CHICAGO — Attendees of the National Grocers Association’s 2022 NGA Show, the tradeshow for the independent supermarket industry held from Feb. 27 to March 1 in Las Vegas, were treated to culinary demonstrations focused on Latin fusion cuisine. The intent was to inspire independent retailers to set themselves apart from national brands by focusing on added-value meal solutions that address the cooking fatigue facing much of America as we enter a third year of the pandemic. Offering meat and poultry with authentic flavors from south of the US border is one way to keep consumers coming back for more.

“Latin American food has many different influences, including Indigenous, Spanish and African foodways,” according to Krista Linares, a registered dietitian of Cuban and Mexican descent based in Los Angeles who consults for the International Food Information Council, Washington, DC. “Additionally, Latin American food has a lot of diversity and regional variations. Food from the Caribbean area will have its own patterns compared with food from Mesoamerica or South America. Even within a country like Mexico, there are so many different styles of cuisine and dietary patterns.”

Alyssa Hangartner, Mintel, said, “Mexican cuisine is by far the most consumed Latin cuisine, reflecting not only availability but also its profound influence on US food culture. The mainstreaming of Mexican cuisine is nearing ubiquity, yet there is still room for Latin cuisine growth. The widespread popularity of Mexican cuisine suggests that there are similar opportunities for other Latin cuisines, as well as brand exploration with regional Mexican cuisines, especially beyond foodservice menus.

“A mix of both traditional and Latin inspired-options will be necessary from brands and operators to fulfill the needs of the total market, but in any case, authentic ingredients and flavors will be essential to connect with both Hispanic and non-Hispanic consumers,” Hangartner said. “Hispanic consumers expect authenticity from brands, yet non-Hispanic consumers seek convenient ways (foodservice, for example) to experience real Latin foods, flavors and ingredients too.”

This presents a great deal of opportunity for meat and poultry marketers to get creative with offering value-added products at the retail level. This may come in the form of fully cooked, heat-and-eat refrigerated entrées or maybe a prepared “entrée of the day” offered through the full-service deli department. It may also be a meal kit, pre-packaged or one compiled by the store’s chef. While it is simple to just slather a protein in marinade or coat it with seasoning, using identifiable whole food ingredients adds a culinary touch that may command a premium.

Such value-added meat and poultry remained very popular in 2021, according to the 2022 Power of Meat study.

“Twenty-six percent of shoppers buy them frequently,” said Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics, San Antonio, Texas, who conducted the research on behalf of the North American Meat Institute and FMI – The Food Industry Association. “Saving time is the biggest purchase driver (28%), closely followed by the superior flavor (22%) and something different (22%).”

Many marketers are taking this concept of value-added meat and poultry to the next level by offering complete entrées in the freezer. For consumers who want to experiment with different cuisines in an authentic way, frozen is often the best choice.

Today’s consumers recognize that frozen foods save time. There’s no sourcing of exotic ingredients, nor any chopping, peeling or prepping. Manufactured properly, a flash freezing process locks in nutrition and peak freshness. This leads to foods staying fresher, longer, which means less food waste and better value.

Frozen food sales were up 21% in 2021 and remain strong, according to the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association, Harrisburg, Pa. These increased sales are attributed to manufacturers innovating to align their products with today’s consumer dining habits and health trends, along with an insatiable appetite to explore the world through their tastebuds.

Culinary inspiration

Research shows that consumers’ evolving palates and experiences are resulting in a deeper engagement with Latin cuisines, according to “Regional and International Flavors and Ingredients-US, November 2020,” from T. Hasegawa USA Inc., Cerritos, Calif. More than a third of consumers expressed interest in trying Oaxacan, Peruvian, Brazilian and Argentinian cuisine.

“Foodservice remains the primary path to purchase for many Latin flavors, but it may be a sign of the times that suggest retailers and brands can narrow the gap, especially in prepared offerings,” according to the T. Hasegawa report. “Quick scratch solutions can offer customizability with less time investment and include less-familiar ingredients, especially as consumers try to hold on to some pandemic habits. Easy-to-use Latin sauces and seasonings that cut down on time preparing meals and make authentic flavor profiles and ingredients accessible can keep consumers engaged when planning and preparing meals at home.”

Marketers are heeding consumers’ calls for not only more complex flavor profiles and nuanced pepper varietals that deliver heat but also filling the need for easy solutions to help them elevate at-home cooking, according to a Lightspeed/Mintel survey conducted in April 2021. Of the 837 consumers surveyed who feel comfortable cooking with Latin flavors at home, four in 10 prefer Latin flavors that are spicy, a statistic that remains consistent across generational and ethnic groups. Chili peppers that generate the strongest interest aren’t super hot, but instead deliver dynamic and complex flavor profiles. That is something that chefs at the 2022 NGA Show communicated in their cooking demonstrations.

Ramon Guzmán, executive chef at Chica Restaurant in Las Vegas, prepared one of the top-selling dishes on the menu: slow-roasted Cheshire pork porchetta.

“The pork belly is brined overnight in order to breakdown the protein,” Guzmán said. “It is then roasted for 45 minutes to an hour. The authentic flavor comes from the sauce, which is a seasoned plantain purée.”

Guzmán explained that many people think Latin American cuisine is all about spices and peppers, when in reality, what makes a dish authentic is the careful selection of vegetables. In this case, it’s the sweet flavor of the roasted plantains. The spices he adds to the plantain purée combine the tastes of Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisine and include coriander, thyme, garlic, shallots, and “lots of turmeric,” he said.

The dish is referred to as “escabeche,” which suggests an acidic sauce skewing towards citrus or fermented flavors. Thus, he garnishes the entrée with pickled onions. Chili pepper heat is not part of the taste profile.

Some of the most foundational ingredients across Latin America are beans, corn, rice, squash, tomatoes and peppers, according to Linares. Plantains are a staple in Caribbean countries like Puerto Rico and Cuba, as well as in southern Mexico. Potatoes, on the other hand, are a major staple in Peru and other parts of South America.

All of these whole food ingredients contribute flavor to the meat and poultry entrée, while adding nutrition in the form of fiber, vitamins and minerals. They are as important as spices to authenticate a recipe.

Sauces are one of the most important elements in Latin cooking and are generally made from produce like chili, tomato and onion, or avocado, according to Linares. Vegetables are also used as flavorful and crunchy garnishes. For example, curtido is a fermented cabbage slaw that is popular in Central America, while pickled onions are popular in the Dominican Republic.

Many dishes are cooked with a vegetable base called sofrito or recaito, according to Linares. One version of this base consists of bell peppers, tomato, onion and garlic.

Minneapolis-based Chef Amalia Moreno-Damgaard, a Guatemalan-born award-winning author and chef who has developed recipes for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture/Minnesota Beef Council, Michael Foods and a long list of brands and retailers, showed NGA attendees how to make one of her favorite Guatemalan dishes, pepian.

“Pepian is one of five staple Mayan stews,” Moreno-Damgaard said. “The sauce must contain pumpkin and sesame seeds, while the protein is usually chicken or duck.”

It mixes the country’s Mayan and Spanish heritage into one vibrant dish featuring a very exotic sauce, she said. The sauce requires the roasting of all the vegetables (tomatoes, garlic and onion) and seeds in order to bring out their flavors. They then get blended with chicken stock.

“Add some achiote for color,” Moreno-Damgaard said. “It comes in a pod or as a paste and provides a desirable red/orange color.”

Achiote is extracted from the seeds of the evergreen Bixa orellana shrub. It is commonly used in the manufacture of chorizo and smoked meats. The main purpose of adding achiote is for color, as it has no discernable flavor. When used in larger amounts, it may impart an earthy, peppery flavor with a hint of bitterness. Achiote seeds by themselves have a slightly floral or peppermint scent. A little goes a long way, and for discriminating taste buds, it’s the key to delivering authentic flavor in many Latin American dishes.

Here’s another trick to add that layer of flavor for authenticity. To thicken the sauce, Moreno-Damgaard adds mashed tortillas that have been soaking in water and then reduces the sauce over heat to the desired consistency. The final extra for Moreno-Damgaard is a touch of canela (Mexican cinnamon).

Moreno-Damgaard’s pepian used braised duck as the protein and it was served with Yukon gold potatoes, also a contributor to the overall flavor profile of the dish. However, the signature flavor comes from the complex sauce.

Staying authentic

While Latin cuisines often have shared flavor profiles and ingredients, they are not interchangeable. But a positive experience with an ingredient or flavor can influence trial and exploration of new dishes, and that’s just what retailers need to strive for in the increasing competitive omni-channel marketplace.

To accelerate the mainstreaming of many Latin cuisines and to help consumers put these foods in the consideration set more frequently, brands will have to position foods to align with contemporary trends that younger adults embrace, which includes health that is derived by nutrient density and plant-based options, according to Mintel research.

It’s such types of innovation at the store level that keeps shoppers loyal. Retailers that have the facilities to hire a chef to cook ready meals from scratch on a daily basis were encouraged to do so by the National Grocers Association (NGA), Arlington, Va.

“Retailers are operating in a marketplace where the shopping experience is evolving quickly based on the impact of society, technology, economics, environment and policy,” said Greg Ferrara, president and chief executive officer of NGA. “This new content challenged retailers to look at how innovation can help them continually improve for today and build new capabilities they will need tomorrow.”

In 2019, 27% of shoppers were loyal to independent grocers, said Thom Blischok, chairman and CEO of Dialogic Group, based in Phoenix. In 2021, that number jumped to 33%. Blischok attributes this relationship to the trust formed during the pandemic when grocers ensured customers they could feed their families.

“Independents have the most loyal consumers in the market but also the greatest challenge of losing those customers if they don’t do things right,” Blischok said.

Part of doing things right, according to T. Hasegawa, is communicating authenticity in innovation. This can take several forms: highlighting indigenous ingredients, using nuanced regional cuisines, making connections between emerging cuisines, dishes and ingredients to similar mainstream ones and tapping into genuine street foods in packaged product innovation or menu development. Merchandising displays showcasing these meals – have them be freshly prepared in house, or pre-packaged refrigerated or frozen – are critical to attracting shoppers.