Saturday, August 14, 2010

Flavor Revolution and the Lychee Martini

So I'm out on happy hour in South Miami with two friends, one a school teacher, the other a human resources manager, and the teacher, after perusing the drink menu, orders a lychee martini. The cone-shaped glass comes topped with two pieces of the white lychee pulp impaled by a toothpick. Now there's a fruit you don't see everyday. And come to think of it, isn't it usually two olives on that toothpick? If I were a martini, I'd sure be having an identity crisis.

I remember first seeing the lychee fruit years ago on the exotic fruits stand at a farmers market. Lychee is a fruit that comes from China. It is round, about the size of a large red grape, but with a red, textured grind that covers its white, slippery, fleshy pulp. It is rich in vitamin C and flavonoids, providing the health benefits of those two nutrients. And it is a lot more mainstream now than when I first saw it in that farmers market.

Just like mango some years back, lychee seems to be the flavor du jour in frozen yogurt, ice cream and apparently, martinis. The idea might be that the super fruit cancels any ravages from the alcohol -- a toast to health.

But I think the lychee martini is more about an explosion of novelty flavors in all kinds of foods and drinks than about the health craze. Flavors have gone mad. It's as if every food and drink manufacturer now has a flavor wizard dedicated to concocting the next new flavor, one off the beaten path.

Some years ago I started seeing dulce de leche in ice creams and yogurts in the supermarket. Until then, dulce de leche had been this devilishly sweet, homemade cream, widely used by Argentinians, but scarcely used by anybody else. It consists of condensed milk that has been caramelized by heating it up in a bain-marie or double boiler. Argentinians use dulce de leche to accompany every desert. As such, dulce de leche in my mind belonged in the category of unique flavors you encounter in some homemade deserts. Becoming a Haagen-Dasz flavor took it out of that category forever.

And since then no flavor has been sacred anymore. All flavors are fair game for all kinds of foods and drinks. Within the past six months I've had blueberry beer and pear beer -- I thought it would be hard to improve on the flavor of beer but I was mistaken --  and I wrote a press release about a frozen yogurt store featuring green tea-flavored yogurt.

I once listened to a consumer expert predict that people would seek adventure and exotic experiences but within the safety and comfort of home -- something like a taste of the bold without the risks of the bold. I think the flavor explosion is tapping into that inclination. These new flavors can turn a bite, sip or slurp into a mini thrill.

Most recently I saw an announcement from Baskin Robbins saying the chain will reitre five existing flavors to make room for new ones. The five retiring flavors are french vanilla, caramel praline cheesecake, campfire s'mores, apple pie a la mode and superfudge truffle. The chain didn't say which new flavors will be substituting these, but I wouldn't be surprised if lychee and green tea are among them.

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