FOOD 2018-FOOD-TRENDS MS

Shakshuka, a Middle Eastern dish, is essentially eggs cooked in a spicy tomato sauce, is beginning to see a gain in popularity in the United States.

Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times/TNS

It's amusing -- and instructive -- to scan the food and dining trend forecasts that pop up at the beginning of each new year.

Let's start by agreeing that the following information doesn't necessarily enjoy an enduring relationship with reality.

Which is why it's called "forecasting." Sure, there are some data-based foundations for the conclusions being drawn, but it's the future, which cannot be predicted with 100 percent accuracy.

Still, nearly every tea-leaf reader agrees: Vegetables and "plant-based" foods (aka meat substitutes) will continue to be hot-hot-hot. From there, it's pretty much anything goes.

McCormick & Co., the spice and flavorings giant, has been issuing its McCormick Flavor Forecast since 2000. This year's edition takes its cues from carts, trucks and food halls worldwide.

It says we should expect to see dessert versions of bao (China's soft steamed buns) and gyros-filled arepas. Ethiopian berbere spice blend (paprika, allspice, coriander, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and red pepper) and Japanese furikake (seaweed, sesame, sugar, salt and dried seafood) seasoning will be the new essential flavor enhancements. On the subject of do-it-yourself meals, the hot pot -- with nods to central Mexico and the West Indies -- will be all the rage.

The soothsayers at Whole Foods Market predict that we'll be seeing more puffed and popped snacks ("New extrusion methods have paved the way for popped cassava chips, puffed pasta bow ties and seaweed fava chips") and that variations on shakshuka will be front and center on menus everywhere. The taco will continue its evolution ("think seaweed wrappers with poke filling") and harissa will spice up cooking. On the cocktail front, elderflower will become, yes, the MVP ("most valuable petal") as floral flavors grab the spotlight.

FLAVOR OF THE YEAR?

Just as Pantone recently announced that "Ultra Violet" is its color of the year, Flavorman, the Kentucky-based custom beverage development company, is betting on a single flavor to reign supreme in 2018. That standard-bearer? Maple.

"The sweet sign of spring and uniquely North American ingredient is the top trending flavor for the upcoming year," is the company's decree. "It is famous for its complex sweetness and unmatched flavor. More recently, it is front and center for its role as an alternative sweetener and extensive health and nutritional benefits."

"Change Is the New Black" is the title of the 2018 trend report from San Francisco-based restaurant industry consultants Andrew Freeman & Co.

They're hailing Washington, D.C., as the food city of the year. They envision more Jewish delis and believe that chicken _ from rotisserie to fried _ will be grabbing chefs' and consumers' attention as never before. They also anticipate a continued upswing for both mezcal and Sicilian wines, and say that restaurateurs will jump on members-only and VIP dining room setups.

Now in its sixth year, a national survey conducted by Today's Dietitian magazine and Pollock Communications ranks what 2,000-plus registered dietitians consider 2018's top 10 superfoods.

Fermented foods (yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and others) grabbed the top berth, hailed for their "powerful health benefits, from boosting gut health to blunting inflammation."

The remaining rankings, in descending order, include avocado, seeds, nuts, green tea, ancient grains, kale, exotic fruits, coconut products and salmon.

Extrapolating from the demand he's observing from his nationwide client base, farmer Lee Jones _ the overalls-wearing operator of the Chef's Garden in Huron, Ohio _ believes that 2018 will be all about uncommon herbs (lemon bergamot, lovage and nepitella mint), flowers with flavor (white pea blossoms, borage blooms and begonias) and produce with uniquely shaped leaves (citrus lace and Calvin pea tendrils) making their way onto plates.

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT

The Specialty Food Association's six-member "trendspotting panel" has decreed that "upcycled" products _ created from ingredients and scraps that might otherwise be discarded _ will be on the rise.

"We're already seeing pressed juice made from imperfect fruit, chips made from fruit pulp and snack bars made from spent grain from the beermaking process," reads their report.

They're also leaning into Filipino cuisine, which they feel has been overshadowed in the U.S. by Thai and Vietnamese. So-called "Goth food" _ led by activated charcoal, which is being touted as a superfood for its reported detoxifying uses _ means we'll be seeing black pizza crusts, lemonade, ice cream and more. Oh, and with more states legalizing recreational marijuana, they foresee a blossoming of cannabis cuisine via a variety of beverages, treats and snacks.

Chefs, bartenders and sommeliers from more than 80 Kimpton hotel and restaurant properties peered into the future and chimed in on 2018 trends.

They foresee a growth spurt in Chifa (Cantonese-Peruvian) fare, and drink menus influenced by dill, aquavit and other Nordic touches. Their horizon is also filled with stepped-up coffee cocktails _ everything from Turkish espresso with aged rum and cacao nib-infused agave to Manhattans fashioned with coffee-cardamom vermouth _ and sour beers will continue to enter the mainstream.

Finally, Baum + Whiteman, restaurant/food consultants in Brooklyn, agree on how we'll all be drawing kitchen inspiration from the Philippines.

But they also believe that we'll be knee-deep in fast-casual Indian street food (chicken masala pizza, tandoori chicken poutine) and upscale Korean restaurants. Quirky single-item restaurants (Chicago's XO Marshmallow Cafe, for example) will be growing, and going cashless will appeal to an ever-expanding number of restaurateurs.

Not to be missed is B+W's speed-reader "buzzwords" section. Its 2018 edition includes cotton candy, hemp ("the non-hallucinatory kind"), raclette ("makes a comeback as cheese of the year") and schnitzel, which is predicted to become "trendy again."

Time -- at least the next 11 months -- will tell.

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