CHICAGO — "Gastronauts" crave culinary thrill. They want to be transported to different corners of the world through food. Chefs and food formulators are delivering, and with the help of social media and generative artificial intelligence, new concepts are being brought to market in record time.

“With such a diverse culture in the US and how easy it’s become to access global ingredients, our pantries have changed dramatically,” said Christopher Tanner, executive director of operations, American Culinary Federation, Jacksonville, Fla. “Sriracha sauce has become as mainstream as ketchup in some parts of the country, with Korean gochujang following closely behind. It’s common to see a splash of XO sauce or a dusting of furikake. Japanese matcha is being used more in green sauces, and the availability of chiles from Latin America to Asia continues to grow.”

Global flavors remain a rich source of inspiration and culinary discovery. They captivate both consumers and the industry at large.

“In 2024, a prominent trend shaping the culinary landscape will be the rise of ‘glocal’ adventures, seamlessly blending global and local culinary elements to bring diverse tastes closer to home,” said Mark Webster, vice president of sales and business development for T. Hasegawa USA, Cerritos, Calif. “This trend not only encourages cultural exploration but also introduces consumers to unique flavors.

“Highlighted sweet flavors include horchata, churro and acai berries and savory flavors like gochujang, kimchi tahini and yuzu. These exotic flavors, originally introduced through sauces, dressings and condiments, provide an accessible entry point for consumers to experiment with new tastes and elevate basic foods into exciting culinary experiences.”

Webster said he believes the ube is emerging as a major trend. The tuberous root vegetable comes from the Philippines and has a vibrant purple color.

“With a subtle earthy, nutty and sweet flavor profile, and its trademark rich violet or lavender color, ube is fast becoming a mainstream ingredient in the culinary scene throughout the US,” he said. “Ube offers a multitude of applications ranging from savory dishes such as purple mashed potatoes, gnocchi and sauces to infusing a delightful twist into desserts and baked goods such as ice cream, cake, donuts, bread, muffins and pastries. Beverage applications for ube include lattes, cocktails, smoothies, milkshakes and bubble teas.”

McCormick & Company, Hunt Valley, Md., is betting on tamarind to become a major flavor this year. Tamarind is a spice native to Africa, India and the Middle East, yet has become associated with Latin, Caribbean and Mexican cuisines. It has an acidic, tangy-sweet flavor that complements sweet and savory foods.

To showcase tamarind’s versatility, McCormick worked with the Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer fast-casual chain to develop several limited-edition tamarind-infused menu items. They included a jam for a chicken burger, a seasoning for fries and a tamarind cocoa chile churro milkshake. The dessert beverage combines numerous flavor trends into one treat.

Flavor shock is fueling innovation

Older consumers tend to favor authentic ethnic dishes, according to Unilever Food Solutions, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Younger adults — namely Generation Z and millennials — are looking for flavor shock, which Unilever identified as a key trend in its Future Menus 2024 annual report. Flavor shock is characterized by unexpected flavor combinations and twists on classic dishes, such as incorporating Mexican sauces to create modern pastas, or using smoked, pickled or fermented add-ons to garnish a traditional dish.

“Think beyond fusion foods and third culture cuisine to different cultures bravely inspiring each other,” said Soumya Nair, global consumer research and insights director, Kerry, Beloit, Wis. “Think ‘intercultural collaboration.’ Examples include tikka sauce wings and za’atar wings, birria ramen, sashimi tostadas, tandoori masala pasta, wasabi or kimchi mashed potatoes, cheeseburger ravioli and Vietnamese po-boys. These uncharacteristic combinations are rising, and consumers are here for it.”

Flavor shock is becoming increasingly common on the menus of fast-food and quick-service restaurants, where global flavor twists are added to mainstay menu items as limited-time offerings. It’s also happening in Major League Baseball stadiums serviced by Chicago-based Levy.

Wrigley Field, home to the Chicago Cubs, sells an Argentina-inspired tri-tip sandwich that features ancho-marinated steak, charred red bell pepper, chimichurri, creamy horseradish and arugula piled onto a ciabatta roll. Fans of the Arizona Diamondbacks can dig into chicken tinga nachos with pickled red onions and jalapeños when visiting Chase Field.

Combining global and local

Regional global dishes also are gaining traction. Birria is an example. It complements the National Restaurant Association’s 2024 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast that identified “world soups and stews” as the No. 1 flavor trend going forward.

Birria is a Mexican dish from the state of Jalisco. It features meat marinated in adobo, then cooked and served in broth with tortillas. The traditional process takes longer than most commercial food manufacturers have time for, so companies such as Nu Products Seasoning Co., Oakland, NJ, have developed a birria blend that may be used in sous vide or other cook-in-bag applications.

“This year’s trends are dominated by consumer craving for comfort and community with a healthy side of curiosity influenced by social media,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the NRA.

Tin Drum Asian Kitchen, an Atlanta-based quick-service restaurant, for example, sells a fried chicken sandwich topped with yum yum sauce, a jalapeño drizzle and pickled ginger. Also on the menu is the Koreano Sandwich, which is chicken topped with gochujang pepper sauce, pickled carrot with daikon and sesame oil.

“Increasing globalization means flavor trends are crossing borders faster than ever,” said Edward Norder, head of Europe, Middle East and North Africa (EMENA) innovation, Olam Food Ingredients (OFI), London. “And thanks to social media, a local craze can turn into a worldwide phenomenon overnight. This is a big opportunity for food and beverage companies to get ahead.”

Relying on its innovation experts in key regional markets and AI-powered research, OFI predicts a greater fusion of Eastern and Western flavors in confectionery, bakery, beverages and snacks. The research, which used predictive analytics to scan online recipes, restaurant menus and e-commerce sites for budding trends before they hit the mainstream, found Asian flavors like dragon fruit, sesame, yuzu, lychee and miso are taking off in the United States and Europe, while Western flavors like butterscotch, marshmallow, salted caramel, and cookies and cream are becoming more popular in South Asian countries, including Indonesia and India.

Bringing it home

Retail brands want in on pleasing Gastronauts in the comfort of their home. Bob Evans Farms, New Albany, Ohio, a Post Holdings business unit, is going global with its new Wanderlish line of fully cooked refrigerated entrees. Described as a “tapestry of tastes,” Wanderlish comes in three varieties. The Middle Eastern-inspired chicken shawarma includes turmeric rice pilaf and cucumber yogurt sauce while the South African-inspired peri peri chicken has jollof rice and herbed yogurt sauce. The black garlic chicken draws inspiration from Thailand and contains coconut rice and tamarind sauce.

“Thoughtful explorers are a valuable consumer to bring to the heat-and-eat category,” said Andy Glick, culinary scientist at Bob Evans Farms. “They are younger, have high incomes and are willing to pay for quality. We are reinvigorating the home meal replacement category with affordable, yet exciting meals to discover and explore.”

The trend toward worldly, spicier flavors signifies a notable shift in consumer preferences, according to the culinary experts at Affinity Group, Charlotte, NC. They urge industry professionals to embrace the increasing demand for spicy flavors as an opportunity for innovation and collaboration to foster growth in the coming year.

Bridget McCall, vice president of culinary and innovation at Affinity Group, emphasized the trend underscores a broader culinary narrative where adventurous eaters are eager to explore diverse, vibrant flavors from around the globe. Balancing the heat while enhancing and diversifying flavor profiles is key to successfully navigating the trend.

“It’s not about adding heat for the sake of heat,” said Rebecca Gruwell, corporate chef at Affinity Group. “It’s about creating a balanced dish where the spice enhances, rather than overwhelms, the overall flavor.”

While heat and spicy are attributes most adults crave, historically the flavor sensations have been avoided by children’s food formulators. Even that is changing.

Shelf-stable baby and toddler food brand Serenity Kids, Austin, Texas, is launching a range of meal pouches inspired by international culinary dishes, including chicken coconut curry, chicken Mexican stew, chicken tikka masala, beef chimichurri, beef kebab and salmon teriyaki.

“Our new World Explorers collection allows little ones to go on a global journey of flavors in a fun, nutritious and convenient way,” said Serenity Carr, co-founder and CEO of Serenity Kids.