From fresh, bright, healthful fare to the exotic, with Pacific, African and Asian influences, ethnic and international foods seem to be everywhere. Specialty and international food aisles are increasing in supermarkets as consumers, especially millennials, want more interesting fare. Foods of the world are more popular now because international travel, immigration and global trade have skyrocketed, driving great interest globally in ethnic cuisine.
Obviously ethnic foods have been in the U.S. for years, but there are more modern takes on traditional favorites and emerging cuisines from Cuba, Greece, Peru, Ethiopia, India, Poland and beyond – as well as more local and region-specific cuisines from within those lands. Soon, Biryani (Indian seasoned rice, meat, fish or vegetables), Ropa Vieja (Cuban meat stew), Harissa Pargiyot (Israeli chicken kababs), Bulgogi (Korean beef) and Pastel de choclo (Peruvian meat and corn casserole) could appear in the frozen section.
In fact, U.S. retail sales of ethnic foods totaled nearly $11 billion in 2013, says statista.com, and the diverse category is primed to generate more than $12.5 billion by 2018. Most sales are generated by Mexican/Hispanic foods, with $1.6 billion followed by products with an Asian/Indian heritage.
More are on the way. Take Filipino favorite ube, for example. It's perhaps best known for its most instantly recognizable ingredient, the vibrant purple ube yam. The tuber is expected to begin cropping up in stores all over this year, according to The Food Channel, but it's probably something most folks in the U.S. have never eaten.
Filipino cuisine is hot right now, says The Food Channel, restaurant trend watchers and other foodies, so look for ube doughnuts, ice cream and cheesecake as these purple sweets begin to surface through the American food landscape. West Coast hot spots are already showcasing ube, which gives food a fun, natural shock of violet purple. Filipino food overall is expected to expand as people embrace Southeast Asian specialties.
According to research by the National Restaurant Assn., 88 percent of American consumers eat at least one ethnic item per month, while 17 percent eat seven or more. Nearly one-third of consumers tried a new ethnic cuisine in the past year. In fact, non-traditional ethnic cuisines have been on a roll in the past decade, says NRA, especially Brazilian/Argentinian and Korean foods.
Asian foods maintain their stronghold in the ethnic market. Wild Flavors and Specialty Ingredients, Erlanger, Ky., notes soaring growth in authentic ethnic flavor profiles and bold flavors in various Asian foods including Thai, Indian and Japanese. The company says Asian flavors will continue to abound in refrigerated/frozen meals, appetizers and snacks, as familiar ingredients such as wasabi, ginger and soy give way to cardamom, five-spice, fish sauce and lime. Consumers have become much more adventurous in food choices, the company notes, with increasing demand for Korea's bulgogi and kimchee and Vietnam's goi con and pho. Asian flavor profiles focus on achieving a balance of sweet, sour, salty, umami and spicy, often all in the same dish.
Bold Asian influences
PF Chang's Home Menu Meals frozen entrees from ConAgra Foods are inspired by those the restaurant chain makes in its China Bistros, although are not identical to them. The frozen products' similar bold, sophisticated flavors are approved by the restaurants, though the sauces, vegetables and proteins are different in flavor and ingredients.
Food processors are finding all sorts of creative ways to meet consumer wants for bold flavors while keeping healthfulness in mind. Spicy Asian condiments like gochujang will be slathered on meat, seafood and poultry as sauces, marinades and rubs, while other Southeast Asian, especially Malaysian, influences and spices from Peru like rocoto, aji amarilo and aji panca, paired with citrus fruits, will come into their own, according to the annual flavor predictions from McCormick & Co. Sambal sauce from Indonesia, made with chillies, rice vinegar and garlic, is another spicy find the Hunt Valley, Md. company has identified as an upcoming trend.
Lee Kum Kee has produced Chinese condiments and food products for years, but is now taking things a few steps further with more intense flavors and a bit of a twist. Its newest product, Sriracha Mayo, is a curiously spicy sauce with a creamy texture that can add a kick to sandwiches, wraps, tacos or as a dipping sauce.
"Building off the long-standing success of our Sriracha Chili Sauce, Sriracha Mayo combines traditional flavors of sriracha with the cool and creamy texture of mayo to create a spicy yet versatile condiment that is sure to become a staple, especially in Hawaii," notes Elaine Thai, director of marketing at Lee Kum Kee, City of Industry, Calif. The spicy flavor and mayonnaise smoothness give the sauce distinction when combined with other ingredients and as a marinade for chicken, meat and seafood dishes.