Spice and herb use is nothing new in foodservice. These are the fundamental building blocks of flavor and are key in the identity of world and regional cuisines. American consumers are embracing the complex flavor profiles of international spice blends and research chefs and food scientists are using these unique flavors across a broad spectrum of authentic and innovative dishes.
Though spice blends are being celebrated as something seemingly new, blends have been used by restaurants for decades. These have been used to flavor savory dishes, desserts and beverages—but rarely took center stage. They were added but not identified as key ingredients.
Things changed with the success of the pumpkin spice latte, a flavor seemingly synonymous with fall and winter. Pumpkin spice is not, of course, one spice but a blend of several warm brown spices—including cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and allspice. Pumpkin spice lattes brought this blend out of obscurity and into the spotlight as the key driver for seasonal specials.
Fast forward a few years and spice blends are, in many cases, the heroes of the menu. Their higher profile goes hand-in-hand with better availability and interest in blends from around the world as a diverse array of world cuisines continues to impact foodservice. For example, Indian blends have moved well beyond the current state of Indian food. We now find curry powders and garam masala featured in both mainstream applications and more innovative options.
Asian cuisine has contributed new complex blends to the mix. Five spice from China and Japanese 7 spice or shichimi togarashi and furikake are all featured more often on the menu than ever before. These blends combine milk heat and depth of flavor. In the case of Chinese five spice, it combines savory and sweet flavors for something intriguing in both savory and sweet applications.
More recently, however, the rise of Middle Eastern and African cuisines have introduced a whole new set of unique blends. These are distinctly savory in nature and many incorporate heat to some degree. Some bring heat to the forefront while others incorporate heat as a supporting flavor element. Berbere, ras el hanout, baharat, and harissa are excellent examples of these blends.
What makes blends so appealing to restaurants is their versatility. Blends can be incorporated into nearly any type of dish and application, and operators can use as much or as little as makes sense for the item, the operation and their patrons. Furthermore, many of these blends can be created back of house, made authentically or innovated to create something new with the addition of unexpected elements. But even operators not interested in or capable of creating custom blends back of house may employ these blends thanks to the array of prepared spice blend products now available.
Thanks to consumer interest, operator appeal, and ease of use, these blends will continue to impact foodservice broadly for years to come. In fact, we can expect to see new blends introduced as African, Middle Eastern and Asian spices expand their impact and other cuisines begin to emerge.