Emerging Asian influences

by Keith Nunes
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The challenge of exploring the opportunities available from any ethnic flavor trend is the possibility of being overwhelmed by possibilities. Asian flavor options, for example, extend across a vast expanse of countries and cultures, and present product development managers a wide array of options.

"People used to think of Asian food as just Chinese or Japanese food," said Debbie Carpenter, senior marketing manager of food service and industrial for Kikkoman Sales USA, Inc. "Now Americans are getting more excited about and paying more notice to Asia’s numerous regional cuisines.

"In fact, industry observers predict that the cuisines of Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia increasingly will be considered ‘standard’ Asian fare. Add Indian, possibly the hottest new star on the Asian scene, and you’ve got a full menu of exciting flavors for food product developers to tap into."

In a recent report, Technomic, Inc., Chicago, noted that one of the most significant ways food service operators may signal differentiation within their markets is to promote more regional ethnic cuisine with flavors specific to a certain country or area, such as Korean or Vietnamese instead of just "Asian."

"The increasing emphasis on the rich variety of regional cuisines also offers a range of tastes that are sophisticated and authentic," Ms. Carpenter said. "It’s no longer enough to tout a product as Chinese. It must be identified as Sichuan, Hunan, etc.

"Consumers who are well read or traveled now know that Thai curry sauces may be red, green or yellow, and that Indian cuisine is not monolithic, but comprises a rich variety of region-specific ingredients and cooking methods."

She added that Asian flavors may be bold and fiery, but also incorporate subtle notes of herbs and spices.

"Much skill goes into the way these flavors are balanced, so that many variations can be compounded from similar ingredients," she said. "For example, Thai curries may contain lemongrass, chilies, kaffir lime leaves or coconut milk — the selection and proportions of ingredients will determine the nature of the sauce."

Tim Tsao, vice-president of sales and marketing for Kahiki Foods, Inc., Gahanna, Ohio, said his company is seeing the regional trend emerging as well.

"We tend to see a lot of regional Asian cuisine, everything from the Philippines to Korea to Thai," he said. "Even in Chinese food there is differentiation, such as Szaua, Hong Kong and Hunan.

"We also see more sophisticated fusion out there, whether it is Roy’s or PF Chang’s, fusion is happening now at a different level. It is much more gourmet and consists of different styles of regional cuisine. Curry mixed with Korean grass noodles, for example."

Kahiki Foods’ products are sold in the frozen food section of retailers throughout the United States. Mr. Tsao said that in addition to the challenges of developing and promoting his company’s ethnic-oriented products in the mainstream marketplace, they also face the same challenges as other food manufacturers dealing with the issues of health and wellness, value and innovation.

"Our average consumers are a suburban household that lives outside a modest working town," he said. "They have kids above 6 years old and an income between $55,000 and $125,000. That is our sweet spot.

"The kids in those households are also important to us, because kids these days are exposed to diverse foods. Chinese or Japanese foods are showing up in more cafeterias and that gives kids a familiarity with the types of products we manufacture."

Deciding what products and flavors to bring to market requires a knowledge of demand from the different regions of the United States.

"We try to make the distinction of really what could fly on the mainstream level," Mr. Tsao said. "Lemongrass has been tested, but those flavors are quite nascent. Something like chicken fried rice, everyone has had it."

Under the Kahiki brand, the company sells a variety of traditional Asian products, including beef and broccoli, chicken fried rice and General Tso’s chicken. The company also has a line of products called Naturals that have no artificial additives, colors, preservatives and are minimally processed.

"The desire for authenticity is going to continue to grow," Ms. Carpenter said. "Americans are now exposed to really good, authentic ethnic food, and that’s what they expect.

"This search for authenticity and quality requires product developers to be on the lookout for the best flavor and quality when they source ingredients like soy sauce, curry sauces and other Asian staples."

Mr. Tsao said the emergence of health and wellness as an industry trend has had an affect on Kahiki’s business.

"Many consumers are paying attention to what they buy," he said. "That is one of the influences that has led natural and organic products to the mainstream. Trans fats, people ask if you have them? No, we don’t.

While consumers are increasing their demand for products with clean labels, Mr. Tsao said past perceptions have been a problem for the developers and sellers of Asian foods.

"One thing with Asian foods is the understanding of the healthfulness it provides has gotten so distorted and lost," he said, referring to media reports several years ago about the high calorie counts of food sold in Chinese restaurants. As a result, he said he finds himself educating consumers.

"We have done ethnography studies where we go into consumers’ homes and ask questions about their purchasing and eating habits," he said. "There is an impression that Asian foods are bad for you, that they are high in sugar and high in fats. While that is the case in some instances, there are alternatives."

To combat the perception, Mr. Tsao said Kahiki Foods highlights product attributes such as the fact products have no preservatives.

"That is a solid part of our product," he said. "We also have messaging about calories, using clean ingredients, and the fact we have a vegetable egg roll instead of it being a deep fried egg roll."

The essential elements of Thai

Key ingredients for developing Thai-influenced food items include:

Sweet

• Palm and coconut sugar

• Fresh fruit: bananas, citrus and pineapple

• Tamarind juice and paste

• Coconut milk

Sour

• Lemongrass

• Lime juice

• Kaffir lime leaf

• Tamarind juice and paste

Salty

• Fish sauce

• Oyster sauce

• Soy sauce

• Shrimp paste

• Fermented fish paste

Spicy

• Thai chiles

• Ginger and galangal

• Warm spices: cumin, coriander,

cinnamon and cloves

• Peppercorns: black, which, green and pink

•Thai chile sauce

Herbal/Aromatic

• Shallots

• Garlic

• Cilantro

• Thai basil

• Mint

• Tumeric

• Pandanus leaf

Source: ConAgra Food Ingredients’ FoodCast

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, March 31, 2009, starting on Page 21. Click
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