When Humphrey Bogart closed the 1942 Academy Award winning movie “Casablanca” with, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” the line became a Hollywood classic. And while this memorable film and its dialogue remain popular, the Moroccan city for which the movie was named is attracting attention for a new reason.

“Mediterranean cuisine has gained notoriety due to the healthful connotation of the fresh flavors and foods that are its staples,” says Jason Gronlund, executive chef at McIlhenny Co./Tabasco Brand Products, Avery Island, La. Chefs increasingly are interested in the native cuisines of Morocco and other Southern European and Northern African nations that border the Mediterranean.

Notes Gronlund, “The areas of the Mediterranean that influence this cuisine reach from Spain and Catalonia to Turkey around the North African Coast to Tunisia and Morocco.”

In fact, industry experts say Mediterranean cuisine is popping up more frequently in refrigerated and frozen entrees, snacks and appetizers as well as on foodservice menus nationwide.

According to one report, ethnic foods now account for more than 12 percent of all retail food sales. In its summer 2008 publication, United States Ethnic Food Market, the Canadian Agri-Food Exporters say this proportion is growing annually by 5 percent. And more than half (52 percent) of American consumers are expected to be ethnic food consumers by the year 2050. Further, by the year 2015, the American ethnic food market will be worth an estimated $112.5 billion.

Increased exposure and acceptance

Although many North African countries are shrouded in an air of mystery and exoticism for the average American, consumers - as well as chefs - are becoming increasingly familiar with the flavors of the region.

Earlier this year, ConAgra Food Ingredients (CFI), Omaha, Neb., identified North African cuisine as one of four food trends “impacting American menus.” In its summer 2008 “FoodCast,” a customer-focused trends report, CFI said North African cuisine is hot because (1) it uses bold seasonings and preparations that appeal to modern palates, (2) it’s grounded in flavors and spices - such as allspice, cinnamon, cumin, citrus, mint and olives - that are familiar to Americans and (3) it uses traditional cooking techniques including stewing, roasting and grilling.

And, in the grand tradition of Thai chicken pizza, chefs are adding North African and Mediterranean flavors and ingredients to everything from spreads and salads to entrees and appetizers. Examples include Moroccan Savory Spiced Chicken Strips from Brakebush Brothers, Westfield, Wis.; a Lean Cuisine Mediterranean Chicken entrée from Nestlé Prepared Foods, Solon, Ohio; Mediterranean salsas from Sabra Dipping Co., Queens, N.Y.; and a Moroccan Tabouleh salad from Really Cool Foods, New York.

Speaking to the Philadelphia Daily News this summer, African chef Morou Outtara, noted, “For six, seven years now people are playing with the idea of African food and people are now starting to accept it.”

Outtara said he noticed such an increase in African cuisine interest that he opened an Alexandria, Va.-based restaurant that features several traditional African dishes.

Also supporting North African cuisines are growing numbers of African immigrants in cities such as Chicago, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis and New York, said food industry consultant Elaine Tecklenburg in the same Philadelphia Daily News report.

Leslie Krause, director of research development at Elite Spice, Jessup, Md., says she also has noticed an increased preference for both Northern Mediterranean flavors and Middle Eastern cuisine.

“You can’t go wrong with adding Mediterranean flavors to your product. It is requested often,” she notes. “The most popular [flavors] are Italian, whether its roasted garlic or sun-dried tomato. … [But] Middle Eastern flavors in refrigerated hummus are popular [too],” she adds. “Our growing population’s diversity, with its children growing up with Chinese take-out help make the different flavors more mainstream.”

That said, Chinese food and other Asian cuisines, as well as Mexican and Kosher foods, continue to enjoy the greatest ethnic flavor popularity in the U.S. But, looking ahead, this may change.

In fact, this year the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), St. Helena, Calif., chose Mediterranean fare as the theme for its annual Worlds of Flavor International Conference & Festival - a forum for the world’s leading chefs, corporate menu decision makers, foodservice management executives, suppliers and other culinary professionals.

On its Web site, CIA said that “A Mediterranean Flavor Odyssey: Preserving and Re-Inventing Traditions for Modern Palates” will feature three days of programs centered on the “enormous opportunity  to refresh and extend popular Mediterranean culinary trends with flavors that are at once new and seemingly familiar.”

Adds Krause, “People are craving bolder exotic flavors that are visually stimulating. … Craving exotic flavors stems from several areas - travel, cooking shows and the growing diverse population.”

Also feeding the trend is the fact that many Mediterranean flavors combine well with other hot trends in the food industry. According to CFI’s FoodCast these include: smoky flavor, sweet heat (such as the combination of ginger and wasabi) and small plates.

“North Africans were ahead of the game in capitalizing on small plates,” the report says. “For centuries, lavish spreads of snack-size delicacies called mezze - each flavored with North Africa’s inimitable blend of spices, aromatics and herbs - started meals off right.”

Healthy fare

In some cases, small portion size could be considered healthy eating in and of itself, but part of Mediterranean cuisines’ growing appeal is the fact that many consider it a nutritious choice.

According to the Canadian Agri-Food Exporters’ U.S. Ethnic Food Market report, “The consumer trend toward wholesome boldly-flavored ethnic food has grown considerably in recent years, largely due to Mediterranean cuisine having been marketed as a healthy diet option in the United States since 1993.”

While definitions of what exactly constitutes a Mediterranean diet differ, the American Heart Association identified the following general characteristics: high consumption of fruits, vegetables, bread and other cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds; olive oil; low to moderate consumption of dairy products, fish and poultry and little to no red meat.

This healthy association creates an opportunity for refrigerated and frozen food processors to market to consumers craving both ethnic flavors and a more nutritious diet.

“People are becoming more health conscious with childhood and adult obesity on the rise and the ills that it presents, there are a lot of healthy choices available to choose from,” Krause says.

The U.S. Ethnic Food Market report concludes, “Marketing a product’s health benefits, authenticity and convenience factor may be the key to success in targeting mainstream American consumers looking for more exotic food options.”

Spice things up

In order to capitalize on North African flavors’ ethnic appeal and health quotient, refrigerated and frozen food processors are seeking new ways to add them to entrees, snacks and appetizers.

“One of the changes [we’ve seen] is that seasonings and flavors are being added to normally unseasoned products such as the new lines of flavored vegetables,” says Krause. And when refrigerated and frozen food processors are formulating these ethnic dishes, “they are looking for complete flavor systems. They are interested in seasonings that can be added to marinade the meat either by injection or vacuum tumble or a seasoning for a glaze or sauce that will contain the starch for freeze/thaw/recon ability.”

She continues, “Some of our new flavors include black and green teas. Green Tea Peppercorn Crust, Smoked Black Tea Rub … These taste and perform well on marinated meats and are flavorful dipping oils. Our blends are used in many applications from a seasoned crouton applied topically to be added in a meal kit, to a marinated chicken tender or fajita strip.”

Meanwhile, Gronlund says Tabasco’s Habanero sauce can be used to balance the flavor of some of the bolder Mediterranean spices and dishes.

“The Indian date, also known as a tamarind, regularly surfaces in Mediterranean cooking,” he says. “The tree-grown fruit contains a sour-sweet pulp, that, when dried, becomes extremely sour. Tabasco brand Habenero sauce with its own use of sweetness blends well with the tamarind to give a bold flavor note.”

Although tamarind may not be gracing grocery aisles or fast-casual menus across the U.S. yet, don’t underestimate it, or its North African flavor counterparts.

With its intriguing connotations, healthful attributes and spicy flavors, North African cuisine promises to gain favor.

“[Consumers] are craving for exotic and far away places that are not traveled to since our economy has slowed,” Krause adds.