Top trends: seafood

How the ME is coping with a 80% reduction in fish stocks in 30 years
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Fish stock in the Middle East has depleted.
Fish stock in the Middle East has depleted.
A sushi platter from Chez Sushi on display.
A sushi platter from Chez Sushi on display.
Caviar from Gourmet House.
Caviar from Gourmet House.
Traditional recipes can be used in seafood as well.
Traditional recipes can be used in seafood as well.
Salmon dish from Pierchic.
Salmon dish from Pierchic.
Fish is rich in omega-3 oils, important for health.
Fish is rich in omega-3 oils, important for health.
Claws, pincers and more!
Claws, pincers and more!
Pan-seared scallops.
Pan-seared scallops.
Choices restaurant buffet at Al Bustan Rotana Dubai.
Choices restaurant buffet at Al Bustan Rotana Dubai.

1. Sustainability: Plenty More Fish in the Sea?

It’s a sobering statistic: the Middle East’s fish stock has depleted by 80% in 30 years. Yet many critically endangered species like hammour and blue fin tuna continue to be served in the region’s restaurants.

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The result is growing consumer awareness around the sustainability of the region’s fish stock — in turn, forcing chefs to realign their menus with public sentiment.

Amwaj Rotana Jumeirah Beach, for one, is already in the process of removing hammour from its menus as part of a sustainability drive. “Seafood sustainability in the region has become a priority because everyone tends to be more involved in environmental issues now thanks to the massive information campaigns on sustainable fishing,” explains Al Bustan Rotana Dubai cluster director of kitchen Christophe Prudhomme. “Everyone from the suppliers to the hoteliers, from the chefs to the consumers are changing their mindsets.

“Seafood, like any product that generates high demand in the market, has to be monitored in terms of production. Should consumer demand be too high, our resources will run out and we will be forced to find alternative ways to supply the market. This can affect the quality of the product, so following standards on sustainable seafood works to our own benefit and that of our guests.”

However, achieving a sustainable seafood market in this region will not be without its challenges. “Total seafood consumption is increasing annually,” says seafood restaurant Abd El Wahab general manager Charles Khairallah, “and the burgeoning F&B industry is a key driver behind this.

“However, supply sources are getting tougher; especially for wild-caught products. Prices for wild-caught products are at their highest and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a further spike to come.”

2. Sushi: Roll with It

Sushi — and Japanese cuisine more generally — is growing fast across the region. The secret of its success is its broad appeal: sushi is thriving in both five-star hotel restaurants and small fast-casual outlets.

“Sushi has become part of the daily diet,” explains Hiba Kosta, partner at Sho Cho Facilities Management, which is the company behind Chez Sushi.

“When we first started in the UAE, 13 years ago with Sho Cho, we were one of the first to have a more modern approach to sushi. We offered something a bit more palatable to those who were unsure about the sushi flavour profile.

“Nowadays sushi is available in so many different outlets, from fine dining to ready-made boxes sold in the supermarket. It’s become much easier and cheaper to eat sushi than a few years ago.”

The sharp increase in consumer demand for sushi is attracting investments from F&B operators keen to capitalise on the trend.

Competition in the segment is growing rapidly as light-of-foot brands aim to unfurl their flags ahead of competitors.

One relatively new brand investing aggressively in sushi outlets is Sushi Counter, as its F&B franchising manager, Khalil Fakih explains:

“Sushi Counter started a year ago and we are currently operating five successful restaurants in Dubai, with three more to open in the next four months. We’ve noticed that the market has a potential demand for more Sushi Counter outlets across Dubai and Abu Dhabi — our goal is to fulfil this in the next two years.”

3. Caviar Connoisseur

Cutting against the broad appeal of sushi is growth in the ultimate seafood decadence: caviar.

Cheaper substitutes like fish egg roe have always been on the menu, but chefs are now noticing demand for traditional caviar. No longer the preserve of elite connoisseurs, caviar is now being enjoyed by a wider base of taste-curious consumers.

“Caviar has always been a favourite among discerning food connoisseurs,” according to Al Bustan Rotana’s Prudhomme, “but more recently, interest in caviar has picked up. It is finding its way onto more restaurant menus due to the increased number of food fanatics seeking new experiences. They see caviar as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the culinary world and I think chefs are attracted to it because it is always exciting to splash high-quality products like caviar on your menu.”

Producers in the region are working hard to ensure a sustainable supply capable of meeting the increased demand.

“When sturgeon became endangered, many chefs stopped using caviar,” according to Gourmet House sales manager Delphine Lannoy.

She adds: “For this reason, we spent many years investing in an eco-friendly, sustainable, high-quality farm-raised caviar product. We are now able to offer sustainable caviar to our most discerning customers, all around the world.”

4. Authentic Tastes

As the region’s palate becomes more adventurous, diners are demanding authentic tastes and traditional recipes. Greater access to international ingredients is enabling this trend to flourish and chefs are being given the creative freedom to draw inspiration from further afield.

“The sheer abundance of seafood available makes it ideal for almost any cuisine from anywhere in the world,” explains Amwaj Rotana Jumeirah Beach director of marketing and communications Jasmine Arika.

She continues: “Seafood is therefore a very versatile ingredient that can be adapted to suit all different styles of cooking.

“There has been a renewed focus lately on fish dishes like ceviches and escabeche — and I’ve noticed that this trend is especially strong in Peruvian cuisine.”

5. Salmon Run

No top ten list on seafood would be complete without salmon! Its versatility, distinctive colour, rich taste and texture make salmon one of the most popular species in the Middle East.

“Against the backdrop of vast changes in the region’s seafood market, one fish species remains as popular as ever: salmon,” says Abd El Wahab’s Khairallah. “Supplies are sustainable, it is rich in taste and texture, and it is already firmly established on the region’s menus.”

And unlike some other species in the region, the supply chain for salmon is robust with well-established import channels.

“Consumers like Scottish and Norwegian smoked salmon and Dubai's retail grocery shelves carry a wide range of salmon products,” adds Gourmet House’s Lannoy.

“A growing appetite for Scottish smoked salmon has increased in the UAE, with a huge import of salmon from Scotland, Norway and Chile, in the Middle East.

6. Healthy Eating

“Brain food”, “protein rich, yet low in calories”, “rich in omega-3” … the list goes on!

The bottom line is that seafood is a marketer’s dream because it is as good for you as it is tasty. As consumers become increasingly more health-conscious, seafood is also growing in popularity.

Seafood is jam-packed with all the nutrients and vitamins required for a healthy diet, and its high protein levels make it perfect for dieters. It is also rich in omega-3, a fatty acid that the human body is unable to produce on its own. Omega-3 has earned seafood the “brain food” label because it is linked to improvements in concentration in children and a reduction in dementia and memory problems in later life.

“Thanks to the health benefits, people feel better ordering fish,” explains Sho Cho’s Kosta. “It doesn’t matter if they are eating sushi or other seafood cuisine, it is always the case that fish is healthier on the heart, good for the brain and so on.

“In Flooka, our Lebanese seafood restaurant, we have noticed our customers are now leaning towards grilled fish dishes, rather the fried. People are just eating healthier and are taking care of themselves — and eating fish and sushi falls naturally into that trend.”

F&B operators across the region are responding to the demand for healthier cooking styles — and chefs are listening to the preferences of their customers.

“Some diners prefer less butter, some prefer it to be steamed, whilst others want it cooked only in olive oil,” says Pierchic chef de cuisine Rosalind Parsk.

She continues: “People are a lot more health-conscious these days and deeply care about what they are eating. We listen to all requests and accommodate all diners’ needs — if they do require a more healthier alternative, then we are happy to help.”

7. Provenance is Where It’s At!

As part of the wider sustainability trend, consumers in the region are really concerned about the provenance of their seafood.

To make things more complex, consumers have different provenance demands depending on the species they order.

“This is definitely a consumer-driven trend,” said Kosta, “and they no longer accept not knowing the origin of their seafood produce.

“We are often asked how it was caught? Do you buy your fish locally? Is it farmed or wild? Consumers are more aware of environmental issues and can freely access online information on fish sustainability.”

This is impacting on how chefs source their produce and communicate provenance to their customers, as Pierchic’s Parsk confirms: “At Pierchic we do our very best to use products that are locally farmed. That way, we know the environment it has lived in, if it has been treated well and raised in good conditions.”

8. Crabs: Forever Popular

Crabs are perfect for restaurants in the region because they are versatile, healthy and widely enjoyed in other countries around the world. As the Middle East’s expat community grows and the population becomes more multi-cultural, crabs are the seafood that all nationalities have in common.

“Crab is a very popular shellfish,” says Parsk. “It has so many uses and can be used in a lot of cooking methods and in a variety of ways. I think it appears on a lot of menus because it is quite simple for chefs.”

Prudhomme says: “Recently, there has been an increase in the demand for crabs because they appeal to different nationalities. Chefs can prepare crabs authentically to different cuisines — they can therefore be enjoyed by all the different nationalities that make up our multi-cultural region.”

9. Shellfish: “Fast Food” of the Sea

Shellfish are growing in popularity once again, with curious diners wanting to explore the tastes and textures of mussels, oysters and scallops … the “fast food” of the sea!

The increased interest in this seafood may have something to do with the tactile and fun dining experience that shellfish bring. Indeed, Parsk puts the popularity of Pierchic’s shellfish dishes down to the location of the restaurant.

“The whole experience of sitting at the end of a pier with amazing views of the Arabian Gulf, Burj Al Arab and Madinat Jumeirah resort is all part of enjoying fresh seafood,” she says.

10. Fresh Seafood Counters

Increasingly, chefs are displaying their produce to highlight the freshness of their seafood.

Diners have become more informed and so fresh seafood counters have become the perfect way to hook that curiosity and convert it into an F&B sale.

Medley Restaurant’s seafood buffet, held every Thursday, highlights the freshness of its produce by displaying it as a seafood market. This is complemented with a live sushi station, all designed to add drama to the evening and entice the customer.

Amwaj Rotana, Jumeirah Beach is also considering the idea of introducing a fresh seafood station when it revamps its outlet.

“We are seeing more of these counters because our diners are visual,” concludes Al Bustan Rotana Dubai’s Prudhomme. “They generate more excitement than simply ordering off a fixed menu.”

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