Incorporating Thai in your food products: Fresh is the key
The learning curve may be longer for Thai than for Italian or Mexican, but if the popularity of pad thai is any indication, this cuisine is fit to be Thai-d.
Thai cuisine caught on because it is at once exotic, yet accessible. In large part, it relies on items that are pantry staples in most restaurant kitchens: garlic, lime, shallots, chilies and sugar. But it also employs fish sauce, curry paste, galangal and lemongrass — items that require more effort to hunt down (see, “Thai Up Loose Ingredient Ends,” below).Making the Mainstream Break
So, the same reasons we love Thai flavors may be the very ones holding it back from being more mainstream. Fish sauce is admittedly an acquired taste. Lemongrass, curry paste, even coconut milk require a paradigm shift of the taste buds. This may be the reason concept (chain) restaurants are slow to embrace Thai dishes. A survey of most chain restaurants shows nothing more adventurous from the Far East than Asian chicken salad, pot stickers and egg rolls, and not a drop of coconut milk can be found.
Out of McDonald’s Corp., Oak Brook, Ill; Wendy’s International Inc., Dublin, Ohio; and Hardee’s Food Systems, St. Louis, none have ventured past mandarin chicken salad. In October 2004, Subway, Milford, Conn., tested a Thai chicken sandwich that consisted of baked chicken strips and a Thai satay sauce. It was tested in 1,000 restaurants in Phoenix and New York state. According to public relations manager Kevin Kane, “It went OK, but there are no plans to do anything with it at this time.”
With its bright, clean flavors and reliance on fresh herbs and spices, Thai food is relatively light and healthy. Meat and chicken are used in small portions, almost as a garnish, and there’s an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, fish and noodles. It’s an amazingly exotic low-fat cuisine packed with nutrients. And this is exactly what attracts food companies.
Lipton, a division of Unilever Foodsolutions, Franklin Park, Ill., jumped into the game with its 230 calorie-3.5 g fat Thai Sesame Noodles, and Stouffer Foods Corp., Solon, Ohio, is betting health-conscious consumers will be attracted to its Chicken in Peanut Sauce and Lemongrass Chicken, introduced in its Spa Cuisine Classics line (part of the Lean Cuisine brand). Each weighs in under 280 calories with 7 g of fat.
|Items in Thai Kitchen's Noodle Cart line -- Pad Thai, Thai Peanut and Roasted Garlic -- cook in their own trays in 4 minutes.|
So how will food professionals continue to parlay Thai flavors into the American lifestyle? Thai Kitchen’s Ernest Wong says convenience is the key. He sees new Thai foods heading in a direction where things are easier for the consumer. And this is reflected in the company’s products.
The company is built on authentic Thai products made in Thailand with Thai ingredients. Fish sauce, curry paste and coconut milk are the foundation of the company. But in 2003, Thai Kitchen launched its Noodle Cart line consisting of Instant Thai Rice Noodles & Sauce. They are single-serving, portable noodles that cook in their own tray in 4 minutes. The line includes Pad Thai, Thai Peanut and Roasted Garlic.
For busy Americans where the drive-thru is almost a daily routine, accessibility and speed are the name of the game. This was what Sunrise Soya Foods had in mind when it launched its Pete’s Tofu 2 Go in 2002. These totable lunch-size meals in disposable containers are filled with tofu cubes and dipping sauces. The line includes Thai Tango, flavored tofu cubes with a mango-wasabi sauce.
According to McMillin, the phenomenon will continue to grow as consumers’ tolerance for heat goes up. “Heat is what’s making the Thai cuisine come on. People’s tolerance for heat, spice and flavor has gone up,” says McMillin.
However according to McDermott and Wong, that is one of the misconceptions about Thai food—that it is all hot. Some of it certainly is, but what’s more important is the balance of hot with sour, salty and sweet. According to McDermott, “Thais are not macho about spiciness — they want a balance.”— Jill Melton, M.S., R.D., was editor of Cooking Light magazine for 15 years. She is currently director of JGM LLC in Birmingham, Ala.
|THAI UP LOOSE INGREDIENT ENDS |
by Mike Pehanich
Many ingredients for Thai cuisine contain volatile oil components that may be lost with substitute ingredients. Dried ground versions of ginger root and garlic, for example, alter the subtle flavors of the originals.
“One quick, easy and cost-effective substitute is to use a spice or herb alternative,” advises Abe Sendros, marketing manager for McCormick & Company Inc., Hunt Valley, Md. (www.mccormick.com). He identifies McCormick’s FlavorSpice line as one such option. “The (FlavorSpice) line includes oleoresins and extracts from the natural herb or spice. There are no variances due to seasonal, varietal, or climatic changes. This allows for consistent, standardized flavor.”
The line includes garlic, coriander and ginger and is available in multiple concentrations and liquid and dry forms. They are designed for instant flavor release.
“Another solution to flavoring Thai cuisine is to use a flavor system,” he adds. “This can include flavors, spices, or seasoning blends.” McCormick’s Consumer Preferred Flavor Systems are custom flavor systems derived from coordinated work with customers. “The biggest benefit of using a flavor system is the ability to customize almost any flavor profile in an easy-to-use, consistent and cost-effective way.”
|Demand and Supply|
by Mike Pehanich
The growth in popularity of Asian foods in America puts pressure on suppliers of key ingredients.
“Three produce items comprise the âtrinity’ of Thai cuisine,” says Robert Schueller, spokesman for Melissa’s/World Variety Produce Inc., Los Angeles. “They are lemongrass, galanga root and kaffir lime leaves.”
Of the three, kaffir lime leaves may be the hardest to locate consistently. Nearly every home in tropical Thailand has a kaffir lime tree, but supply has been scarce in the United States. Schueller says Melissa’s is able to meet year-round demand. “Kaffir lime juice is used in cooking, but the important ingredient is the leaves,” he explains. “They are very aromatic.” There is no substitute for the intense citrus fragrance and superb taste of kaffir lime leaves, he says.
Melissa’s/World Variety Produce Inc., website: www.melissas.com, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, phone: (800) 588-0151.