When we contemplated naming one of our top food themes “A Little Funky,” it raised more than a few eyebrows around our culinary idea room. It’s not exactly the most inspiring or romantic of gastronomic descriptors, and to some, might call to mind a long-forgotten scrap in the back of their produce drawer.
That said, my cohorts and I eventually came to agree this dubious adjective was perfect to describe the collective of surprising flavors we’re seeing that range from pungent and sour to strong and earthy to rich with savory notes of umami.
Fermentation is a common link among many of our funky rising stars—a fact which coincides with the new diversity in Asian flavors, often featuring fermented seasonings like furkikake and gojuchang.
With their strong, disruptive flavors, we think our funky, fishy, “a-little-stinky” picks appeal to consumers for two reasons: they satisfy millennials’ taste for out-of-the-ordinary flavor experiences and fermentation’s positive reputation for digestive benefits and health.
Keep an eye out for this Funky Five as you think about product or culinary innovations in the next year.
Black garlic is emerging as a darling among chefs for its one-of-a-kind depth of flavor. Heads of fresh garlic are fermented under special humidity and temperature conditions to create cloves that are black in color with a sticky, soft texture and earthy, umami flavor. The sweet-yet-savory flavor allows chefs to experiment with garlic without its pungency or bite, and you’ll see it showing up across the menu from risotto and salads to steak and dessert.
Extracted from the fermentation of fish with sea salt, this amber-colored liquid is an ingredient in numerous cultures in Southeast Asia and the coastal regions of East Asia. It features heavily in Burmese, Cambodian, Filipino, Thai, Lao and Vietnamese cuisines. You’ll find it on menus from fine dining to QSR as everything from a seasoning for stir fry to an unusual marinade for wings—like Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings at Pok Pok.
This Japanese paste starts with fresh chiles fermented with salt and the zest and juice from fresh yuzu. A little amount can go a long way, but we’re seeing chefs use it liberally across the menu to cut through the richness of meat, add acidity and spice to miso and bring an instant finish of complexity to vegetable dishes and desserts.
Long-prized in health food circles for its benefits to gut health, this fermented sweet, fizzy tea has been gaining broader traction among millennials. It’s a taste that’s definitely not for everyone. But for those who enjoy it, kombucha delivers a slight sweet, tangy, sharp experience that hits the tongue with a distinct note of vinegar. Look for it as an emerging ingredient in mixology libations as well. For example, The Smith, a small Northeast chain is featuring The Tell Me Bucha cocktail made with bourbon, five spice syrup, yuzu, and wild blueberry kombucha.
Our Funky Five couldn’t be complete without some cheese. Housemade cheeses are emerging from operators who want to bring their menus an artisan twist. And strong or aged cheeses are entering mainstream appearance as operators scrape giant cheese wheels tableside.