They sound like things you’d plant in your backyard and not in your mouth, but this summer you may find exotic ice creams filling your freezer.
Red hibiscus, cardamom kulfi, garlic, tomato and vegetable, lavender honey, rose-hip extract, saffron pistachio – wrap your taste buds around these ice-cream and sorbet flavors and you may never go back to plain-Jane vanilla again.
"Chocolate and vanilla just isn’t enough for them anymore," said Rohini Joshi, owner of Nuts About Ice Cream in Bethlehem, Pa. "People are more open-minded now. They want to experiment with different flavors. So if you can think of a flavor and the ingredients are available, we will make it for you.
"There are some people who eat nothing but rose hip!" she added.
Joshi treats customers as far away as Los Angeles with flavors like Hawaiian ginger, which one taster described as "creamy, crisp … surprising tiny bits of real ginger are in it to chew on and add zest"; tamarind, which another person called "soapy, shallow, disappointing"; and saffron pistachio, which an amateur testing group nearly universally approved.
"Intriguing," one woman raved of the mustard-colored confection. "Rich flavors, well blended."
"An unexpected contrast to the smoothness of the ice cream," another woman said of the saffron spice. "Very refreshing!"
"It’s a winner!" one man declared definitively.
So are exotic ice-cream flavors in general, which are starting to dot America’s ice-cream parlors like sprinkles on a double-scoop cone of Rocky Road. At Bedford, N.Y.’s Crème Cremaillere, the crème brulee ice cream outstrips even vanilla, selling all 1,000 pints they make a day, owner Bobbie Meyzen said.
In Madison, Wisc., adults who visit Chocolate Shop Ice Cream are dipping into the kid’s menu to scoop up neon-blue Blue Moon ice cream, which owner Dave Deadman described as tasting "like the milk after you eat a bowl of Froot Loops."
"You can tell the immediate reaction to the exotic concoctions by looking at their faces," Deadman said. "The reaction is either, ‘That’s unique, it’s amazing,’ or ‘It’s disgusting.’"
No one would know ice-cream trends better than Edy’s Grand Ice Cream’s professional taster John Harrison, a fourth-generation ice-cream man and the man who in 1983 developed the flavor Cookies & Cream, now the country’s fifth favorite. His taste buds, insured for $1 million, have sampled ice cream from every ice-cream plant in North and South America.
"I think people are eating out more, going to more boutique restaurants where they like to have something unique," he said by telephone during a research trip to St. Louis. "Also, your mom-and-pop stores cannot compete with Haagen Dazs, or Edy’s or Breyer’s or Dreamery, so more of them are going through concepts like rose hip to survive."
Actually, it’s more American’s blossoming interest in the sophisticated interplay of different flavors, according to Michel Platz, owner of Out of a Flower, a Dallas company that specializes in bloom-based sorbets.
"I think they’re just very, very intrigued by the combinations," he said. "While ginger, lime and parsley is one of the more exotic flavors out there, it’s also very popular, and I think people are looking for things like that. It brings a nice touch to their parties, and it’s very refreshing, the consistency is good and it’s natural and fresh."
To keep his frozen delights that way, Platz uses market-fresh fruits and greenhouse-fresh flowers to create popular items like rosemary ice cream and seasonal sorbets including yellow watermelon, snapdragons, pansies, pink grapefruit and tarragon and his favorite, mango margarine.
But not everyone’s buying it the idea of mixing flavors you’d normally associate with countries on different continents.
"I have to say some of the flavor pairings make me think they’re trying a bit too hard," one New Yorker said. "My brain gets confused tasting the rich chocolate in one selection, for instance, while at the same time thinking back to ginger chicken dish I had at a Chinese place the other night."
And though Harrison doubts the novelty of unusual ice creams will ever fade away, he said heavyweight flavors like chocolate, vanilla and butter pecan have nothing to break into a cold sweat over.
"Seldom do people buy a half gallon of rose-hip ice cream," he said. "When do you have exotic? When you’re at a restaurant. But you would not have that as something you’d bring home."
As for ice-cream maestro Joshi, even though she’s surrounded by eggnog ice cream during the Christmas season and red-white-and-blue mint-vanilla-and-cotton-candy ice cream on the Fourth of July, she confesses that her favorite is still as mundane as you can get.
"When it’s just coming out of the machine and it’s nice, fluffy and creamy, vanilla’s my favorite," she said. "With peanut-butter sauce on it."