Authentic Asian Flavors
Asian foods continue to climb in popularity and availability. That means authentic Asian favors must perform in prepared product applications.
As traditional foods evolve with the infusion and influences of newly available ingredients, immigrants and technology, the flavors that make up authentically Asian dishes are growing to accommodate them. The contemporary kitchens and food processing facilities around the globe are no different: Food is evolving more quickly each year, and the expediential change runs a similar path to the technology industry. This means R&D professionals also need to continue to evolve.
In order for a traditional cuisine style’s journey to be one with integrity, developers have a responsibility to study the past before trying to predict coming trends.
This helps identify the elements of a cuisine that are translatable into the mainstream. It all begins with the ingredients, and for Asian flavors to continue to climb in popularity and availability, those authentic favors must perform through all temperature zones—ambient, refrigerated and frozen.
“It’s not a ‘one flavor suits all’ equation,” emphasizes Michael Gunn, director of culinary & sensory services, research & development, The Schwan Food Co. “Rather, success is dependent on consumers’ expectations.”
“Many of the Asian products we’ve developed and launched are experienced by consumers at restaurants as well,” Gunn explains. “So, there is an expectation set in their mind—for instance, that vegetables will be crunchy, bright and vibrant.”
This presents certain challenges that can often be met by careful supplier partnerships. He continues, “We work hard with our suppliers to get the best quality, identify the right ‘cuts’ and select the right varieties to deliver the texture we need in the end product.”
The larger, macro-trends of specific regions allow for categorization of the cuisines of Asia into three main areas: Southeast Asia (such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Philippines and Indonesia); South Asia (India and Sri Lanka); and Northeast Asia (China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan). While more than 30 other countries are in the area, these are the most represented in the mainstream food business.
Creating an “Asian flavor toolbox” can shorten the R&D process and enable food processors to hit the bulls-eye more often. Manufactured Asian condiments and sauces are the building blocks of flavor. Fortunately, pack sizes are getting larger to enable processors to keep up with the growing demand for base sauces, sauces that serve dual purpose as condiments or self-contained, complex, concentrated flavorants to build sauces upon. One example newly popular in the U.S. is the Korean fermented red pepper, rice and soy paste called gochuchang. It has become so trendy it could become as big as sriracha, the vinegary, hot red chili and garlic paste base sauce from Thailand. However, gochuchang is not a replacement for sriracha; the two sauces are used very differently. Gochuchang is used primarily in cooking, while sriracha was and is still mainly a table condiment.
While these are the same pantry items a home cook draws upon, food professionals have access to other items helpful in creating the genuine flavors of Asia inside a batch-production setting, and with added benefits.
Gunn credits part of their success to the “wide range of ingredients and flavors in our tool box that allow us to closely match in a kettle what a home chef can create in a wok.”
Take the time to build a library of flavors—kaffir lime flavor for Thai Tom Yum soup; turmeric resin to tint Malaysian laksa gravy; or Vietnamese fish sauce powder or salt to enhance a dry seasoning blend.
Fish sauce is a “go-to” Asian flavor staple. But, in a recently available powder form, it becomes a veritable umami “bomb.” Few companies make fish sauce powder, but its functionality supersedes what a liquid fish sauce can do. Some companies that do make it are spray-drying it with maltodextrin or drum-drying it with rice flour.
Both forms are heated in the process; hence, some of the “low tide” aroma is driven off. The advantage is that, while many American consumers don’t like the aroma of fish sauce, they usually enjoy the flavor notes a subtle amount imparts to a recipe. A premium fish sauce producer in Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam, harvests the salt sediment from the mammoth wood barrels in which black anchovies and salt ferment for nearly a year to make its fish sauce. These dry formats make the flavorant ideal for seasoning snacks and toppings.
During the past few years, flavor profiles typical of Northeast Asia have gained a lot of attention. This is mostly due to the Japanese-style ramen craze that segued from native noodle bars to American college dorm rooms, moved into local restaurants, and finally, gained the attention of fine-dining chefs—such as David Chang, who has popularized his own trendy take on ramen. As restaurant-goers become savvier, they’re diving deeper into different classifications of ramen. One style that is emerging into popularity is tsukemen. The super-salty, pork fat-laden dipping sauce is designed for dipping in resilient ramen noodles for each mouthful.
“More intense, complex and deep flavor profiles are trending,” notes Jason Taylor, the prepared foods regional buyer for Whole Foods Market Inc.’s Northern California region. “Trends are moving to some of the more obscure and less mainstream Asian cuisines and flavor profiles. People are looking for something new and exciting. They are ready for something other than chow mein and egg rolls.”
With Southeast Asian cuisines already popular via creations from countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, interest in foods and flavors from Malaysia, Singapore and Burma is booming.
“We recently launched a line of vegetarian Malaysian items that was a hit,” Taylor acknowledges. “For example, the Tempeh Curry Nyonya with Pineapple was huge.”
The Malaysian line was one of the company’s most successful recent launches in this arena, according to Taylor. Whole Foods went through a vendor partner, Azalina, found through La Cocina. Whole Foods typically partners with its suppliers.
“This is kind of the strategy we have employed, finding people who are doing street foods and cool ethnic items, then giving them a platform,” says Taylor.
Such avenues provide a perfect vehicle for transitioning authentic preparations, from single-source creation to batch R&D for larger scale production that avoids compromising on taste and presentation.
Azalina’s owner Azalina Eusope is dedicated to bring the most authentic flavors of Malaysia—more specifically, the Memak food styles of Malaysia’s Indian Muslims—to her region. Azalina’s makes its own noodles and spice pastes to replicate what Eusope grew up eating in her homeland. The company currently is investigating expanded distribution, as more Whole Foods locations serve its products on the “hot bars.”
Restaurants featuring cuisine from the Philippines have been making inroads into the U.S., and processors have been paying attention. Companies such as Ramar Foods Inc., with its Kusina line of “healthy, heat-and-serve entrees,” have introduced recipes such as Chicken Sisig, Pork Adobo and Chicken Empanada to the supermarket freezer case.
Ramar describes “Filipino” (either spelling is correct) cuisine as “a fusion of indigenous, Southeast Asian, Chinese, Spanish, Mexican and the U.S.” Filipino culture combines native ingredients and dishes with those extra-cultural influences into a whole that can be greater than the sum of its parts. Ramar Foods uses all-natural and low-fat ingredients, without MSG, preservatives or trans-fats.
Another source of the new approach to Asian cuisine comes out of major restaurants chains. The Chipotle Mexican Grill chain of QSRs is seeking to replicate its Southwestern/Mexican cuisine formula to the Southeast-—Asia, that is. Tim Wildin, director of concept development, points to the company’s now-national ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, first launched in that multi-ethnic melting pot of Washington, D.C. The increasing mention of Malaysian cuisine along with Thai and Vietnamese is a clear indication consumers are looking to continue exploring the region.
During the R&D phase of the ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen menu, Wildin’s team strove to create a mix-and-match menu that successfully came together into various flavor combinations.
“There’s a myriad of ingredients that have to come together to make this kind of food,” says Wildin. “Southeast Asian food is virtually the opposite of modern Western cuisine, where a couple of ingredients put together in an elegant way results in a dish. The food at ShopHouse is all about the balance of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami [called zabb in Thai]. To accomplish this, many dishes have 25 or more ingredients.”
Still, Wildin and his team worked to avoid turning fusion cuisine into “confusion cuisine.”
“In this style of cooking, ingredients such as coconut milk, fish sauce, galangal, turmeric and palm sugar–all very rustic–come together to make something completely balanced and delicious,” says Wildin. “We look to operations such as ShopHouse for examples on how you first must look to the past to create the trends of the future.”
Trying to help create the new big food trend is even challenging for such a successful chain of restaurants.
“In creating ShopHouse, we were mindful to stick to the Chipotle ‘model,’ meaning an interactive and customizable service format where guests get to piece together their meal from a spread of high-quality, sustainably raised ingredients,” says Wildin. “We essentially deconstructed a typical Southeast Asian meal into parts: rice and noodles; meats or tofu; various wok-cooked vegetables; sauces (curries and a tamarind vinaigrette); chilled vegetables; and condiments. The key to doing this is to make sure each dish on offer is delicious and balanced on its own, and that when they all come together, they result in a deeply complex and flavorful bowl.”
Combine the distinct flavors of Thai, Indian and Chinese and that is essentially what makes up the cuisine of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). But, Burmese culture has created its own culinary identity by blending indigenous ingredients, techniques and presentations with these bordering countries. Burma Superstar, a Northern California, six-unit restaurant chain, is bringing these flavors to the table.
Authenticity in cuisine still is subjective and emotionally charged. For those in the food processing industry, it is most important to create the next generation of Asian foods for today’s consumer that is based on certain core ingredients and styles, with emphasis on what is flavorful, safe and profitable.
Splitting his time between his R&D centers and homes in L.A. and Malaysia, chef Robert Danhi is working toward his Ph.D. in Southeast Asian Food Studies, as he oversees his newly launched Asian Food Centre at Taylor’s University in Kuala Lumpur. He also leads Chef Danhi & Co., a full-service agency providing expertise in menu and product R&D; sales and marketing support; and educational and training programs for restaurants, food manufacturers, marketing associations and educational organizations. Chef Danhi is a James Beard Finalist and Award Winning Author of Gourmand’s “Best Asian Cookbook in the USA” in 2009 for his first book, Southeast Asian Flavors, wherein he demystifies the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. His most recent book, Easy Thai Cooking - 75 Family-Style Dishes You Can Prepare at Home in Minutes, showcases simple recipes that result in the genuine flavors of Thailand. He can be reached at Robert@chefdanhi.com or 310-625-1258 or www.chefdanhi.com.
A Sampling of New Asian-inspired, Prepared Foods
Go Fusion Foods, Frankfort, Mich., used the 59th annual Summer Fancy Food Show to debut a namesake line of Go Fusion frozen sandwiches. Varieties include Korean Jambalaya, Bourbon Chicken, Lemongrass Curry, Szechuan Taco, Peking Chicken and Braised Teriyaki. Go Fusion’s founders are restaurant-owners Vachong and Bobbiesee Ku. The company notes that Vachong Ku has a food science degree (B.S.) and has worked for Tyson, Everfresh Beverages, Thorn Apple Valley and Butterball. He has also been a USDA inspector. Vachong and Bobbiesee Ku own three Asian restaurants in Michigan and have been in the restaurant business for 25 years. “The sky is the limit for Asian fusion, and Go Fusion is the forerunner in Asian fusion, gourmet frozen sandwiches,” says Vachong Ku. “We are very excited about its potential.”
Ramar Foods Inter-national, Pittsburg, Calif., takes consumers on a culinary journey through the flavor of the Philippines with its Kusina heat-and-serve entrée line. New varieties include Chicken Sisig, Pork Adobo and Chicken Empanada. Officials say Sisig is an example of a Filipinio pulutan—hearty, spicy and slightly tangy snacks served during celebrations. Kusina’s Chicken Sisig features malt vinegar and lemon for a delicious punch of flavor. All products are made with all-natural and low-fat ingredients with no MSG, preservatives or trans-fats, the company says.
Armed with Asian consumer research, the international team at Lamb Weston, Eagle, Idaho, launched asian moonz, a new potato product line (available in China and Japan) inspired by flavors and seasonings favored in China. Officials say “potato moons” are potatoes cut and formed into moon shapes. They were created to serve as a side dish, appetizer or as an ingredient in a signature or main dish, and are the direct result of Lamb Weston’s market research in Asia. The new offering is available in three unique flavors: Roasted Onion, Indian Style Curry and Sweet Chili.
“We found consumers throughout Asia are interested in experimenting with foods that draw on regional flavors and themes,” says Lisa Bescherer, director of International Marketing, Lamb Weston. “Using that research, we turned our culinary experts loose to develop potato products that would satisfy local cravings.”
Officials say Lamb Weston’s culinary expert in Asia identified unique seasonings in a variety of regional Chinese dishes. The international product development team then created prototypes in Lamb Weston’s test kitchens and rolled them out for taste tests with local diners in Japan and China.
“We couldn’t be more excited about asian moonz,” says Bescherer. “It is a reflection of our commitment to create and make food that appeals to consumers in the global marketplace. Our local and regional market research is the foundation for local innovation, which in turn creates the right food and flavors for the right markets. We believe this approach drives consumer satisfaction, and ultimately, profitability for our customers.”
There’s no denying the popularity of Asian noodle dishes, but rice is still the primary staple in much of the Far East and the rest of the world, as well. It is the primary grain food for humans globally. Not all rice is the same, however. Matching the right rice to the dish is a matter of the texture, grain size and flavor. These determine not only how the final, finished dish will perform organoleptically from processing to preparation to table, but how authentic the dish will be, even to the uninitiated consumer. For example, imagine an Indian curry dish with a plain, fluffy, short-grain rice instead of the firm, nutty al dente toothsomeness of a basmati rice. Choosing the correct rice for an Asian creation creates a complete culinary picture for the consumer that translates to product success on an almost subconscious level.
There are thousands of varieties of rice, making up the 700 million or so tons grown annually throughout the world. These can be divided by size into short-, medium- and long-grain varieties, but more common is to categorize rice according to four main types: the species indica and japonica; or the descriptives “aromatic” and “glutinous.” Indica is a long-grained rice, such as a basmati or Texmati. Japonica is a short- to medium-grain rice. Aromatic rices are those which contain compounds that give them a nutty aroma and flavor (although the flavor of basmati rice also is described this way). Glutinous rices are short-grained rices, of the sativa species, that cook up sticky and gluey due to their lack of amylose starch. These are typically used for dessert applications.
In the past decade or so, red rice and purple rice (also known as black rice) have been popular additions to the rice varieties commonly available. The former is often identified with its most colorful source, the Kingdom of Bhutan. Purple rice, sometimes called Thai purple rice, black rice or “forbidden” rice, is a glutinous rice commonly used in Thai desserts. Both of these rice types are rich in nutrients, especially anthocyanins, and have a history of health benefits.
One rice variety that has leaped to the forefront of popularity is Thai jasmine rice, also known as Hom Mali rice. Demand for Thai jasmine rice has been increasing to a point where Thailand now produces around 3 million tons annually, or about 10% of the entire Thai rice production. With Thailand ranking among the top five of rice producers in the world, this is a significant portion of the overall rice crop.
Thai jasmine/Hom Mali rice has become the “go-to” rice for a number of Asian recipes, in large part for its ability to stand up excellently to conditions of parboiling and freezing. It’s a richly fragrant, long-grain rice, with a texture that is at once tender, yet firm enough for the individual grains to maintain their identity through the entire processing chain. The toasty, slightly floral flavor of the rice has a very long finish, increasing with hold time. The hardiness of this Asian rice also makes it highly versatile—a boon for processors.
-—David Feder, Executive Editor, Technical