Sunday, February 15, 2009

Flavor trends for the New Year, yeah tropical is big

The history of flavor
Flavor exists to entice animals - including us humans - to eat fruits, plants and other foods that have the necessary nutrients to survive and reproduce. Humans throughout history add to this 'agenda' by combining great tasting flavors to make less tasty foods more palatable. Today creating new flavors is considered the height of culinary expertise.

Back at the scientific level, nutritionists have recently discovered that certain flavors have unique and beneficial phytochemicals. The art of flavoring is taking a big step forward (or backward considering flavor's original purpose) with flavoring's increased used as an enticement to better nutrition. Go flavor.

For 2009, functional flavors are in
Combine flavor's increased value with the consumer trend of wanting not just tasty food but wanting food that gives an 'experience' of something beyond the physical location of the table, and it's why the Food Network is more popular than ever, why one in every five Americans have taken a tropical cruise and why we are more aware of where a food has come from.

Eating locally is great if you live in California
Does eating locally buck this trend? Not really. Yes when we pick a vacation destination we'll often desire a tropical setting but when we pick where we live, the agrarian background deep in our souls will desire a rural setting even though we could be circling ads in the NY Times' 'apartments for rent' section

It's true the die hard 'locavore' (combo of local and carnavore) in Boston will need to put to good use their canning skills in the summer and talk their landlady into letting them dig a deep enough root cellar in the basement to weather New England's bitter winters. But most folks prefer fresh fruit, even crave fresh fruit in the darkest days of winter. Ever notice how most locavores live in California where year round farming is possible? Even in Florida it's not doable, yesterday I help my church's teenage youth group to pick strawberries at the local 'U-Pik-It' to sell at today's service. Three months from now it'll be too hot for strawberries, lettuce, corn (and the list goes on). Few exceptions exist: avocados are one.

So for all the great publicity given buying locally (and indeed I do highly recommend buying straight from the farm produce - the strawberries are delicious), we will still have increased demand for high-quality fruits and vegetables with unique flavors and colors year-round. And it's because as North Americans our palates - with the help of the Food Network and our Caribbean cruise last year - will continue to become more sophisticated and adventurous.

Countries of Origin
The interest in flavor is driving the demand for a broader range of plants than ever before. We are seeing produce from geographically diverse areas, including Asia, Central and South America and Africa. All to feed the trend for flavorful combinations of exotic tastes that will deliver 'experiences' and feed our deep down inside urges to be healthy.

Traditional fare and instinct
So what about traditional flavors? The hidden driver behind traditional dishes is an instinct for health. It's no coincidence that grains and beans - tremendous sources of amino acids - are the center of countless ethnic dishes. The same is true for many traditional dishes and flavors.

Meeting this overall flavor trend, chefs and cooks alike will often take popular and familiar flavors and put them into nontraditional applications or select exotic fruits and vegetables and put them into more traditional dishes. Think of how many ways mangos, avocados and papayas have invaded traditional fare. Restaurants are touting snapper topped with a papaya salsa as a special of the day. Meanwhile avocados are topping sandwiches and salads on both coasts. And was that a bite of mango I just popped into my mouth as I ate from my grocery store's ready-to-eat fruit salad? Yes it was.

Taste drivers
The number one driver for what's being eaten is taste. Chefs often use the bold flavors of tropical fruits to fill the void left when fats or sugars are reduced. Combining new tastes with familiar favorites brings excitement to a functional dish without creating an eating concept that the eater may be hesitant to try.

As we continue to fight the obesity epidemic, the search continues for healthy alternatives. Better taste, lower calories and healthy side benefits attract consumers which in turn will reward the artisans of flavor, whether chef or home cook. Tropical fruits and vegetables can help this fight, ever so flavorably.

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