By Daniel Campbell, culinary project coordinator, Food IQ
Everyone knows buzzwords like organic, free-range, grass-fed and local, but what about the little guys that add the delicious factor and set your meal apart from the crowd? With limitless flavor possibilities, the excitement of exotic experimentation and even health benefits, could spices be the next big thing?
Thanks to globalization, America is no stranger to spices. Without the expansion of the Dutch East India Company or the French East India Company in the 1600s, flavorings such as clove and nutmeg wouldn't be making appearances in some of our favorite dishes. Today, expansion continues. Beyond the ethnic mainstream cuisines such as Italian, Mexican and Chinese, Technomic reports that the next fastest growing ethnic cuisines are Moroccan, Japanese, Spanish, Cajun/Creole, Thai, French and Mediterranean.
These dining opportunities may be readily available in larger cities, but for the rest of the population, prospects full of spice may be bleak. Luckily, retail stores offer encouragement to consumers as with McCormick's Gourmet Collection featuring Tuscan, Cuban, Moroccan and Southwest seasoning blends. Campbell's Soup has also introduced a line called Campbell's GO featuring varieties such as Coconut Curry with Chicken & Shitake Mushroom, Chicken & Quinoa with Poblano Chilies, and Spicy Chorizo & Pulled Chicken with Black Beans, among others. When exotic spices such as these have an opportunity to go mainstream in a retail space, it also encourages restaurants to follow suit with their own offerings.
The average American is actually pretty unadventurous when it comes to experimenting with new spices in the kitchen. So it is no small feat that fast casual concepts like Café Spice, saffron, Roti Mediterranean Grill, and Royal India Express, are enticing consumers with spice-adventurous fare. With expansion in the works (or in the near future) for most of these chains, America should brace itself for a whole new side of everyday dining. According to the Café Spice website, the chain "is the fastest growing Indian brand in North America." With "creativity, innovation and vision," Café Spice plans to "transport you to the exotic world of zesty flavor." Sodexo loves the idea so much that it "signed a master retail license agreement with the award-winning Indian concept to bring traditional Indian cuisine with a South Asian flair to Sodexo operations across country.
With ethnic concepts full of spice already rampant in metropolitan areas, we can only hope that the aforementioned expansion will enable small markets to partake. Until then, fast casual regional chains will have to fill the gap. Earlier this year, Whataburger tried to fill that lack-of-unique-spices gap by introducing limited-batch spicy ketchup seasoned with red jalapeño. Adding a spicy twist to this mainstream staple proved so popular that Whataburger was prompted to hold a contest to see who was the worthiest candidate for its last case. Other concepts such as Golden Krust and Pollo Tropical offer tastes of the Caribbean without having to leave the states. Pollo Tropical eases patrons into adventurous flavor by offering an American item with Caribbean flare. There, good old chicken wings or "Grilled Tropical Wings" are served with a choice of signature Pineapple Rum or Spicy Amazon Sauce.
Obviously, spices offer an exciting opportunity to capitalize on flavor, introduce new ones and help globalize palates, but there may be health opportunities to exploit as well. According to an article from WebMD, "Common herbs and spices may help protect against certain chronic conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease." Polyphenols, which are beneficial antioxidants found in tea, red wine and some fruits and vegetables, are also found in herbs and spices. Cinnamon not only helps regulate blood sugar, but contains an antioxidant-like substance that protects cells from damaging free radicals; capsaicin, found in peppers, not only suppresses appetites and boosts metabolism, but can actually ease pain when "applied topically in the form of a patch"; and turmeric contains curcumin, a potent antioxidant that "improves the effectiveness of chemotherapy in breast cancer patients," all this according to an article published by the Huffington Post.
Without adding unnecessary calories, spices not only contribute flavor and increase one's ethnic familiarity—they may also contribute to better health. In light of Americans' heightened health-consciousness, menu developers should be primed to experiment with the limitless opportunities spices afford. Consumers want to try new things, but don't want to be polarized with the same flavor on the same item every day. Mix and match. Try something new. Set the example. Don't just follow along. Thanks goes to the restaurants that are bridging the gap with the acceptance of new and exciting spices. Hopefully many others will prepare to follow.
Daniel Campbell is a culinary innovator on the Food IQ culinary team. His experience in the restaurant industry, passion for local food sourcing, and knack for experimentation in the kitchen, give Food IQ clients an advantage in the development of unique menu ideas.
Cover photo: Rev Dan Catt