Health & Wellness | December 2017 | By Maggie Hennessy

Spice-Forward Menus Heat Up in Quick Service

The intersection of global flavors and nutrition-minded consumers has created the perfect storm for herbs and spices.
Curry Up Now
Concepts like Curry Up Now are capitalizing on Americans’ increasing affinity for spices. Curry Up Now
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Togarashi-spiced burgers, chai-scented oatmeal, garam masala–infused cocktails: Fast-casual menus everywhere are getting spicier—and it’s not just about turning up the heat. Not only do herbs and spices pack a nutritional and flavor punch that allows chefs to trim fat and calories without sacrificing flavor, but they are also an easy avenue to offering the globally inspired flavor profiles that consumers increasingly crave.

Herbs, spices, blends, and pastes are popping up all over trendwatcher reports as chefs expand their culinary toolkits. Chicago market researcher Datassential listed Egyptian spice blend dukkah, Asian medicinal root galangal, North African herb paste chermoula, and Yemeni spice paste zhug among its 15 trendiest flavors for 2017 and beyond.

In a forthcoming trend report, food and beverage consultancy CCD Innovation names Japanese spice blend togarashi (nori, orange peel, chilies, and sesame seeds), Mexican Tajín (chilies, citric acid, and salt), Middle Eastern za’atar (sumac, thyme, oregano, and toasted sesame) and cardamom among the blends and spices to watch. CCD culinary director and QSR columnist Marc Halperin chalks the spread and fusing of international flavors up to—surprise, surprise—millennials.

“The millennial cohort is traveling the world and coming back with the expectation of reliving those experiences at the restaurant down the street,” he says. “And the restaurant down the street is able to deliver because it’s responding to demand for more interesting, unique flavor profiling. They’re not necessarily strictly authentic re-executions, but Americanizations—taking those flavors and components and utilizing them and fusing them.”

At bakery-café Goddess and the Baker in Chicago (from Debra Sharpe’s Goddess Restaurant Group), partner Tamar Mizrahi Stone’s eclectic menu comprises everything from naan grilled cheese with curry relish and chai-spiced scones to a Vietnamese salad perfumed with Thai basil and mint. Mizrahi Stone, who is Israeli, modeled the shop after the cafes that line the streets of Tel Aviv. She also pulls heavily from Japanese and Vietnamese influences, given her background in Asian-fusion cuisine and frequent travels.

“We travel a lot, so we try to bring what we see in other places,” she says, adding that the menu has gotten more adventurous as the café has solidified its popularity. Golden milk—a seasonal warm drink with coconut milk and oil spiced with antioxidant-rich turmeric, cinnamon, and pepper—was so popular for its health benefits and warming, spicy flavor that she’s adding it to the regular menu.

“When we opened [in August 2016], we started off more conservatively, I think because I underestimated what people would go for,” she says. “We’re pushing the envelope more and more, and are thrilled to see people are going for it.”

Consumers’ growing penchant for headier spices and more global flavors also coincides with steadily strong demand for heat. Some 90 percent of consumers say they enjoy “hot and spicy” foods, per a January 2017 online survey by herb and spice producer Kalsec. Moreover, the term spicy is now found on 70 percent of restaurant menus and has grown 4 percent over the last four years, according to research from Datassential MenuTrends.

Heat remains a balancing act, though, especially when it comes to cuisines that often labor under the pretense of being too spicy, such as Indian fare.

“What’s funny is people always ask me, ‘Is your food spicy?’ And I say ‘Yes, but not that kind of spicy,” says Akash Kapoor, founder of Bay Area Indian street food chain Curry Up Now. “Most Indian cooks in this country tend to over-spice, over-butter, and over-cream. We don’t do that. The sense of balance is extremely important.”

The East-meets-West street-food chain dishes tikka masala burritos; deconstructed samosas with chana, pico kachumber, chutney, and crispy noodles; and chicken wings doused in Chinese-Indian sauce and sprinkled with numbing ghost chile dust.

Interestingly, Kapoor finds that customers are more adventurous spice-wise when it comes to cocktails. The menu at Curry Up Now’s Mortar & Pestle bar is decidedly bolder in its spice usage; garam masala, saffron, fennel syrup, tamarind chutney, and sumac are just a few of the flavors perfuming its beverages.

Other operators are integrating unique spices into already widely embraced carriers. Falafel, the Levant region–born, deep-fried patties made from ground chickpeas or fava beans, have swelled in popularity across the U.S.

New York–based street-food shop Taïm offers three varieties of the fried chickpea patties—something chef Einat Admony says differentiated her storefront when it opened in 2007.

The traditional “green” is seasoned with cilantro, parsley, and mint; the “red” lightly sweet with roasted red peppers; and “harissa” mildly spicy from a Tunisian blend of caraway, coriander, hot chilies, and cumin (another favorite on trendwatcher lists).

“I do all our spice blends myself—mostly variations on things I grew up with,” Admony says.

Interestingly, as operators look to inject global flavor profiles into dishes, it’s sometimes as simple as tweaking a familiar Western blend or applying it in a savory rather than sweet application.

“The same basic mixture of herbs and spices takes you all the way from Kansas City, Missouri, to New Delhi, India, to Baghdad, Iraq,” Halperin says.