the UK,” says Kim. “Tastes are strong and simple, it’s generally healthy and there is great variety: there are soups, stews, rice, noodle and grilled dishes. It also lends itself to tapas-style portions, so it’s easier for people to try new dishes and flavours.” If rumours are to be believed, significant expansion is on the cards for the brand.
Whether Korean and other less familiar Asian branded concepts will work outside London in the short term remains to be seen, although Pho and Busaba Eathai have already made the transition successfully with restaurants in Brighton and Oxfordshire’s Bicester Village respectively.
Whichever way you look at it, the source material is rich, diverse and bursting with untapped potential. Now is the time to get acquainted with the continent’s less familiar offerings.
- Six-strong Vietnamese chain Pho majors in its eponymous noodle soup and is in the midst of a private equity deal that will see it expand across the UK. Pho is available with a selection of proteins, including beef brisket, tiger prawns, chicken and tofu. The menu also includes bun noodles: vermicelli rice noodles served cold with fresh herbs and a range of toppings, including lemongrass chicken and pork and lemongrass meatballs.
- Sushi chain Tsuru is to launch a ramen-focused eatery in nearby Dean Street, Tonkotsu. “There is a real lack of ramen places in London,” says co-owner Emma Reynolds who also operates three fast-casual outlets in and around the City of London.
- Jumeirah Restaurants’ UAE-based The Noodle House is coming to the UK. The south-east Asian street food-inspired chain is looking to launch 27 sites across the country. The chain was founded in Dubai and currently operates 16 sites in 13 countries. Noodles dishes are a key product line, but really The Noodle House is a pan-Asian affair, offering dim sum, Thai curries and sweet and sour chicken.
- Wagamama looks set to challenge Yo! Sushi’s status as the only national branded sushi operator following a sushi and sashimi trial at three of its central London sites. The offer is bolted on to the noodle-focused chain’s regular menu and takes in hosomaki (small cylindrical rolls), uramaki (inside out rolls with the rice on the outside) and nigiri (simple pillows of rice with the fish laid neatly on top, no seaweed). The ‘twisted tataki’ section is comparable to ceviche, with raw fish and beef in acidic dressings.
- Yoobi, which opened on Soho’s Lexington Street last month, specialises in temaki sushi, which are generally referred to as hand rolls in the UK. The concept takes its inspiration from Brazil where specialist temaki restaurants and takeaways are a huge part of the sushi scene in the major cities, often splicing Japanese and Brazilian ingredients.
- Sushisamba – another Japanese/South American hybrid – will make its UK debut on the top three floors of Heron Tower in the City of London. The concept has branches in New York, Miami, Chicago and Las Vegas and offers dishes that fuse Japanese, Brazilian and Peruvian food.
This article appears in the June issue of Resturant magazine, out now. Subscribe to Restaurant here.