Multiple trend reports have pointed to a rapidly expanding interest in the cuisines of North Africa and the Middle East. For product developers wishing to serve this consumer trend, the key to an authentic experience is to unlock the taste and flavor through the ingredients and spices that bring accuracy to the flavor profiles that define these cuisines.
When it comes to creating in-demand flavors, independent restaurant chefs are able to operate with a comfortable degree of flexibility since only minimal changes are typically required to recreate a recipe for relatively low production numbers.
However, food developers, manufacturers, and foodservice systems need to bridge some technical gaps in translating these flavors to batch production (regardless of whether it’s a wet system or a dry system). The selection of spices and ingredients, coupled with an understanding of the culinary techniques used, are crucial. This is where culinology comes in.
The challenge of bringing authentic flavors and textures forward into batch production is not limited to research chefs with a history of specializing in Middle Eastern/North African cuisine. American food manufacturers with a deep history in products that have that originated from ethnic influences, and have become staples in American cuisine, are experiencing it as well.
“There was never a grandiose plan to become global,” says Jamie Mestan, director of bistro soups and chilis for 125-year-old Vienna Beef Inc. “It is because of the needs of our current customers that we decided to take the next step and prepare our plant in the Midwest to produce halal-certified products. From za’atar to berbere, we found that the American consumer is more than willing to accept these flavors, but it is the job of the manufacturer to clearly deliver the authenticity.”
North Africa and the Middle Eastern main dishes combined sweet with savory centuries before it was considered hip. Allspice figures into the mix, and other common components are the “C” spices: cumin, cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, and cloves. Nutmeg and saffron continue the fragrant theme. Onions, garlic, ginger, and turmeric are almost always invited to the mix, and cilantro and parsley add the fresh notes. And, of course, chili peppers are often waiting in the wings for chance to spice things up.
Dried fruits also have provided the sweet flavor highlights to the cuisine traditions of this part of the Mediterranean region. In the classic North African couscous dish tagine, not only are fragrant spices and saffron integral, but dried apricots, figs, prunes or raisins are used as well. They serve as a stand-out bridge flavor between the pungent marinated meat (typically lamb), earthy spices, and the aromatic, nutty couscous.
A Geography of Spices
Specific to spice blends, the breadth of the pantry is daunting. Ethiopian berbere is a multifaceted combination of the exotic and the familiar—made of chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and basil, and including false cardamom (Aframomum corrorima), herb-of-grace (Ruta graveolens), caraway, black cumin (Nigella sativa), and fenugreek. Tunisian tabil is less complicated, consisting of coriander, caraway, garlic, and chili pepper. Sometimes cumin, mint, bay, turmeric, or even rose might be added.
Ras al hanout (a spice blend of allspice, cardamom, chili peppers, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, ginger, mace, nutmeg, paprika, black pepper, and turmeric), which originated in Morocco, is currently popular in the US. Yet, it is similar to flavor blends that stretch through Northern Africa and across the Middle East, from baharat in Egypt, hawaij in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and advieh in Iran.
Each of these blends incorporates a number of the same spices in different combinations and varying in complexity. Moreover, similar combinations (with their unique variances) appear in the cuisines of Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. All of those cuisines are similar in that they have combined pungent aromatics with heat, sweet, and savory notes, and in many cases, they include some earthy botanical profiles.
More specifically, while on a macro level, all these blends build on similar skeletal structures as outlined above, they also “dig deeper” into their individual regional cultures to express subtle nuances. For example, berbere is enhanced with fenugreek and turmeric. Baharat and hawaij spice blends have pronounced black pepper. Advieh contains floral notes from the use of rose petals, and tabil has chili pepper, coriander, caraway, and cumin — essentially a dry spice version of harissa.
Several currently hotly trending Levantine culinary examples are deploying these flavor patterns. Consumers have been showing an especially strong interest in shawarma (gyro in Greek). As with the Turkish “donner kebab” long popular in Europe, an increasing number of venues are serving pitas-ful of the rotary grilled meat. Slices of heavily seasoned turkey, lamb, beef, or chicken are skewered into tightly packed cones and slowly roasted on vertical spits before being shaved into paper-thin “chips” for serving, dressed with the condiments typical of whatever country or region is being represented.
If It Feels Sweet...
Texture has an influence not only on how a taste or a flavor of a certain food is perceived but also on how much of a specific food is eaten. Increasing the viscosity or thickening a liquid food or beverage can suppress aroma and taste but also reduce intake. The effects are highly specific to the flavor as well as to the thickener used. From a nutritional point of view, a reduced intake could be beneficial to helping reduce overeating and resulting weight gain.
A homogeneous distribution of sweetness can lead to an increase in perceived sweetness. The effect could theoretically allow for a 20% reduction of sucrose. However, big differences in sucrose concentration are required to reach a noticeable change.
This effect was investigated in layered gels as a model for semi-solid foods. In a bread made from layers of dough with varying salt concentrations, and alternating stacks of high- and low-salt dough sheets, a significant increase in perceived saltiness could be achieved.
Grecian Delight Foods Inc. recognized the consumer interest Near Eastern and Middle Eastern seasonings and recently launched its “ReadyCarved Off-the-Cone Gyro Slices” and a full falafel line to, as the company explains, “help operators expand menus with high-quality, distinctive products that can be easily prepared to support multiple applications.”
The pre-rotisserie cooked and sliced meats use natural seasonings and have no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. With its history as a family-owned company rooted in traditional flavorings, Grecian Delight specializes in products that taste authentic and follow classic recipes.
Falafel, chickpea balls seasoned with coriander, cumin, onions, garlic, sesame seeds, and parsley, are another emerging consumer favorite. As with shawarma/gyro, falafel will vary according to the chef’s origin, with garlicky Israeli and heavily parslied Lebanese styles being the most popular in the US.
Botanicals and exotic herb flavors are trending high, riding on the coattails of the “better-for-you” products trend. While this has been a strong component in popularity of the Asian and Latin flavors, the Middle East and African medicinal food cultures have their part to play in this trend as well.
One herbal flavor blend currently making a big splash on American palates is za’atar. “We are just on the cusp of a nationwide embracing of this refreshing and versatile flavor blend,” says Alexander Harik, who, with his mother Lorraine, started Zesty-Z/The Za’atar Co. “People in the Mediterranean region from the Middle East and North Africa have been using za’atar for generations.” One of Harik’s challenges was, given so many regional variations of the blend, coming up with the “best” recipe.
Za’atar’s flavor profile boasts origins in the roots of the Middle East, with the word being as old as language itself. Depending on the country, it refers to thyme, oregano, summer savory, hyssop, and a number of wild species of herbs. Thyme and summer savory are among the most common base herbs used for za’atar and are traditionally blended individually or together with sumac and sesame seeds. In ancient times, recipes included olive wood powder. And in some regions, a wet form, used as a condiment, incorporates olive oil.
Za’atar is quite versatile, used to flavor meats, salad dressings, cheeses, spreads, and flatbreads. “It’s an old-world flavor,” notes Harik.
The Za’atar Co.’s version begins with the thyme. Harik uses a special type of thyme that only grows in one part of the world, with specific climate, soil, and environmental conditions. “We study the plant at its origin,” he says, “and we have direct relationships with our sources—we are on the ground testing it and delving into the agriculture behind it. What makes za’atar different across the regions is the quality of the thyme.”
Freshly cut herbs often are used as a final ingredient in a recipe just before serving in order to maintain their freshness of flavor. Capturing this freshness on a mass-production scale is difficult due to the evaporation, oxidation, and enzymatic degradation of the herbs flavor and aroma molecules immediately after plucking fresh herbs and through preparation, cooking, freezing, thawing and reheating.
Some ingredient companies, however, have advanced the technology of capturing these flavor and fragrance components and have been able to preserve them in the field. Using combinations of on-site molecular analysis and proprietary preservation techniques, they can provide flavor extracts that are nuanced enough to precisely recreate and fine-tune flavors and fragrances of herbs and produce.
They can control for degrees of ripeness and, for example, even balance out stem and leaf flavors of an herb such as cilantro.
The Heat Is On
Foods and condiments that are high in heat have always been provocative. To that end, the hottest flavor trends in recent years have been the hottest flavor ingredients: chili peppers. The North African condiment harissa is no exception. While sriracha and gochujang are now household names, harissa is not far behind.
Originally from Morocco and Tunisia, harissa has become a staple throughout the Middle East. Its ingredients are a marriage of roasted hot chili peppers, garlic, onions, tomatoes, and lemon juice. Flavors incorporated into this mixture will primarily lean toward varying combinations of cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and caraway.
For processors, the peppers most commonly used are red serrano, but Fresno, red jalapeño, or any other red hot peppers can be included. Roasted sweet red bell peppers can be added to the formulation to temper the heat and get the desired Scoville level. Dried chili varieties, including ancho, guajillo, and chili de arbol, may also be used. The basic tastes and sensations of bitter and heat, with a hint of umami—and even sweet, if fresh peppers are used—all come into play to set harissa apart from its Asian and Latin associates.
When formulating spice components, chefs must not only settle on which spices to use and at what levels, but also consider the differences in flavor between leaving them raw or toasting them. For example, with harissa, since it is traditionally used as a condiment, the nuances of toasted spices will enhance the flavor profile and experience. Lightly toasting spices and flame-charring chili peppers also is a preferred method of treating spices and peppers in Latin and Southwestern cuisines.
Culinologists in food manufacturing will be most likely to choose thermal processing with heat, unless they are utilizing high pressure in the pasteurization of their product. If heat is being used and there is fat in the formulation, the developer may choose to use raw spices, knowing that they will bloom during and after the processing. If the formulation is low in fat, toasting spices before processing can be beneficial.
A Savory Jump
Middle Eastern and North African are not the only flavor trends bringing together sweet, spicy, and savory. The Asian flavors trend—one that shows no sign of slowing down—has regional cuisines boasting the same triumvirate. Classic versions of Chinese “Five Spice,” for example, include cinnamon and cloves for sweet, fennel seed for a toasted licorice depth, Szechuan peppercorns for a touch of heat, and star anise, an exotic mix of sweet, licorice, and floral aromatic.
Asian cuisines also take a singular approach to the “meaty-mushroomy” savory flavor notes of umami. Where umami in culinary traditions of the Levant might come from smoked peppers, slow-cooked tomato and onion, or even meat, Asian cuisines, with greater focus on vegetable-centered eating, lean toward fish sauces and soy sauces for that so-called “fifth flavor” note.. The latter, while ubiquitous across Asian culinary traditions, has been breaking borders and finding its way into Latin, Southwestern, and other cuisines.
A form of soy sauce gaining favor among culinologists is soy sauce powder. “Using soy sauce powder doesn’t mean you are limited to Asian flavor profiles,” explains Andrew Hunter, a consulting chef for such companies as the Wolfgang Puck Food Company Inc., Niman Ranch Inc. and Kikkoman Inc. “In a classic Southwestern rub of smoked dried onion powder, chipotle pepper powder, and dried honey powder, soy powder will be a perfect complement. The roasted, aged notes of the soy work really well with the smoked ingredients and the sweetness of the pepper.”
Mushroom powders, too, are an increasingly popular source of savory flavor in formulations. “All mushrooms are a rich source of umami, and the darker the mushroom the more umami it contains,” notes the Mushroom Council. According to the Council, widely available mushrooms with the most umami include shiitake, portabella, cremini, and button. (See, “Mushrooms on Top”)
Dried mushrooms tend to have more umami than fresh ones, and cooked mushrooms more than are raw ones. This, according to the Council, means that adding mushrooms in virtually any form—raw, sautéed, whole-cap garnish, and even a dusting of dried mushroom powder—will add an umami “lift” to foods.
The Mushroom Council provides the following suggested flavor pairings for white, cremini, and portabella mushrooms:
• allspice, balsamic, basil, cardamom, chives, cilantro, coriander, Creole seasoning, chipotles, curry, garam masala, horseradish, harissa, herbes de Provençe, marjoram, steak seasoning, olive oil, oregano, Tellicherry pepper, pestos, red wine, rosemary, sea salts, shallots, soy sauce, smoked paprika, tandoori seasoning, tarragon, thyme, white wine, and Worcestershire sauce.
The suggested flavor pairings for shiitake, oyster, and maitake (Hen-of-the-Woods) mushrooms include:
• almonds, bean paste, bonito flakes, char siu [Chinese barbecue pork], celery root, Chinese Five Spice, coconut milk, curry paste, fennel, galangal, garam masala, ginger, hoisin sauce, lavender, lemon peel, lemongrass, lemon verbena, miso, mint, pine nuts, pink peppercorns, rice vinegar, sesame seeds, saffron, scallions, sesame oil, soy sauce, Szechuan peppercorns, sake, shallots, star anise, tamarind paste, taro root, tarragon, Thai curry, yuzu.
Sweet and Fat
To accentuate both sweet and umami notes in a sauce, condiment, or product, tomato can play a big role. For these specific characteristics, the tomato is best concentrated through cooking or drying. This reduces the amount of acidity the tomato will contribute, which is important because that acidity can sometimes even out bolder flavors rather than enhance them.
If more acid is needed, it can be contributed through the use of citrus. It’s no secret that the addition of lemon, lime, or even orange juice can elevate flavor notes throughout a formulation and even reduce the need for added sugar or salt. Vinegar, too, can bring the flavor-boosting benefits of acid back into a formulation.
The amount of fat, as well as the source of fat, and its aromatic compounds should be taken into consideration for any product, as the majority of flavor is carried in the lipid component. Olive oil, avocado oil, nut oils, and even seed oils such as those from grapeseed and chia both infuse and diffuse complex flavor notes when used sparingly yet artfully.
Lastly, processing time and temperature will always play a role in determining the final flavor of a product. The product developer can expedite the decision making in development by conducting trials with raw ingredients of different specifications and evaluating how much the heat from the preparation affects the flavor of the spices, herbs, and other ingredients in the recipe.
This will also help with determining the ratios in the final formulization, because one ingredient’s flavors bloom differently from another ingredient’s flavors under the same conditions. Whether the processing is retort, or hot fill, sauté or grill, sous vide or broil, the flavor components will react to the application of time and temperature by developing unique facets that other methods and timings cannot replicate.
The keys to leveraging flavor trends for new product innovation are in the culinologist’s approach to authenticity; a deep understanding of the ingredients, flavors, and culinary techniques; and robust understanding of their consumers.
Make the Most of the Yeast
by The Savory Taste Alliance
“Finding the right ingredients that satisfy consumers can sometimes present challenges to food manufacturers, but yeast extracts are one of many tools that can help meet today’s flavor trends,” says Edouard Gestat, the North American representative for the Savory Taste Alliance project. “Yeast extracts are ‘natural origin’ ingredients derived from fermentation. They deliver high-impact flavor and help create a signature umami flavor.”
Yeast extract is a natural taste enhancer derived from bakers’, brewers’, or torula yeast. The staple ingredient has been used by chefs for more than half a century. It functions as a savory seasoning in many prepared foods, including soups, meats, crackers, snack foods, and ready-to-eat meals such as macaroni and cheese. Yeast itself has been used for thousands of years to make bread, beer, and wine.
Yeast extract, which is the essence of yeast, not only enhances flavor, it also strengthens the cooking and baking process. With the concentrated flavor profile of umami, yeast extract is an especially versatile and welcome flavoring for vegetarian formulations, since it contains no ingredients from animal origin. In fact, the taste of yeast extract is often likened to that of a meat bouillon. This is because many of the same flavor-providing amino acids are present in both yeast extract and meat bouillons.
Glutamic acid (glutamate) is responsible for the savory flavor. Glutamic acid also is naturally occurring in foods such as parmesan cheese, tomatoes, peas, and mushrooms. It is not to be confused with monosodium glutamate (MSG).
From a nutritional point of view, yeast extract is a rich mix of proteins, amino acids, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. It also is a source of B vitamins, including vitamin B12, which can help compensate for vitamin B12 deficiencies in vegan diets.
Technological advances have enabled yeast extract to make certain foods healthier. Some of the more recent innovations have been in so-called “high nucleotide” ingredients like yeast extract that allow them to be effective at building back salty notes and intensifying flavor in low-sodium formulations. They also mask bitter notes from potassium chloride.
In certain sweet formulations, yeast extract can be used to reduce sugar. As a flavor enhancer, it helps boost sweet notes in low- or sugar-free formulations, and masks bitter and metallic notes from high-intensity sweeteners.
By helping to build and bring out flavors in foods, yeast extract adds complexity as well. The amount of yeast extract needed for a formulation depends on the purpose it serves in a recipe. The strains of yeast, as well as the fermentation conditions, also play a role in the flavor development of yeast extracts, giving each one unique flavor characteristics. Developers should use yeast extracts as they would any seasoning to refine and balance overall flavor.
The Savory Taste Alliance project is a US-based segment of Eurasyp, a European trade association for yeast manufacturers. The mission of the Savory Taste Alliance is to promote public awareness of the uses and benefits of specialty yeast products, including yeast extracts, and the use of these products as an ingredient in a variety of foods and beverages.
Learn more at www.savorytastealliance.com.
Originally appeared in the July, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Flavor Forward.