Years ago, ethnic ingredients for the American consumer meant tomato sauce, maybe basil and garlic and pasta. Flash forward a few decades and ethnic foods are so much a part of our national pantry a divide is actually increasing between ethnic foods and ethnic-style foods, and both categories are growing.
Ethnic cuisine is all about fresh, authentic and the traditional; ethnic-style uses the tastes of ethnic foods on foods characteristic of a host cuisine in order to expand it.
Consumer demand for Southeast Asian flavors such as sriracha garlic chili sauce, shows familiarity way past soy sauce.
According to ACNielsen (www.acnielsen.com), Chicago, the most popular new frozen ethnic entrees remain Asian and Hispanic -- no surprise -- echoing the restaurant trends of years 2000-2002. As food trends mature, they go mainstream, with fast food, frozen and prepared products taking on the popularity of yesterday's dining-out trends.
Total retail sales (excluding Wal-Mart) of Asian foods rose by 4.5 percent, to $1.1billion for the 52 weeks ended Nov. 4, 2006. Sales of Mexican foods continued a four-year upward trend to reach $3.2 billion, up 3.5 percent from the previous year.
However, the star within Asian foods (Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean) has become two-item frozen entrées. That segment has been on a four-year roll that culminated in a 21 percent sales gain in 2006 to almost $88 million. That category has more than doubled in size since 2002.
Same story in the Mexican category, where growth of the two-item frozen entrée eclipsed all others, increasing 36 percent, to more than $30 million in the last year (these are still relatively new categories).
"Although a modest part of Asian and Mexican offerings overall, the popularity of frozen ethnic entrées suggests they play a growing role in ethnic, and even non-ethnic, households as convenient packaged foods that make meals easy to assemble and prepare," says a spokesperson for ACNielsen. The largest contributor to Asian sales continues to be one-food frozen entrees, which edged down 1.6 percent to $379 million in 2006.
A study by Business Insights (www.businessinsights.com), London, compared ethnic flavor trends. Although Asian flavors made up the majority of ethnic-flavored items, its share, as a percentage share of new products launched, dropped from 43 percent to about 39 percent between 2004 and 2006. The difference between the two time frames is small, but German and Slavic flavors gained 3.5 percent, and Indian flavors gained about 1 percent. It should be noted this is the British point of view, and the U.K. trends as more accepting of new flavors than the U.S.
According to Business Insights, "Southern European flavors will take a much larger share of total ethnic product launches over the next three to five years as consumers become increasingly health-conscious and consequently interested in the Mediterranean diet, which is associated with longevity and optimum health. Products such as olive oil, salad, fish and bread will benefit from this positive reputation."
Hummus, the Middle-eastern dip made of chickpea and sesame, is becoming an ingredient in chips (or "crisps"), and its flavors include the span of Indian, Thai, Japanese and other flavors. London has a heavily ethnic population, and curry is a major food influence. U.S.-based companies view the U.K. as a trend setter, but usually don't act on its influences right away. Yet the past few years have seen geometric increase of flavored snack chips hit the market, including ethnic-influenced flavors.
Americans have developed a familiarity with tortillas that extends beyond tacos.
On the Mexican side, tortillas remain the most popular product. While the population of Hispanic residents increased by around 15 percent in the past five years, sales of tortillas doubled in the same time frame, reaching $1 billion in the 2006 period. Mexican salsas and sauces ran a close second at $945 million, up 2.8 percent from the previous year. The Tortilla Industry Assn. notes that tortilla sales are catching up to white bread sales in this country.
In a telling mix of ethnic influences, Tumaro's Gourmet Tortillas and Snacks, Hollywood, Calif., was among the first tortilla processors to manufacture certified-kosher tortillas. The company also offers such multicultural tortilla flavors as pineapple-banana and garlic-pesto.
As a means of transferring a plate meal to hand-held, the tortilla has gone beyond Mexican and Spanish-American specialty to the now-ubiquitous wrap. Mission Foods (www.missionfoodsfsc.com), Oldsmar, Fla., introduced a no trans fat tortilla, sold primarily to the restaurant industry. The company supplies flour tortillas, corn tortillas, wraps, multigrain tortillas and low-carb tortillas with extra fiber. Another company, Azteca (www.aztecafoods.com), Summit-Argo, Ill. has specialized in low- to zero-fat flour tortillas and salad bowls, baked or fried.
Ingredients for tortillas and taco chips have been of special interest to Cargill Co.'s (www.cargillcornmilling.com) dry corn milling group, with production facilities in Paris, Ill., and Indianapolis. For those interested in pursuing a whole-grain health claim, the line of whole-grain corn products under Cargill's Innovasure line (identity preserved) includes a wide variety of textures, grinds and colors, both white and yellow.
A cultural mix
Flavors can add ethnic authenticity, suggest healthiness or introduce a new facet to old favorites. J.R. Simplot (www.simplotfoods.com), Boise, Idaho, sees ethnic flavors as a way to keep Americans eating everyday foods. Simplot is heavily associated with potatoes, and executive chef Mark Hill notes ethnic recipes don't have to be authentic to be a hit with American palates.
In addition to boxed meal kits, most revolving around rice noodles, Thai Kitchen offers Thai ingredients for the home cook.
Hill encourages chefs to take a few ingredients from various ethnic dishes and experiment with them or combine them. "Americans love potatoes," he says. "I can take the flavors of Thailand and add them to a potato -- you don't really see potatoes in Thailand, but you can rub them with (spices) and give them a Thai flavor. The best way to introduce (ethnic) flavors is to take products familiar to the typical American palate and incorporate the flavors of the world."
Hill further recommends keeping the french fry on the plate via ethnic influences. Says the potato maven, "Olives, herbes de Provence, Moroccan spices, pesto -- all the components of the Mediterranean flavor palette are being called into play by chefs to create hot new french fry plates. Add a reduction of balsamic vinegar (as a) drizzle for thin cut fries. A tapenade sauce incorporates artichokes and capers with Asiago and parsley-dusted fries. Meanwhile, Gorgonzola is the cheese of choice on the fries at the Palomino restaurant chain. On a more upscale note, 750 ml, a restaurant in Portland, Ore., has a hit on its hands with its truffle-scented french fries."
According to Givaudan Inc. (www.givaudan.com), Cincinnati, tomorrow's flavors can be described by the concept the company calls "Wonderlands," It is "marked by consumer exploration and the desire for new experiences. From 360-degree stimulation through the ethnic and exotic, Wonderlands tests the limits and challenges the norms with the unconventional and unexpected."
"Every region around the world has a different way of looking at the market and interpreting it, but the trends are essentially the same," says Jennifer Weyland, global marketing manager for Givaudan. "What is different is the way these are manifested in different markets."
At Kikkoman USA, the flavor and ingredient company, the San Francisco division has been hard at work looking at "future foods" with clearly Asian components. One such suggestion from its chef is a sushi chip. According to Kikkoman USA's product development department, "Innovative sushi combinations are the norm; seaweed, wasabi, and eel have become familiar flavors that could also lend themselves to sushi chip applications. They expand the healthy image of sushi with brown rice or mixed-grain sushi chips, may be flavored with chili pepper, lemongrass, turmeric or coriander."
Panko breadcrumbs are larger and crispier crumbs that originated in Japanese cooking.
Another traditional Japanese ingredient that has moved boldly into American culture is panko. Panko breadcrumbs are larger and crispier crumbs. They started out in high-end restaurants and were introduced as a retail item in 2005. One popular brand, manufactured by Prestige Panko and offered in the U.S. by Hydroblend Inc. (www.hydroblendinc.com), Nampa, Idaho, is showing up as coating for fish of all kinds, stuffed chicken breasts and all kinds of shellfish.
The crumbs, which have been popular in the American pantry for only a few years, continue to offer more textures and colors, and are used in a growing number of products, both authentic and "styled." Sales are still at the starting gate, but the combination of versatility and familiarity could bode well for the few companies supplying them in the U.S.
Mediterranean still big
While flavors are an important part of ingredient procurement, things change when products go from the hot restaurant phase to the mainstream as processed and packaged food items. The main ingredients once selected for freshness, novelty and optimum quality must add to their parameters consistency, both of quality and availability.
The need to find ingredients that are as fresh and high quality but available just-in-time can be daunting. For example, the unabated Mediterranean trend calls for a number of products, such as olives in all forms, anchovies, basil, vegetables (including eggplant and okra, as well as standard tomatoes and garlic) lamb and seafood. A major specialty-cum-commodity is olive oil. U.S. consumers purchase 65 million gallons of olive oil annually, most of it from Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia, Israel and other Mediterranean countries.
As olive oil became a key ingredient for many of the "new" ethnic products, the U.S. food sector looked for a better, more dependable source. In the 1990s, California had little olive oil production. Growers were unable to compete with cheaper foreign oil. They turned their attention to table olives, most destined for canning.
But with the rise of health consciousness and gourmet food culture, California growers looked to olives as a new cash crop. Approximately 7,500 acres are now planted strictly for olive oil production in the state. California Olive Ranch (www.californiaoliveranch.com), Oroville, Calif., is the first North American producer to plant a super high-density olive orchard. Despite a disappointing crop in 2006, olive oil from California has won numerous awards for flavor, and the new culture of the crops promises a consistent supply of good olive oil.
When moving a food from strictly local, prepared-fresh phase to a larger playing field, such as a frozen, refrigerated or heat-processed food, it's important to recognize how much variability can be introduced via ingredient purchase. Good specifications and close temperature and time processes become vital. Specifications should describe both the ingredient you want and the ingredient that is possible. Set the limits with care, make sure they are measurable and strict enough to provide real information on every batch and understand the testing procedures and their results. Ask for a pre-shipment analysis (it may require an additional fee if not part of the original contract) or pre-shipment sample, if you wish to test in-house.