"The popularity of Korean food is growing tremendously in the U.S. due to unique, bold flavors of Korea that consumers and young chefs alike are looking for," emphasizes Chung. "Many chefs are starting to incorporate the spicy flavors of Korean cuisine into their dishes, influencing restaurant menus and the public."
Spice is nice
Everything old is new again when it comes to spices. "There's a renewed interest in creating authentic spice blends," says Jeffrey Troiola, corporate chef of research and development for Woodland Foods (www.woodlandfoods.com), Waukegan, Ill. Authentic spice blends have become such an important trend that Woodland Foods has extended its business into custom preparing blends for customers, putting master chef power behind the creativity of own their blends. For example, dried curry leaves are a key ingredient in curry powder mixes and may become part of wholesale or retail curry kits for clients to offer customers desiring quickly assembled exotic dishes.
"Moroccan flavors are popular this season, and they are rich in peppers," notes Troiola. Peppers are becoming a hot item in flavors for the new year, he adds, but cautions "not too hot." Bhut Jalokia, aka "ghost" chilis, are having a run as a fad, but are more of a gimmick than a flavoring, he says. "They can be dangerous to work with," says Troiola. The more popular peppers that can provide punch to flavor blends are the Aleppo, Marash, and Urfa.
As a side note, a third stimulus for the use of stand-out spices and similar flavors is spurred by the attention still being paid to reduced sodium in foods. Although there is growing recognition that sodium intake has little or no impact on the physical condition of those who are healthy, demand is still around. Chef Troiola points out an excellent solution is for manufacturers to be more proactive in the use of spices. "Season [with herbs and spices] and use salt as a final touch, then sodium reduction takes care of itself," Troiola says.
The interest in traditional and custom spice blends may have been stimulated by both the desire for more authentic ethnic food as well as the interest in locally grown food. These two ways of "getting back to basics" have stimulated growth in community-targeted flavor systems.
"When creating interest in local foods, spicing them with exotic spices from distant corners of the Earth seems to be perfectly consistent with locavore [a person interested in eating food that is locally produced] traditions," says Troiola. "We expect spices will come from around the world, even when we are buying foods locally." In other words, the melting pot that is today's U.S. could be said to be as literal as it is figurative.
"Chili peppers like Shishito, Padron and fresh cayenne are newer varieties to the processing industry, and the heat and spices they add to dishes is a building movement," says Robert Schueller, vice president of communications for Melissa's World Variety Produce, (www.melissas.com), Los Angeles. "Also gaining a national interest is the Hatch chili from New Mexico. Kale has been a megatrend in the last year due to popularity of the green at farmer's markets in the spring and summer. Heirloom tomatoes of all shapes and sizes are trendy still (Baby Mix, Heirloom Roma, Black Cherry too).
Fruit flavor fashions
Other flavor trends coming on board in the New Year, according to Schueller, include citrus, especially from varieties such as blood oranges, cara cara oranges, kumquats, Meyer lemons, seedless lemons, key limes, cocktail grapefruit, Satsuma and Jeju mandarins (a new entry into the industry). Another very new citrus Schueller sees taking off is the "finger lime," also called "citrus caviar," so far limited to chefs. The exotic fruit from Southeast Asia is the size of a fingertip with drupelets that resemble caviar and have a powerful, floral lime flavor and aroma.
Also in the exotic fruit category are sweet young coconuts, prized for their coconut water and soft pulp, and the red Caribbean papaya. "These showed strong gains in 2011 and are set to grow a lot more in the 2012 season," adds Schueller.
"Calling out the specific varietal of the flavor, especially in citrus products, gives unique nuances and sophistication to products," adds Jessica Jones-Dille, associate director for Wild Flavors Inc. (www.wildflavors.com), Erlanger, Ky. "Fruit varietals and floral flavors are growing, especially as nuances of floral flavors in combination with fruit notes to make signature and often exotic flavor profiles." Some examples are lemongrass and mango, lavender and pear, or lime and hibiscus. "Exotic fruits can often have inherent floral notes, and this ties with that trend," she says.
Jones-Dille also points to the increasing attraction of "retro-inspired flavors." She describes retro marketing and advertising as staying on-trend. "Flavors can easily be designed to correlate with these approaches. Wild developed a line of 1950s-inspired cocktails and appetizers, as well as sherbet-type flavors that evoke a sensation of those days gone by."
Tart cherries are a "home-grown" fruit which has taken on the personality of an exotic. Their super-high ORAC value boasts of powerful anti-inflammatory properties, plus their dazzling color makes for a highly marketable combination of "better for you" vitamin and antioxidant source and cherry-pie comfort-food positioning.
"Tart cherries have emerged as a major superfruit," says Jeff Manning, chief marketing officer of the Cherry Marketing Institute (www.choosecherries.com), Lansing, Mich.
"Their sweet-tart flavor and naturally functional properties put them right on target with today's food and beverage trends. It's no coincidence tart cherries are showing up in more new products and menu items, and they will continue do to so in 2012."
Meanwhile, the perennial star of the flavor trend, never going out of style yet always able to adapt to the latest trends: chocolate. The universal favorite is on track to lead gustatory fashion again this year, branching out into different accents and combos.
"This year, expect to see a lot of novel ingredients paired in adventurous flavor combinations: ultra-dark, premium chocolate; cake and truffle pops; and products made with sustainably sourced cocoa," says Joe Sofia, confections specialist for Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate (www.cargillcocoachocolate), Lititz, Pa. "Ultra-premium dark chocolate continues its double-digit rise in popularity as consumers reach for a simple way to indulge rather than simply ‘consume.' The high cocoa content offers a rich taste experience and an association with the health benefits of antioxidants. Add an exotic or ethnically inspired umami or health-boosting inclusions, and you've got a highly marketable product."
Finally, some trendmeisters in R&D have picked up on the possibilities of combining flavor trends to great effect. "New, wild flavors, textures and forms are driving new product offerings as consumers search for new taste experiences," concurs Sofia. "On trend again this year, look for sweet/savory flavor fusions, caramel clusters made with roasted, salted toffee-coated pecans, or Parmesan-stuffed dates enrobed with 72-percent bittersweet chocolate."