Viva la revolución

International cuisine is crucial to menus these days, but perhaps not for the reasons you’d expect, discovers Larry Day

When you think of traditional student cuisine, chances are your mind conjures images such as greasy 4am kebabs with flaccid lettuce, stodgy Pot Noodles and mountains and mountains of Tesco Value beans on Tesco Value toast. They’re not the most inspiring, nutritious or delicious meals, but they’re cheap and easy, and that’s often the most vital aspect of student nosh. This is especially the case if they’ve got a day rammed with lectures, and only have a brief lunch break in which to wolf down the afternoon’s fuel.

In recent times, there is one trend that’s been indelibly altering this midday ritual. Street food has become increasingly fashionable. Gavin Brown, Commercial Operations Manager at Sheffield University, points out some of the most popular options: “Hand-held or Asian bowl food served in disposable containers.” Things that are mobile, essentially, are on the up, so students can rush around between buildings with ease. Julie Frost, Executive Head Chef at Reading, agrees with the street food tsunami that’s arrived, noting one particular trend within the trend: “Linked with this street food revolution is the rise of things like pulled pork and other dishes from the Southern states of America.”

American cuisine is often overlooked, stymied by a view of fat-dripping burgers, fries and hotdogs, but regional variations are coming into play with greater regularity. Furthermore, South America is due to get a look in according to Brown and Frost, with the latter stating: “Countries like Peru, Argentina and Venezuela have many great dishes for us to discover in the near future.” We’ve had places like Las Iguanas for a while now, but with the ‘street food revolution’, is it on the brink of becoming a full-blown cafeteria staple?

Peter Walters, Keele’s Executive Chef, is less optimistic about the Latin American revolución: “I think fads will come and go. We have had South American restaurants on the high street in the last few years, serving up vast amounts of protein, which is cost prohibitive. I don’t see them lasting.” What he does expect is a return to the past. “It will be back to basics and start again, as we are seeing with the street food boom. Ultimately I believe ‘haute cuisine’ – and I don’t mean Jamie’s or any other high-street brand with polished table tops – will re-emerge in little gems.”

Whether or not students will be up for silver service and fine dining is currently out of the question according to trends. Even Walters notes that street food is the de rigueur nutrition delivery method.

So what do students seek in their food, apart from mobility? One thing’s for sure: international cuisine is part of the student food bedrock. Pizzas, pasta, stir-fries, curries and the dominance of Nando’s are all firm favourites. But even within the pizazz of gourmet grub from foreign lands, there are certain criteria that students seem to find more appealing.

Keith Williams, Head of Trading at Kent University, explains their prime allures: “For us it’s all about quality, variety and value for money…customers are brave in their menu choices, willing to try new things and excited by daily specials. They expect quality, value and exceptional customer service at all times.”

Reading’s Frost generally agrees, adding that dietary constraints and the cuisine’s global context are also important: “There has definitely been a shift to healthier food options throughout campus. The amount of vegetarian/vegan meals served has also grown over the last couple of years. We have this past year seen a significant growth in the amount of fish eaten across campus and this is not just when it’s in batter. Sustainable fish such as pollock and hake, for example, served baked or steamed, are now outselling some of the meat options on the menu.”

Peter Walters sees the acceptance and understanding of other cultures and lifestyles to play a part as well: “I believe the rise of the special diet – i.e. food intolerance – and a better understanding of food has driven students to demand better.”

Given the fact that students’ choices are reliant on lifestyles, variety, being new, and as Gavin Brown mentions, the theatre of the meal: “Students like to build their own dishes – Subway style – choose a base, add a protein, add sauce, buy extras…” Would it be cynical to assume that marketing now plays a larger role in student cuisine?

Brown explains his reasoning behind the ‘street food revolution’, saying that: “Due to the theatre of serving, this style of food has the power of social media to make it sexy.” Also with the rise in the internet, students and chefs are able to liaise with other corners of the globe. Two or three decades ago, it might have been an outlandish notion to bring in sushi, Korean cuisine, or Arabic flavours, but nowadays, it’s almost expected. Students are exposed to so much more now. Moreover, they are exposed to the details, allowing a scrutinising eye to be cast over the dish’s authenticity.

Is this, in itself, an issue? Can British chefs and catering departments replicate a genuine international flavour? The reaction is mixed. Keith Williams doesn’t think so: “I think it is a British take on the cuisine using available ingredients through national suppliers. We try to make dishes as authentic as possible by listening to our international students and carrying out focus groups but there are limitations to what you can do. Training helps – we have sent chefs to do authentic sushi training for example.”

In the middle of the scale, Peter Walters thinks it is doable, but it’s based on time and staffing constraints: “It’s really about getting your base recipe correct with the right ingredients and, of course, a bit of training with the staff. However there are some really good convenience products out there that can be used when staffing levels are small. Sometimes it is a British take on a dish, but we try and employ cooks from a variety of backgrounds to help with the authenticity.”

Julie Frost is adamant that it’s not only possible, but essential: “I personally don’t believe we can get away with offering dishes which aren’t authentic any more. With the availability of so many more ingredients from around the world we can’t continue to use that as an excuse for the authenticity of our dishes. The motto must be, ‘do it properly or don’t do it at all’.”

With all this regional food flying about, it’s easy to overlook our own national offerings. While all of the universities we spoke to maintain that fish and chips is still a top-seller, and there’s no need to ‘jazz up’ any of the dishes, they also had some interesting viewpoints.

Keith Williams believes there isn’t really a defined ‘British cuisine’: “[It’s] a fusion of the best the world has to offer. Throughout history we have embraced the Italians’ love of pasta and pizza, we love a good curry, we import spices and other ingredients from across the world.” Gavin Brown notes that some customers have similar leanings: “Pizza is now considered British by some.”

At Reading, what’s seen as traditionally British still has a vast appeal – with international students. The rise in international students over the past few decades has had an impact in other ways too, with Keith Williams feeling it is more in terms of breaking down certain barriers: “Our menus are more descriptive now to give all students a clear understanding of what to expect,” and Julie Frost thinks that: “To a degree the rise in international students has had an impact on what we offer, but not necessarily in the way you would expect… what is also important to international students is the provision of food which caters for their dietary requirements, whether that’s for religious or cultural reasons.”

So the general consensus is that international cuisine is basically a pillar of university catering nowadays. With it, there are specific challenges, such as authenticity and cost, but ultimately the appeal to students is enough to warrant the extra effort.

Keith Williams sums up best the general tone of the rise of international cuisine: “There will be an even bigger demand for variety. What is changing is the environment in which customers wish to dine, the ‘casualisation’ of the dining experience – being able to eat on the go quickly, the demand for street food and the desire to order online at a time of convenience. ”

Strangely, few of those involved in the industry mention the actual taste. Quality is mentioned regularly, but it seems that students, far from wanting something that simply tastes good, are more preoccupied with the surrounding elements. Instead of having a truly scrumptious meal, they’d rather one that was globally sensitive, mobile, varied, and, crucially, new.

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