Food Manufacturers are Diving Deeper Into Ethnic Foods

Ethnic flavors are expected to trend heavily this year, and they won't be the same old enchilada.

By David Phillips, Technical Editor

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How many bottles of Gochujang sauce are in your pantry?

While it may not be the ketchup or even the sriracha sauce of 2015, several food processors and ingredient suppliers are working to introduce the term into the Western lexicon. It's symbolic of the deeper dive American consumers are taking in ethnic foods, looking for more adventure, more spice, more authenticity and specificity in the products they buy.

"Consumers are looking for that authentic quality food, not Korean or Asian food with a U.S. spin on taste," says John Han, head of corporate marketing & planning for Korean-based CJ Foods, which is the parent of Annie Chun's. "That's why we're introducing items like Bibigo Gochujang sauce -- a savory and pungent fermented Korean condiment made from red chili, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and salt, which is used in many traditional Korean dishes."

Gochujang spice blend also was part of the Ethnic Inspirations Collection of spices and other ingredients introduced late last year by spice supplier Fuchs North America. The line builds on the traditional elements of several national cuisines while adding some unique twists.

"Gochujang is the sauce you want for your wings," reads the headline of one story suggesting party food for Super Bowl Sunday. But at this point, gochujang seems to be exclusively a sauce or spice mix – a quick internet search turned up no gochujang chicken frozen entrees. Which is fine because sauces are an easy way for home cooks to look like a MasterChef.

Regionally specific Asian

Ethnic foods have been part of Americana since the idea of Americana came about, but over the years ethnic foods have evolved. Today ethnic foods are more pervasive than ever, when you consider that potato chips are as likely to be flavored with smoky chipotle pepper as sour cream and chives.

Asian foods in particular are becoming more specialized and more region-specific. "It used to be just Italian and Mexican, but consumer tastes have expanded and now they want not only country specific ethnic foods, but also regional," says Elaine Thai, director of marketing for Lee Kum Kee, City of Industry, Calif. "For example, we have seen increasing demand for Chinese cuisines from not only the Canton and Szechuan regions, but also Beijing and Shanghai."

"There is endless debate over just how many culinary styles there are [in Asia]," adds Howard Cantor, corporate research chef at Fuchs North America, Baltimore. "Each of them developed over the centuries as a result of many factors like geography, climate and the social history of the various regions. China alone has at least four or five major styles of cuisine."

That Fuchs Ethnic Inspirations Collection is meant to "celebrate the world's rich culinary diversity," the company says. They draw heavily on regional Asian as well as African and Latin American inspirations. In addition to Gochujang Seasoning, the new products are: African Barbecue Marinade, Kashmiri Lamb Seasoning, Mojo Dressing Base, Pho Base, Piri-Piri Chicken Rub, Ramen Soup Base and South American Black Sauce.

In addition to owning Annie Chun's, which has been making Asian foods for American consumers since 1992, CJ Foods also owns the Bibigo brand, a line of Korean dishes based on the company's successful restaurant concept that has locations in Korea, Europe and Southern California. Han agrees that consumer interest in Asian foods has broadened and focused on more specific cuisines.

"In the past, Chinese and Japanese were trending," he says. "Now it is Thai, Vietnamese and Korean. Korean food especially has grown in popularity as Korean companies like Samsung and Hyundai have influenced U.S. consumers in terms of creating awareness and interest in Korea. As a result, this has trickled down to interest in other categories, such as Korean food through foodservice and packaged foods as well."

Han also notes a built-in advantage of Asian foods. "Asian food is generally very healthy," he says. "Not only in terms of less of bad stuff, but also through the food's nutritional balance and fresh ingredients. So with greater consumer awareness for better-for-you items, our brands have experienced growth."

Fermented ingredients are key for attaining rich umami notes and complex flavors, and food processors may go through some trial and error in balancing those flavors, Han says.

Fuchs North America describes its new line of ingredients as a starting point from which custom proprietary blends can be created. The company says it is ready to help food formulators find their own distinctive flavors.

According to Patrick Laughlin, director of marketing for Fuchs, the process the company uses to develop new seasonings, mixes and flavors involves a good deal of innovation through experimentation.

"We're continually focused on evolving consumer taste preferences, but we also experiment with many combinations of flavors," Laughlin notes. "We want to help our food manufacturing customers lead the way when it comes to new taste sensations -- to be distinct, not just like everyone else."

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