2016 is going to see a continuation of the growth of spicy food on menus across the country. Spicy proteins, side dishes, and condiments continue to please the insatiable appetite for increased Scoville units amongst millennials and other target markets. QSR menus are nearly incomplete without a spicy menu item, and the levels of heat seem to be increasing. Technomic’s Flavor Lifecycle reports that amongst the ingredients and condiments bringing the heat are flavors from South America like Aji Amarillo and sambal, a southeast Asian condiment. The surge in Korean flavors brings gochujang to the menu with its pungent, umami spice.
South of the Border
Mexican and South American flavors aren’t falling out of favor, by any means, so inclusion of the authentic flavors of Mexican chiles isn’t a bad idea. Depending on the application, fresh or dried chiles that are used in Mexican cooking can help out a wide variety of dishes. Moving beyond jalapeno is an important step if authenticity is what establishments are after. Menus now include roasted poblano chiles on burgers and in pastas, and habaneros in salsas and sauces. Fresh chiles offer a fresh, authentic heat with the vegetal flavors of green peppers. When jalapenos seem too boring, serranos can be used, as they offer a similar flavor profile while stepping up the capsaicin game. Fresh chiles can be roasted or smoked to change the flavor profile to a deeper level. Be careful with texture when using roasted chiles, however, as some guests can find the texture mushy and off-putting. And be sure to skin those roasted chiles!
When a deeper flavor profile and level of heat is desired, employ the many varieties of dried Mexican chiles. The tannic, slightly fruity, and relatively mild guajillo is an example of the versatility. One of the key chiles used in mole and enchiladas happens to be the same pepper used in harissa, a Tunisian hot chili paste. Guajillos and other dried chiles can be roasted or blistered over an open flame to toast them, then soaked to rehydrate just like the plain, dried peppers. A soak for 15-20 minutes rehydrates chiles enough to turn them into a paste that can be indispensable in the kitchen. Toasting them makes the paste a richer, deeper flavor that can add layers of deep heat to all kinds of menu items.
Menu items that can benefit from rich or deep chili flavor can be accommodated by drying or toasting chiles and drying them to the point where they can be ground to a powder. Purchased chili powder can’t compare with the flavor in a freshly ground version, and the combination of chiles allows establishments to come up with their own custom flavor profile. Many guests love a story, so inclusion of copy describing an authentic blend of chiles can make menu items more desirable, and definitely marketable.
The popularity of authentic Asian flavors continues to grow, and along with that is the increased spice level that peppers and condiments bring. While crowd-pleasing sriracha continues to show up on menus in spreads and sauces, sambal, a thicker chile paste is gaining ground. A bit saltier and chunkier than sriracha, sambal adds an umami flavor profile that spices up everything from salad dressings to barbecue sauces. The Korean paste, gochujang, which offers a bright red color and rich, piquant taste is typically made of red chili powder, rice powder, fermented soybeans, and salt. Offering a deeper, sweet, umami, and spicy flavor profile (with added health benefits to boot!), this paste is an integral part of traditional dishes like bibimbap and kimchi, but is making its way onto menus in many other ways. Grilled meats benefit from gochujang’s rich flavors, and it is being used as a condiment on everything from burgers to dressings. One of the leading ways gochujang will be making flavor waves in 2016 is in Korean fried chicken.
Thai food is enjoying a bit of a renaissance with establishments like Pok Pok leading the way. James Beard Award winning chef Andy Ricker has introduced the U.S. to flavors beyond the coconut curries of Southern Thailand. Thai bird chiles offer a heat level lower on the Scoville scale than a habanero yet offers the fruity flavor combined with the vegetal taste of a pepper like jalapeno. The peppers are making their ways into authentic Thai and Isan cuisine and beyond. The fruity flavors of the peppers combined with the salty, umami-rich flavors of fish sauce make for a combination that deserves to be added to a variety of dishes.
Tipping the Scoville Scale
Aside from the peppers and regions mentioned, there is a world full of options, but finding them is sometimes difficult. One solution is to add a few heirloom or obscure peppers to a garden. Caribbean peppers look great and are relatively easy to grow. Fruity flavors abound in peppers like black cobra chiles, and the heat scale isn’t always off the charts. There will always be thrill seekers and guests with chili addictions (or just something to prove), so offering menu items that can be seen as a challenge by some guests often see higher sales.
QSR's like Wendy’s have dabbled, with offerings like fries with ghost pepper sauce, and this trend will continue. Wing sauces are a common menu item that offer levels of heat that now are including peppers like the Carolina Reaper, which boasts over two million Scoville units, more than common pepper spray. Produce companies are now stocking a larger variety of fresh chiles from the higher end of the Scoville scale, and dried versions can be special-ordered and incorporated into nearly any menu item.