The New Wave of Ethnic Foods

Jan. 29, 2016
Foods of the world aren't just sauces and condiments, nor are they just Asian, Italian and Mexican. Manufacturers are striving to satisfy demand for the new and different with more regional favorites, added variety, spice and bold flavors.
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.

Purple haze

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.

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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.

"We have seen demand for ethnic foods increase significantly," confirms Rob Berry, general manager for U.S. mainstream, Central and South America at Lee Kum Kee. "Consumers (and millennials in particular) are culinary adventurers. They’ve been exposed to a diverse range of ethnic flavors, and are excited to experiment with new foods. With ethnic cuisine and condiments among the hottest new food trends for 2016, we’re continuing to unveil new products including more savory sauces to address these growing trends."

Campbell Soup, Camden, N.J., listed authentic Thai food − a step beyond traditional recipes − as one of its top food trends for 2016 in its annual Culinary TrendScape Report. Homestyle dishes found throughout Thailand, such as khao soy curry noodle soup, are hitting independent restaurants, say Campbell's network of chefs, bakers and culinary professionals. They also see creative ramen and Vietnamese pho dishes rising in popularity.

"Some of the trends are inspiration for the foods we make. They serve as a springboard for creative product development," states Thomas Griffiths, corporate master chef and vice president of Campbell’s Culinary & Baking Institute.

Last month, Nona Lim, Oakland, Calif., launched a new line of fresh refrigerated ramen noodles at the Winter Fancy Food show. The ramen noodles' freshness is what sets the restaurant-grade line apart. Available nationally are Hakata Ramen, which are pale and very thin so they cook quickly, the popular Tokyo Ramen and Whole Wheat Ramen, which has a California spin. All are vegan, free of dairy, gluten, preservatives and additives. The noodles can be cooked and served within 20 minutes.

The ramen noodles "empower home chefs to create truly gourmet ramen bowls,” explains founder Nona Lim. "We're excited to share the secret ingredient of ramen houses with the world because fresh ramen noodles make any ramen bowl thrillingly delicious."

Sweet heat, hot heat

Tropical Asian flavors can add a good-for-you twist to soups, stews, casseroles, meat dishes and side dishes. One example is Malaysian Rendang curry, a spice paste with mild heat, made from ginger, tamarind, coriander, turmeric, chillies and lemongrass, and flavorful herb blends of matcha, chia seeds, flaxseeds and turmeric.

"This year, we're launching 56 new consumer products inspired by McCormick's Flavor Forecast trends, and working with our customers across the food industry to help them do the same," says McCormick's executive chef Kevan Vetter. "We've been tracking the growth of 'heat,' and identifying upcoming spice flavors including chipotle, peri-peri and herissa. Our latest report shows the next wave of this trend is complemented by tang. Look for Southeast Asian sambal sauce to take kitchens by storm," he predicts.

It's no accident that Peruvian foods are beginning to surface in U.S. restaurants and grocery stores. There has been a push by Peru's government to promote the tart, rich and spicy national cuisine. NPR's The Salt says in the past decade, the Peruvian government has been very deliberately popularizing its cuisine worldwide in a strategy that other middle-income countries are adopting as they try to enter the international food arena.

Ceviche, a dish traditionally made with shrimp "cooked" in Peruvian lime juice, raw onions and chili, has been available throughout the U.S. in restaurants. Quinoa, which continues its run, apparently originated in the Andean region of Peru (and possibly Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia). What we know as amaranth began as kiwicha in Peru. The country also lays claim to aji amarillo chili peppers.

"Heat will remain on the rise, as millennials prefer spicy and exotic foods," says Kelli Heinz, director of marketing and industry affairs at Bell Flavors & Fragrances Inc., Northbrook, Ill. "Many spice enthusiasts have been searching for the next sriracha," she says. "Perhaps it will be gochujang [a spicy, pungent, fermented Korean chili condiment]."

The exotic influence of peppers is extending to the unexpected. Noosa Yoghurt, Bellvue, Colo., added a blackberry serrano flavor to its growing lineup, although distribution is limited to Colorado. Chobani recently added a sriracha mango variety to its Chobani Flip lowfat Greek yogurt line. The spicy yogurt has sriracha-coated rice crisps, mini sesame sticks and roasted, salted cashew pieces.

General Mills, Minneapolis, is even adding a spicy kick to Nature Valley granola bars with its January national launch of Sweet & Spicy Chili Dark Chocolate. Each 1.24-oz. bar is dipped in a chocolate flavored coating and mixed with dark chocolate chunks, nuts, seeds and the zip of cayenne pepper.

Authentic south-of-the-border flavors

Mexican foods have the largest segment of the ethnic market in the U.S., according to Mintel, at 62 percent. Latinos' purchasing power makes them a very important group for product developers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic population in America is projected to more than double in the next 40 years, from 55 million to an amazing 119 million. This will likely compel food companies to rethink product formulations that are more multicultural, accommodating the Latin American − not just the Mexican − market with food from more Latin cultures.

Technomic reports that Hispanic foods will reach a greater regionalization going forward, with items such as Venezuelan arepas (cornmeal patties stuffed or topped with savory fillings) and Chilean chacareros (round sandwiches filled with churrasco-style steak, green beans, tomato and chili peppers) appearing at restaurants and in special supermarket sections.

"This year's flavor discoveries will be about authenticity and seasonality, balanced by big global flavors consumers crave," Bell Flavors' Heinz points out. "And with the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. improving, consumers should see flavors from Havana, like green olive, guava, dark rum and sofrito," she says. "Global street food from Latin America, Mexico, Marrakech, Ho Chi Minh City and others will also come into light."

American Halal Co., Stamford, Conn., visualized new trends in Mexican, Indian, Asian, Mediterranean and other foods in its development of more authentic flavors for an expanding line of gourmet frozen entrees. The company added poblano chile peppers to its Saffron Road Chicken Poblano Enchiladas, one of its new gourmet frozen meal offerings.

Called "chile ancho" or wide chile, poblanos are mildly spicy green peppers that complement tender dark meat chicken rolled into authentic Yucatan nixtamal corn tortillas in the entree. Leafy spinach and a tasty oaxaca cheese plus mesquite black beans and garlic rice are included, as is chicken that the company says is humanely raised on a vegetarian diet without antibiotics.

Certified halal and gluten-free, the Chicken Poblano Enchiladas are one of many Saffron Road frozen varieties that cross several continents. Others incorporate Korean, Indian, Portuguese and Himalayan dishes.

"Our first product line of frozen Indian entrees was an instant success in many Whole Foods stores," notes CEO Adnan Durrani. "We’re thrilled our brand is now recognized ... as a premium choice in frozen antibiotic-free entrees."

Even J&J Snack Foods Corp., Pennsauken, N.J., is tapping this trend with another spin on its popular Oreo Churros. They're now available in a portable, poppable format with new Crème Filled Oreo Churros and Oreo Churros Crème Filled Bites. Made from Oreo cookie pieces stuffed with crème filling, the new treats were created for consumers on the go, and need no separate dipping sauce. The line extensions are available nationally in the frozen dessert sections of stores.

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