Combining cuisines from all over the world will be 2017's No. 1 trend, and we aren't making that prediction flippantly. After researching and chatting with several experts and sources, FastCasual found that although their predictions differed in some areas, they all agreed about the increasing popularity of combining foods from around the world to give consumers innovative flavor profiles.
"This year will offer a deeper exploration of favorite regional cuisines, such as Southern, Middle Eastern, Asian and Latin," Mindy Armstrong, trends expert, said in an interview with Fast Casual. "Going deeper into micro regions and exploring format, flavor and how far we can push the boundaries will bring lots of opportunities to discover something unexpected," she said, citing Viet-Cajun cuisine gaining popularity in Houston as one example. The Vietnamese crawfish boils are similar to traditional Cajun boils, but the chefs add Asian aromatics to the boil — lemongrass and ginger.
Korean fare, tacos, Japanese cuisine beyond sushi and hot chicken, for example, are all over the map as new concepts open and chefs explore innovative flavors, Armstrong said.
Hudson Riehle, SVP of research for the National Restaurant Association, also predicted that global cuisine will be big in 2017.
"We're seeing several examples of house-made food items and various global flavors, indicating that chefs and restaurateurs are further experimenting with from-scratch preparation and a broad base of flavors," he said in a release about the NRA's top 2017 food predictions.
Suzy Badaracco, CEO of Culinary, told FastCasual that worldly cuisine will find its way onto more menus in 2017, but she emphasized that much of that popularity will surround what she called, "global comfort food." Such menu additions will include pierogis from Poland, French ratatouille, regional baked beans, Italian polenta, Creole rice and beans, succotash and Brazilian feijoada, to name a few.
Katie Sutton, Food & Drink Resources' chef and VP of Culinary Innovation, agreed, giving two pieces of advice to restaurateurs.
"Go big on flavor, and go global," she said in an email interview.
Besides embracing global cuisine, 2017 will see a variety of other flavor trends. Check out the rest of our experts' predictions below.
Hot is so hot
Spicy flavor profiles — either from pepper varieties or condiments — continue to trend and spread across the marketplace, Armstrong said.
"In QSR, McDonald's is catering to Sriracha fans and joining its competitors, including Subway, Taco Bell, Burger King and Wendy's, by adding Sriracha to the Big Mac on select menus," she said. "On beer menus, brewers are joining the spice game by adding heat to their recipes with options such as Twisted Pine Brewing Company's Ghost Face Killah Ale featuring ghost peppers and five other peppers or the Burnside Brewing Company's Sweet Heat Wheat Beer featuring a hit of Scotch bonnet peppers.
Functional foods gain momentum
With a rise in the value of mindfulness and the world's high level of digital connection, it isn't surprising that consumer interest in functional foods continues to grow.
"Not only do we have access to more food information than ever before, we also have the opportunity to understand quickly what we should eat more of to support a healthier, balanced lifestyle," Armstrong said about turmeric, the main spice in curry, known as a powerful disease-fighter, among other "functional" benefits.
According to Google's 2016 Food Trends, based on search engine queries, the number of searches executed for turmeric has grown 300 percent in the last five years. Likewise, videos about how to consume the restorative herb have accrued a combined 3.9 million views.
"From curries and dressings to lattes and smoothies, turmeric — rightfully so — is getting a ton of attention," Armstrong said.
Beer puckers up
Sour beer, which has an intentionally acidic, tart or sour taste, will appear on menus more frequently in 2017, Badaracco said.
"Parented by German and Belgium varieties, fruited sour beers are lower in alcohol and pair well with salads, shellfish and global raw fish dishes, allowing beer to put on a different party hat and move into territory it doesn't shine in," she said. “Fruit notes can include grapefruit, pineapple, plum, berries."
Try a glass of plant water?
Think coconut 2.0, said Badaracco, who predicted that aloe, cactus, maple and watermelon water would be popular.
"Plant waters move beyond beverage to be used as mixers for cocktail and as replacements for milk, juice, and water in baked goods, soups, dressings and gravies," she said. "They carry a health halo that allows them to move into newer territory."
Food and Drink Resources Chef and VP of Culinary Innovation Katie Sutton, agreed, predicting a surge in more fruit and veggies in drinks.
"And soda, unless it is all natural, is out of style," she said.
Meal on fire?
Open-flame cooking is seen during an economic recovery, as opposed to a recession since it carries a message of confidence, risk-taking and courage, Badaracco said.
"Broiling, grilling, smoking, clinching, etc., will continue to apply to all foods, not just meats," she said."Veggie proteins will shine here, too."
DIY meals pick up
Customers are excited to create their own meals, meaning restaurants may benefit from serving more deconstructed dishes that dineres can assemble at the table, Badaracco said. The trend can be applied to soups, desserts, even beverages.\
Sutton warned, however, that the DIY trend will become a pain point for restaurants.
"Frozen meal delivery and meal kit delivery are not only here to stay, but they are going to start stealing business from restaurants in 2017," she said.
Seaweed, moringa, collards, algae, Brussel sprouts and chicory are just a few global greens that will appear on menus, Badaracco said.
"Instead of having a new 'kale,' they will all shine in their own way but rely upon their unique structure or flavor to outshine the others in particular dishes," said Badaracco.
What is Tahini?
As with the chickpea trend, the growth in Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines has taken the consumer past falafel and hummus. Tahini, a condiment made from toasted, ground, hulled sesame seeds, is where it's at these days.
"It's a healthy or alternative choice for use in dairy-free or vegan-friendly menu innovation," Armstrong said. "Now it's time to get to know the benefits and possibilities with the ingredients and flavors associated with the cuisine."
Vegan menu options sprout up
The popularity of concepts built around veggies has taken root over the past few years, but many chains are going a step further, offering vegan-friendly options. Pancheros, for example, recently added tofu, and Panera Bread, Chipotle, Tropical Smoothe Cafe and Freebids all boast about their meatless offerings.
There are even a few concepts, including Fala Bar, that thrive on vegan options.
"Consumers, especially millennials, are more conscious than ever of the impact their diet decisions have on their own health and the world around them," Mike Shab, founding partner, said in an interview with FastCasual. "This insight drives a lot of the thinking behind vegan and vegetarian concepts and is the reason why we created Fala Bar — so anyone (including) vegan, vegetarian or carnivore —can enjoy great-tasting vegan comfort food which positively affects their health and the environment."
/ Before joining Networld Media Group as director of Editorial, where she oversees Networld Media Group's nine B2B publications, Cherryh Cansler served as Content Specialist at Barkley ad agency in Kansas City. Throughout her 17-year career as a journalist, she's written about a variety of topics, ranging from the restaurant industry and technology to health and fitness. Her byline has appeared in a number of newspapers, magazines and websites, including Forbes, The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine. She also serves as the managing editor for FastCasual.com.