Comment: Ciao, Chow & Arriverderci

F&B trends from South East Asia to keep an eye on

Opinion, Columnists

Greetings all! In my last article, I highlighted various gastro trends from swinging London. I promised more of the same in this piece, so here’s some observations from recent work that Keane is doing in SE Asia.

In Seoul, I was expecting some of the wacky innovation I’d seen in Tokyo, but the Koreans have taken it one step further and blew me away.

One food hall, Hyundai, was a striking collection of 12 or so stations each offering freshly prepared sushi, pulled meats, lobster etc. Hardly anything was pre-packaged. I was stunned by Egg Drop, which might be the first time that eggs have been adapted to work in a quick service format. Eggs are great; everyone loves them but they’re messy and hard to manage when cooked. Applying a sushi press to shape eggs as an ingredient is a great solution. Was it simply the rectangular eggs that meant that Egg Drop had the longest queue?

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Slightly off topic, but Seoul also provided inspiration in retail design. Parnas Mall has built a lofty library half way through its subterranean design. This brings in light and creates a lively central hub. A rare case of a library adding energy to a space.

Kuala Lumpur nightlife has taken a real leap forward with the recent TREC development. Featuring 70+ F&B venues, the stand out was Pong; a ping pong-themed bar with 10 tables which were digitally enhanced for the game which has its roots in American universities.

Notably, there is always a significantly lower proportion of US and American style concepts in malls in SE Asia. We ran some stats a few years back and found some malls in the UAE have over 60% F&B brands of US origin; the average being around a third. When you look at revenue generation, this is an even higher figure by names such as Cheesecake Factory, Shake Shack, Texas Roadhouse, McD’s etc. I won’t explore them here but the reasons behind this desire for American brands sometimes causes some heated, flag-waving debate!

In SE Asian malls, most concepts are either local cuisine, Japanese, Korean and Chinese. Most notably, there are the amazing dessert bars, found in particular in Bangkok and Korea. There are always long queues for anything sweet from mango-inspired drinks to shaved ice, which is something of a phenomenon in Seoul and Bangkok.

Thai food remains an enigma; it is so often cited as a favourite cuisine by many and yet, there are no global Thai brands and it is under represented in malls and hotels in the Middle East.

Thai cuisine is tough to do. It demands fresh ingredients, freshly prepared and it’s part of the Thai psyche that they simply will not serve a bad dish. Reproducing Thai food therefore, remains a challenge and the only way this might change is if more Thai nationals travel and bring their techniques and supreme product diligence with them.

As a footnote, I think we’re all a little fatigued by endless claims of ‘authentic’ Italian restaurants. Most Europeans know that there is no such thing as authentic national dish; it’s nearly always regional.

Therefore, I must mention a concept called Dante’s Restaurant at the San Martino Mall near Milan, Italy. Dante’s has quality Tuscan ingredients served fresh and features, amongst others, Schiaccia; an oven cooked focaccia and Peposo; pepper beef stew served in a large panini (rosetta).

Ciao chow.

About the Author: Stefan Breg is group strategy director at Keane providing the lead on strategic F&B consulting, master-planning and concept development for Keane’s design studios in London, Birmingham, Dubai, KL and Singapore. Find out more at

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