America's next favorite ethnic flavor

by Keith Nunes
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Forecasting which emerging ethnic flavors may reach mainstream food and beverage categories may be likened to handicapping horse races. There are favorites, long shots and also-rans, and winners are most often determined not by skill or talent but by circumstance and luck.

Product developers are looking for the next chipotle, a flavor profile that has transcended market segments and consumers are equally comfortable seeing on a quick-service restaurant menu or on the label of a retail food product. Three ethnic cuisines that may lead to the next chipotle flavor are Peruvian, Nordic and Middle Eastern.

There are a variety of factors that brings a cuisine to the forefront. The spread of Peruvian restaurants throughout the United States combined with increased interest in the ancient grain quinoa has spurred interest. With Nordic cuisine, the emergence of Noma in Copenhagen, a restaurant rated as one of the top five in the world, has spurred interest. In the case of Middle Eastern flavors, the many military personnel returning from the conflicts in the region are seeking flavors they may have discovered while overseas.

“We’ve been talking about some of these cuisines for several years,” said Kara Nielsen, a “trendologist” for CCD Innovation, San Francisco. “They are in the early stages, but there is interest.”

Peppers are central to Peruvian cuisine. Aji amarillo is a yellow pepper that may be used to add spice to a dish. Aji panca is a long, thin red chili pepper used in seafood and rice dishes. Aji limo is a pepper that often gives ceviche its spicy flavor. Small and thin, the red pepper is considered one of the spiciest within Peruvian cuisine. Rocoto is a red, apple-size pepper that is traditionally stuffed with ground meat, topped with fresh cheese and baked.

“The Peruvian thing is catching on,” said Christopher Warsow, corporate executive chef for Bell Flavors & Fragrances, Northbrook, Ill. “It caught on in white table cloth, fine dining a while ago and is starting to show up in different products. The cuisine features a lot of flavors the American consumer may enjoy. Some consumers are looking for the next hot pepper, spicy thing, and there are a lot of peppers used in Peruvian cuisine that are flavorful and bold.”

Barbara Zatto, director of culinary for Mizkan Americas, Mount Prospect, Ill., calls Peruvian cuisine the “hot trend of 2012.”

“What is so popular about Peruvian food is there are so many influences on the cuisine — Chinese, Japanese and Spanish,” she said. “When you think of flavor, I’d say aji amarillo stands out. There are also a couple of red chilis that are central to flavor. Then there is ceviche, a lot of which is cubed instead of sliced. You also tend to see more chilis and herbs in dishes.”

Nielsen said there is still a distance to go for Peruvian flavors to garner consumer attention.

“I haven’t seen some of these flavors outside of Peruvian restaurants,” she said. “Consumers are not familiar with them yet and there may be issues with (ingredient) supply. Some of these peppers are hard to grow, and if there is not a decent supply it will be difficult to do anything with any kind of scale. There are a lot of opportunities with Peruvian cuisine, but it still has a ways to go.”

Interest in new Nordic

The emergence of Noma, the Copenhagen, Denmark, restaurant that has gained global attention, has helped spur an interest in Nordic cuisine. The restaurant’s frequently changing menu features a variety of flavor combinations, including onion and fermented pears, beets and plums, potatoes and bleak fish roe, and beef rib and lignon berries.

Referring to the cuisine as “new Nordic,” Nielsen said it is relatively new to the fine dining space. But she does see some applications that may translate to the United States, such as open-faced sandwiches with smoked fish and capers, a combination of roasted red pepper and cardamom, or different types of cultured dairy products.

“One positive is the core ingredients of new Nordic cuisine are not challenging to US consumers,” she said. “We are talking about things like rye bread, different types of fish and pickled cherries.

“The bigger thing is there has to be a reason for companies, food service or packaged food, to tap into a trend. So, who are you attracting with something that is Nordic? It has a fresh, wellness angle and features simple, good food. So I’d say a Nordic salad in fast casual and targeted to women may make sense.”

Warsow’s view of Nordic cuisine is skeptical.

“I don’t think it’s the flavors people are going after,” he said. “I think the cuisine focuses more on the essence of how they cook the food. It has a lot to do with going back to basics. They use a lot of locally available ingredients, even in the winter; pickled vegetables, for example. I think what is appealing to people are the techniques they have developed for using all the food that they grow in a short growing season.”

Focusing on Middle Eastern flavors

Warsow said Middle Eastern cuisine may not be popular now, but he sees it as an up-and-coming trend. During the Research Chefs Association’s annual meeting in Charlotte, NC, this past March, Mr. Warsow and Bell Flavors served shawarma, a marinated meat, often lamb, that is marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, all spice as well as other sweet and savory flavors.

“Like a gyro, it is cooked nice and crunchy on the outside and may be served over rice or wrapped in a pita with garlic sauce,” he said.

Warsow also sees an opportunity for sumac, which is a spice derived from ground sumac berries. It has a lemon taste that is complementary to salads and meats.

“The other thing to take into consideration is a lot of these Middle Eastern items are healthy,” Warsow said. “They feature lean meats, fresh fruit and nuts. These are all attributes that may attract consumers.”

Nielsen concurs that some aspects of Middle Eastern cuisine may gain favor in the United States.

“There is a long-standing theory about the ways food culture travels,” she said. “We have seen in the past that personnel involved in an armed conflict overseas often come back with an interest in products. In addition, there often are refugees and other populations that may migrate to the US and spread the influence of their food culture.”

Nielsen said CCD Innovation talked about sumac in a 2007 report, but that the spice has not made inroads since then.

“It adds a nice citrus touch to a dish,” she said, comparing it to za’atar, which is a Lebanese spice blend.

Based in Seattle, Zatto said Middle Eastern cuisine has made inroads in the region.

“I am seeing a lot of the flavors showing up in vegetarian items and having a nice mix of cardamom, all spice and curry,” she said. “It is really big here; we are seeing interesting vegetable dishes that have lots of heat that is complex.”

Nielsen, the trendologist, also noted that US consumers are already seeing the influence of Middle Eastern cuisine on menus and in grocery stores.

“Hummus is leading the way for Middle Eastern cuisine,” she said. “Then you have pomegranate and pistachios. These are all products of the Middle East that have gained acceptance.”

No matter what ethnic flavor emerges to capture the consumer’s attention, Warsow believes it will gain greater attention through fusion.

“Connecting a familiar product or flavor with an unfamiliar one is happening more often,” he said. “It’s not about taking two cuisines and mashing them together anymore. It involves taking things people are familiar with and using unfamiliar ingredients — a Korean taco, for example. You have something that is unique, but presented in a non-threatening application.”

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