Cupcakes, popcorn, exotic coffee beans, hi-tech kitchens, casual dining … Shonali Muthalaly on what will capture the imagination of gourmets in 2013

Cupcakes again? Groan. I hope not. It’s that time of the year: everyone’s forecasting trends. Food’s always a tricky subject. After all, what you eat is so personal, and so rooted in your community, it’s tough to predict what everyone will be munching on by July. Nevertheless, there are some indicators. After all, food, like fashion, has a definite pop culture. Which brings us back to those cupcakes. Predicted as the Next Big Thing since 2005.

1) So, will it be cupcakes this year. Macaroons? Éclairs? To be honest, it’s going to be all three. This year is about unusual flavours: herbs, spices and unusual combinations. Meanwhile, welcome back the doughnuts. This year they’ll be especially decadent. Think bacon flavoured doughnuts. Where will you find all this? This is the age of the dessert bar. No more flipping through the menu to scrounge through the last three items. Now you can choose from an entire menu.

2) What’s new? Popcorn. In the most exotic, startling, luxurious flavours. It’s stylish bar food. It’s served at parties. It’s even made its way into ice cream. (Imagine Popcorn Ice Cream with Fleur de Sel Caramel Sauce.) Fancy? Wait till you see the flavours now available. From Blue cheese and Walnut popcorn to Strawberry cheesecake. With beautiful packaging, it also makes for great gifts. 479° Popcorn from San Francisco, for instance, offers the snack in extraordinary flavours: Vietnamese Cinnamon Sugar, Madras Curry with Coconut and Cashews, and Chipotle Caramel with Almonds.

3) This is the age of smart casual dining. People are choosing fuss-free cafes over glittering restaurants with clunky reservation policies and snooty maître d’s. However, expectations are high. Fish fingers, French fries and Apple pie just don’t cut it anymore. Hence this year’s menus will offer chic global food, skilfully made, but casually presented. Expect higher prices, and better ingredients. Local influences. Smaller plates. Restaurants are finally discovering the right portion size. A series of small plates means less wastage and more variety. Keep an open mind. And chat with the chef. He’s finally out of the kitchen and willing to tailor his food.

4) Finally, no diner gets left behind. Kitchens are now more tolerant of food allergies and special diets than ever before. Whether you’re vegan, gluten-intolerant or eating low carb, you’re likely to find something interesting on the menu. Chefs have started taking dietary requests seriously. They’re more accommodating and better informed. Most kitchens have a set of special recipes on file, even if they’re not on the menu. And customers have stopped being apologetic about their allergies. So feel free to tell your waiter about your allergies or special diet. That said, remember it is a lot of extra work for the kitchen. If you’re on a gluten- or lactose-free diet, but not really allergic to either, tell the waiter that too. Food for celiacs needs to be treated carefully to avoid cross-contamination. If you’re just off gluten to get a flat stomach, that’s a completely different ball game.

5) Watch speciality coffee go mainstream this year. The days when we could barely pronounce cappuccino are over. There’s a focus on bean origin now, as customer’s palates become more sophisticated. Even small coffee shops now offer single origin Kenyan, Ethiopian and Coorg coffee. Baristas are well trained. Espresso machines are top end. The days of syrupy cold coffee choking with ice cream, sugar syrup and gummy flavouring are over. Even better: you can get a skilfully made cappuccino almost everywhere in this country now.

6) Expensive kitchen accessories: they’re the new must-have, must-flaunt designer labels. Go to a dinner party today, and you’ll find half the guests in the kitchen admiring the hosts’ pots, pans and knives. Look out for the French Le Creuset cast iron cookware, distinctive for its bright colours. It costs about Rs. 25,000 for a five-piece set. Think that’s steep? Then you’ve not ventured into the world of kitchen knives yet. You can buy yourself one of the iconic Japanese knives for about Rs. 35,000. The labels to make a note of are Saji, seen as a ‘kitchen heirloom.’ Then there’s Heston Blumenthal's well-loved Tojiro Senkou. And the spectacularly sharp IO Shen.

High-tech kitchens that enable you to create restaurant quality meals in minimum time, with minimum fuss are the order of the day. Multi-tasker machines are the centre piece. The Vitamix, which can make cappuccinos, ice creams and spinach smoothies with equal ease. The Kitchen Aid food processor, Nigella Lawson’s weapon of choice. And the Blend Tec, best-known for its kooky ‘Will It Blend’ videos on YouTube, proving how hardy the blades are. (Its viral marketing campaign shows the machine pulverising credit cards, golf balls and even an iPhone.)

7) Street food gets hip. You’re personally responsible for this trend. After years of Instagram pictures of food on Facebook, restaurants are catching on. Realising that customers love the speed, sassiness and explosive flavours of street cooking, professional kitchens have started offering it in artfully designed spaces, conjuring images of crowded markets and jostling streets. Globally, this style of food is inspired by the flavours of Asia. Korean sauces, Japanese noodle bars and Indian chaat stalls. In the meantime, India’s embracing American fun fair staples like chicken wings, crepes and tacos.

8) Food tourism gets bigger than ever this year. Watch food tours spring up, offering tourists a taste of what makes each city special. Most concentrate on street food and home cooking. Underground restaurants are going to spread like wildfire, fuelled by Facebook advertisements, Twitter and tantalising pictures shot on high-end phone cameras. Pop-up restaurants will slowly create a buzz. Tour operators will finally start paying more attention to food — realising it’s the highlight of travel these days. And cooking classes offering to teach travellers local favourites will get more popular.

9) Heave a sigh of relief. Your checked in baggage gets lighter. There’s no need to lug home Dutch cheese, Italian sausage and Greek olive oil any more. India has more ‘exotic’ food on supermarket shelves than ever before. More importantly, there’s plenty of artisanal food being made right here. Bakeries are experimenting with hefty sourdough, multi-grain and airy dessert breads. Our wine is better than ever before. And expatriates have started a new wave of Indian cheese. Think Mango Hill with its natural cheeses made in India with French know-how, offering everything from Borsalino to Cumin Gouda. Or Acres Wild in Coonoor using milk from hybrid Jersey and Holstein cows to make Gouda, ricotta and halloumi.

10) Farewell fatty food. It was great while it lasted, but we really have to move on. Kiss your bacon wraps, fistfuls of butter and gallons of cream goodbye. As people get more body conscious and better informed, they’re asking questions about what goes into their food. Customers are requesting high fibre, low-carb and nutrient-dense meals. Power foods, soy smoothies and vegetable shakes are finding their way into restaurant menus. Vegetables are being treated better, starring as main courses, instead of just being boiled side dishes. Chefs are finding ways to make healthy food taste luxurious.