Home cooks and professional chefs alike clamor for ingredients that punctuate their culinary creations—deep, penetrating and complex flavors that transcend the everyday experience and satisfy a hunger for the fascinating. Whether these tastes of the unusual were introduced via the influx of immigrants from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent—or via chefs traveling further afield to more exotic locations and bringing the strange and wondrous to restaurants or popular food shows—today’s consumers want the rare, the storied, the exotic, the elusive and, of course, the delicious.

“To help brands enhance consumer demand for fresh, new flavors that carry a healthy halo, too—like green tea, avocado, ginger and other veggie-centric flavors—delivery systems are available to include nutritional and functional components,” notes Kristy Ruhland, a food scientist in Minneapolis. “Adding omega-3, fiber, protein or even flavor enhancers to bakery, snacks and frozen entrees of all types can increase a product’s attraction while providing a combination of cost-efficiency, ease-of-use with no required refrigeration, extended shelf-stability and, most importantly, the desired flavor profile in the finished product.”
Fortunately, today’s marketplace has been fueled by this persistent curiosity, inspiring chefs and buyers to bring luxurious ingredients, once available only to the privileged few, to the table. And, global flavors are teeming into the U.S. via more than herbs and spices. Fruits and nuts also are playing a significant part in opening the American palate.

Pine Nuts
Pine nuts (sometimes called pignoli) are experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Cultivated for more than 6,000 years, they are considered one of the most lavish and expensive nuts (botanically, they actually are a seed) in the world. However, they also are intensely flavored, allowing them to be used more sparingly than other nuts. There are about 20 different pine nut-producing varieties in the world harvested for commercial use.
The U.S. is one of the biggest importers, and 75% of imported pine nuts are of  the Pinus koraiensis (Korean pine nut) variety grown primarily in northeast China, as well as Russia and Korea. These are the triangle-shaped, buttery, strong-flavored versions with which most consumers are familiar. Lately, smaller, sweeter varieties have been coming into the U.S. from sources in Italy and the Middle East. Although pine nuts are renowned for their decadence, the reason they are so expensive has more to do with the laborious method of processing them and bringing them to market than their opulent appeal.

Although pine nuts from Asia are the most familiar, the rise in popularity has more to do with the fascination surrounding Mediterranean-inspired food. Many European countries, such as Italy and Greece, have a rich tradition of using pine nuts in their cuisine. The Pinus pinea (Mediterranean pine nut) variety is the type used most traditionally in Europe. These nuts tend to be much more expensive than their Asian counterparts. They are easily identified by their long and narrow shape, as well as their subtle flavor and slightly less oil-rich mouthfeel. 
Pine nuts are full of healthy monounsaturated fat and pinolenic acid, which has been shown in studies to reduce cholesterol levels, encourage weight loss, help with vessel elasticity and increase blood circulation. Because of these health benefits, they are used as a way to add richness to a dish without making the meal unhealthy.

Toasting the nuts brings out the natural sweetness and provides an additional depth of flavor. Toasting encourages rancidity, so it should only be done at the last stage of production or mixed with other ingredients that will encourage preserving the flavor. Most notably, pine nuts are a key ingredient in many versions of pesto. They also are used to add substantial appeal to salads and to crown fantastically satisfying baked goods. Additionally, the pressed oil or pulverized nuts can be used in recipes to add flavor and improve the nutritional profile at a lower cost, because lower-grade nuts can be used.
Food makers using pine nuts should be aware that the high oil content, especially in the Asian varieties, causes them to go rancid more rapidly. Also, some pine nuts imported from China have been implicated in a condition causing a sharp, metallic taste to persist for days after ingesting. Although not life-threatening and self-resolving, it has been investigated—with the most likely explanation pointing to processing methods.

Goji Berries
Goji berries (also known as wolfberries) have been used for centuries in China, India and Tibet. They’re prized in Eastern medicine as a remedy for a broad variety of afflictions, including heart disease, cancer, eye conditions, diabetes, immune disorders and insomnia. Peer-reviewed studies are ongoing; what is known is they are rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals, especially iron and zinc, vitamin C, and zeaxanthin, lutein and other carotenoids. Goji berries are extremely nutrient dense, which has pushed them to the front edge of the superfood trend.
Goji berries have a subtle flavor often described as including hints of raspberry, date and cranberry, with slightly astringent notes. They are also being used to flavor various beverages, including sports beverages, juice cocktails, herbal tea and even alcohol-based spirits. Goji berries pair well with more intense sweet-and-sour ingredients, such as cherries and blueberries. They have found recent popularity as components of trail mixes. Goji berries can be poached in sweeter juices to intensify the flavor before adding to salads or breakfast cereal, such as oatmeal. In this manner, they also have potential for use in baked items containing fruit fillings.

Ghost Chilies
The term “ghost chili” is a direct translation of its primary name used in the state of Assam, in Northeastern India: Bhut Jolokia. Once declared the most searing, naturally occurring chili pepper in the world, it is said the name derived because it scared ghosts away, or that anyone who ate it turned into a ghost.

To go along with their smoky, slightly dusky flavor, ghost chilies can have a Scoville heat rating of 1 million units plus—more than 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce and 200 times hotter than a jalapeño. Scoville ratings were originally derived by subjectively assessing how many units of sugar water needed to be added to a unit of chili before the chili flavor was no longer detectable. Today, high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) is used. This method measures capsaicin levels in American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) units. ASTA units are then converted mathematically to Scoville units, since Scoville is the historic standard.

Although there is no argument ghost chilies are frighteningly hot, the reality is that actual Scoville ratings can range from habanero-like 250,000 Scoville heat units up to the aforementioned 1 million. Moreover, heat levels in different crops from the same region can vary dramatically. This can be a challenge for food manufacturers concerned with those astute consumers able to detect the difference between swelteringly hot and blisteringly incendiary.

Ghost chilies have enjoyed an astonishing rise in popularity during the past two years. Manufacturers must be careful in finding a balance between the peppers’ penetrating heat and alluring natural flavor. It is used instead of Scotch bonnet to bring traditional jerk seasoning to another level of heat and flavor; pickled and put in giardinara; added to wing and hot sauces; and even used as an infusion in vodka. With the popularity of insanely hot food in today’s market, ghost chilies make for an easy extension into many existing product lines.

Star Anise
Star Anise (Illium verum) is the fruit of an evergreen tree and another Asian ingredient with a tradition of use as medicine (as a diuretic, an immune system booster, to treat asthma and insomnia, and to promote vitality), as well as a food ingredient. Star anise contains anethole, the compound that is responsible for its anise flavor, although star anise and regular anise are not related botanically. Star anise also contains shikimic acid, the primary compound in the pharmaceutical drug Tamiflu, used to combat influenza. Since shortages of star anise pushed prices high and put a burden on Tamiflu production during the swine flu outbreak, scientist have figured out how to make a synthetic version of shikimic acid, which should help stabilize star anise pricing.

A key constituent of Chinese five-spice powder, star anise is used commonly as an Asian flavor for meats, broths, rice and even bakery items. Star anise is a favorite flavorant for Asian-inspired soups, used to accent desserts and add a layer of flavor to roasted meat dishes, as well as a component of traditional Indian biryani (rice) dishes, Vietnamese phô and alcohol beverages, such as Pernod and Galliano. Star anise dovetails well with other sweet spices, sugar, citrus and even stone fruit, to lend an exotic quality—particularly when integrated into traditional “red cooking,” where food is deeply browned with the help of caramelization and dark sauce bases, such as soy. Most of the flavor from star anise is extracted from the pod itself as opposed to its seeds.

Star anise is harvested from cultivated trees in China, between the months of March and May, from trees that can often yield the pods for over 100 years. They start out as magenta-colored flowers; the pods are exposed when the flowers die off. Pods are harvested just before ripening. Due to the manual labor involved and fairly unsophisticated method of harvesting it, foreign material is an issue that needs to be overcome when aspiring to include star anise for commercial applications. For this reason, many manufacturers will either pay a premium to have product meticulously cleaned or will select powder or oil instead of whole pods.

The increasing demand for the finest ingredients with unique flavors is fueling the need to bridge the razor-thin gap between quality and cost-effectiveness. The most important step for food and beverage developers searching the outlying regions of flavoring is to select trusted suppliers with a comprehensive and intimate understanding of the market and maintain direct contact with the regions where the ingredient is cultivated. Guided delivery from field to lab provides consistency and quality, and it ensures the consumer’s fascination with rare and exotic ingredients is both stimulated and satisfied.  pf