America’s Mean Cuisine — Haute & Spicy
America’s mean cuisine — haute and spicy
From junk food to ethnic dishes, bolder flavors are the rage
Stacy Finz, Chronicle Staff Writer
If people really are what they eat, we are becoming a nation of hotties.
Something strange has happened to the American palate. After decades of being satisfied with mild foods, it’s now craving bold flavors that pack a punch — hot and spicy, sweet and heat, and interesting combinations that add new meaning to kicking it up a notch.
Experts say the population has become more diverse and better-traveled, and taste buds are reflecting this new worldliness.
“We’ve become much more adventurous in our eating,” said Rachel Koryl, a trend analyst for the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco.
“In the last five years, we’ve really seen a change in tastes. Baby Boomers are eating out more often and are being exposed to different ethnic cuisines. And today’s kids are growing up on ethnic foods like Thai and sushi.”
But diners aren’t just reaching for pungent curry or spicy tuna rolls. They want bold flavors in all kinds of foods — haute cuisine, fast food, snacks and even candy. Big corporations like General Mills, Wrigley, McDonald’s and Denny’s are all cashing in on the flavor craze.
Just this month, the Coca-Cola Co. introduced Blak, a new “fusion” beverage of Coke and coffee. Last month, Frito-Lay launched its new Sensations line of potato and tortilla chips seasoned with ingredients like chiles, crushed red pepper and black peppercorns. Blue Diamond’s “Bold” line of almonds — four flavors ranging from Lime ‘n Chili to Wasabi & Soy Sauce, introduced a year ago in Southern California test markets, are now carried in 46 percent of the nation’s grocery stores.
Wendy’s advertises a spicy chicken sandwich that is so hot that the guy in the commercial has to douse himself with a giant jug of water after taking only a few bites.
Carls Jr.’s spicy barbecue burger with batter-fried slivers of onion and jalapeño is supposedly so smoking that the fast-food firm hired hotel heiress Paris Hilton for the television campaign. Wearing a barely-there bathing suit, she munches on the sandwich as she seductively washes her Bentley. Now that’s hot — so hot, in fact, that the ad was pulled off the air.
Supermarket shelves are packed with Cheetos, sauces and condiments that promote ethnic flavors like habanero, cumin and guacamole. Mints, candy and chewing gum have all been pumped up, with advertisers promising that they are more “intense” and “fiery” than ever.
Even salad eaters are gravitating to the spicy arugula, peppery mizuna and bitter radicchio, leaving the more demure butter and leaf lettuces on the shelf.
Marc Halperin, director of the Center for Culinary Development, which maps trends and creates new food products, said this yen for bold flavors is being driven mostly by Gen Xers — 30- to 45-year-olds — who have seen the world and now want to taste it.
“There is nothing physiological about it,” Halperin said. “This is purely sociological.”
And the demand has lit a fire under food developers and manufacturers. In the last two years, 1,463 products with the word “spicy” were introduced, according to Mintel International, a Chicago-based research firm that tracks food marketing. In 2005, Mintel said, there was a 4.5 percent increase in “hot” and “spicy” items found on fast-food menus from the previous year, and a 2 percent increase at fine-dining restaurants.
“Restaurants are acknowledging that it’s a trend that’s here to stay,” said Maria Caranfa, a food analyst at Mintel, who believes that food developers and chefs are taking their flavor prompts from Latin America and Asia. That’s because, she says, those populations have grown significantly in this country.
There are 15.1 million more Hispanics living in the United States than there were 10 years ago, and 3.2 million more Asians and Pacific Islanders, according to the most recent census data. And the foods of those countries — longtime favorites with Californians — are now the nation’s most popular.
Justin Whitney, a 36-year-old technical writer in San Francisco, said he loves all things spicy. After all, he’s from Texas. So when Carl’s Jr. came out with its jalapeño burger, Whitney ran there as soon as he could.
“It wasn’t hot enough,” he lamented.
When his local sushi joint put a jalapeño roll on the menu, he ordered up a plateful.
“I kind of liked it,” he said, although, “It was just a little overkill.”
What he really likes, he said, is that the food industry is taking chances — “they’re finally adding some flavor.”
Maybe even too much.
Take, for instance, Cold Stone Creamery’s wasabi-ginger ice cream, which Whitney tasted a year ago. When he saw it, he thought he’d gone to dairy heaven. But that was before he tasted it.
“I really wanted to make it work,” he now says. “But it was just wrong.”
Even young kids are being more adventurous, leaving hot dogs, hamburgers and apple pie behind.
In 2001, Wharf Research, a San Francisco polling company that works with the Center for Culinary Development, asked 400 10- to 13-year-olds from around the country about their favorite foods. Chinese food came out on top, followed by Mexican, Japanese, Italian and, in fifth place, American.
That means that quesadillas could replace the grilled-cheese sandwich. Nearly three-quarters of those polled enjoyed eating quesadillas; 47 percent, spring rolls; 36 percent, pot stickers; 31 percent, sushi; 26 percent, pesto; and 8 percent, samosas. A year later, Wharf Research surveyed 22- to 25-year-olds. Fifty-one percent said they like their salsa either hot or very hot.
Nick Lindauer, a former chef who started selling fiery sauces on the Internet four years ago, says business has never been better. The 25-year-old New Yorker said he’s averaging 50 orders a day on his Sweat ‘N Spice site.
One of Linduer’s favorites is a pumpkin sauce flavored with habanero peppers. He pours it over vanilla ice cream.
Jared Dougherty, a spokesman for Frito-Lay, said consumers are looking for “sweet and heat,” or just a whole lot of heat, in their snack foods.
“We take our cues from across the food industry,” Dougherty said. “And taste buds are definitely expanding.”
Responding to that, in 2003, the company, with the help of its Latino employees, developed potato chips and Doritos flavored with guacamole. Within a year, retail sales hit $100 million, Dougherty said.
That paved the way for Frito-Lay’s hottest and spiciest chip ever — Doritos Fiery Habanero. After testing the market in Southern California earlier this year, the company is taking the product nationwide.
Over the past four years, flavored potato chips have taken off. In the last year alone, sales have seen a 13.7 percent increase, according to ACNielsen, a worldwide marketing research firm. During the same period, regular potato chip sales decreased by 7.2 percent.
It’s not just chips that are firing up. Blue Diamond, a growers’ cooperative based in Sacramento, has sold the same five flavors of its smokehouse almonds for 35 years, which also happened to be the youngest age of the product’s typical consumer. The company thought it was time for a hipper nut, said Algernon Greenlee, Blue Diamond’s director of marketing.
“Almonds tend to attract an older crowd — 35 and up,” Greenlee said. “We’re hoping that the new flavors bring in a younger customer.”
Even Hot Tamales, the gummy red candies that have been heating up the mouths of babes since the 1950s, found a way to become even hotter tamales. The manufacturer, Just Born, says the new candy has “more kick” and more “intense flavor.” And just in case those don’t burn enough, the company has added Hot Tamales Fire to its line.
The Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., which already manufactures some “curiously strong” mints, is adding what some consumers might find to be some curiously odd-sounding products — Altoids Mango Sours, and Eclipse Cinnamon Inferno and Midnight Cool gum.
Lindauer, the hot sauce salesman, says that just because there is sizzle doesn’t mean there is fire. He’s tried many of the new products that claim to be intense, hot, spicy and bold, he said, and has deemed them unimpressive.
“A lot of the manufacturers and fast-food companies jumping on the hot and bold bandwagon aren’t very hot or bold at all,” he said. But, then again, this is a guy who collects hot sauce for a hobby.
While renowned restaurant chefs aren’t likely to start serving habanero chips with a Ranch-chipotle dip anytime soon, even they acknowledge the changing tastes of their patrons.
Hubert Keller, the chef and co-owner of the four-star Fleur de Lys in San Francisco and its sister restaurant in Las Vegas, said he has taken to using some interesting spices that aren’t usually seen in classic French cooking — star anise, native to China and Vietnam; cumin, a spice that plays a major role in Mexican, Asian and Indian food; and coriander and cardamom, mainstays of Mediterranean and Indian cuisines.
He’s making sea bass with a black licorice sauce and using other ingredients that “have intense flavors that cause excitement.”
“On one hand, it’s not French at all,” he said while laughing. “But people appreciate it. If they didn’t, I’d stop doing it.”