Flavor mining

by Keith Nunes
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Demand for global flavors is pushing food and beverage companies to ramp up innovation efforts to capture and capitalize on the next chipotle or sriracha. Yet for every flavor success story there are quite a few not-so successful efforts.

But that has not hindered product developers. Growing demand for global flavors has sparked recent innovation at McCormick & Co., Inc., Sparks, Md., which recently said 44% of all U.S. flavor occasions involve cuisine-specific or ethnic fare. To meet the demand for ethnic fare, products launched by the company in the first half of 2014 included Hispanic seasoning blends and Indian Essentials. Beyond McCormick’s core platforms, the company also has introduced new items under its Zatarain’s and Thai Kitchen brands.

“We are seeing global cuisines having a large influence on local cuisines as well as in home preparation, and we believe that this interest in ethnic flavors is only going to get larger,” said Mervyn de Souza, Ph.D., general manager of biopharma and savory flavors for Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “The concept of think global and eat local comes to mind. People associate ethnic foods with being fresh and flavorful and bold. The way in which consumers think about ethnic foods has expanded from just Hispanic and Asian to more sophisticated cuisines like Peruvian, Middle Eastern, etc.”

In its recent “A look backward and forward” Culinary Trend Mapping Report, CCD Innovation, Emeryville, Calif., said Korean cuisine is “having a moment of sorts,” after being outshined by the big four of Asian food, namely Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese.

“Korea’s bold flavors, meat focus, and vegetarian-friendly offerings, along with its fondness for ferments and spicy sauces and pastes such as gochujang or red chili paste, have combined to make it a big hit with consumers in search of edgier, so-called ethnic tastes,” the report said. “The cuisine is also known for its chewy noodles, subtle soups and extensive side dishes, reflecting a rich culinary heritage from a country that has for centuries been influenced by its Japanese and Chinese neighbors.”

One company taking a deep dive into Korean flavors is Saffron Road, a business unit of the American Halal Company, Inc., Stamford, Conn. In early March, during the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif., the company launched a line of frozen entrees and tacos featuring Korean flavors.

The new line of frozen meals feature such varieties as beef bulgogi, bibimbop with beef, gochujang chicken and bibimbop with tofu. Flavors in the products include a gochujang sauce, which adds a blend of sweet, sour and spice to each bite, and a bulgogi sauce, which combines a sweet, smoky taste with the punchiness of ginger and garlic, according to the company. The line also incorporates a fruity, flavorful red pepper from Korea. Bibimbap is a mixed rice dish that features white rice topped with vegetables, meat or a fried egg.

“Saffron Road’s new Korean-style products are American cuisine at its best — each dish forges together diverse international flavors, spices and sauces from different corners of the globe to make something truly memorable and uniquely American.” said Jack Acree, executive vice-president.

The frozen tacos, including a Korean-style chicken taco and a Korean tofu taco, each feature vegetables and slaw in an organic corn tortilla. The product’s packaging is also distinct, with each coming in a taco truck-shaped package that the company said highlights their street food roots.

A month later Saffron Road added to its Korean-flavored offerings when it extended its line of chickpea snacks. The Korean BBQ crunchy chickpeas snack blends sweet and spicy flavors, according to the company. The chickpeas are flavored with a bulgogi marinade that features soy sauce, pear juice, sesame oil, garlic and red pepper. A second chickpea snack product introduced at the same time has a chipotle flavor.

“As consumers’ palates become more sophisticated, we believe these rich, global flavors will appeal to a wide variety of natural food consumers,” said Adnan Durrani, founder and chief executive officer. “Our crunchy chickpeas offer people a nutritious snack while also fulfilling their need for culinary exploration.”

Jean Shieh, marketing manager for biopharma and savory flavors for Sensient Flavors, noted gochujang is something the company has been watching.

“(It) is an emerging savory and pungent flavor that we identified as one of our 2014 trend flavors after seeing it on the menu at Roy’s as a broth for a spicy seafood hot pot,” she said. “It’s slightly sweet, fermented note on top of the red chili base makes it a hearty umami flavor for numerous flavor combination possibilities.”

She added that Korean kimchi has been a popular flavor in the past few years and is now being used widely in fusion restaurants as well as in several retail products ranging from cup noodles to seaweed snacks.

“Besides kimchi, Korean cuisine is also famous for its sweet and umami tastes —bulgogi and gochujang, are two great examples,” she said. “Bulgogi flavor would be perfect for meat marinates, meaty broth and sauces, but could also venture into savory snacks. For gochujang, our culinary experts have been using the flavor in BBQ sauce and glaze, and we’ve recently adventured into beverages …”

In its report, CCD Innovation recommended food service operators interested in introducing Korean flavors to their customers think beyond kimchi.

“Try pickled radish, baby bok choy crowns, turnip greens and carrot tops for fermented condiment fun in fast casual settings,” the report said. “Experiment with banchan, the small signature side dishes that accompany Korean meals, as a way to introduce Korean flavors to new diners.”

Finally, the trend researcher recommended combining unique ingredients in Korean cuisine with mainstream staples in the United States.

“Explore ‘mashups’ on the menu — hot dogs with kimchi, chicken wings with gochujang, mung bean pancakes, combining the familiar with the new,” the report said.

Looking elsewhere in Asia

Christine Keller, director of trend practice for CCD Innovation, said other Asian cuisines, such as Chinese, Japanese and even Thai, have become almost comfort foods in the American diet.

“Vietnamese food is moving along,” she said. “What is moving it is banh mi. Today, I can go to the local deli here and can get a hamburger or banh mi.”

She added that while the dish’s origins may be unknown, the product’s format is inviting.

“The blend of the flavors, the carrots and lemongrass, has a special touch, but it has the chicken and soft bread,” Ms. Keller said. “I think it has a lot of crossover potential.”

She added that when products reach the mainstream market, that’s when innovation really starts to occur.

“People are comfortable with it,” Ms. Keller said. “Then it will flip and people will start playing with it.”

Thai is at that point in the United States, Ms. Keller said. As an example, she cited a restaurant in New York City called Somtum Der, which specializes in flavors from Northeastern Thailand. While the dishes may be such mainstays of Thai cuisine as papaya salad, sticky rice, hot soups and grilled meats, the cuisine tends to lean toward the spicy side of the taste spectrum.

“Galangal, kaffir lime and lemongrass are commonly used in Asian dishes such as Thai Tom Kha Gai and Vietnamese Pho,” Ms. Shieh of Sensient Flavors said. “These flavors are now gaining popularity in the U.S. as consumers are interested in exploring them individually.”

Another component of Asian cuisine that is making inroads in the United States is seaweed. There are an estimated 6,000 to 9,000 species of seaweed around the world, but only a dozen have been explored in the edible realm, making “sea plants” an area rich for culinary exploration, according to CCD Innovation. The trends researcher recommends consumer packaged goods companies and chefs should consider looking beyond popular nori seaweed to lesser known varieties such as dulse, wakame and hijiki.

“It extends from Japanese nori,” Ms. Keller said. “It has a lot of umami flavors and consumers are taking note of that. It has ethnic roots and is moving into the mainstream in snacks. But the driver is 
its flavor and its health halo.”

Middle Eastern flavors

Ms. Keller called Middle Eastern cuisine “really interesting” and noted that CCD Innovation will be writing a report soon covering Persian food and Israeli food.

“Afghan foods are popping up in Whole Foods,” she said. “I saw a bolani with flatbread, pumpkin and a yogurt sauce. I also recently saw an Afghan dumpling at Whole Foods. They had both meat-filled and vegetarian.

“Afghan foods are interesting. They have the markings of coming up to be a trend. They are not quite there yet, but I think as consumers start to know them the more they will start to love them.”

Ms. Shieh added that Middle Eastern spices were identified as a trend by the company in 2013.

“Za’atar was one of Sensient’s 2013 trend flavors, and it is definitely still a trend this year,” she said. “We are seeing both sumac and za’atar being in seasoning for salads, light meat and seafood, but they are also in baked goods as well as tea.”

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