How Travel and Flavor Trends Intersect and Influence Each Other

By Suzy Badaracco, Foodable Industry Expert

Travel often acts as a courier to the food industry.  Simply put, consumers travel, experience the local cuisine, and return home - seeking to replicate their food experiences.

The most recent food trends exhibiting a courier birth from travel include the Nordic cuisine trend and the Asian flavor shift that has materialized. Arctic travel began in 2011 and continues in 2014 representing courage, adventure, excitement, isolation (signaling confidence), exploration, and shows consumers are making a turn away from crisis and towards recovery. Denmark, Norway, and Scandinavia are acting as co-poster children for travel and are also the leading ladies representing Nordic foods entering this country.  More isolated countries such as Iceland, Finland, Antarctica, Nepal, Siberia, Newfoundland and Labrador are also top destinations under the Arctic umbrella due to their exotic nature. Their appearance signals exploration and movement away from the familiar – a strong sign of an economic recovery.  Arctic travel is paralleling the swing back to more adventurous eating experiences and signals a return to individualism, risk taking, and leaving the pack.  It is a move away from fear.

The Effect on Food

This change is translated into food and flavors as more experimental and adventurous foods.  After birthing in travel, Arctic food made a splash in media with the opening of the restaurant Acme in New York City which came from Noma fame.  It then moved to the bar and cocktails scene with the launch of Bacardi’s Arctic berry rum.  It moved next to the family casual scene with the national launch of Arctic bowls by Joe’s Crab Shack.  Where it is strongest however is in the bakery category with the upper Midwest being home base.  Why? Because that is where the USA’s largest “Arctic” population calls home – Norwegian, Scandinavian, etc.

Intertwining Travel and Food Trends

The Asian flavor shift is related to travel trends. With the onset of economic recovery, Asian travel has shifted to more remote, lesser traveled regions of Asia. The shift is due to a rise in consumer confidence, risk taking, adventure seeking. Travel and food trends are shifting away from Thailand, Japan, and China and towards Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, and Philippines. The shift to more remote regions includes island travel. Island travel itself is expensive, remote, indulgent, and is frequented by people who have time and money to spend. It is not a recessionary behavior.  The shift in food and flavors first rose in the street food scene. From there it remained humble in the fast casual realm, before it moved to higher end restaurants.  The drink and cocktail category plays in this this trend as well. It shows up as coconut water and milk, makrut (kaffir) lime leaf, palm sugar, ginger, lemon grass, and the rise in chilies in the bar scene. This new direction began on the West Coast because of the demographic influence there. It jumped to the East Coast with the movement of chefs influencing the trend. Region specific ingredients and dishes are being heavily promoted by media, such as the Southeast Asian grass pandan, dhindo, dal, sriracha, kimchi, sambals, galangal, gochujan, and Bibimbap.

Will This Affect American Cuisine?

American consumers are not familiar with either of these cuisines as we do not have a large immigrant population from these regions. These travel trends are newborns compared to other more familiar regions, such as western Europe and parts of Mexico.  What this causes is a scattered, experimental food and flavor trend pattern that is more closely tied to the travel patterns, than to any historical ties to the region. The dishes and foods that tend to enter first are the regions or country’s national sweethearts.  These are the dishes which will be least threatening to American consumers and the best items to introduce consumers to these unfamiliar cuisines.  The best and most trusted translations of these cuisines are native chefs and travel experts from the regions.  To “Americanize” these foods would be a mistake and detract from their authenticity – something that is not expendable right now.