Finding new niches of global inspiration

July 3, 2019

Exotic snack and dessert flavors emerge from within trending global cuisines.

Snacks and dessert go global

Operators are experimenting with new ingredients in snacks and desserts, borrowing exotic flavors from a global menu of culinary influences and putting their own spin on their creations. Ice cream in particular has been getting a global makeover as operators incorporate an array of global flavors and ingredients, including exotic fruits and spices, into their recipes.

“The idea that you can introduce spice into desserts is really interesting,” says Andrew Freeman, founder of consulting firm af&co. “It’s not making them savory; it’s giving them a pop and a flavor profile that they haven’t had before.”


Ice cream and booza

Ice cream has become an ideal vehicle for flavor and ingredient experimentation, and booza, a Middle Eastern variety of ice cream known for its elasticity, lends itself well to this concept. At Republic of Booza in New York, booza comes in a variety of global and experimental flavors.

Bun Mi Pandan Madelines

Coconut Pandan Madeleines

Bun Mi Vietnamese Grill gives the familiar French treat a Southeast Asian twist with the addition of pandan flavor — which also imparts the green coloring to its Coconut Pandan Madeleines. Pandan is a relatively common ingredient in some Asian cuisines, often compared to the use of vanilla in Western dessert recipes.

Ube Bars

Ube Milk Bars

The Bakery at Fat Rice in Chicago showcases the unique color of trending dessert ingredient ube, known as the purple yam, in its Ube Milk Bars. Ube is a popular starch in Filipino cuisines, commonly used in the halo-halo dessert.

Origami tempura ice cream

Adzuki beans

Adzuki beans are an Asian dessert flavor that often appears on shaved ice dishes or as a paste inside buns. Its presence on U.S. menus is limited, but has grown 33 percent in the last four years, according to Datassential. Origami Restaurant in Minneapolis offers green tea ice cream wrapped in pound cake and sweet adzuki beans, then dipped in tempura batter and fried.

Salt Straw Ice Cream

Avocado and Oaxacan Chocolate Fudge

West Coast ice cream chain Salt & Straw is known for seasonal and experimental gourmet ice cream flavors, including this avocado ice cream with swirls of Oaxacan chocolate fudge. Avocado has emerged as a trending ice cream flavor, appearing alone or in combination with Mexican chocolates and/or other tropical flavors.

As the appeal of globally influenced snack and dessert recipes continues to expand, chefs are discovering more exotic flavors and ingredients to experiment with and new ways to incorporate them into their menus.

“We are a global society now so there’s a lot more interest in being open to trying new spices and flavors,” says Andrew Freeman, founder of consulting firm af&co. “Every year there’s a new cuisine that’s taking off, and chefs are getting excited about it and trying it in new ways they haven’t tried before.”

Consumers have grown to appreciate the nuances of global cuisines that go well beyond their local Chinese, Indian or Mexican restaurants, he says. This is opening up new possibilities for chefs to get creative and experiment with new combinations, often pairing new ingredients with more familiar snacks and dessert forms such as ice cream and doughnuts.

Some globally inspired ingredients, such as matcha and passion fruit, have become much more mainstream in recent years, but others may be poised to have their day on U.S. dessert menus, observers say. Not surprisingly, some of the emerging dessert flavors that are gaining traction are from the same cuisines that have drawn increased interest from consumers — those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Latin America and the Middle East.

Ube adds color, versatility

Ube, known as the purple yam, has ridden the growing popularity of Filipino cooking to become a rising star on dessert menus. It also doesn’t hurt that it imparts an eye-catching, Instagram-worthy color to the dessert offerings in which it is featured.

“Ube is like this gift from the heavens because the color is so intense and beautiful, and it really makes an amazing baked good,” says Penny Stankiewicz, chef-instructor for pastry and baking arts at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York.

She says the “surprisingly nutty” flavor of ube lends itself well to both cakes and ice creams, for example.

“It’s super accessible as a flavor,” says Stankiewicz. “You don't need a degree to understand it.”

Ube, commonly used in the Filipino dessert called halo-halo, is in the “inception” stage, according to research firm Datassential, which found that its menu penetration has grown 75 percent since 2014. The firm projects that ube’s use as an ingredient will outpace the growth of 75 percent of all other ingredients on restaurant menus over the next four years.

Calamansi has depth of flavor

Another import from the Philippines is calamansi, an orange-kumquat hybrid that “needs to have a moment,” says Stankiewicz.

“It has a real depth of flavor, but a nice balance of acidity and sweetness,” she says.

Calamansi is currently being used in a variety of ways on restaurant menus, including in juice, soups, entrées and desserts, according to Datassential. Like ube, it is also in the “inception” stage and has also increased menu penetration by 75 percent since 2014. It is expected to outperform 80 percent of other ingredients on restaurant menus in the next four years.

Other exotic global flavors that could be on the rise:


Durian, known for its pungent aroma, is a highly popular fruit in China and other Asian countries. It could be poised for growth as a dessert ingredient, says Stankiewicz. She notes its use on the menu of trendy ice cream parlor Morgenstern’s in New York, where it appears in a Durian Banana flavor.

Its use as a menu ingredient, primarily in Asian restaurants, is up 36 percent in the last four years, according to Datassential, which predicts that it has an above average opportunity for continued growth.


Booza is not an exotic flavor but a type of ice cream from the Middle East that is made with sahlab (ground orchid root) and mastic (a plant-based resin) that give it a creamy, elastic quality that resists melting, although it is a frozen dairy product.

At Republic of Booza in Brooklyn, N.Y., it is used as a platform for a host of global flavors.

“Booza is an ideal vehicle for flavors of all sorts, and we wanted to bring it to the forefront of a cosmopolitan 21st century, using it to explore tastes from all over,” says co-founder Michael Sadler.

The menu is divided into three categories — Classic, Global and Experimental — “with the Global section offering authentic representations of flavors from around the world and the Experimental drawing inspiration from the global variety of flavors, though its adventurous combinations are anything but traditional,” he says.

Recent Experimental flavors have included Salted OREO, Rosemary Shortbread, Sour Cherry Mahlab, Chocolate-Orange Truffle and Spring Pea.

According to Datassential, 4 percent of customers have tried booza, and it is especially popular among Gen Z consumers, signaling its potential for future growth.


Widely used in some Southeast Asian countries, pandan — also known as screw pine leaf — may be on the rise in the U.S. in part because of its ability to impart a vivid green color to desserts, but also because of its association with Vietnamese cuisine, which has gained popularity through the growth of bahn mi sandwiches and pho, among other dishes.

Bun Mi Vietnamese Grill in Atlanta offers a Coconut Pandan Madeleine, a unique hybrid dessert that reflects both the French inspiration of the menu and popular Asian flavors, says Truc Mai, one of the owners.

“It's a cookie cake with a slightly dry texture similar to a biscuit or scone that pairs very well with Vietnamese coffee,” says Mai.

Nostalgic forms deliver new, exotic flavors

Observers say adding exotic flavors to desserts in familiar or nostalgic forms can be helpful in encouraging customer trial.

“Some people might be apprehensive about trying a new flavor, but pairing it with a food memory or a nostalgic memory of a food item helps people to accept it,” says Christine Couvelier, culinary trendologist at consulting firm Culinary Concierge.

House-made doughnuts, for example, are gaining traction among chefs, and are an ideal vehicle for global or exotic flavors, both sweet and savory, she says. Ice cream, particularly plant-based ice creams made with trending ingredients such as oat milk, are also well-suited as carriers of exotic flavors, as an increasing number of on-trend scoop shops are demonstrating.

Chefs have abundant opportunities to bring more exotic flavors to their snacks and dessert menus. Consumers have shown that they are ready to try them, and if these items are carefully crafted, and presented in the right forms, consumers will keep coming back for more.