The 12 biggest global food trends for 2021, from vegan innovations to letterbox cocktails

We break down the surprising culinary trends and innovations set to shape your dining in the year ahead, each pioneered by trailblazing chefs adapting to the changing tastes of diners during the pandemic. 

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Predicting the food and drink trends that will shape the coming months is a tough task at any time, let alone during a pandemic. Yet, over the past year, many people have found food more important than ever, whether that means cooking new dishes to entertain themselves at home, ordering deliveries to shake up their routine, or — when government rules allow — dining out at restaurants, and really savouring the experience. Much remains up in the air, but one thing is certain: keeping mealtimes interesting is, for many, crucial. So, from virtual cooking classes to a new era for Michelin-starred restaurants, here’s what we expect to see more of during the rest of 2021.

1. Meal kits

Meal kits have proved to be the saviour of the restaurant industry over the past year, with neatly packaged ‘dine at home’ experiences providing a vital revenue stream for chefs. From burgers and pizza to multi-course Michelin menus, almost every big-name UK restaurant now has a meal kit offering. They’ve been embraced by consumers during lockdowns, and while some believe they’ll be less popular once restaurants reopen, many chefs are planning for a future where meal kits play at least some part. It may be that we’ll order a kit once or twice a year rather than every other week, but the concept seems here to stay.

Read more: Five meal kits from top restaurants to cook at home

2. Virtual cooking classes 

This trend is partly related to the meal kit boom, as many chefs recorded short video tutorials on how to finish dishes at home, which developed into full-scale, live, paid-for cooking classes. This looks set to continue, with the likes of Tom Aikens offering weekly online classes from his newly Michelin-starred restaurant Muse and master French baker Dominique Ansel delving into his most famous creations, including the cronut.

3. Bhorta

Such is Nigella Lawson’s popularity that she can easily start a new food trend single-handedly with just a mention of a particular ingredient or dish. Aside from that ‘microwave’ pronunciation, the biggest talking point of her new BBC series Eat, Cook, Repeat was undoubtedly the recipe for ‘fish finger bhorta’, which drew confusion and admiration in equal measure. This fusion of bhorta, a traditional Bangladeshi side dish of lightly fried vegetables and spices, with much-maligned freezer fodder set the nation talking. Whether its Nigella’s version, a new mashup, or a more traditional take, there’s sure to be more bhorta appearing on menus across the country in 2021.

4. Plant-based ‘fish’

Plant-based burgers are old news now, but next on the horizon are plant-based ‘fish’ options. These vegan alternatives do their best to mimic the taste, texture and nutritional value of popular fish such as salmon and tuna; look out for Good Catch’s vegan ‘tuna’, which is widely available in the US and now in the UK, plus new Swedish start-up Hooked, which recently raised $600,000 (£424,000) to launch its flaked Toona and Salmoon in 2021.

5. Michelin-starred burgers

Burgers in various guises are a stalwart of food trend lists, and with good reason: they’re perennially popular. And they’ve been thrust into the spotlight once more — this time by Michelin-starred restaurants, which pivoted to serving burgers during lockdown. Most notable was Noma, in Copenhagen, which opened a burger pop-up that proved so popular the team launched it as a permanent venture, called POPL, in December. Meanwhile, Septime in Paris offered a limited-edition cheeseburger with gravy and smoked mayonnaise and Mana, Manchester’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, has followed suit, with a special takeaway-only burger. Limited to 100 a day, Mana’s burgers are made using smoked beef from the Lake District, stacked in a potato, brown butter and milk bun along with beer-and-cheddar cheese, smoked egg yolk, koji and dill mayo, green onion paste and more.

6. Meal-sized sandwiches

The big sandwich trend is one that’s been building for a while now. Even pre-lockdown there were London spots such as Dom’s Subs and Max’s Sandwich Shop, both of which specialise in sandwiches of epic proportions — and lockdown seems to have accelerated the trend, with several restaurants pivoting to serve gourmet sandwiches. Dalston’s legendary Turkish restaurant, Mangal 2, has a new range of doner, mackerel, and falafel sandwiches, while Hackney’s Bright regularly sells out of its hefty fried squid sandwiches.

7. Regenerative agriculture

Regenerative agriculture is the word currently on the lips of sustainability experts and food scientists. As mass industrial farming has been held up as a huge contributor to climate change, a counter movement has emerged, led by farmers using traditional, less intensive methods for farming and livestock. The result: meat and produce that’s certified carbon-neutral, or even carbon-positive. For those concerned about the environmental impact of eating meat but not wanting to give it up entirely, this could well be the future. At the forefront in the UK is The Ethical Butcher, an online specialist meat retailer that works exclusively with farmers who practice regenerative agriculture.

8. Fine freezer food

With most of us currently at home cooking several meals a day, a well-stocked freezer has become an essential fallback for those nights when you just need a quick dinner. But it’s not just convenience and fast food; your freezer can also be filled with luxurious — or even healthy — dishes. Marks & Spencer and Ocado stock gourmet French brand Picard, which offers everything from scallops to quinoa and vegetables, while wellness brands Deliciously Ella and The Mindful Chef offer healthy frozen ranges, featuring dishes such as spiced spinach and potato cakes, and cashew carbonara, respectively.

9. Takeaway cocktails

Pubs and bars around the world have been hit just as hard, if not more so, than restaurants during the pandemic. Takeaway cocktail hatches, such as at The Sun Tavern in London’s Bethnal Green, were popping up everywhere last summer and may well do again as restrictions begin to be eased later this year. Other cities around the world such as New York, San Francisco and Melbourne also fully embraced the takeaway cocktail, or ‘walktail’, as some tried to call them. There’s also been a growing ‘cocktails by post’ trend; Send a Negroni, for example, delivers a single vac-packed negroni in a letterbox-friendly box, while Shop Cuvee lets customers order concoctions from east London bars Three Sheets and Scout, as well as cocktail king Mr Lyan and Danish distillery Empirical Spirits.

10. Quirky dining

While we wait for restrictions to life, we can expect there to be even more exciting new ways to dine out this year. In 2020, Singapore Airlines launched a pop-up restaurant serving airline meals on one of its grounded A380s (the airline has said it will offer more dates this year), while Les Bains hotel in Paris drained its 19th-century swimming pool to create a unique dinner setting for guests. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, 10 of the city’s best chefs, including Nancy Silverton, came together for a huge drive-in dining experience serving 600 people over two nights.

11. British seafood

Sales of British seafood were already booming in 2020, with Waitrose reporting a tripling of sales in the second half of the year. Now Brexit-related issues mean even more seafood will be staying put this year, particularly live mussels, oysters, scallops and certain other shellfish, which are now heavily restricted by EU rules. A glut in the supply chain could also mean lower prices, so oysters could well become an everyday treat in 2021.

12. From fine dining to ‘fine eating’

A number of chefs at Michelin-starred restaurants are planning a break from fine dining, turning instead to a more crowd-pleasing approach. Nathan Outlaw has already announced a complete revamp of his Cornish establishment, Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, once it reopens, with a more accessible (and cheaper) menu, while hugely influential chef Daniel Boulud is planning a more casual experience at his flagship New York restaurant, Daniel. Then there’s Noma’s new burger outpost to consider. These moves follow a recent trend for chefs to swerve the Michelin-star route in order to remove some of the pressure of expectation, and move away from traditional haute cuisine.

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