Woodland Foods, Gurnee, Ill., is under constant pressure to stay ahead of the trends while keeping such high-overhead ingredients as Himalayan red rice or chili threads fresh and in stock. The company stocks more than 1,000 dry natural ingredients that come from more than 50 countries.
"Each ingredient has a story, from its history, health benefit and nutritional value to its uses," says Aram Karapetian, national account manager and chef for the company. "Offering such a diverse array of gourmet and staple ingredients from so many ethnic culinary traditions allows us to act as a resource to the food processing industry." Karapetian points out that all Woodland Foods staff members are equipped with the knowledge and resources to aid and educate their customers.
"Key ethnic ingredients include mushrooms, chilies, beans, rice, grain, fruit, nuts and spices," Karapetian adds. He also sees exotic grains trending sharply up. "Our sales in quinoa are now at about 250,000 lb. per year and rapidly increasing."
Fruits and vegetables, too
Exotic fruits and vegetables also play key roles in Asian flavor trends. "Chinese has always been the most well-known and definitely still has the largest piece of the popularity pie," says Robert Schueller, director of communications at Melissa's World Variety Produce, Los Angeles. "But Japanese continues to make gains, as are Thai, Korean and Indian."
Schueller notes such retail ingredients as won ton and egg roll wrappers are hot sellers. So are kimchee (Korean spicy pickled cabbage), noodles (he mentions Yakisoba and Udon noodles especially), and dried Asian mushrooms, such as oyster and shiitake varieties. "Such essential staples increased in popularity by double digits just in the last year," he says.
Among trendy fruits, Schueller notes Korean pears and Korean mandarins and Indian mangoes (Alphonso and Kesar varieties). Key ingredients remain Indian turmeric and curry, lemon grass, Thai chilies, Thai eggplant and galangal.
Thai/Malaysian fruits are getting hot, says Schueller, pointing to sales growth of dragon fruit and mangosteen. "Dragon fruit sales have increased by more than double in just the last two years. And the same is true for the Korean pears. Korean mandarins are going to be big this year," he predicts.
Just think of the pioneering processors and importers who bought up shiploads of cupuaçu or those tart red and purple South American fruits açai and maqui berry a decade or so ago. They're counting their money now.
Processors can face some technological challenges when seeking to create formulations using exotic or unfamiliar ingredients or flavors. Ingredient companies that specialize in the field recognize this and often can help beyond simply supplying the tangible materials.
"Knowing how exotic ethnic ingredients perform when processed allows us to handle them so the final product fits the customer's vision as closely as possible," says Paul Suhre, Woodland's vice president of product strategy. "Woodland Foods works with its customers to simplify processing, creating ingredients and ingredient mixes to custom specifications."
Technical challenges often dovetail with issues of safety when dealing with imported exotics, too. "Industrial food processors are able to easily approve our ingredients for use because of our regimented Quality Assurance program, as well as our highly trained, experienced QA personnel," Suhre continues.
"We carefully vet our suppliers and adhere to industry best practices. We provide all primary regulatory documents for each of our ingredients. Product is carefully handled to ensure safety. Steps may include metal detection, gravity separation, air classification, de-stoning, sieving, magnets, heat treatment and conveyor inspection." Most ingredients are kosher approved and the facility is Organic- and HACCP-certified, and Gold Rated by Silliker Inc.
"Corporate chefs use our catalog of products as a painter would a palette of colors," adds Karapetian. "R&D departments use our offerings to fine-tune their recipes in keeping with their chefs' visions, while addressing cost efficiency, market appeal and appropriateness in production capabilities. Purchasing teams find great value in being able to procure many difficult-to-find ingredients from one established source."
The future for ethnic flavoring trends bodes well as access increases and familiarity broadens. "Consumers no longer have to reach far and wide for flavors from faraway lands," says Pamela Marcus, market and consumer insights lead for FONA International, Geneva, Ill. "Some of the flavors on the more novel end of the radar, which we are spotting in specialty consumer products such as jams, seasonings, sauces, functional beverages and bars are: baobab, sea buckthorn, cupuaçu, maqui berry, berbere and harissa."
FONA provides a full range of both ingredients and expertise for processors wanting to create home-grown flavors with ethnic roots. "Working with exotic flavors can be challenging — ideally we look to keep true to the authenticity and heritage of the region, while creating balance and mainstream appeal," says Adam Schowalter, senior food technologist at FONA.
FONA, too, provides technical know-how, as well. "Exotic spices and ingredients can cause obstacles for the product developer — this is why flavors are the ultimate go-to solution. Flavors provide consistent results and, ultimately, cost control. Providing our customers with new opportunities such as exotic profiles as well as flavors that pair well with them, we're able to assist in the challenges of working with novel ingredients."
The company stages a series of flavor classes each year, allowing clients and other processing innovators to brush up on the nuts and bolts of ingredient technology as well as the trends in sweet and savory flavors, both ethnic and mainstream.