Creativity by the Bowlful
In many ways, there’s nothing new about a bowl—a bowl of cereal, a bowl of soup, a bowl of ice cream. But as a menu platform, and as a trend that’s sweeping the food world, bowls are all about excitement and innovations.
“As a menu item, bowls are really a vessel for creativity,” says Andrew Hunter, Kikkoman Foodservice and Industrial Corporate Chef. “The bowl concept can encompass any cuisine, any price point, any menu segment.” And like a well-crafted sandwich or salad, a bowl provides a beautifully curated interplay of flavors, textures and even temperatures in every bite, says Hunter.
Consider, for example, a poke bowl, which the chef has recently been experimenting with. “Poke in and of itself is a delicious thing,” he explains, “but when you translate the concept of Hawaiian-style dressed raw fish to a bowl, you really get something exciting.”
For one thing, bowls are very versatile. Following a basic anatomy or build, a bowl can incorporate just about any ingredients, which makes it useful for introducing new flavors, particularly in the context of an LTO or menu special. They’re also an excellent vehicle for cross-utilization of ingredients, from sauces to proteins to prepped vegetables, helping to streamline prep and minimize waste, while contributing to the bottom line.
Most bowls will start with a layer of something starchy, notes Hunter, from rice to ancient grains or a short pasta like ditalini or a whole grain shell. Even a rice base can be varied, to feature long grain basmati, seasoned sushi rice, or exotic Forbidden Black rice. And that base sets the tone of the bowl. For the poke theme, short grain sushi rice seasoned with salt, sugar, and mirin establishes the Pacific Rim feeling of Hawaiian cuisine.
A protein or other substantial ingredients comes next. “This is the flavor center,” notes Hunter, “building on the theme and establishing a personality. If the topping is cold and the base is warm, so much the better for the overall experience.”
While traditional poke is made with ahi tuna, a poke-style bowl might include another raw or cooked fish, such as red snapper or poached shrimp, seasoned or dressed with interesting flavors. Some of the new fast-casual poke concepts, like Sweetfin and Pokeworks, use ingredients like avocado, mushrooms, chicken or tofu. Other possibilities include flavorful teriyaki beef, hearty sweet potato or butternut squash, or even a soft-cooked or sunny-side egg, “You want these things to be a little saucy and moist,” Hunter counsels, “to mingle with the rice when the guest digs into the bowl.”
Next come toppings, which deliver on the theme and tell the diner a little bit more about the bowl. In the case of the poke bowl, it might be nori ribbons, julienned quick-pickled vegetables, furikake or togarashi [Japanese seasoning blends], sprigs of fresh, verdant green cilantro. “Here you get color, texture, dimension, and flavor,” explains Hunter, warming to his subject. “You’re creating an experience.”
Finally, says the chef, there’s a finishing touch that adds and integrates—a creamy sauce or a crisp or crunchy texture component that ties it all together and brings a bit of umami-laden pleasure in every bite. Depending on the theme of the bowl, it might be a crema, aioli, mascarpone pesto, or even a creamy Sriracha ranch dressing. In the case of the exemplary poke bowl, Kikkoman has many products that can be used to supply that perfect finish, including new products to be released this year including Toasted Sesame Oil and Gluten Free Panko.
And that’s the anatomy of a successful bowl, in a nutshell. But within the context of that four-step build, there are a huge number of variations, from an Italian pasta- based bowl to an on-trend breakfast porridge bowl. “That’s the beauty of the bowl concept,” says Hunter. “Though the bowl trend may have started with Asian flavors, a bowl can support almost any theme or innovation. We’re even seeing upscale, cheffy bowls where every component is elevated, with ingredients like truffles or caviar that support premium pricing. There’s really not much you can’t do with a bowl.”