It's hard to remember a time when grocery stores didn't carry a variety of salsas or Asian-flavored frozen meals. Now, more than ever, consumers have a spicy palate. Call it a culinary heat wave.
"Americans' growing fondness for ethnic foods and cooking has increased demand for ethnic-inspired seasoning blends and flavors in a wide variety of foods, from snacks and soups to meats and sandwiches," says Joanne Ferrara, senior director of research & development at Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings (SFS) (www.spicetec.com), a unit of ConAgra Foods, Omaha, Neb.
For example, she continues, "We have seen an increasing interest in crafting custom-fit seasoning blends that incorporate flavors like Indian masala and Thai basil in chips, crackers and meat rubs."
Asian sauces such as curry blends from India, Singapore and Thailand; tare basting sauce; Tonkatsu sauces from Japan; and the wide array of moles from Mexico also are increasing in popularity, Ferrara adds.
"These trends are appearing across categories, in retail, foodservice and food manufacturing," she says. To that end, Spicetec spends a lot of time "working with customers to pinpoint the flavors and formats to which their specific target customer will respond.
"Today's consumers are exposed to more diverse cuisines and are anxious to try new foods, particularly the large millennial population that spans ethnic and socioeconomic demographics," Ferrara says. "This group is well-travelled and comfortable with flavors popularized by celebrity chefs, Food Network and farmers' markets.
Judson McLester, executive chef/ingredient sales manager for McIlhenny Co./Tabasco Brand Products (www.tabasco.com), Avery Island, La., agrees. "Although trends traditionally get their start in fine dining, the retail market, in many cases, is jumping on flavor trends to capture the food dollar before those trends have materialized in foodservice operations," he explains. "Consumers can just walk down the chip aisle and see a plethora of new flavor and heat combinations, giving them more choices than ever before to experiment with flavors."
He too credits television cooking networks, magazines and mainstream media for exposing consumers to the culinary world. However, he notes, "Complexity of flavor is not all about adding heat to foods — it really is about the source from which that flavor is derived."
As such, he says, "each of the peppers used in the Tabasco family of flavors has a distinctive flavor and complexity, whether it comes from a jalapeno, chipotle, habanero or cayenne pepper." The company then adds other flavorful ingredients to build in additional complexity.
Consumers across the country are drawn to ethnic-inspired foods.
"It's common for flavor trends like spicy Mexican and Indian foods to start on the West and East Coasts and move inward, but that's changing," Ferrara asserts. "We're seeing new flavor trends pop up all over the country and quickly spread. Immigrant populations bring new flavors and food media and blogs have helped spread spicy flavor trends fast."
Although spicier foods traditionally have been more popular in U.S. Hispanic and Asian markets, McLester notes, a national push for more complex, spicy flavors has resulted in flavor experimentation in the Midwest, for example. Hotter foods also are trending with 18-35-year-olds and male "chef hobbyists" who go grocery shopping and do more cooking in their households, he says.
Ferrara also notes more regionally based flavors – such as Memphis, Kansas City or Carolina Gold barbecue; Caribbean flavor profiles that combine savory character and heat plus citrus notes (orange, pineapple, lime); and specific chili peppers such as guajillo and pasilla. Other sought-after seasonings include Latin flavors for meat applications, particularly steak, turkey and pork; Chimichurri, "an Argentinian delight," made with fresh herbs and spices; and Carnitas (made with garlic, cumin, orange juice).
Asian flavors such as sweet spicy Thai, orange Mandarin, ginger raspberry and teriyaki hot wok marinades are appearing in meat and poultry, too. Indian flavors such as coconut curry and tandoori, which are laden with spices and vibrant color, also go well with poultry. Island flavors, such as Jerk seasoning — which blends allspice, bay, coriander and thyme — can be used in both pork and chicken dishes.
McIlhenny maintains the heat in its newest consumer product. For Tabasco Buffalo Style Hot Sauce, "We identified the best quality cayenne peppers, then worked with our farmers to perfect their method of growing them so that quality remains consistent," says McLester.
Interestingly, he points out, Europe is seeing more American-style applications on its menus, including spicy Buffalo wings — proof that the heat is on overseas, as well.