This post was originally published in our May 2017 issue of Tasteology.
Summer is coming up, and with the exit of colder weather comes a shift from hearty cuisine to lighter fare. Middle East cuisine has long been recognized as “healthy” for its frequent use of fresh herbs, vegetables, olive oil, and spices. Famed chef Rick Bayless once said, “It’s time for Americans to get excited about it because it is healthy and full of flavor.” The Middle East, which includes a region formerly known as the Fertile Crescent, encompasses land rich in indigenous ingredients such as wheat, barley, pistachios, figs, pomegranates, and dates. As consumers seek new and exciting ethnic flavors while staying conscious about their health, it is no wonder that Middle East cuisine has risen to be one of the fastest growing ethnic food trends.
For the past two years, the National Restaurant Association “What’s Hot List” Culinary Forecast has included Middle Eastern as one of the top five global flavor trends. Middle Eastern cuisine is unique in that it is diverse while also being homogeneous. It is quite common to see variations of similar dishes across multiple countries. For example, Greek dolmades are typically preserved grape leaves stuffed with minced meat, rice, herbs (such as parsley, dill, and garlic), and pine nuts or currants, while Armenian tolmas are typically stuffed with minced meat, pork fat, onions, rice, greens and tomato paste. Many dishes within the region could be considered signature dishes. Even better, many of them have grown in menu penetration over the past four years! A few of these include hummus (+34.7%), shawarma (+60.9%), falafel (+38.4%), tabbouleh (+4.4%), and shish tawook (+46.9%). Besides being flavorful and delicious, many of these dishes are prepared with heart healthy olive oil, whole grains, pulses and vegetables.
There are also some common ingredients within the cuisine. As consumers become more enamored with it, expect to see these common ingredients (see graphic) as well as spice blends such as za’atar, and sauces such as tahini, pop up on menus and retail launches in the coming years.
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