February 20, 2014
February 26, 2014

ChongQing-Spicy-Chicken-RecipeHot, spicy menu items are gaining popularity among diners. Some 54 percent of Americans now prefer hot or spicy foods, sauces, dips, and condiments, according to a recent survey. 

Some like it hot. And some like it even hotter. Fiery dishes are heating up limited-service menus as operators increasingly recognize consumers’ growing interest in spicy, hot entrées.

A 2013 survey found that a majority of Americans (54 percent) now prefer hot or spicy foods, sauces, dips, and condiments. That’s up from 48 percent in 2011 and 46 percent in 2009.

The demand for spicy foods has been trending upward, but the size of the increase this time was a little more than expected. It shows in all dayparts.

The shift to tongue-tingling chile peppers and other hot and spicy items is led by Millennials and other adventurous diners seeking more robust flavors. The appeal of hot, spicy foods is highest—more than 60 percent—among 18–34-year-olds, although the study found that a preference for hotter, spicier items rose among most age groups.

Millennials like hot, spicy foods because of their experience with more ethnic foods, like Hispanic and Asian.

During a recent six-month period, hot and spicy items expanded from being at half to three quarters of all quick-service and fast-casual restaurant locations.

There are a lot of different influences behind this. The main one is the general rise in ethnic foods and ethnic flavors.

Among the most popular flavors in hot sauces are jalapeño, cayenne, and red chile peppers. Increasingly, however, lesser-known habaneros, anchos, Szechuan peppers, and sriracha are gaining fans.

Before, we only used to see jalapeño, but now there are all types of chilies being used.

That includes habanero-and-mango and chipotle-and-maple-syrup sausages.

Research shows that the highest impact of spicy items on restaurant menus can be found in the South Central and East Central regions of the country.

The large influence in the South Central is related to the growing Hispanic population, as well as hot items popular around Louisiana. The East Central region also has a lot of interest there.

One reason may be that cayenne pepper–spiced chicken wings, created in Buffalo, New York, began to move across the country after a Buffalo native and his friend opened a small wing joint in Columbus, Ohio, in 1982.  Now known at Buffalo Wild Wings.

There are now thousands of chain and independent restaurants around the country serving chicken wings or pieces of chicken breast slathered in a wide variety of hot sauces.

Often, the hotter the sauce, the better. Wings restaurants give their sauces names like Blazin’, Atomic, and Homicide, or name their sauces for their heat-generating ingredients or style, like jalapeño, habanero, Caribbean jerk, Asian curry, and Louisiana rub.

Customers have expanded their palate and want more choices. Now there’s more fusion with spices and seasonings.  At one time, the goal was to go even hotter, but now there’s more interest in different flavors. Asian fusion wings, for instance, are sweet at first, deliver a teriyaki taste after a few wings, and finish hot as the habanero builds heat.

Hot food is all about the sensory experience. It basically began when some were using hot sauce on various menu items, but particularly chicken sandwiches. That led to the launch of the Spicy Chicken sandwich, featuring cayenne and other spices in the breading. Other restaurants created their own spicy chicken sandwiches, and several have turned up the heat. 

Most diners expect hot and spicy when they visit a Mexican restaurant, since chile peppers are so much a part of that ethnic cuisine. Just as different chilies and spices have various levels of heat, they have a range of flavor profiles as well.

Chipotles, which are smoke-dried jalapeños, provide smokiness, while anchos (dried poblanos) have more of a sweet, dried fruit quality. 

It’s up to chefs to understand the nuances of these chilies to provide the most depth in flavor and how the flavor lingers.

Early Asian influences on the U.S. palate came from Chinese restaurants that catered to tame American taste buds. More recently, however, the spicy flavors of China’s Szechuan province, Thailand, and other parts of Southeast Asia have come to the fore.

It’s more of a flavor profile in the Asian community to have the heat. They do more heat than spice. Heat is more digestible on the palate.

Asian restaurants have also found that the demand for hotter dishes has increased, and it has a range of spicy items on the menu, including the sweet and mildly spicy Orange Chicken. A very popular dish. The Kung Pao chicken is slighter hotter because it is not sweet. Sugar cuts the power of the heat.  Most use whole and crushed chile peppers, as well as ingredients like gochujang, a Korean condiment
with red chile.

Sriracha, a popular Thai-influenced sauce, is made from ground red chile peppers, vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt. It has gained a fervent following for its bold flavor, and “a lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon for this type of flavor. Sriracha has a bold tangy flavor and is very versatile, allowing its popularity to expand outside the Asian community and into the mainstream culinary world. The great thing about sriracha is there’s real flavor to it.

Sauce-maker Kikkoman USA also makes sriracha, with chilies cured by vinegar, garlic, and sugar. Its heat is “geared to the back half of the mouth”. The company, originally known for Japanese sauces, also has a sweet and spicy Thai chile sauce and developed a wasabi sauce made from the Japanese horseradish-like root.

Source:, February 2014

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