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Remember when wraps seemed revolutionary? Maybe you had one on your way home from an Alanis Morissette concert in 1996.

Then you shifted into a comforting pot-roast period, followed by the martini and cupcake years. In the mid-2000s, perhaps you pivoted into a complete rejection of carbs then slid into the bacon era. Who could forget 2010, when you stood in line at a food truck playing Angry Birds on your new iPad? That line would give way to the Cronut line, the ramen line, the poke line and now the line starting over there by the empanada stand.

Predicting food trends like these has become as much an American holiday tradition as ordering an eggnog latte. (Or, this year, mixing red wine and hot chocolate.)

Each December, lists of culinary forecasts pour forth from public relations companies trying to elevate their profiles, food companies looking to sell more food and professional associations hoping to guide chefs as they try to translate the zeitgeist into menu items. Social media wonks have jumped into the pool, too, eager to show off their powerful search analytics.

Of course, the wide and bumpy field of food-trend prognostication has its share of players who build forecasts on research, qualitative and quantitative, and to whom sociology matters more than popularity.

"A good trend list requires everything from data and science to pure intuition," says Dana Cowin, a former editor-in-chief of Food & Wine who presided over the magazine's food prediction team for 21 years.

Before we get too deep into how the nation's top food-trend oracles practice their dark arts, you probably want to know what's hot for 2017.

Jackfruit! Sorghum! Harissa! And don't ignore horseradish, spirulina and Asian-inspired breakfasts. Authenticity and its cousin, transparency, are in. So is food inspired by Africa. Or maybe it's the Philippines. Even French food has a constituency.

If you're skeptical, there is good reason. Some predictions will never come true. Others may, if only because they are mentioned so often that consumers succumb to fomo (fear of missing out) and give in. See: cake pops, toast.

Many are momentary fads and sensations that the true professionals of the prophecy game dismiss as so much junk food. Rainbow bagels, adorable 3-D latte art and raindrop cake do not bona fide trends make.

Practitioners with a sociological bent are more interested in underlying shifts in culture that play out over time, like changes in the economy or immigration patterns.

"True food trends move at kind of a glacial pace," says Annika Stensson, director of research communications for the National Restaurant Association. "It can take a decade or more to reach the mainstream."

For 11 years, Stensson has helped compile the association's annual culinary forecast, based on a survey of about 1,300 chefs. She is particularly proud of her early success in predicting the explosion in bite-size desserts.

This year's list, which includes novel cuts of meat like the Vegas strip steak, healthful children's meals and street food, may seem dated. But that's the idea. A fleeting fad is too frivolous to build a business on.

A perfect on-trend restaurant for 2017, Stensson says, would be a fast-casual spot serving dishes with deep, heady African flavors. The dishes should be made with locally produced ingredients, which chefs and skilled home cooks have been using for decades because they often taste better, offer more variety and can be healthier for the environment.

Today, many feel imprisoned by the locavore mandate. But for those who don't follow food fashion, it's coming on strong. "The primary reason is, people want to support neighbors in their community," Stensson says.

Cowin, late of Food & Wine, says, "A good trend is like an Impressionist painting. It's something that looks like one thing, and then you dive in and see; it's really a collection of many little points of paint."

Take fermentation, the darling of the 2016 forecasts. It's not a trend unto itself, she says, but rather the culmination of several changes that began with the rising popularity of Korean food in America and a particular interest in kimchee. The farm-to-table movement, which steered cooks to pickling as a way to preserve the bounty of harvest, contributed.

Interest in fermentation got another boost from research showing the importance of gut health, which also drove interest in probiotics, which led in part to kombucha's rise. Mix in the nascent do-it-yourself ethos and a flash of excitement about the preserving methods of Nordic cuisine, and you have the fermentation trend.

Meals in a bowl, a perennial on recent year-end lists, are another phenomenon driven by smaller engines: yoga, the gluten-free movement, a new appetite for Asian street food and the demand for grab-and-go convenience.

"We've got a moment when a lot of different needs are being met through this perfect little vessel," says Willa Y. Zhen, a food anthropologist and associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America. "You know it's really mainstream when Jimmy Dean does a bowl."

It doesn't hurt that food in bowls can be visually attractive, perfect for an Instagram feed. At Pinterest, which is used by 150 million people a month, Buddha bowls filled with simple vegan or vegetarian ingredients are among the top items that users post. The name evokes the mindfulness with which a monk holds a bowl of food.

"The overarching trend we are seeing is along vegan, gluten-free and clean eating," says Stephanie Kumar, head of what Pinterest calls "category insights."

Its latest report shows that Pinterest users are also into naan pizza, zucchini chips and octopus cooked at home, possibly in sous vide machines. The team boasts that three years ago, Pinterest foresaw that cauliflower would be big, even though it had been showing up on trend lists ever since predictors flagged it in 1998, when the luxe New York restaurant Jean-Georges began serving caramelized cauliflower and sea scallops with a caper-raisin emulsion. (Purple cauliflower is the "it" vegetable for 2017.)

Kevan Vetter, the executive chef at McCormick & Co., has led the team that assembles the annual McCormick flavor forecast for 17 years. Its report draws on global field research to identify trends that have blossomed enough to appeal to a mass audience, one that presumably will buy McCormick products.

Vetter is proud that he predicted chipotle and wasabi as breakout flavors in the early 2000s. His biggest miss was chai, a flavor he thought would cross over from beverages into desserts and other dishes.

His new report calls 2017 the year of the egg yolk. Spanish flavors and the Middle Eastern spice mix called baharat will take off. He is also high on sorghum grain bowls for breakfast and foods cooked on a plancha, a type of flattop grill.

Lynn Dornblaser, the director of innovation and insight for market researcher Mintel, has been trend-spotting for 30 years.

"You do it long enough, and you've seen everything," she says. Almost every food trend, she says, can fit into one of several categories, among them health, convenience, indulgence and the environment. Mintel, for 2017, highlights food that is smoked or grilled, main-course vegetables, and the flavors of Africa, Korea and the Philippines.

Style on 01/03/2017

Print Headline: Purple cauliflower, Korean, African flavors to star in '17

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