Posted on Thursday, 29ᵗʰ July, 2021
Edited on Wednesday, 23ʳᵈ November, 2022
Closely intertwined with ethical choices, clean eating is now possibly better described as conscious consumption. This phrase underlines the key themes of the movement: know exactly what you’re eating, where it comes from and how it got to you.
Research says people are becoming more mindful of the food they put in their bodies, making it important for menus to show exactly what’s in a meal—and what’s not. For example, awareness around the potential side effects of excitotoxins means some diners avoid the likes of MSG in their meals. The more transparent you are about what makes up your meals, the greater the trust your diners will put in your venue.
Closely related to transparency, provenance goes a step further to describe farming practices, soil types, production techniques and transportation of food. Where your ingredients and dishes have a positive story to tell, it’s worth including this detail on your menu. For example, a cut of meat from a local organic farm will be more attractive to diners who prefer to avoid intensive farming from a supplier located a long way away.
A central characteristic of clean eating is to pare things back. This extends to removing the complexity from dishes, so that ingredients can be easily identified. In itself, this establishes an exciting challenge; chefs can use simplicity as an opportunity to create an interesting meal under all conditions.
Clean eaters tend to be ecologically aware and will actively seek ways to minimise their impact on the environment through the dietary choices they make. For that reason, menus should make clear when a dish and ingredients are produced using sustainable farming and supply practices.
Typically, there is a trade-off between clean eating and lip-smacking flavour. The simpler a dish and the nearer its ingredients to whole foods, the greater the potential sacrifice in taste. As the demand for clean eating increases, so too does the longing for rich and appealing flavours. With today’s chefs working harder than ever to find natural ways to deliver a guilt-free flavour hit to their dishes, let’s look at some of the trends in natural flavour boosters.
In the past, many condiments and sauces have included artificial flavour enhancers. But changing preferences are seeing chefs turn to natural, additive-free options that are also gluten-free, vegan and low in salt. In addition, fermented condiments are roaring into popularity, alongside handmade, organic and regional varieties, with the aim of satisfying today’s diner and offering a point of difference on menus. Popular natural flavour boosters including ginger, lemon and garlic are being complemented by immunity-boosting botanicals such as sage, elderberry and turmeric. Kimchi—a tangy, fermented relish made from cabbage—and gochujang—a Korean hot chilli paste that is fortified with fermented soybeans—are both incredibly flexible and becoming familiar to mainstream palates. Tamari sauce is growing in popularity as a soy sauce replacement. It has the bonus of tasting just as good in its low-sodium guise and gives a savoury lift to sushi and roasted veggies. Functional ingredients, such as probiotics and fibre, are making their way into sauces and condiments, as kitchens look for ways to ‘plus-up’ their products.
In-market inspo: The reassuringly detailed menu at Walk Don’t Run, a café in the Melbourne suburb of Armadale that advocates for mindful eating, includes a turmeric and ginger porridge that is sweetened with natural maple syrup. Its slow braised beef brisket eggs Benedict is flavoured with kimchi and a vegan tofu-based hollandaise sauce.
To retain the integrity of whole foods, the goal is to choose seasonings that don’t overdo salt, sugar and artificial additives. Fortunately, there are lots of natural options and a whole host of emerging seasoning blends that can bring even the healthiest foods to life. Adobo, a Filipino fusion of garlic, turmeric, oregano and black pepper, and sazon, a Cuban mix of coriander, cumin, achiote, garlic, oregano and pepper, are exotic seasonings that offer diners exciting flavours and health benefits. True clean eating also considers the ethical impact of food consumption, with a lack of transparency having traditionally made it impossible for cooks to know whether their spices have been grown ethically or sustainably. Fair Trade and Certified Organic labels are a great place to start, with countries including India, China and Vietnam now leading the way in the production of organic spices.
In-market inspo: The farm-to-table philosophy of Sydney restaurant Fred’s is on show with seasonal greens, handmade pasta and organic wine. Head chef Danielle Alvarez’s pork and pineapple tacos are naturally seasoned with a heady marinade of chillies in adobo sauce, paprika, cumin and apple cider vinegar.
When it comes to clean ingredients, it’s fair to say dressings were late to the party. They’re now making up for lost time, with a range of exciting new ideas filtering into mainstream cooking and onto commercial menus. Increasingly, dressings are forgoing artificial sweeteners and opting, instead, for rich natural flavourings derived from the likes of raisins, pineapple and mango. Fermentation is also becoming popular in this space, with the Japanese seasoning miso emerging as a sweet, tangy base for commercially available dressings. Vegan claims among dressings, mayonnaises and vinegars are on the march and a pointer to changing diner preferences, while salt content, again, is on the hit list, with savvy chefs choosing instead the likes of rosemary, basil, paprika and parsley to deliver a burst of flavour to their dressings. For something different, native Australian ingredients, including wattle seed and lemon myrtle, offer a unique, local twist to dressings. To add delicious guilt-free flavour to salads, sometimes the best option is the simplest one. A basic combination of oil and vinegar can be made tangy with a squeeze of citrus or made sweet with a hint of honey.
In-market inspo: Popular central Auckland café, Misters, prides itself on dealing in locally sourced, sustainably produced, organic whole foods. The dressing for its grilled prawn and noodle dish combines rice wine vinegar, sesame oil and rice bran oil with coriander, ginger, garlic, chilli, kaffir lime leaves and a dash of honey for an all-natural flavour hit.