Do you know your Rocoto from your Rendang, your Kimchi from your Katsu?
Heat and Tang
This is the no. 1 trend in the McCormick Flavour Forecast (2016). Spicy tastes are contrasted with tangy accents, for example Peruvian chillies like rocoto, ají Amarillo and ají panca paired with lime, or Sambal sauce made with chillies, rice vinegar and garlic. Heat on its own is not enough, it must be aromatic and flavourful.
Kimchi, the Korean pickled cabbage side dish made with red chilli peppers, garlic, salt and vinegar, is another flavour of the moment and is already making waves in London. Jamie Dobbin, head chef of One Canada square restaurant and bar, believes that "we'll see a big rise in Korean food in general. It’s the next Asian food to become mainstream - less greasy than Chinese, less spicy than Thai and lighter than Indian", he told The Independent.
Tastes from the tropics
Distinctive flavours from Malaysia and the Philippines are attracting those who are adventurous diners. Pinoy BBQ, a popular Filipino street food, has some of the familiar ingredients of soy sauce, lemon, garlic, sugar, pepper, but more unusually for western palates, banana ketchup. Rendang Curry, a Malaysian spice paste, delivers mild heat but remains full of flavour as chillies are complemented by lemongrass, garlic, ginger, tamarind, coriander and turmeric.
Even in cuisines which are becoming familiar to British consumers, there is an added focus on new flavours which come from authentic regional dishes. For example, Thai food is reinvented with the new opening of Som Saa in Spitalfields, London. Born as a pop-up and now a full restaurant, the traditional flavours of Thai food mingle with less well-known ones, such as those found in the North Thailand fermented sausage dish Sai Krok Isan. Jay Rayner, restaurant critic, describes the food as "a deliriously fearsome bash of fire and sour and salt and smoke; of the high ethereal waft of Thai basil and lemongrass, of mint and coriander and pungent fish sauces, and their own coconut creams to lend soothing depths where needed." The success of Som Saa proves it is possible to keep customers returning by offering a few known favourites, while at the same time challenging their taste buds with new flavours and tastes.
The power of pulses
In ancient Greece, pulses were a staple as only the very rich would eat meat. So chickpeas and lentils were enjoyed in many forms as they were abundant, good for you and cheap. Today, both in Greece and across Europe, pulses are being rediscovered and 2016 has been named by the United Nations as the International Year of Pulses.
In restaurants, pulses are elevated from 'peasant fare' by being combined with other flavours. According to McCormick, "Pigeon peas, called toor dal when split, are traditionally paired with cumin and coconut. Cranberry beans, also called borlotti, are perfectly enhanced with sage and Albariño wine." With the health benefits of pulses and millennials looking for alternatives to meat, there has never been a better time for restaurants to update their menus, giving pulses a starring role.
Blends with benefits
Matcha literally means 'powdered tea' and, with its high level of antioxidants, is already enjoyed by those who want a more intense version of their usual green tea. It can be added to desserts, but it is also being used by chefs in soups, stir fries, bread and beyond. Its slightly bitter 'umami' taste can be offset with citrus or ginger, or it can be teamed with other spices. For example, tempura chicken is served with a matcha salt in Soho's Shoryu Ramen restaurant, while chef Tim Anderson makes a matcha-flavoured mayonnaise to go with an Asian egg salad.
Chia seeds are another 'superfood' that needs a partner to make the dish memorable. Chefs are using the chia seeds' qualities of adding body and creaminess by combining with lemon to create zingy, Caesar-esque salad dressings. Baked into cakes, sprinkled on desserts or blended with fruit, chia seeds are becoming an easy way for dining establishments to satisfy consumer demands for healthy alternatives, without forgetting that the eating out experience is first and foremost all about pleasure.
Looking forwards by looking back
Pasta is taking a hammering with sales down across Europe, but the trend towards using more unusual but traditional grains is on the up. Chef Allan Pickett from Piquet restaurant believes chefs will be using more traditional cooking methods and are "looking to source older, more uncommon grains like barley and spelt for use in vegetarian cooking". McCormick thinks that the next 'rediscovery' is Amaranth, "an ancient grain of the Aztecs, [which] brings a nutty, earthy flavour".
It is not just grains, but also native herbs such as thyme, peppermint, parsley, lavender and rosemary which are being used in modern cuisine. Restaurants are experimenting with more savoury herb-based desserts, for example Down Hall Hotel offers 'mango and white chocolate mousse with basil and an influx of coastal and woodland ingredients such as sea buckthorn, wild garlic, wood sorrel and sea beets.'
These top trends only scratch the surface of the many creative ways in which chefs are bringing together new flavours and tastes for their adventurous customers. So what will be the hot flavour trends for next year? Divine Eating Out is keeping close to industry sources and will let you know whether we will be seeing more of the African Baobab or South American Soursop fruits on our menus, or whether exotic varieties of the more humble cucumber will be the Next Big Thing. Or perhaps it will be an increased emphasis on insect proteins, for how many of us know exactly what a grasshopper tastes like? More questions than answers, but what an exciting journey!