Pizza Hut's new crust, topping and sauce options include global flavors.

CHICAGO — Pizza Hut’s recent introduction of new crust, topping and sauce options introduced mainstream America to a new world of flavor combinations. The beloved pizza pie, which not too long ago pushed borders with pineapple topping, now may come with ethnic such twists as curry crust, honey sriracha sauce and Mediterranean black olive topping.  

The chain’s tactic is simple. By adding ethnic flavors, spices and seasonings to everyday dishes, consumers find comfort in the familiar and are more willing to explore new flavors they might otherwise be hesitant to try.

Fifty-three percent of consumers are seeking bolder flavors, according to David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md. Whereas some consumer segments, namely millennials, are willing to explore news foods and formats, older consumers may be reluctant. By applying the bolder, typically ethnic flavors to domestic dishes, culinologists may bridge the gap from the familiar to the exotic.

“Getting consumers to try something new can be difficult,” said Charlie Baggs, executive chef and owner of Charlie Baggs Inc., Chicago. “When it is attached to something that is familiar, then all of a sudden that item becomes less foreign, such as curry ketchup and chipotle ranch dressing.”

Jean Shieh, marketing manager-savory flavors, Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Ill., agreed that condiments with an ethnic touch, such as barbecue sauce with gochujang flavor, may be the savory update that keeps today’s consumers interested.

“Hot dogs, hamburgers and french fries are great vehicles for pairing with ethnic condiment creations,” she said.

For example, the company created an Argentine chimichurri sauce for hot dogs and a Mexican mole mayo for sliders. Both bring an ethnic twist that compliments the meat.

Condiments are a convenient way for consumers and chefs to add ethnic flair to ordinary foods.

“Diced, fire-roasted tomatoes and vegetables can serve as a base for numerous ethnic condiments,” said Siva Subramanian, vice-president-innovation and quality, Olam Spices & Vegetable Ingredients, Fresno, Calif., “from Mexican salsas to Indian chutneys to Mediterranean hummus.”

Sometimes the ethnic twist is subtle, maybe even indistinguishable yet differentiating.

“Fish sauce can be very potent in authentic Asian dishes,” said Jim Reynolds, director of research and development for Charlie Baggs. “But when it is added at a low level to a non-Asian food, for example something as simple as a couscous side dish, it adds a unique savory twist by providing umami taste without the powerful fish flavor.”

In other instances, consumers are looking for full-blown authentic flavors.

“Using the right combination of spices and herbs plays a key role in achieving the perfect flavor notes,” said Jill McKeague, market development manager, Kalsec, Kalamazoo, Mich. “Consumers are moving away from just straight-heat flavor to more complex flavor profiles.

“Many ethnic cuisines include toasted spices, fresh herbs and specific chili varietals. Adding these ingredients to everyday dishes gives them new life.”

Culinologists must keep in mind that ethnic flavors have become so much more than simply “Asian” and “Mexican.”

“Culinologists are getting inspiration from specific regions,” Ms. Shieh said.

Examples include Oaxacan mole poblano sauce with guajillo chili pepper and Sapporo ramen soup with rich, fatty miso broth.

John True, food scientist, director of regulatory compliance, Integrative Flavors, Michigan City, Ind., said, “We expect to see more fusion cuisine as chefs learn to combine regional and international flavors to create new tastes. Some of the easiest foods to infuse with new flavor combinations are soups, pastas, burgers, breads and sandwiches.”

Most of the time, recipes only require small adjustments to accommodate intense, bold ethnic flavors.

Comfort Foods like macaroni and cheese make for a nice base because they often contain fat or richness that pairs well with heat and savory spices.

Comfortably exploring new flavors

The fusion of unfamiliar flavors in everyday foods is stronger than it has ever been, according to Lisa Stern, vice-president of sales and marketing for LifeSpice Ingredients, Chicago.

“Mainstream dishes are being combined with a variety of ethnic flavors to create trendy comfort foods,” she said. “For example, ranch seasoning can be jazzed up with wasabi for an Asian take, poblanos for a Mexican twist or aji amarillo for Peruvian flare. These flavors work topically on potato chips, mixed nuts or the increasingly popular category of bean and chickpea snacks.”

The seasoning may also come to dinner.

“Combined with Greek yogurt, ethnic-inspired ranch seasoning can provide a new flavor dimension to a bowl of mixed greens,” Ms. Stern said. “Even better, it can be mixed into sides like mashed potatoes and mac and cheese.”

Such comfort foods make for a nice base, because they often contain fat or richness that pairs well with heat and savory spices.

“Richness can tone down some of the pungency sometimes found in ethnic cuisines,” said Christopher Warsow, corporate executive chef, Bell Flavors & Fragrances, Northbrook, Ill.

“Many comfort foods are blank slates for spicing up,” he said. “They can take on a ton of flavor without losing the base origin. Familiarity with unfamiliarity is how you ease consumers into exotic ethnic flavor.”

Pizza’s potential

Pizza Hut is showing us that pizza is an ideal canvas for exotic ingredients.  You can add ethnic flavors to one or all of the four possible layers—the crust, the sauce, the cheese and the toppings. Think cheese-less pizza with teriyaki chicken, sweet pineapple and a drizzle of soy sauce.

“For a Mexican twist, use queso blanco,” Ms. Stern said. “Top it with roasted corn and a sprinkle of dry, crushed chipotles. Go Middle Eastern with a warm spiced lamb sausage crumble, feta cheese and a drizzle of honey.”

The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (W.M.M.B.), Madison, Wis., offers many ethnically inspired pizza suggestions. Most recently the organization developed a recipe for Thai peanut pizza, which has a soy and sriracha peanut butter sauce and is topped with Monterey Jack cheese, shredded veggies and chopped peanuts. There’s also a recipe for Oriental stir-fry pizza. The sauce is peanut satay and the cheese is hot pepper Monterey Jack. It’s loaded with all the veggies you would find in stir fry, from snow peas and baby corn ears to celery and pepper strips.

Because Greek is the word for so many these days, the W.M.M.B. developed a Parthenon vegetarian pizza that uses hummus, feta cheese, black olives and Greek seasonings. There’s also a fiesta pizza that uses refried beans as the sauce. Queso blanco is the cheese and toppings include salsa, chopped peppers and chiles.


A chile for every cuisine

Few ingredients may highlight a food like the wide range of flavor and heat profiles found in varietal chile peppers, according to Michael Swenson, director of business development, Sensient Natural Ingredients, Turlock, Calif.

“From spicy to bitter to sweet to savory, chile peppers span the flavor wheel,” he said.

There are more than 2,000 varietal chiles used in cuisines around the world.

“Reaching deep into our Asian sources, we have identified some great hot red chile types like Byadgi and Devanur deluxe,” Mr. Swenson said. “From our South American growers, we source milder, sweeter varietals such as mirasol and panca.”

Bell Flavor and Fragrances recently introduced a line of sweet to fiery-hot pepper flavors to add spice to any taste profile.

“With one in four people throughout the world eating chile peppers daily, we see a growing captivation with the range of flavors and heat that chile peppers deliver,” said Kelli Heinz, director of marketing and industry affairs. “In the U.S., we see many embracing exciting new varieties, such as the aji amarillo from Peru, which has more fruity notes, or the guajillo from Mexico, which has more sweet and smoky notes.”

Chile peppers range in heat levels. The guajillo and aji panca have the least amount of heat on the Scoville scale, while the bhut jolokia, also known as the ghost pepper, is recognized as the hottest pepper in the world.

Using some of the varietals, along with other flavorful ingredients, make it possible to turn common everyday foods into a new cuisine.

“For example, our Moroccan harissa blend has a rich, savory flavor profile one might expect to find as a dry rub for lamb,” Mr. Swenson said. “But we have found it also goes well on snacks, in dips and on wings.”


Fly away to another country

From quick-service menus to retail freezers, wings are everywhere. They also happen to be one of the most versatile foods around, according to Paul Rockwell, executive R&D chef with Diversified Foods & Seasonings Inc., Mandeville, La., who agreed that wings are a great food to showcase pepper varietals as well as all types of ethnic seasonings.

“Some pepper ingredients can be inconsistent in their heat levels,” he said. “So we will standardize our wing marinades with capsicum oleoresin to ensure uniform heat and flavor.”

Nestor Ramirez, division chef with Sensient Natural Ingredients, said, “Every culture has a trademark type of sauce that can be modified and used as a glaze for chicken wings. And every culture has a sub culture that loves the burn of chile heat, so why not use regional chiles to create those types of regionally authentic wing sauces? For example, use teja chiles for Indian wings and a blend of ancho and guajillo for al pastor style.”

“The  chicken wing is a great vehicle for experimentation,” Mr. Warsow said. “We have done a Korean-style bulgolgi sauce and a sweet and fiery wing glaze based on gochujang paste. Fermented foods are big right now, and wings are a great delivery vehicle for fermented flavors.”

Sausages are another food that is easy to jazz up.

“Sausages are familiar and exotic at the same time,” Mr. Ramirez said. “Imagine a bratwurst sausage with black garlic instead of ground garlic, or chorizo made with harissa instead of ancho and guajillo peppers.”

Ms. Stern said, “A single sausage meat blend can easily transform into a variety of products with a simple change of a well-balanced seasoning blend. The trick is to ensure that the spices, flavors and enhancers work together with the meat blend. For example, some acidic ingredients may need to be encapsulated in order to not break down the proteins in the meat.”


Innovative applications

The melding of domestic foods with ethnic flavors does not stop with the main course.

“Apple pie has long been served with a slice of cheddar cheese,” said Jean Heimann, culinary scientist with LifeSpice. “That cheddar could contain chipotle peppers. And New York-style cheesecake, well, how about giving it a Chinatown twist with some matcha?”

Matcha is the finely milled green tea powder made from premium green tea leaves. Its traditional use is in Japanese tea ceremonies, but is fast becoming popular as an ingredient—in sweet and savory foods—for its healthy antioxidants as well as its fresh and herbaceous taste, according to Rona Tison, senior vice-president-corporate relations, Ito En (North America) Inc., New York.

“Innovative matcha applications range from dips and dressings to cheesecake and chocolate chip cookies,” she said. “It’s great in all types of dairy, including milk, ice cream and even pudding.”

Indeed, the mild flavor of dairy foods presents an attractive canvas for an array of ethnic flavors. This includes ice cream.

“Hispanic cultures use authentic spices, cheeses and vegetables as fundamental culinary ingredients,” said Azeem Mateen, marketing manager-sweet flavors at Sensient Flavors. “Why not put them into ice cream?”

Sensient developed an elote-flavored ice cream that is grilled sweet corn-flavored ice cream with sweet corn kernel pieces, swirled with a blend of parmesan, cilantro, chile powder and lime for an authentic Mexican taste.

Protein-centric foods are gaining notoriety among all consumer segments and this is driving flavor innovation in snacking cheeses such as mozzarella string and cheddar cubes. According to Bruce Armstrong, research and development manager-proteins at LifeSpice, the cheeses are an ideal base for innovative flavor combinations.

“Yes, or course, chile peppers go great in cheese, but we’ve made some great snacking cheeses with candied ginger particulates and blood orange-infused chipotles,” he said. 

Even something as simple as chicken noodle or tomato soup may take on new life with the addition of lime and serrano peppers, according to Tim Gordon, research and development technologist at LifeSpice.

Mr. Rockwell said, “You can give chicken noodle soup an Asian spin by using rice vermicelli instead of egg noodles and adding some Asian spices such as lemongrass, ginger or anise. Traditional tomato soup can take a Moroccan twist with the addition of roasted peppers, olive oil, garlic and spices such as caraway and coriander—similar to harissa but in soup form.”

The world is getting smaller and today we live in a global community.

“We don’t expect that the ethnic trends will die down any time soon,” Mr. True said. “As more people travel out of the U.S. and experience other cultures, more innovation will hit our U.S. food markets and the demand for more ethnically inspired foods will continue.”