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Straight to the sauce

16 April 2010

Rosie Birkett investigates some of the new flavours and ingredients that are helping operators to spice up their sauces and add value to their menus.

Anyone who saw the episode of Dragon's Den featuring Levi Roots back in 2007 will remember quite how brightly he lit up the programme - making his entrance with guitar in hand, singing rather sweetly about the virtues of his product Reggae Reggae Sauce - a glimmer of soul in a room full of grey-suited Dragons.

The subject of his pitch - a spicy jerk sauce based on his Jamaican grandmother's recipe, which Roots had been blending in his kitchen for years and selling at the Notting Hill Carnival - captured the imaginations and palates of Peter Jones and Richard Farleigh, who went on to invest in the sauce. Six weeks later it was on the shelves in Sainsbury's, and by winter 2008 the catering industry had cottoned-on to its mainstream appeal and it was being sold on pub menus. It now features in dishes such as burgers, wraps, wings and nachos for at least six pub brands including Scream, JD Wetherspoon and Hungry Horse.

The rise of Reggae Reggae Sauce - whose ingredients include chilli, ginger, garlic, caramel and paprika - underpins a wider development in emerging flavour profiles in new condiments and sauces. Recent data from restaurant and catering analysts Horizons shows trends across the casual-dining, pub and contract catering markets for world influences, regional recipes and spicier offerings in sauces.

"People are getting more adventurous with their palates," says Nick Vadis, executive chef of Compass. "The more the world market opens up, the more people are open to different flavours and tastes and this is coming through in sauces.

"You're never going to get rid of your die-hard classics like sweet and sour, black bean and carbonaras, but what you will see is a range of people trying things and experimenting - that's why Thai food has come on leaps and bounds. People holiday out there more, they taste the lemon grass, ginger and lime leaves, and once you've tasted that on holiday you want to recreate that at home."

Indeed, Thai curry sauces are a big seller for Compass, with the red, yellow and green sauces gaining what Vadis describes as "a big foothold in the marketplace". He puts that down partially to increased travel and familiarity - but also to their health credentials. "Thai sauces tend to be a bit lighter than others such as Indian - there's no ghee and there are healthier connotations to eating Thai."

As Vadis points out, this spicier, more adventurous, popular palate has a lot to do with the impact of increased travel and multiculturalism's culinary influences, which has, in turn, led to the success and growth of specialist casual-dining restaurants such as Wagamama and Masala Zone.

One such restaurant is South-African-owned, Portuguese-themed casual-dining brand Nando's, whose success and rapid growth since it first opened in 1992 can in part be attributed to the appeal of its chilli sauce, Peri Peri, which provides the seasoning to the chicken around which the menu is based. Peri Peri is a blend of lemon juice, African Bird's Eye - or piri-piri - chilli and garlic, and is served at the restaurant in different strengths according to preference. The sauce has also infiltrated the home market, now being sold in supermarkets, with a growth of 69% year on year, compared with Tabasco's 11.5% year on year growth, according to the USA's Industrial Research Institute.

"It's becoming a staple," says Nando's spokesman Ben Johnson. "The chilli sauce market is a dramatically growing category and people are using it to spice up everything. As a nation it's fair to say we're getting spicier and people are looking for bigger flavours. Curry is a national dish and spice is finding its way into all different kinds of food. Peri Peri's certainly got an addictive quality - once you've tasted it you want more." Indeed, the popularity of Peri Peri hasn't gone unnoticed - and variations on it can be spotted on menus including Harvester, Whitbread's Beefeater Grill and Scream pubs - which offer Piri Piri ketchup.


Compass has developed its own piri-piri sauce for its Flavours of the World range, offering, like Nando's, the option to personalise the strength of the sauce - something Vadis thinks underpins its appeal. "Personalisation is key," he says. "We use different strengths. We have a marinade which tenderises the meat and then you add different flavour profiles - hot, medium, or mild - to suit the individual. You apply it to lean bits of meat, so it's healthier than the fattier and ghee-based sauces."

So for a sauce that's clearly becoming a favourite on menus, what's the key to a stand-out product? "Using fresh, wholly natural ingredients and produce," says Vadis. "The best chillies, tomatoes - nothing synthetic - and give people the choice to customise."

But this trend for versatility and personalisation isn't limited to piri-piri and its ingredients - more and more outlets, particularly pub chains, are picking up on the successful model of using sauces, marinades, rubs and glazes, as a means to cheaply and effectively create variety on their menus when combined with a grilled meat option. So more generally we're seeing lighter, more piquant and versatile sauces which can be used both to tenderise and marinate meat, or as a dipping sauce for side or starter options, as well as a seasoning condiment.

At Whitbread's Beefeater Grill, one best seller is the chimichurri, an Argentinean steak sauce made with parsley, olive oil, garlic and chilli - which is used as a steak or dipping sauce. Harvester is currently rolling out a trial "Salad and Grill" menu across its Bristol and Wales outlets which offers accompanying sauces including Caribbean jerk dip, chilli and garlic sauce, plum and ginger sauce and barbecue glaze. Beefeater Grill has recently relaunched its menu and new sauces include mojito - lime, rum and mint - piri-piri and honey and chipotle.

Increased health-awareness is another reason for what Vadis observes as a decline in popularity of creamier cooking and pasta sauces. "There's a bit of a move away from the creamy pasta sauces towards fresher, tomato-based sauces with pasta because these tend to be healthier, and people are increasingly interested in things like fat, salt and sugar. You're always going to have people who want the creamy sauces, though." Indeed, classic cooking sauces like tikka masala and sauce diane are still visible on menus, but increasingly operators are getting more creative - livening up old favourites with new flavour combinations.

For Dave Rust, senior development chef for Whitbread, there's a lot to be said for adapting the classics. "Classic sauces continue to sell very well for us," he says. "So we've taken some classic recipes and applied a twist to them with great success. At our Table Table restaurants we do a chicken makani curry - which is essentially a premium version of chicken tikka. The dish is a medium-hot curry made from chicken breast marinated with yogurt and spices in a tomato and cream curry sauce - so it's still classical, and the flavour profile isn't too risky, but it's a new take on it."


Rachel Kingdon-Saxby, senior brand manager at Indian sauce supplier Sharwood's, agrees. "While the classic sauce varieties of korma, tikka masala, balti, jalfrezi and madras remain ever popular, the industry continues to evolve to retain consumer interest and keep up with increasing consumer demand for new flavours to avoid menu fatigue. Many Indian dishes start out with the same base sauce, whether it be the korma, balti, jalfrezi or madras, but by using a blend of similar spices and ingredients, they can be evolved to form varieties of that dish.

Pub chefs are aware of a consumer interest in the authenticity of dishes and their history and regionality, but there is also a trend for new, modern twists on Indian classics. "Chefs need to continually look at ways to spice up their menus, in a cost- and time-efficient manner," Kingdon-Saxby says. "For example, the keema mutter balti is a variation on the classic balti dish, where lamb mince and peas are added to a Balti sauce."

The scope with varying Indian cuisine is broadly thanks to its use of spice combinations - but what about freshening up an old classic such as barbecue sauce? Rust has done just that, by adding a dash of whiskey to the recipe. "Our whiskey river barbecue sauce is still the traditional barbecue classic, but there's some whiskey in there for added smokiness and depth," he says.

"At Beefeater and Table Table we've created peppernaise - a peppercorn and béarnaise sauce to go with steaks - it's a hybrid of the two most popular steak sauces and it works because we're using recognisable ingredients but there's still a twist. It's a popular, recognisable cocktail and it's safe, but it's also something new and interesting."

So whether it's incorporating new flavours from the world market that are gaining a following, or building on the appeal of the classic sauces with a bit of culinary flair and innovation, operators are certainly not resting on their laurels when it comes to sauces - which can prove to be a relatively cheap and easy way to add variety and value to a menu.

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