KANSAS CITY — According to the “What’s Hot” culinary forecast from the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C., international flavors continue to influence the menus of all types of restaurants, with African flavors being the hottest new cuisine to be explored by chefs around the country. Middle Eastern flavors are also gaining traction, with both ethnic cuisines identified as a mover and shaker (up 5% or more from the 2015 forecast).
This annual survey of nearly 1,600 professional chefs explores the top menu trends for the coming year. And while African, Latin American, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian and Mediterranean are the top five ethnic flavor trends, what the chefs have also identified as being hot is for recipes to be authentic. In other words, more culinary experts are using traditional cooking methods and real herbs and spices to deliver the ethnic flavor, versus a flavored seasoning blend concocted in a laboratory. The chefs also recognized opportunities in ethnic fusion cuisine, where flavors and foods from two cultures come together in unique ways. Think teriyaki tacos and peri peri veal parmesan.
The Spotted Monkey, a recently opened Latin American-Asian restaurant in Chicago’s Financial District, is all about ethnic fusion. The concept provides diners a new approach to enjoying ethnic specialties, with many based on meat and poultry. It’s the result of proprietor Amy Le working with her diversely staffed kitchens during the past four years since she became a luminary of the Chicago food truck scene. Ms. Le listened to her colleagues reminisce about their varied hometowns and native cultures, from El Salvador, Guatemala and Puerto Rico to Korea. Ms. Le herself, who is of Vietnamese descent, grew up working in her mother’s Chinese restaurants in St. Louis.
This multicultural inspiration is reflected in the Spotted Monkey’s menu, which features Ms. Le’s signature bacos, which are bao-style tacos (Asian steamed buns filled with Latin-seasoned protein) in varieties such as guajillo pork, panang curry chicken and ropa vieja beef.
“We’re paying homage to the familiar foods that people would be eating in their mothers’ kitchens and grandmothers’ homes,” Ms. Le said. They are familiar foods with a twist.
Other specialties include picadillo, a cumin-spiced ground beef and potato stew sweetened by raisins, which is a traditional comfort food in countries such as Cuba, Mexico and the Philippines; and phozole, a hybrid of a Mexican pozole and Vietnamese pho broth.
“I want people to escape for 30 minutes out of their day to be transported to someplace that welcomes them with the smells of rich stews simmering over a hot pot and having someone ask how their day is going,” Ms. Le says.
Such ethnic flavor trends present an incredible growth opportunity for processors, as today’s consumers are exploring new ethnic foods when eating out. They also increasingly want to enjoy these tastes in the comfort of their own home.
“In 2016, saving time is often about new attempts to buy time, beyond convenience. Consumers are more willing to outsource aspects of their lives, such as shopping for food and preparing it,” said Daphne Kasriel-Alexander, consumer trends consultant for Euromonitor International, a London-based market research firm. “Consumers are increasingly relying on ready-made food options to save time and stress in the kitchen.” This is often true for authentic ethnic foods, where ingredient sourcing can be time consuming and wasteful.
Processors can deliver international flavors through varied formats, from heat-and-eat (frozen and refrigerated) meals to gourmet sausages to vacuum-packed marinated raw meats ready for cooking. Braciole – Italian cheese and herb-stuffed beef rolls – can be produced with other meats and varied ethnic fillings. Stuffed chicken breasts can be more than a Kiev or a cordon bleu.
More than just heat
The five chef-identified trending international flavors all have heat as a common element. But it’s more than black pepper or hot sauce heat, the traditional sources in American cuisine.
According to international food and restaurant consulting firm Baum+Whiteman in Brooklyn, N.Y., there’s a continued shift from plain heat to aromatic and flavorful spice blends and sauces. This is where the ethnic layer of flavor comes into play.
For example, the African peri peri pepper is gaining notoriety as Nando’s Chicken chain expands in the United States. Nando’s is famous for its Portuguese flame-grilled, butterfly-cut chicken, which is marinated for 24 hours before being basted and cooked in its secret peri peri sauce.
Sweet and spicy gochujang is a thick Korean barbecue sauce that is showing up in Asian fusion dishes, according to Michael Whiteman, president of Baum+Whiteman. So is kimchi, a fermented vegetable sauce that leads in with a mouth-puckering sour taste followed by eye-watering heat.
“Middle Eastern flavors are warm, rather than hot, and include mixtures of allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander and ginger,” he said. “Red and green curry blends and pastes are catching on as Thai food sweeps the country.”
Shichimi-togarashi is a blend of red chili pepper, black pepper, sesame seeds, dried orange peel, seaweed flakes and poppy seeds. Also called Japanese Seven Spice, it starts out hot then shifts to complexity, plus a bit of crunch.
“It can be used as a chicken rub or blended into burgers,” Mr. Whiteman said.
Berbere is a highly fragrant but hot Ethiopian blend of cardamom, cinnamon, clove, cumin, fenugreek, ginger, hot peppers, nutmeg, paprika, turmeric and ginger. “It makes a great rub or mix for braised food,” Mr. Whiteman said.
Increasingly popular regional flavors from the five trending international cuisines include harissa, a Moroccan red pepper sauce that complements poultry and lamb. Dukkah, a blend of nuts, seeds and spices that has its roots in Egyptian cuisine, adds dimension as a crust for roasted or pan-sautéed chicken or pork.
Ras el hanout, a spice mix from North Africa, can be added to meat and poultry breadings, marinades and rubs. It has a similar flavor profile to berbere, just without as much heat. From West Africa, there’s tsire, a mixture of ground peanuts and chilies, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg that is used to flavor and provide texture to meat before cooking. It can be used as a cooking sauce or marinade, or mixed into blended meats such as lamb meatballs or even sausages.
If there’s one ethnic spice to keep your eye on, it is turmeric, according to Mr. Whiteman. “It’s showing up in all foods and beverages,” he said. “Turmeric is what makes curry powder yellow. Theoretically it cures almost everything, which is why it’s getting noticed.”
Such health and wellness associations, coupled with consumers’ desire to experience the world through their taste buds, will continue to drive innovation. Keep meat and poultry on the menu by adding some ethnic flair.