Today’s dry marinades are not just spicy but more finished. Instead of “Asian” flavors, consumers can try Southeast Asian-inspired Sriracha-Kaffir Lime Rub (courtesy Williams and Sonoma). Country of origin + region + protein + sweet and spicy dry marinades seems to be a winning formula. Now every night’s dinner can taste straight out of a restaurant or cooking show.

According to Chicago-based Mintel, 51 percent of consumers are searching for new ways to prepare poultry, says Melanie Bartelme, global food analyst at Mintel. “I am seeing consumers looking to use marinades to add spice more than smokiness or sweetness,” she says. 

Is there room to expand flavors — and add nuance?

“What popped out to me is how specialized international dry seasonings and rubs are today,” says Bartelme. “Williams and Sonoma sources country-of-origin at the top of their packaging — Baja Street Taco Seasoning or Sriracha-Honey Bangkok Shrimp seasoning blend, for example. Consumers are interested in international cuisine — and the region it comes from today.”

Consumers are learning a lot more about countries through travel, social media and friends, so they are digging deeper into flavors, says Bartelme. Instead of Indian food, they can order a dish from any of the country’s 29 states, such as Kashmir’s rogan josh, Delhi’s butter chicken or Hyderabad’s biryani. Or, they can take Japanese dishes a step further by learning how to prepare a dish by its region — or city.

Middle Eastern food is also increasing in popularity at fast casual restaurants such as Naf Naf Grill. It’s not hard to imagine consumers embracing cuisine from specific Middle Eastern countries, such as Israel or Yemen.

“These dishes give consumers the ability to find an adventure in eating every day,” says Bartelme. “Seasoning blends and marinades are an easy way to take a chance on something new.”


Sweet and spicy

“As far as trends in flavor combinations, anything paired with sweet flavors typically plays well with meat and poultry,” says Lizzy Freier, managing editor at Technomic, a Winsight Company in Chicago. “For example, sweet and spicy or sweet and savory flavor combinations are especially appealing.”

Logan’s Roadhouse’s Cedar Plank Salmon, Freier says features a 9-ounce salmon fillet marinated in a sweet and savory glaze and wood-grilled on a cedar plank, served with a choice of side.

Sweet and spicy has long been a popular flavor profile, likely because it adapts to many different applications: proteins, condiments, global and regional cuisines, etc. 

“Some of the fastest-growing sauces on menus are based on sweet chili-based condiments like Sriracha and gochujang, but often they’re paired with ingredients that also are sweet, like ketchup or barbecue sauce,” says Jackie Rodriguez, senior project manager at Datassential, a Chicago-based food industry research and consulting firm. 

Sweet and spicy combinations don’t have to be exotic to be popular, either. “The combination also does well in our SCORES consumer sentiment tracker, where items like Dairy Queen’s Honey Hot Glazed Chicken Strips or AMPM’s Mango Habanero Rib Sandwich were considered both unique and highly appealing — what we call ‘safe experimentation,’” she says.

Datassential recently asked consumers about their preferred heat level for condiments that can have varying spice levels, such as barbecue sauce or mustard. “Eighteen percent chose ‘spicy, balanced by sweet’ as their favorite, so there is definitely a core group who really like that balance,” Rodriguez says.

The term “rubbed” is currently on 10 percent of restaurant menus, an increase of 25 percent over the past four years, says Rodriguez. 

“It’s most often paired with ‘grilled,’ ‘barbecue’ and, interestingly, ‘chicken.’ We are seeing a lot of chicken wings featuring rubs,” Rodriguez says. “This trend is driven in large part by the rise in popularity of barbecue — a dry marinade/rub holds up much better with slow cooking and smoking.”

Another trend in seasonings is Cajun. “Cotton Patch Café’s Grilled Cajun Duo features blackened tilapia fillet with Cajun seasonings and grilled shrimp topped with crawfish cream sauce, served on a bed of seasoned rice,” Freier says. “Wing Zone just launched a new glazed wings flavor dubbed Ragin’ Cajun.”


Inspiration breeds familiarity

Consumers are exploring more of the world, even when they don’t travel. “So many cooking shows like ‘Chef’s Table’ and ‘Ugly Delicious’ exist that give insights on special flavors and fusion,” Bartelme says. “Suddenly, curry in barbecue pizza doesn’t sound so intimidating, because it’s a spice paired with a familiar food, so they are more likely to try it.” 

Consumers also want to re-create their dining out experiences at home. In fact, 33 percent of home cooks say they want to learn how to prepare food that appears exotic, Bartelme says. 

“Flavors in meal kits are featuring more international flavors, as well,” says Bartelme. “Amazon Go sells chicken with barberry and sumac seasoning (spices native to Persia and North Africa,  and the Middle East). A sumac marinade in a dry mix is also available at Mariano’s.”

Shoppers also take inspiration from other cultures and put their own mark on them. Curry, tandoori and masala spices are being combined, as one example, Bartelme says. In addition, liquid marinades such as mojo criollo from Cuba or chimichurri from Brazil and Argentina are being transformed into powdered spice blends. 

“Consumers want to experiment, but it’s also important to give them a way to explore new flavors in a familiar format,” says Bartelme. “There’s so much ground to cover in the world, and a lot more nuance and ‘specialness’ left to gain from some of these flavors.”

It’s safe to say dry seasonings still have a lot of spice left in them.

“Dry seasonings/rubs are a great, cost-effective way to differentiate a menu,” Rodriguez says. “It’s fairly easy to prepare a custom spice mix that can become a restaurant’s signature flavor, and operationally it’s attractive because it’s shelf-stable and takes up very little space in the kitchen. Sweet and spicy combinations also offer opportunities to be creative and offer customers a variety of heat levels.”  NP