Food trucks across the country are preparing for their busy summer season. Many will be back in business with improved regulations that allow on-board cooking and commercial vehicle parking in previously restricted areas.

Foodservice operators find these trucks to be foes, as they are competing for the same share of the lunch dollar. But supermarkets welcome consumers being exposed to new tastes, in particular the fusion of flavors associated with Filipino cuisine. Consumers experience this ethnic fare via mobile dining and then seek out meal solutions at the supermarket in order to bring the experience to their own kitchen table.

“Street foods such as fish balls and lumpia are a long-standing part of the Filipino food culture,” says Shane Maack, senior executive chef with Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings, Omaha, Neb. “Because these dishes are born from a street-food tradition, they are a perfect fit for the recent food-truck trend here in the United States.”

Filipino street foods deliver on several different fronts. “They have home-style appeal for the Filipino community and they tempt Americans’ ever-growing desire for exotic, genuine and authentic flavor combinations,” says Maack. “They also perfectly fit the growing demand for handheld, affordable and casual-dining options.”

The ethnic flavor trend

Ron Ratz, director of protein development with Wixon, St. Francis, Wis., confirms that Filipino food is all about fresh and flavorful, an ethnic trend that also addresses health and wellness. “Research suggests that within the next two to five years, Filipino food is going to move from food trucks and street vendors to quick-service and sit-down restaurant menus, as well as the retail prepared foods scene.”

Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods show, says that Filipino food is currently most predominant on the West Coast but is slowly moving across the country. And Chain Pulse Magazine called out Filipino foods as an ethnic food to watch in 2013 and beyond. Foodservice trend tracker Suzy Badaracoa, president of Culinary Tides, Tualatin, Ore., says Asian cuisine is shifting to more extreme and that Filipino food is at the forefront and seems to be getting traction.

According to new research from Chicago-based Mintel, young Americans and those with children like to spice things up in the kitchen. Some nine in 10 adults aged 25-to-34-years-old say they prepared ethnic food at home in the past month vs. only 68 percent of those 65-plus years of age. In addition, 91 percent of Americans with children under the age of 18 in the home cooked ethnic food compared to 78 percent of those without children.

“The ethnic food category has had a very strong performance during the recession, followed by a still positive but slightly lower growth trend, likely driven by a return to restaurants. However, the category is forecast to grow in the future due to its heightened popularity,” says John Frank, category manager with CPG food and drink at Mintel. “As Americans, especially younger people, have palates that are becoming more adventurous and sophisticated, they are also eager to explore lesser-known cuisines with unique flavor combinations.”

Ethnic food retail sales experienced solid yearly sales performance, especially during the recession, with an overall growth of 12 percent from 2007 to 2009; this performance was likely driven by a migration from restaurant eating to increased food-store purchases for at-home dining due to restricted budgets. However, sales increased by only 4.5 percent from 2010 to 2012, a much lower rate than what has been seen during the recession. Nevertheless, according to Mintel the ethnic food market is forecast to grow by 20.3 percent from 2012 to 2017, likely driven by continued consumer interest and more focused product development.

Defining Filipino flavors

The Philippines is a tropical country comprised of more than 7,000 islands in Southeast Asia. Although in the States its cuisine is not as well- known as that of its nearest neighbors – Thailand and Vietnam – it is one that is becoming increasingly popular because of its complex layering of bold flavors with fresh ingredients…and also thanks to those food trucks!

“This region, consisting of thousands of small islands, is blessed with an abundance of tropical fruits and vegetables, as well as ample fish. It has also been very successful for the farming of domesticated livestock,” says Nate Schomers, product development chef with Eatem Foods Co., Vineland, NJ. “Pineapple, coconut, jackfruit, palm nuts, tomatoes and bananas have become some of the most widely used flavoring ingredients in Filipino cuisine. Cassava, potatoes, yams and rice are the preferred starches for Filipino cooks.”

Filipino food is often described as the original fusion of flavors. Recipes tend to combine traditional Asian and European ingredients, and are often prepared with US flair.

“Filipino food is known for being flavor-forward, and because it is influenced by Chinese, Malaysian, Spanish and American culinary traditions, a wide range of spices are often prominent,” Maack says. “Flavors in Filipino dishes are layered and rely heavily on vegetables and fruits to build their complexity.

“Contrasting combinations of sweet and bitter; hot and salty or sour and savory are common in Filipino cuisine,” he adds. “Many fried street food dishes are paired with a contrasting sauce, usually vinegar-based, to add complexity and balance starchy and fatty flavors.”

Filipino cuisine is full of both interesting flavors and flavor applications. “For a famous traditional dish called lechón, suckling pigs or chickens are spit roasted after being rubbed or marinated with a variety of spices,” Maack says. “But more often, dishes rely on heavily spiced or fermented sauces, such as sofrito, a sauce of braised tomatoes with spices, garlic and other aromatics, to bring flavor to roasted meat.”

Animal proteins are the primary components of Filipino cuisine. The fusion of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices is balanced against hearty roasted, grilled and slow-cooked meats.

“Brining and marinating these proteins is part of the preparation process,” says Rachelle Phinney, culinary chef at Kalsec Inc., Kalamazoo, Mich. “The marinade typically includes the flavors of vinegar, sugar and soy sauce combined with multiple herbs and spices. Common ones include black pepper, lemongrass, garlic, bay leaves, citrus fruits, chili peppers and star anise.”

Adobo is a term often associated with Filipino food fare. It is a cooking process as well as a flavor profile, as it involves marinating protein in a sauce based on vinegar and seasonings, such as soy sauce, black pepper, garlic and bay leaves. The protein is then browned in oil and transferred back to the marinade for a lengthy simmering. The sauce gets reduced while the protein tenderizes. The stew-like mixture is typically served over a bed of rice or with another traditional starch.

“The slow-cooked large cuts of meats are very similar to American barbecue, Mexican Pibil, Puerto Rican Pernil and even German pot roasts,” Schomers says. “Often, large cuts are slowly and carefully cooked before being chopped, shredded, pulled or minced and added with sauce to accompany potatoes or rice with fruits and vegetables.

“Chilies are used in Filipino food, an ingredient introduced by the Spanish, but not as heavily as in other parts of Asia,” he adds. “For the most part, Filipino food is a ‘mild’ cuisine as far as the tactile capsaicin sensation.”

But, depending on the dish, some heat might make sense. Szechuan pepper extract complements the Filipino flavor profile, as it has a unique citrus and herbal aroma and flavor that is distinctly different from black, white and chili peppers, according to Phinney. “Its active ingredient – sanshools – delivers a tingling, numbing sensation in the mouth,” she says.

The company also offers additional heat-management ingredients that are designed to control the timing, intensity and palate location of heat delivery. “We have perfected the process of managing the amount and delivery of heat, isolating specific components from a wide variety of herbs, spices and vegetables,” Phinney says. “Each component adds a different element to how the heat is expressed. A marinade can be designed to provide a quick or lingering heat, or something in between.”

Retail solutions

The Filipino food scene is one that protein packers and processors can quickly become involved in thanks to flavorful solutions from suppliers. Sauces, marinades, rubs and seasoning blends are a great way to offer retail consumers the flavors of the Philippines.

“These could be packaged and sold on their own, or paired with fresh or frozen meats, such as meatballs, skewered chicken kabobs or sausages,” says Maack. “Some traditional street foods, such as siopao, a dish similar to Chinese steamed buns, could work as a frozen, spiced-meat stuffed dish.”

Ratz says there are an endless variety of ethnic flavor systems and seasonings, including dry blends for rubs, glazes and sauces, as well as custom flavor system formulations for injections and marinades and flavoring systems for ground, emulsified, whole- muscle meat and poultry applications.

Ramar Foods International, Pittsburg, Calif., is currently the leading producer of retail heat-and-eat Filipino food fare. The company’s frozen entrées embody this collaboration of flavors, ingredients and cooking techniques in order to bring the traditions and cuisine of the Philippines to US kitchens.

In addition to both a chicken and pork adobo entrée, the product line includes Chicken Sisig, which is shredded chicken flavored with malt vinegar, lemon and a special seasoning. This tangy meat is served over a bed of rice.

One of the line’s newest offerings is Chicken Empañadas. Building on the empañadas first made by Spanish settlers to the Philippines, Ramar Foods adds its own island twist with the addition of raisins, vegetables and an artful blend of enlivening spices, according to the company. Further, to perfect this flavor fusion for today’s health-conscious consumer, the company bakes the hand-held sandwich rather than employing the more traditional frying process.

There are so many opportunities for food manufacturers to jump on a Filipino food truck. “The ability to retort has given food manufacturers the time to accomplish once very time-consuming marinating and cooking processes in a fraction of the time. Sous vide cooking methods also mimic these longtime cooking methods,” Schomers says. “A large number of manufacturers are equipped to create ready-to-eat products that are vacuum sealed with sauce and meat components. The end-user need only to heat the bagged product to the desired serving temperature and serve over rice or cassava.

“The bold layers of flavors of Philippine cuisine lend themselves well to modern-day protein processing techniques,” he concludes.