Middle East, North Africa and Balkan flavors in demand with consumers

July 18 2017

The diverse cuisine of the Middle East has enjoyed a boost in popularity amongst restaurant diners, recent research suggests.

Of the 1,000 over-18s surveyed by Technomic, more than a third of them (35 per cent) would like to see more Middle Eastern and North African influences on restaurant menus. This proportion grew to almost half when drilled down to Gen Zers (47 per cent) and Millennials (46 per cent).

Close to one in four (24 per cent) said they seek out different regional Middle Eastern and North African cuisine experiences, such as Tunisian and Yemeni, which again grew to 30 per cent and 29 per cent with Gen Zers and Millennials respectively.

However, barely one in five (19 per cent) were aware of the culinary differences among the various countries of the Middle East and North Africa. That said, the younger generations seemed to be more clued up, with 30 per cent of Gen Zers and 29 per cent of Millennials being privy to what separates cuisines in the two regions.

In addition to Middle Eastern and North African flavors, a fifth of consumers (21 per cent) were keen to see restaurant menus embrace Balkan influences, rising to 31 per cent with Gen Zers and Millennials.

One in six (16 per cent) said they actively seek out different regional Balkan cuisine experiences - such as Albanian and Bulgarian - and the same percentage of consumers say they know the culinary differences among the numerous Balkan countries.

Technomic warned that restaurants shouldn’t overlook Balkan cuisines as potential up-and-comers.

A statement from the company read: “Despite the lower interest in Balkan cuisine compared to Middle Eastern and North African cuisines, additional research shows that a greater proportion of consumers are interested in trying specific Balkan countries’ cuisines - such as Bulgarian and Croatian - over gastronomies of Middle Eastern and North African countries.”

Popular suggestions

In a free whitepaper, available to download here, Technomic focuses on three dishes from these regions that have gathered support and could explode in popularity soon.

The first is Shakshuka, a Tunisian egg dish with tomatoes and chili peppers. It has appeared on an increasing number of menus in recent years, with mentions up 30.8 per cent overall year on year. Some 57 per cent said they’d either tried it and liked it or were keen to taste it; after seeing what Shakshuka looks like with chorizo, we don’t blame them.

Tabbouleh is another up-and-comer. Menu mentions of this Middle Eastern vegetarian dish made of tomatoes, parsley, mint, bulgur and onion are up 16 per cent, with six in ten consumers liking it or wanting to trying it. Any chefs curious to realize its appeal could try quinoa crunch bowl with quinoa tabbouleh.

Lastly, Labneh is a Middle Eastern strained yogurt with slightly salty and sour flavors that half of consumers either like or want to try. Menu mentions of the entree are up by a fifth year on year.

Uncharted territory

Another branch of Technomic’s research found that consumers increasingly want more complex flavors, with 71 per cent of consumers saying they found flavor imparted by the overall combination of ingredients to be appealing.

In terms of new, previously untasted sauces, 57 per cent of consumers said they would like to try chermoula, which originated in Morocco. A similar percentage were keen to try toum from Lebanon, chraimeh from Libya and ajvar from Serbia.

Other in-demand sauces were s’chug and holba from Yemen and Tunisia’s harissa.  

Technomic concluded the whitepaper by saying: “North African fare is arguably one of the hottest trends in foodservice right now.

“With these North African favorites getting greater attention, other specialties could emerge from the rest of the continent, such as berbere, an Ethiopian spice blend, or chakalaka, a South African relish.”

The whitepaper suggests operators consider switching in these popular sauces in place of familiar sauces. Swapping a traditional hot sauce for a cilantro-based s’chug is an effective way to dish up a bigger heat kick.

Additionally, sauces and spices from the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans are often meant to be paired with bread, so restaurants can consider offering a variety of different sauce and spice types at the table that can be dipped into bread as a pre-appetizer.