Nusa Kitchen wants to take customers on a culinary journey around South East Asia – not with the typical dishes you would usually associate with the region, but with soups.
Its core offering is a weekly rotating selection of eight choices, of which half are vegan and vegetarian.
The concept’s repertoire of soups stretches to 80, the brand’s chief executive Hubert Zanier tells Food Spark, with this week’s options everything from a Singapore tiger prawn laksa to a South Indian tomato rasam, as well as a Sri Lankan cashew nut and green bean and a Cebu chickpea and chorizo.
The dishes are created by founder Patou Cox, who uses family recipes from her Indian heritage, as well as drawing on inspiration from the food she grew up eating in Singapore.
Nusa Kitchen also has a breakfast range, salad boxes (including recent additions like the vegan Buddha and roasted salmon) and rice boxes that are changed twice a year. The most popular is the beef rendang, which is cooked for three hours. Its success led the brand to create a vegan version.
“We use a young, organic jackfruit," explains Zanier. "The vegan [rendang] doesn’t look as appealing because it doesn’t have the dark colour from the beef, but we can’t copy it. We thought about colouring it or putting in soy sauce, but then you compromise the taste. I would rather compromise the looks, rather than the taste, and it's super popular and really tasty.”
The chain, which has six sites in London, is also set to introduce noodle boxes in June based on customer demand. Though the recipes are still being finalised, Zanier says the options will definitely include a classic Singaporean noodle dish, served in both meat and vegan versions.
“The fun thing is we unintentionally tick all the boxes of the trends as well, because the menu goes to healthy, authentic and vegetarian/vegan food,” he explains. “Half of our menu is vegetarian/vegan and we change it every week, so if you are vegan you can come here and eat a different dish every day of the month and you are still not going to get bored.”
New soups are also coming, both chicken based, with one North Indian flavoured with lots of vegetables and spices and another that is Chinese inspired.
All the soups are made in a central production kitchen the day before and chilled, then sent to stores where they are slowly warmed up on site, which Zanier says gives a stronger, richer flavour. Most are also gluten-free, as there is no need to use flour to thicken them. Dairy-free options are also available.
Breakfast is about to get a boost, too. Nusa Kitchen has been cheered on by the success of its twist on scrambled eggs. Called Bombay spiced eggs, it’s made fresh on site rather than being pre-packaged. Incorporating ginger, chillies, turmeric and tomatoes, the dish has been flying out the door.
“We are bringing in an Asian pancake filled with a nice coconut filling and bananas on top, and a savoury dish made with chickpeas and an egg on top,” Zanier says. “People love their eggs, protein is very popular, so these two dishes will be added at the end of January or beginning of February.”
Spooning it up
With such a soup selection, what are customers most eager to slurp on?
“This is a chicken country, I always say, even in cuisines where you don’t use chicken, like Italian. You have to have a chicken pasta and chicken pizza as people love chicken so much, so our chicken soups are always the bestseller,” comments Zanier. “The absolute bestseller is a typical Thai coconut soup with galangal, ginger and lemongrass.”
But he says people may also be surprised about how well its vegetarian soups perform, like its Goan chickpea and spinach and the black bean dahl.
“A lot of meat eaters and fish eaters come here and have a vegetarian dish as it’s just so tasty. We don’t have to create fake meat or fake fish as the recipes are originally vegan or vegetarian,” he says.
Interestingly, products Zanier describes as broths, like Chinese hot and sour soup, haven’t sold that well, demonstrating a preference for thicker styles of soups.
Products that were European and “a bit more boring” – aimed at those looking for something less spicy – have also fallen flat with customers, like the bacon and tomato soup and an American-style chicken soup.
“It doesn’t sell as well as I think when people come here they expect something authentic and Asian,” explains Zanier.
Not a side meal
Another hurdle to overcome is the perception of soup, admits Zanier, as many people view it as an unexciting and unfulfilling meal that people turn to when trying to lose weight.
“The Asian soups we make are very hearty and thick, there are lots of ingredients and they are really tasty, so they are a proper meal. You get them with a side of bread from our Afghan bakery or a cup of brown rice on the side,” he says.
“The way we cook them is we roast the onions, the garlic, the meat, we cook them slowly, we only put fresh ingredients in – nothing frozen, no chemicals, no stabilisers – and we don’t pasteurise it as we use it so quickly that we don’t have to. And people appreciate that because there is so much takeaway, in the city mostly, that is pre-cooked and frozen.”
One advantage for Nusa Kitchen is it occupies a niche space, where there is no real competitor to its soups, says Zanier. He agrees, however, it’s an area that needs more innovation in the industry.
“When I go to Pret – and I love Pret, it’s a very successful concept in many things – but I think for them soup is just something they do on the side, and I think that also reflects how much energy and creativity they put into that,” he comments.
“I think there is definitely a lack of creativity and emphasis on how to we make a tasty soup. The Pret soups have to have low calories and they give 10p for a charity cause, but that doesn’t really make people excited about the dish itself. But we are filling that up, and I think the reason we are so successful is because we have a complete USP in that area.”
While Nusa Kitchen’s founder hails from Singapore, a country where UK diners aren’t so familiar with their food, Zanier says he wants the concept to be known for delivering South East Asian dishes, rather than being associated with one place. In March, it will launch a campaign where it explores countries and their histories, cultures and cuisines through their dishes, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.