International cuisines continue expanding and trending. From the popularity of new restaurants showcasing a specific geographical cuisine in an authentic and approachable manner, or the formation of new culinary cultural enclaves in unexpected places, regional differences and styles will swing the pendulum back toward a focus on the commonalities within the pantry of ingredients, flavors, and cooking styles.
With this next-gen culinary fusion, crossing the lines beyond their usual borders will require finesse. Kent Rathbun, chef and owner of Imoto restaurant in Dallas, focuses on “Flavors of the East.” While he makes it a point to “always stay true” to the core cuisines he works with, he does his homework to analyze each one as deeply as possible. “I need to know all there is about Thai Red Curry before I create a unique dish with it.”
Rathbun’s approach is common to the pioneering culinary artists’ approach of applying the exotic to the familiar. “We use garam masala [the Indian spice blend used in many curries] on potato chips and on bacon,” notes John Franke, corporate executive chef for Front Burner Restaurants. The timing is in synch with the current uptrend in Indian and South Asian flavors.
Bowls and Beyond
Also trending is Cambodian cuisine, which shares its ingredient pantry with the rest of Southeast Asia. Among a number of bellwethers signaling this is travel and restaurant review site TripAdvisors’ placement of two restaurants in Cambodia among its top 25 hotels of 2018. All signs lead to more interest in the cuisine and culture.
With many elements of the culinary traditions of Cambodia’s next-door neighbor, Vietnam, bowls figure large. (So, too, do fermented ingredients—another hot trend that shows signs of expanding into the new year and beyond.)
Ten to 15 years ago, restaurant chains were trying to crack the code on the magic and appeal of bowls. The problem was what to serve in them. Today, with a heavier focus on grains and pulses, as well as proliferation around broth-based noodle dishes; bowls are finding a dedicated placement in the pantheon of culinary categories. Chopped “Gold Medal Games” winner Sarah Wade, executive chef and general manager of Lulu’s Allston has seen the evolution first hand.
The use of “ugly produce” kicked off last year and went viral.
The ugly produce trend offers a perfect opportunity for food product makers. While always open to using perfectly fine ingredients that might be less than perfect in appearance, too many field-end suppliers did not find it worthwhile processing bent carrots or wobbly tomatoes for sale into the production stream.
Europe has been at the front of this trend. “Choosing to direct food waste to compost is considered the easy way out, and one that comes with a fee,” says Diego Prado, executive chef for the Basque Culinary Center in Spain. “We have been pioneering techniques in using koji (Aspergillus oryzae) to turn leftover baked goods into sake, vodka, and ethanol. Prado also is experimenting with using lactase to reduce the pH of acid whey waste in order to do similar conversions.”
Recognizing the value in both reducing waste and increasing marketing cachet, this has shifted markedly. Look for a big jump in processors buying into this opportunity.
Heat to Taste
From chili peppers to peppercorns, a dose of spicy heat in food can be euphoric and the hot and spicy trend is poised for another leap forward. But this time, it’s about more than the intensity of spice. The flavor experience that surrounds it is paramount to ensuring consumers will keep coming back for more. The smoked jalapeño peppers called chipotle was the forerunner of the promise of flavor with heat.
“Chipotle peppers were a fairly new ingredient for us during my days as a restaurant chef in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” says Jody Denton, executive chef for PepsiCo. “It took about 10 years to hit mainstream America.
The consumer interest in the mix of heat and strong flavors has been part of the overall global flavors trend. One example of this that’s moving into the mainstream after several years of popularity in restaurants is the South American sauce chimichurri. An herbaceous mixture of parsley, garlic, chili peppers, and citrus, different variations can include cilantro and wine vinegars.
Similar condiments are displaying strong potential for breaking out in the coming year or two. ‘Nduja, dubbed the Italian version of chorizo, is a rich, spreadable blend of cured pork, pork fat, Calabrian chili peppers and spices. It is rich in heat, flavor, and umami. Restaurant chefs are incorporating it into their menus as appetizer spreads, condiments, and sauce stir-ins.
Today, there are many more adventurous flavors of heat.” With former restaurant chefs like Denton having become the rule rather than the exception in product development, the time it takes for a flavor concept to cross the bridge from restaurants to mainstream consumer products has accelerated exponentially.
Denton cites as an example of this synchronicity the successful introduction of PepsiCo.’s “Doritos Blaze,” a snack chip with a flavor based on a complex taste profile rooted in sambal.” The Indonesian hot sauce joins such recent fiery players in the $2 billion trend as Vietnamese sriracha, Korean gochujang, and South African peri peri. Other hot-trending sources for heat that has flavor run the gamut from Wyand white peppercorns from India, smoked Marconi peppers, and Brazilian malagueta peppers.
A few years ago, the 500,000-1 million Scoville heat Unit (SHU) bhut jalokia from India promised almost unbearable heat, yet its heat drowned out what little true flavor accompanied it. But the race to grow the hottest pepper brought us to the Trinidad Scorpion, currently the hottest pepper in wide commercial use at up to 2.2 million SHU. (Pepper spray is 2 million SHU.) Interestingly, for all its heat, the Scorpion retains a high level of fruity flavor. This Habanero cousin is well-positioned to become the star chili pepper of 2019.
Up the Umami
Much as we have seen consumer interest in more aggressive spiciness from heat, there is an increased desire to seek out foods that deliver the savory deliciousness widely designated as umami. Umami mostly comes from ingredients high in naturally occurring glutamic acid. They provide increased, sustained flavor and what is often described as a full-bodied flavor of the “meaty-mushroomy” variety.
With the unavoidable megatrend of veganism/vegetarianism/meat analogs promising only to increase in the next several years, product developers will be increasing their attention to umami. Expect to see more liberal deployment of ingredients such as mushrooms, soy sauce, smoked poblano peppers, yeast extracts, cheese powders, tomato paste, and seaweed extracts. And research chefs also will be taking better advantage of techniques that bring out this deep and savory flavor profile, for example slow-roasting and grilling.
The growing popularity of mushrooms, driven by their recognition as highly functional healthful ingredients as well as their ability to provide strong meaty flavors and textures in vegetarian dishes, will keep raising their prominence in food product development well into the coming years. Greater availability of different varieties of mushrooms as well as formats such as pre-roasted sliced mushrooms and multiple varieties of mushroom powders promise to add significantly to the umami toolbox.
Originally appeared in the December, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Flavor Up!