A few hundred years ago, eating a well-seasoned meal was a luxury available only to the wealthy. Spices were precious commodities, prized for their flavours and believed to have medicinal properties.
Now, we have a world of ever-more-exotic spices available to us not only conveniently, but also inexpensively.
“Spices account for 0.25% of the recipe cost, but provide the majority of the flavour,” says Anna Stolee, Product Manager for Food Service at McCormick Canada.
Rubbing your steak with a blend of cinnamon, chipotle chili pepper, cumin, oregano and parsley before grilling will add plenty to its perceived value and make the meal memorable with very little addition to the cost.
“People are getting more adventurous in their eating,” Stolee explains. Customers are looking for bigger, more exotic flavours, and are open to sampling exotic cuisines. Regional cuisines – for example, not just Thai food, but the fiery green chilli pastes that distinguish Northern Thai cuisine – are increasingly sought after.
Flavour is the driving force behind our palates, Stolee says, and that flavour is mostly headed east: Thai, North African, Indian, and Middle Eastern, as well as South American and Caribbean, are the palates people are exploring now.
“You can add adventure to your menu without re-doing your whole menu,” Stolee says. “You can add those flavours to standard fare.”
Gourmet pizzas are a good example of using spices and seasonings to create an up-market version of a menu staple. The spices cost very little, but the seasoned specialty dish will command a higher price.
Thai or Mediterranean pizza can be as simple as marinating pizza dough by brushing it with an oil flavoured by Thai or Greek seasonings, and using appropriate toppings.
Dipping sauces and spreads are another way to enhance a menu. For example, if you serve a chicken salad with mayonnaise, try using mayonnaise flavoured with chipotle or a mild curry.
“The cost is minimal,” Stolee says. “You’re going to put mayonnaise on it anyway – but this elevates the dish to a different level.”
Side dishes are another element that can add new flavours to a menu.
In place of ordinary potatoes, chipotle and cheddar potato wedges make an entirely different meal, Stolee says. Or, Stolee suggests offering a side such as sweet potatoes seasoned with Caribbean spices – a very simple change with a big payoff.
“One other way to introduce spice is to be a little more adventurous in marinating your proteins,” she adds.
For kitchens that would like to add a Caribbean Jerk dish, or a meal with Greek influences, McCormick and SYSOP offer authentic spice blends.
“It’s a very easy way to bring exotic flavours and trends to your menu,” Stolee says. “These are always an alternative, even for the smallest operator.”
These blends are expertly formulated to reflect the authentic flavours of regional cuisines. They may contain as many as 18 ingredients to achieve that authenticity.
“If you want to add Thai to your menu, you don’t have to have the core ingredients,” Stolee says. “Thai seasoning blend is an economical and convenient way to introduce the more complex flavours.”
Those complex flavours that were once prized by ancient spice traders are still a precious commodity to today’s customers, bringing new dimensions to a meal’s perceived value as well as to its taste.
Flavours to Watch
Our continuing love affair with global cuisines is predicted to drive a growing interest in the following flavours in the coming year:
Allspice – With its inviting blend of clove, nutmeg and cinnamon notes, this signature spice of on-trend cuisines such as Caribbean, Latin American and Indian is becoming indispensable.
Annatto – This earthy, mildly peppery spice is widely used in Caribbean and Latin American cuisine. It is used to make a flavoured oil, or blended with other spices in a rub for meats. It is prized for the rich, golden colour it brings to foods.
Cardamom – Its floral and woody notes, with a hint of menthol, lend a fragrant quality to Indian curries as well as to Chinese and Latin American cooking.
Cinnamon – Used in savoury dishes as well as sweets, cinnamon is a culinary staple all over the world.
Curry – With blends ranging from sweet to fiery, curry offers a world of possibilities.
Ginger – With its floral zest layered over spicy heat, ginger offers multidimensional flavour. It’s no wonder it’s one of the world’s most essential spices.
Mint – Fresh, cool and aromatic, this herb is fast becoming a key culinary element as a central flavour, or as a balance for hot spices.
Pickling spice – A mixture of trendy flavours, this aromatic blend of cinnamon, allspice, ginger, cardamom, mustard seed, coriander, bay leaves, chili peppers, cloves and black pepper is the perfect partner for slow-cooked comfort foods such as stews and braised meats.
Sage – Poultry’s perennial partner is branching out as a key flavouring for everything from pork, beef and lamb, to vegetables, potatoes, rice and pasta.
Vanilla – This culinary classic is finding new uses complementing fruits and cereals, flavouring butters, and bringing new dimension to savoury tastes such as salad dressings.