In early 2020, just before the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, the U.S. economy was at a record high, Americans were jetting all over the world, and we were supporting a very robust foodservice industry. Then, March came along and turned us on our theoretical heads. We were asked to hunker down in our homes, traveling came to a halt, and our favorite restaurants were shuttered or reduced to curbside. It felt like someone pushed the pause button on life. We found ourselves in a world that didn’t make sense, so it wasn’t surprising that comfort food became our normalcy. It gave us that little something that made us feel like we had a tiny bit of control on this ride. Food that was familiar and could nourish both our bodies and souls, like Mom’s mac & cheese or Grandma’s meatloaf, became our soft-landing spot.
Today, at the onset of 2021, we find ourselves with a new hope, a new year, and the promise of returning to normalcy with vaccines. But, unfortunately, a magic fairy’s wand didn’t touch the world at the stroke of 2021 and make it all as it was again. We still have a sluggish hangover from getting hit by an unseen villain, and life will not magically pick up exactly where we left off. As we hopefully begin to emerge from the pandemic’s shadow, there will be continued restrictions on travel and entertainment as we test our new safety net for holes.
Even as the light at the end of the tunnel comes more into focus, Americans will still be in need of comfort from our food, but that comfort will take a different form than Mom’s famous chicken soup. Americans love to explore new experiences. This is a freedom we perhaps once took for granted, and after a year of oppression, we will be craving the experiences that have been denied—but on a safe level. One way both of these desires can be satisfied is through the food we choose to eat. Food has the power to lead us to places we have been before and the ability to take us to places we want to go. Food is more powerful than simple fuel—it can deliver magic. This year, Americans will start traveling once again, only this time we will start to do it through our food.
Food is truly amazing. In the right setting and with masterful combination of spices, it can be more than just the mere medley of ingredients that make the dish. Food can take us places. Maybe it’s in the form of a “taste memory”—like in the moment when you are enjoying a margherita pizza and, for a split second, you are transported to the courtyard in Naples where you bit into a slice for the first time. Or it could be a “taste exploration”—where you visit new cultures through their traditional dishes like a Thai Panag curry made with warm roasted brown spices and coconut milk over basmati rice. Experiencing new dishes of a far-off place can mentally transport you from your quiet kitchen table to a bustling street market in South East Asia. More than ever, people are turning to food to help satisfy the desire to travel the world, or return to past destinations. To put it simply, if we can’t physically travel, we will travel through our meals.
International flavors will soar in 2021
For the reason just mentioned of traveling through what we eat, international ingredients and flavor profiles will remain a strong trend for the foreseeable future. Understanding and balancing the desire for safe normalcy born from the pandemic against the lost excitement from new experiences, it won’t be uncommon to gravitate towards a slightly “safe culinary exploration.” This can be achieved by adding a new flavor to a cuisine we are already familiar with. In other words, taking a deeper dive into new recipes of cuisines we have frequently cooked over the past few years can deliver a whole new level of excitement.
Delicious and easy cuisines to explore:
- American regional
- Authentic Mexican
- Southeast Asian
These four categories will offer the feeling of traveling through food yet deliver comfort with easily understood ingredients on a substrate known and loved by most Americans. An example could be replacing a standard ground beef taco with a shredded beef barbacoa—or instead of another familiar orange chicken takeout, experiment with the classic Thai dish called The Crying Tiger: a simple grilled steak with a wonderfully spicy sauce. The simple and fun little changes inside of a familiar cuisine can make for a new pleasant culinary adventure.
The biggest question for me, a person whose full-time job is to predict what other people will eat, isn’t “What’s coming next?”, but rather “How can we take advantage of this moment of disruption when behaviors are shifting and being challenged and still satisfy mixed desires for exploration while staying safe?” My answer to you is this: turn food into something that not only nourishes you, but takes you someplace new.