Middle Eastern food at home
The number of Middle Eastern restaurants has shot up in the past few years – just in the last few months, we’ve seen openings such as Iranian-influenced Nutshell, Tel Aviv-inspired Bubala and Haya, as well as Middle Eastern-Indian mash-up Burra Khana, not to mention the ongoing success of the now 30-plus sites of Lebanese chain Comptoir Libanais.
But we’re also taking it home with us too. Beyond hummus and the kebab, people are digging a lot deeper into the cuisine, according to Waitrose, which has noted increased sales of the cuisine’s common spices, including sumac, baharat and zaatar. In fact, a survey commissioned by Food Spark found that these three spices were among the top five most familiar international seasonings among British consumers, along with turmeric and chimichurri sauce.
“It’s no surprise Middle Eastern cuisine is hitting the mainstream,” says Zoe Simons, senior innovation development chef at Waitrose & Partners. “Already established with foodies, it offers both spice and sweetness.”
Salt is the seasoning of yesteryear, with one in five under-35s less likely to put it on the table than before, according to Waitrose’s research. At least partly due to its demonization as an unhealthy additive, flavourings like hot sauce, chilli flakes or basic black pepper are preferred, while mint, basil or nutmeg are also becoming more common.
However, the retailer also claims that, while consumers may be cutting back on salt, saltiness is still popular, with crispy chicken skin and halloumi ice cream replicating the sensation.
Food Spark’s nutritionist, Dr. Laura Wyness, has previously suggested using mushrooms, citrus, seaweed and herbs like oregano and dill instead of salt to excite the palate. Umami in particular has been touted as an effective alternative, with company Salt of the Earth claiming that its Mediterranean Umami product in sauces, condiments and ready meals allows up to a 45% reduction in sodium, as well as up to a 25% reduction in sugar.
It has been well documented that flexitarianism in the UK continues to rise – by some estimates, a third of Brits are now eating less meat and fish than two years ago; a similar number hope to cut back on their consumption more in the next two years.
Waitrose puts this down principally to animal welfare, noting people increasingly seek out more ethically raised produce.
“Shoppers are most likely to choose free-range, British meat, with the top factors influencing purchase being sourcing, provenance and welfare standards,” according to the report.
Mintel released a report earlier this year predicting that sales of ethically certified food and drink would rise by 17% in the next five years to reach a value of £9.6bn by 2023.
However, a study by Future Thinking released in October said that health benefits trumped concerns for animal welfare by more than 10% when it came to reasons for cutting back on meat.
In addition to the ongoing evolution of plant-based foods, Food Spark has also noted that tech companies are exploring so-called ‘animal-free dairy,’ using cells and fermentation to recreate the taste and texture of animal products but without the animal.
Defined as charcuterie made from seafood instead of meat, Waitrose cites Australia as the birthplace of this trend, while noting that Cornerstone in London has been a prominent British proponent of the concept with salmon pastrami and citrus-cured brill.
In our Interview with an Innovator feature, Michelin-starred chef Gareth Ward of Ynyshir said that he expected it to be all over menus next year.
What was popular in 2019?
- Noodles – Consumers showed a growing interest in different Japanese styles, with searches on Waitrose.com for soba rising 83% compared to last year, while udon and eggs noodles were up 50% and 22% respectively. The supermarket added that the ramen course at its King’s Cross Cookery School was one of the most popular classes.
- Tahini – A whopping 700% more searches for this sesame-based ingredient took place this year, as it became a Middle Eastern-influenced free-from favourite.
- Celery juice – Organic celery sales are up 30%, backed by social media interest. Searches on Pinterest alone reportedly grew 2,457%, while Instagram tags have almost tripled since February.
- Posh crumpets – Nostalgia is driving renewed interest in this classic British food, which saw sales up 27%. Puratos previously called crumpets one of the top bakery trends of the year.
- Grains – Waitrose saw a spike in sales of amaranth last year (20%), as did mixed pouches of quinoa, chickpea, bulgur wheat and rice (36%).
- Luxury frozen food – Cook-at-home croissants and Keralan cod ready-meals were two of the examples the retailer gave as examples of premium frozen food that’s gaining traction.
- Skewers – The perfect combo of street food and food-to-go, four out of five of the top barbecue meat lines at Waitrose were kebabs, while home cooks contributed to a 9% rise in metal skewer sales. They make an appearance in everything from Middle Eastern to Japanese.
- Seaweed and more – Kelp, algae, samphire and nori “all add umami flavour to dishes,” notes the report, which also namechecks ‘seaganism’ (a blend of seafood and veganism). Specifically, searches for aonori seaweed were up 127%.
- Vegan ready meals – These are now more popular with Waitrose shoppers than vegetarian ones. Mushroom carbonara and paella are favourites.