A. Elizabeth Sloan

T.G.I. Friday’s Flavor Shots Grill lets diners choose their favorite flavors to accompany chicken, steak, or shrimp. Wingstop and other wing/rib-only restaurants have made a very successful business out of flavored dipping sauces and marinades, as creative fritters and dips—including mango habanero, curry mayonnaise, and sambal oelek—take college campuses by storm. From mango caviar and Merlot-flavored salt to rose water-drizzled sizzling duck, creative combinations of flavors and aromas will set a new culinary pace in 2007.

Spicy, seasoned, sweet, zesty, and tangy were the top five flavor descriptors on restaurant menus for 2006, according to Mintel’s Menu Insights market research report. Garlic, smoked, vanilla, lemon, honey, BBQ, chocolate, herb, orange, and Parmesan were the top 10 most frequently cited flavors, although cinnamon, chipotle pepper, ginger, strawberry, cheddar, jalapeño, hickory-smoked, cilantro, coconut, and blueberry came on strong.

Garlic topped Mintel’s list of the most frequently mentioned herbs on menus followed by basil, cilantro, oregano, parsley, chives, mint, rosemary, dill, and saffron. Thyme, sage, lemongrass, ginseng, Thai basil, shiso, tarragon, lemon thyme, and Italian parsley were other popular herbs.

Cinnamon, black pepper, ginger, wasabi, paprika, cayenne, cardamom, horseradish, nutmeg, and cumin were the top 10 most mentioned spices, says Mintel. Mignonette; green, red, Panang, and regular curry; achiote; epazote; and jerk were other noteworthy spices.

In 2006, Italian cuisine was extremely/somewhat appealing to 94% of American adults, according to Technomic, Inc., followed by Mexican 87%, Japanese 64%, Greek 61%, French 55%, German 55%, Irish 51%, Thai 50%, and Cuban 49%. About 4 in 10 favored Indian and Korean cuisine; one-third preferred Vietnamese and sushi.

Thai, Jamaican, Indian, Moroccan, and to a lesser extent Spanish were the biggest ethnic gainers on restaurant menus in 2006, reports Mintel. Nearly half (48%) of adults in the United States bought Chinese take-out food, 20% Mexican, 19% Asian (Japanese, Thai, etc), 14% Italian, 10% barbecue, 8% Middle Eastern, and 6% Indian.

P.F. Chang’s new focus on the Chinese provinces will draw unprecedented attention to regional Chinese cuisines. Watch for North African-inspired cumin, coriander, and turmeric and for galangal, Romesco sauce, and Tandoori to move mainstream in 2007. Latin favorites Serrano peppers, tamarind, caramel, and Mexican cinnamon will be in vogue. Cosi’s Shrimp Salad features hoisin sauce with 5-Asian spices; Big Bowl menus a Blazing Curry Red Steak; and other chains are testing tikka masala.

Expect regional differentiators such as coastal and western and states and cities (especially Carolina and Charleston) to become flavor descriptors. International varieties of American flavoring such as Thai basil and artisanal herbal honeys, cheese, and chocolate flavors will be hot.

Smoking and grilling have moved beyond protein to smoked avocados, grilled pears, and smoky spices like paprika. Braising, tea-smoking, and cedar, sandalwood, and pine-plank cooking are in vogue. Baking adds new flavors to pasta dishes, grilled meats to soups/stews, as sizzling and drizzling sauces move center stage. The Hard Rock Cafe added a Smokehouse menu and Carl’s Jr. a Smoked Sausage Breakfast Sandwich.

Liquors—particularly sake, champagne, sweet bourbon, and beer—will continue their popularity as will nut flavors led by almonds and exotics like black walnuts. 7-Eleven added Southern Pecan Pie and Hawaiian Hazelnut to its regional coffee lines. Expect more calming, homespun dessert flavors (e.g., custard, tapioca, toffee, and butter cream). Also expect more coupled flavors for cheese such as apple-Gorgonzola or basil-Asiago. McCormick lists clove and green apple, wasabi and maple, and sea salt and smoked tea as top flavor pairings for 2007. Look for new sauces including kung pao and piña colada versions.

Fruit flavors will abound—especially the exotics and high-antioxidant super fruits led by açai, yuzu, aronia, mangosteen, and guava. Varietals such as Fuji apple and Meyer lemon, tart dark berries, and light fruits like watermelon will move into the spotlight.

Flavors that tingle, heat, or cool will remain in the spotlight (e.g., Hardee’s Mint Chip Hand-Scooped Ice Cream Shakes and Malts) as will fun flavors like Cold Stone Creamery’s Mud Pie Mojo ice cream.

Chefs will season with scents. Galangal, lemongrass, and Thai basil will add provocative aromas to dishes. Lastly, expect edible flowers including chamomile, teaflower, lavender, jasmine, lavender, and rose to provide truly new aromatic and natural flavor appeal.

by A. Elizabeth Sloan,
Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends, Inc., Escondido, Calif.
[email protected]