Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

Super Bowls Commodity boards harness the momentum of the bowl trend

roasting vegetables in coconut oil further develops flavor.
PHOTO CREDIT: Almond Board of California

Innovation around modern bowl builds continues at a dizzying pace, with concepts of all kinds tapping into their potential for menu stardom. Commodity boards are helping bring menu-ready ideation to life. Through creative R&D, they not only highlight the versatility and on-trend application of their products, they also demonstrate the many different ways bowls can take shape.

We asked commodity boards to share their best work in bowl builds. Each differs in composition and flavor profile, but they all follow the guidelines laid out by this modern-day trend. First, each build is mindful in construction, maximizing flavor and texture in every layer. Second, whether pulling from the global pantry or the New American one, these builds showcase a boldness that’s not about blasting heat or heady spices. It’s about smart flavor play—sweet with heat, savory with vegetal. Dimension through balance, differentiation through creativity. Seasonings, dressings and prep techniques all are critical elements for success. Third, customization and/or optionality give bowl concepts a long trend cycle. Seasonal tweaks, diner preferences—both buoy popularity and sustain this trend for years to come.

Give Me The Special Sauce

The Fresh Market Bowl (pictured above) is a modern build that combines brown rice, broccoli, green beans, slivered almonds and a fried egg, with an almond-tamari sauce. “The sauce is special because the different components, particularly the almond butter and tamari, are not traditionally paired together,” notes Molly Spence, director of North America for the Almond Board of California. “Almond butter isn’t always top of mind for savory sauces; however, the smoothness of the butter lends itself well to a variety of applications and cuisines. In this instance, it adds a creamy texture and balances the tangy and tart kick of tamari, lime and ginger.” Another bold element of the bowl is the kimchi, which introduces an acidic contrast to the roasted vegetables.

Caramelized honey and sambal strike a sweet-heat balance. Additionally, poured over top, a gochujang- honey broth adds nuanced flavor.

Caramelized honey and sambal strike a sweet-heat balance. Additionally, poured over top, a gochujang-honey broth adds nuanced flavor.

The Perfect Balance

The Forbidden Rice Bowl with Honey-Chile Glazed Chicken (pictured above) highlights not only the multi-layered characteristics of Korean cuisine but also the opportunity for big flavor innovation in bowl concepts.

“The amount of innovation occurring in sauces, seasoning flavors and alternative proteins make bowls a perfect target for menu development at any level,” says Chef John Csukor of KOR Food Innovation, who developed this dish for the National Honey Board to highlight the strategic use of honey for complexity and balance in flavor development. Here, honey contrasts the heat in both the honey-sambal glaze for the chicken and the honey-gochujang broth poured over top.

“Not unlike many of the other varieties of pan-Asian cuisine, this particular blend of flavor touches all parts of the palate, yielding a balanced and near perfect flavor combination,” says Csukor, who praises bowls for their solutions, ranging from nutrition and cost to menu variety and ease of execution. “Bowls are growing because they are boundless in context.”

Avocados cut the heat of the spicy citrus vinaigrette.

Avocados cut the heat of the spicy citrus vinaigrette.

Fresh & Healthy For The Win

Bowls are a quick and easy-to-assemble dish that can showcase the freshest ingredients available. “Bowls are an appealing option for restaurant operators, allowing them to provide their customers with a delicious, well-balanced meal that isn’t a salad,” notes Mark Garcia, chef and director of foodservice marketing for Avocados From Mexico. The nutrient-rich Green Power Bowl (pictured above) is loaded with kale, avocado, zucchini, grains and feta, then dressed with a Spiced Citrus Vinaigrette and topped with pistachios. “The addition of fresh avocados not only adds a rich, creamy mouthfeel, but it also helps cut the spiciness of the citrus vinaigrette.” Garcia cites the customizability of bowls as a compelling attribute, allowing consumers to build a meal that perfectly suits their tastes while being mindful of dietary preferences. “Plus, given the highly adaptable nature of the dish, bowls can easily lend themselves to different cuisines, whether Mexican, such as Qdoba’s Burrito Bowls, or Hawaiian fare such as the poke bowls at Pokéworks.”

Grapes are simmered in honey, rice vinegar and ginger for a surprise element.

Grapes are simmered in honey, rice vinegar and ginger for a surprise element.

Surprise & Delight

Simplicity comes in bowl form, combining proteins, carbohydrates and produce in one dish. This Grilled Ginger Salmon Rice Bowl with Grapes (pictured above) provides the perfect example of a dish that makes healthy foods craveable with the creative use of fresh, wholesome ingredients and sometimes surprising flavor accents. “The fresh topping made of grapes, ginger, honey, scallions and rice vinegar adds both sweet and piquant flavors that pair well with the grilled salmon and rice, offering a pleasing combination of flavor, texture and visual appeal,” says Courtney Romano, foodservice consultant for the California Table Grape Commission. She notes that bowls such as these provide the opportunity for customization, which is increasingly important in today’s foodservice marketplace.

Ground pork is seasoned with chile oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame paste.

Ground pork is seasoned with chile oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame paste.

Next-level Chinese

“Bowls are now complete, composed dishes that claim their own menu category, encompassing meals with warm sauces, hearty ragus and rich broths,” says Stephen Gerike, director of foodservice marketing and innovation for the National Pork Board. “The bowl trend, coupled with the consumer demand for more authentic regional ethnic cuisines, makes Dan Dan Mien (pictured above) the perfect addition to any menu,” he says. A regional Chinese dish, it’s made with ground pork and a spicy sauce of sesame paste, soy, chile oil, Sichuan peppercorns and preserved mustard greens. It’s served over noodles and garnished with roasted peanuts and scallions. “The sauce is a flavor bomb. It pairs perfectly with the rich, unctuous pork to cut the heat, delivering an incredibly crave-worthy dish,” he adds. The customization aspect of bowls is a big opportunity to connect with guests. “Choosing between multiple ingredients or flavor profiles creates an opportunity to expand guests’ palates, with more adventurous global ingredients in a complete and flavor-balanced bowl,” Gerike says.

A cool lime crema complements the complex peanut- guajillo mole.

A cool lime crema complements the complex peanut-guajillo mole.

Global Melting Pot

Regional or global profiles find a home in comforting bowls. Rich Latin flavors come together in Chef Keith Seeber’s Mole de Cacahuate Bowl, (pictured above) anchored by a peanut-guajillo chile mole that ties in steak, greens and vegetables atop a base of ancient grains. “This build rings a lot of trend bells, starting with the porridge of quinoa and farro at the base. Grilled Aussie grass-fed steak brings a clean label and healthy cues, touched off with an authentic Mexican peanut and guajillo chile mole,” says Catherine Golding, business development manager for Meat & Livestock Australia. “You can even up-cycle beet greens or roast ‘ugly’ veggies, and just stay in-season to cut food waste and save costs.” Golding notes that globally focused bowls like this are an innovation hit right now. “They are an adaptable platform for all sorts of global cuisines, from Peruvian to Filipino, pho to mac and cheese.”

Watermelon juice adds sweet freshness to a dressing of soy, garlic, ginger, onion and sriracha.

Watermelon juice adds sweet freshness to a dressing of soy, garlic, ginger, onion and sriracha.

Primed For Poke

Poke bowls are the current bowl darling, demonstrating the potential with big and bright color, flavor and textural contrasts. This Watermelon Poke Bowl (pictured above) modernizes the Hawaiian classic at its best, based off a raw ahi tuna salad. “As with most bowls, the Watermelon Poke version is full of delicious colors, tastes and textures, including a bit of on-trend spice” says Megan McKenna, director of foodservice and marketing for the National Watermelon Promotion Board. The diced tuna is seasoned with watermelon juice, soy, ginger and Sriracha chile sauce. “With the growing importance of produce in the center of the plate, the Watermelon Poke Bowl features watermelon and avocado with textures and flavors that perfectly complement the tuna.”

Using small unpeeled potatoes means less prep in the kitchen.Idaho Potato Commission

Using small unpeeled potatoes means less prep in the kitchen.

Smashing Success

The Smashed Idaho Potato Barbecue Chicken Bowl (pictured above) is an ideal way to highlight the popularity of potatoes while breaking from the usual bowl base. “The base starts with potatoes instead of the usual greens, rice, legumes or pulses,” says Don Odiorne, VP of foodservice for the Idaho Potato Commission. He notes the nutritional, flavor and texture benefits of using small and unpeeled potatoes such as Baby Dutch, which are baked and smashed, creating a crispy outside and creamy inside texture, all without losing the nutrition of the potato skin—and saving time and labor in preparation. The build layers barbecue chicken, cilantro, green onion and mozzarella for a “new comfort” bowl of bright colors and contrasting textures. Odiorne praises bowls for their portability, customizability and cost- and portion-control attributes. “The portion size of the bowl itself makes it easy to not over-portion in the kitchen or on the line.”

Change up the produce to highlight seasonality. Slices of leg of lamb or meatballs work well here, too.

Change up the produce to highlight seasonality. Slices of leg of lamb or meatballs work well here, too.

Seasonal Swaps

Bowls are a brilliant vehicle for modern ingredients and global platforms, with the advantage of versatility to sub in ingredients through the seasons. In this Pan-Seared American Lamb Sirloin and Quinoa Bowl, (pictured above) a crisp kale salad and vegetables can be modified based on availability and seasonality. The dish is finished with a honey-thyme dressing, toasted pumpkin seeds, goat cheese and dried cranberries, but the star of the bowl is the lamb, which takes well to a variety of spices, herbs and flavors. “It’s also naturally lean, which makes it a perfect protein choice for today’s good-for-you bowls,” says Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board, noting that the extension of lamb, beloved in many world cuisines, offers versatility and differentiation. “Bowls offer limitless portable, versatile, fresh and flavorful combinations,” she says.

White beans bring a savory richness to this smoothie bowl base.

White beans bring a savory richness to this smoothie bowl base.

Smoothie Operator 

The versatility of bowls provides a great opportunity for incorporating new ingredients such as pulses (dry peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas) into menu offerings. The Grounding Green Bowl (pictured above) created by Lee Tilghman in her blog Lee from America highlights this versatility. “This bowl is really a breakfast bowl incorporating puréed white beans, bananas, oats and almond milk with spirulina. I love this bowl not only because it is delicious and beautiful, but it also showcases a unique way to enjoy pulses, in this case white beans,” says Jessie Hunter, director of marketing for the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council. This mixture of grains, greens, pulses and sauces appeals to the senses while being straightforward, easy to execute and nutritious. Hunter notes the potential for versatility and customization with bowls. “The toppings can vary based on what is available, such as sliced figs, almonds, granola or berries.”

Minced portobello ups the umami in a blend of ground turkey.The Foodie Physician for The Mushroom Council

Minced portobello ups the umami in a blend of ground turkey.

Umami Matters 

“Bowls are the ultimate convergence of convenience and the globalization of cuisine,” says Steve Solomon, leader of foodservice outreach for the Mushroom Council. “It’s economy for effort with consumers as well—you have your protein, vegetables and grains in one purchase.” He notes that bowls also represent the mainstreaming of global cuisine. Bibimbap, the iconic Korean rice bowl, is a model for bowl builds with its balance of meat, fresh or fermented produce and bright flavor accents from gochujang and/or kimchi. This Korean Rice Bowl with Turkey and Mushrooms, (pictured above) developed by The Foodie Physician for the Mushroom Council, features sesame spinach, cucumbers, carrots, an egg and a ground turkey/portobello mushroom blend as the meaty element. “You need umami in a bowl build, and mushrooms bring that satisfying meaty, umami flavor,” says Solomon. He suggests beech, shiitake, enoki, trumpet and oyster mushrooms as good options for bowl builds, adding visual interest as well.

Mashed Yukon golds are enriched with soy milk for a creamy base.

Mashed Yukon golds are enriched with soy milk for a creamy base.

The Original Mash-Up 

Mashed potato bowls are a modern play on a loaded mashed potato, creating a familiar base for on-trend ingredients to take potatoes from side to center. On the “Bowls” menu at Laughing Planet Café in Portland, Ore., Spanky’s Bowl (pictured above) sees mashed Yukon Golds enriched with soy milk and topped with sweet corn, cheddar and broccoli. “Using potatoes as the rich, creamy base for bowls is a smart value strategy that lets operators use smaller amounts of more expensive ingredients as toppings,” says T.K. Kuwahara, global marketing manager for Potatoes USA. She suggests toppings like chunks of thick-cut applewood bacon and an egg; pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and a dollop of fresh ricotta; or upscale ingredients, like truffle oil, steak strips and white truffles. “Consumers love bowls because they allow for customization and are a great way to combine proteins, veggies and specialty toppings in one easy-to-eat dish,” she adds.

Harissa-spiced grilled eggplant and rum-spiked grilled mango add flavor depth.

Harissa-spiced grilled eggplant and rum-spiked grilled mango add flavor depth.

Switch Hitter

Bowls can provide a bridge to Millennials seeking new flavors in an approachable format. This Harissa-Spiced Grilled Eggplant with Quinoa and Grilled Mango (pictured above) version also stars mango sambal, feta and mint. Developed by Chef Dave Woolley of CD Culinary for the National Mango Board, it gives a nod to plant-based options, quality grain use and big flavor. “The flavor profiles are unique yet approachable and on trend,” says Woolley, describing the well-rounded use of ingredients and techniques, such as the dual use of mango as a key ingredient. “This dish is easily manipulated for the tastes of differing customer bases, whether an ingredient switch of squash in place of eggplant or cooking technique like sautéing versus grilling,” he says, noting the versatility of dayparts as an added appeal. “Topped with an egg, it becomes an international breakfast.”


About The Author


Eliza Amari is special projects editor for Flavor & The Menu.