America's Pursuit Of Exotic Flavors Shows No Signs Of Abating

Exotic flavors filtered down through the ethnic medley of food-centered culture has opened American palates to flavorful combinations.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Contributing Editor

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So, while peppers aren’t exotic by any stretch of the imagination, they remain a growing trend that ties into the fact that a lot of the exotic cuisines streaming into American food culture from other cultures are spicier than our grandparents would dare, by far. Think of the explosive popularity of the sriracha craze and you’ll have a good idea.

And speaking of culture, kimchi, sauerkraut and other strong pickled and fermented vegetable flavors are moving from the big city melting pots to Middle America. Fast-food venues are suddenly slapping Asiago cheese on everything, it seems. Greek yogurt, though slowing down (after all, there’s not much left for manufacturers to put it in or on), will remain popular for a while with yogurt being a the primary component in the big probiotic movement with digestive health finally achieving proper recognition in the U.S.

Other healthful impacts on flavor trends include toasted grains, especially ancient grains, since gluten-free has become so mainstream. The denser, more rustic flavors of grains such as millet, barley and rye are enhanced by toasting. Roasted brown rice, a traditional Japanese ingredient, especially as a tea, is catching on as are toasted seed flavors. Sensient included pepitas, toasted pumpkin seeds, in its forecast for hot flavors of the coming year.

Savor and smoke

Kikkoman Sriracha Suace
Sriracha sauce, named after the Thailand coastal city of Si Racha, found its way into many pantries in 2013. It's a hot sauce made from a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic and salt.

Where there’s toasting there’s fire, and smoke seems to have permeated many ingredients, from salts and spice rubs to beverages, especially spirits like whiskey. But smoke also continues to center around the grill. However, traditionally popular smoky flavors like mesquite are giving way to alder and fruitwood smoke flavors.

And where would smoke be without smoked chili peppers? Chipotle, smoked jalapeños, have stayed at the top of popularity, but crowding their space are a variety of smoked peppers like Hatch, Big Jims and Savina Ruby Hots. These all merge with the huge pepper popularity contest that promises to grow in 2014.

“Smoked, dried and fresh chili peppers have had an influential large trend appeal over the last few years for use and with the flair and flavor of the pepper without burning the mouths of the consumers,” says Melissa’s Schueller.

Schueller sees no slowing down of pepper’s popularity. “Hot flavors and trendy recipes include the habanero, Ghost (Bhut jolokia) and even the scorpion peppers in recipes. More seasonal in the summer is continued use of the New Mexico chili pepper, especially the premium Hatch variety and in both fresh and dried forms.” Other chili varieties Schueller sees coming into their own include de Arbol, Japones, and Guajillos.

In all the predictions for 2014 flavors, Sichuan peppers keep popping up. These are an Asian spice not related to black pepper or chili peppers. They’re little seed pod shells used commonly in Chinese five-spice powder and have an aromatic, citrusy flavor (the plant is in the citrus family) and are described has being more tingly than hot. In McCormick & Co.’s  annual Flavor Forecast, they appear as part of the nod toward less mainstream influences from Asian cuisine, such as Malaysian and Kashmir. But the 125-year-old flavor company also mentions Brazil and other South American cuisines, such as Peruvian, as moving north.

Whichever of these flavor predictions sticks in the coming year or after, the fact remains that American palates are seeking out more exotic stimulation and doing so with the knowledge that the herbs and spices and fruits making their way to our food culture promise not only the excitement of exotic tastes but an element of health and well-being so often associated with them.

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