The tapestry of today’s American palate is woven from threads of many cultures, and food creators are finding that, sometimes, nothing satisfies more than the simple, comforting flavors crafted by amah -- or nonna, abuela, matamahi, impo, savta...
Home-style Latin, European, Asian and Subcontinental flavors and formulations are supplanting a recent trend of “comfort foods” that reads as more “retro” than true to the American demographic of today.
It can be confidently said that, as pervasive and popular as are dishes like mac-‘n’-cheese, chicken and dumplings, and meat loaf, the combination of modern, melting-pot demographics and a host generation raised with very little in the way of home cooking. This means that, for a substantial number of 21st century consumers, those items are at best a step or two removed from their comfort experience; at worst, they’re two-dimensional icons of a past that was never theirs.
In developing products to replicate the comfort foods for the multicultural masses, the paradigm used to be one of white-washing an ethnic favorite through so many compromises -- (Don’t make it spicy! Don’t use weird ingredients!) -- that it would supposedly have blanket appeal. The results bore more qualifiers than authenticity. Think of labels like “Tuscan-style” sauce or “Thai-inspired” soup. In attempts to please all, too often the end-product pleased few.
When making a true ethnic comfort food, the surprise of success turned out to be that if the developer makes a formulation that appeals first to its own community of origin, it just so happens it will play to a wider audience: “If you build it, they will come.”
The global flavors movement has seen many esoteric ethnic culinary trends break out into the mainstream (see “A World of Flavorings,” bit.ly/1m48hwF). However, the formulations designed to invoke specific cultural comfort foods require more precision. For a food to be a true comfort food, it must evoke a sense of home.
Mediterranean comfort food has a new trend-setter: cracked, roasted green wheat called freekeh, which is Arabic for “rubbed.” The wheat is harvested during a very narrow window of time, when the grains are ripe but still green. It’s high in protein and fiber, and low in calories. Freekeh Foods Inc. manufactures both all-natural and organic roasted green wheat, in flavors including tamari and rosemary sage. In its simplest preparation, as a side dish served instead of rice, freekeh is rustic farm food and comfort food in its purest form.
It’s a safe bet to say Mexican foods are collectively the grandfather of Hispanic ethnic prominence in the U.S. This makes sense, considering Mexico covers most of the U.S.’s southern land border. But, the porousness of that border led to a blurring of cuisines that eventually became sub-cuisines—such as Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex—but neither are really Mexican. When the following generation replaced assimilation with cultural pride and discovery, authentic, interior Mexican dishes became a mark of distinction.
Tortillas have surpassed sandwich bread as the leading category purchase, and Hispanic foods have grown as quickly -- or faster than -- the population. At greater than 25% of the U.S. population, Hispanics have helped drive a multibillion dollar food and beverage market that, according to consumer research group Packaged Facts, will hit $11 billion by 2017, an increase of more than 30% over today’s figures. The Packaged Facts report also revealed that “almost 73% of people surveyed said they use Mexican food and ingredients.” This figure was only slightly lower than the usage rates of 84% for Hispanics.
Packaged Facts research director David Sprinkle writes, “Mainstream consumers are becoming more adventurous with less well-known Hispanic flavors and textures, thanks to the influence of Hispanics and the popularity of foodie culture. Marketers, such as Ruiz Foods and Goya, have noted this more sophisticated taste and are adjusting their product mixes accordingly.” Sprinkle also notes that “aiding the appeal of the market is that there is no shortage of product innovation.”
Frontera Foods Inc. chef and founder, Rick Bayless, was an early marketer of the true “interior Mexican” ethnic recipes popularized by pioneering cookbook author and chef Diana Kennedy. Kennedy, through books, classes and lectures based on her nearly six decades in Mexico, brought a trove of authentic ingredients and cooking techniques to dozens of chefs.
Ingredients such as black beans, epazote, huitlacoche, yérba santa, achioté, pumpkin seeds, hominy/pozolé, squash flowers, dried/smoked and fresh chili peppers (especially ancho and chipotlé, as well as poblano and serrano), as well as sauces, such as molé, handmade from these true ingredients became common in restaurants. But, it was Bayless who stepped across the culinary border and built a retail empire of salsas, sauces, marinades and molés that would play almost as well in Mexico as in the Midwest.
As with rock and roll music, once mainstream America adopted the original formats, the door opened for the originators. Latin food manufacturing giants, such as Grupo Bimbo S.A., Goya Foods Inc. and Iberia Foods Inc., continue to enjoy huge growth -- and not just within the Hispanic demographic.
As Iberia’s slogan, “The taste we grew up with” suggests, the company develops and distributes products that specifically “capture the authentic taste of Spanish, Latin American and Caribbean dishes.” The company also aggressively sources “authentic, fresh ingredients from the original climates in which they grow.”
Although these pioneers proved that not all is beans and chili peppers when it comes to home-style Hispanic cooking, those ingredients are certainly critical. Processors of ethnic home cooking are using more than jalapeños. The use of chili peppers beyond common ones like jalapeño and serrano, opened the cuisine to the use of peppers and other ingredients in a more region-specific manner.
Preparation, too, makes the difference in recreating what is common to a country of origin.
“We make our beans like they do in the mountains of Mexico, frijoles de la olla style,” says Hannah Kullberg, the “Bean Queen” and founder of The Better Bean Co. “We soak our beans in room-temperature water for five hours, so they can start to germinate, then cook them by themselves in covered sauce pans with gently boiling water until they’re creamy but not mushy. Once they’re done, we add salt, which will firm up the beans, and then reduce and enrich the pot liquor by cooking on high heat for another 20 minutes while continually scraping the fond—the crust that forms on the surface of the hot pan—into the sauce with a spatula. When done, the pot liquor should be thick, dark and flavorful.”
Kullberg explains that they “only add salt and acids, like lime juice or vinegar, after the beans are fully cooked to avoid making the skins hard.”
She adds that flavorings, such as sautéed onions, garlic, pepper and seasonings, are cooked separately and added only toward the end of the bean-preparing process. “Cooking beans this way is labor-intensive, but worth the effort to bring out the full, rich flavor of the bean.”
True ethnic Latin comfort foods are evident in the recent diversification that has introduced flavors beyond Mexico to North American consumers. Brazilian, Peruvian and Spanish cuisines are increasingly represented in snacks and prepared meals by processors catering to those markets but are gaining more attention in mainstream supermarkets. Iberia, for example, distributes a number of items from its multicultural line-up in Wal-Mart stores.
Ethnic Comfort Meets New Craze
Datassential covered “ethnic mash-ups” last November in its Creative Concepts market report. Here’s an excerpt from that report.
Now, a globally-aware generation of chefs is behind a modern craze for ethnic mash-ups, combining the flavors of two (and sometimes more) cuisines to create innovative yet authentic new dishes and restaurants. Ground zero for the craze is the recent food truck movement, taking inspiration from the flavorful, portable street food found in countries around the world. And most credit Kogi BBQ, a Korean taco truck in L.A., for putting the trend on the map. Korean tacos are now a well-known dish in their own right, with Korean taco trucks and restaurants popping up in almost every city in the country, while Kogi chef Roy Choi is now a well-known celebrity, frequently speaking at events around the country and even releasing a memoir this month.
Bold new flavors. Many of today’s most popular ethnic mash-ups incorporate Asian flavors and cuisines, from bold flavors and sauces like sriracha and furikake to crisp slaws and tangy kimchis topping tacos and sandwiches. Other operators look to global cuisine for new carriers, whether it’s a tortilla stuffed with falafel or a rice patty taking the place of a hamburger bun. And for a new generation of chefs raised in multi-cultural households, these ethnic mash-ups are a way to celebrate their heritage, from an Italian chef growing up in the American South to a Filipino who married into a Korean family. Respect for, and celebration of, the cultures and cuisines involved is an integral part of the trend, perhaps in response to the watered-down, oversaturated fusion cuisine that prompted a backlash in the 90s.
Why it matters. Today, ethnic mash-up-inspired dishes can be found at operators of every level, whether it’s shareable Korean tacos at a midscale chain or a chef-driven independent serving their BBQ with fish palm syrup. Combining cuisines and flavors also bridges the gap between the well-known and the brand-new, introducing new proteins and flavors in the familiar form of a burrito or pizza, while also feeding modern appetites for innovation and novelty.
Perhaps the newest breakout cuisine, riding the popularity of its twin roots in Hispanic and Asian cultures, is that of the Philippines. Ramar Foods International notes that, according to a Mintel Group Ltd. report released last year, “Asian food is the second-largest segment within the ethnic food market. The category had a 10.2% dollar-sales increase from 2010-2012. The Asian population is projected to grow 11.3% by 2018.” The research group also noted: “Filipinos are the second largest Asian population in the U.S., and the largest in California.”
Pointing to research from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade that “the popularity of specialty foods is also on the rise, with a 7.4% jump in sales in 2010” equal to more than 13% of retail food sales, Ramar launched a line of frozen meals under its Kusina brand. Simple, classic dishes of the Philippines, such as adobo, rely on all-natural pork or chicken with the fundamentals of Philippine sauce: vinegar, garlic, soy and black pepper.
Thai and Vietnamese cuisines are today firmly entrenched as mainstream foods in the U.S. However, with these foods’ emphasis on fresh ingredients prepared quickly, recreating them requires processors to adhere as best as they can to classic formulations using authentic ingredients. While microwaveable phô still can’t quite hit the mark, sauced noodle dishes are benefiting from improved techniques and integrity to original regional recipes.
For Thai dishes, lemongrass root, fresh basil, kaffir limes (fruit and leaves), galangal, fish sauce and other true ingredients now appear on labels, where they used to be either substituted or simply left out. Today’s research chefs, with more intimate knowledge of authenticity, know these components not only are not expendable, they have no substitutes.
Galangal is a rhizome like ginger, its botanical cousin, but the similarity ends there. Its overriding note is camphor, which is why it is used sparingly. But, even the little bit used in a Thai recipe opens up the floral aspects of the other aromatics which, in turn, mask the camphor-like back-note of the galangal. Together, they create an irreplaceable flavor whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Even the more common ingredients of Asian formulations are prepared differently. Coconut, basil and ginger, rather than powdered or dried, are going into formulations as they would in Ba Noi or Yay’s kitchen: freshly chopped or grated.
“We took this approach to our Thai Style Chicken Curry,” says Phil Anson, founder of EVOL Foods Inc. “It’s a traditional Thai yellow curry made with coconut milk, fish sauce and real Thai curry paste, which has a nice kick.”
When Evol Foods Inc. moved to recreate classic Asian foods, the company went Southwest, as well as Southeast, creating Indian meals for its line-up.
“Some of the most authentic and inspiring ethnic dishes currently made by Evol are represented in the new Skillet Meals for Two line,” says Anson. “The Chicken Tikka Masala is made with traditional garam masala spices, fragrant warming spices coupled with a rich and creamy tomato sauce. It’s the embodiment of Indian ‘soul food.’”
The big influx of Southwest Asians to the U.S. since the 1980s created a formidable market for its flavors, both within and without the Indian, Bengali and Pakistani communities. Recognizing that the popularity of these foods in restaurants could be successfully translated to mainstream consumers, American Halal Co. created the Saffron Road brand of frozen meals, appetizers, sauces and snacks. The company recently added a line of authentic broths, including lamb broth.
In addition to the fare consumers would find in restaurants, Saffron Road just launched a selection of whole-wheat chapatti wraps filled with mixtures such as tikka masala, chicken keema and chana saag. The Southwest Asian equivalent of a burrito, they’re immensely popular in their home countries as filling “take-aways” typically purchased from roadside mom-and-pop kiosks.
Even taking a classic American comfort food and recreating it as Indian comfort cuisine demands adherence to tradition. “The challenges we encounter are relative to our exclusive recipes,” says Depak Kanda, president, founder and chief popper at Pujabi Popcorn LLC. “We roast most of our spices before we use them.” The company makes a line of bagged popcorn with distinctive Indian spices.
“Companies do not tend to roast their spices, especially in bulk. We attain our flavor depths and dimensions by releasing the volatile oils in certain spices, increasing the aromatic notes and flavors. We strive for authenticity in every aspect,” Kanda continues.
While the popcorn caters to the Indian and Pakistani communities, part of Punjabi Popcorn’s mission is to introduce traditional flavors to a Western market. “It’s risky,” admits Kanda, “because if new flavors do not play off of already known and trusted flavors, generally, people can be hesitant in trying them.”
“The flavors have to incorporate many ingredients that offer authentic taste yet not [be] overwhelming. Our Signature Punjabi flavor is the only single flavor [where] we utilize all ingredients and do not soften the affects of certain combinations. It’s simply because that was the staple flavor that I grew up with, and I want everyone to experience the consistent change of flavor as you consume this popcorn,” Kanda adds.
According to Kanda, consumers are “getting tired” of the same flavors. “This is not to say the flavors are not tasty; rather, this is becoming a general attitude amongst snack consumers everywhere. We can see the evolution in the desire for new flavors through the sriracha craze and reflected in the contests, [such as] Frito-Lay seeking new flavors. If a multi-billion dollar food manufacturer is asking the general public for new flavor ideas, an assumption is that their current lineup has either become stale or the momentum has significantly decreased.” To Kanda, this points to a need for something new, different and vibrant to “re-ignite the passion for snacks amongst consumers.”
West of the East
A generation ago, Mediterranean cuisine was a tidal wave that washed across the American food scene in a wave of olive oil and Balsamic vinegar. Meat and potatoes consumers put down macaroni and meatloaf and picked up pasta and mozzarella. Nothing wrong with that. But, it represented only a few of the nearly two dozen countries that make up the Mediterranean -- encompassing North African, Near Eastern and Middle Eastern cuisines.
Steven Kontos, co-founder with his father of Kontos Foods Inc., quickly realized that staying true to the likes and dislikes of an ethnic group also is a highly effective way to appeal to the general public, which is always looking for quality and authenticity.
Kontos Bakeries specializes in a variety of flatbreads from different traditions. Its Plano flatbread, targeted toward the Hispanic market and Latin American food lovers, offers different, “relevant” flavors, including chipotle, jalapeño, cilantro, pico de gallo (chopped jalapeño, cilantro, tomatoes, onions and spices) and sweet onion.
“You have to have an understanding of our target audience, their tastes and how they use flatbread,” he explains. “At Kontos, we like to say, ‘Cooking is an art, but baking is a science,’ and, when you’re creating a wide variety of baked products with different flavors, textures and appearances, this is especially true.”
“Our Indian breads have been developed with the specific tastes of Indian consumers in mind,” Kontos continues. “We offer a Tandoori Nan, Roghani Nan and Kulcha Nan -- flatbreads made differently to appeal to the central Asian palate.”
To get a consistent, flavorful product, Kontos turns to special ingredients specific to baking. “We choose our ingredients carefully to ensure we deliver a consistent product while keeping our production lines free from flavor contaminants that can affect our other varieties.”
Not Savta’s Mediterranean
For more on ethnic comfort flavors and formulations, check out “Authentic Asian Flavors” by chef Robert Danhi of the Asian Food Centre at Taylor’s University in Kuala Lumpur; and “Where Flavors Meet,” by Aram Karapetian and chef Jeff Triola of Woodland Foods/Dallesandro Gourmet and Specialty Foods Inc.,.
In 1986, a little company called Sabra Blue and White Foods Ltd. (now Sabra Dipping Company LLC) launched a pure, simple and authentic version of the chickpea (garbanzo bean) paste known in the Middle East and North Africa as hummus. The primary ingredients are cooked chickpeas and tahini (puréed sesame), plus a little oil, lemon juice, garlic and spices. For about 15 years, it was a secret treat within the Jewish and Middle Eastern community.
Then, the company realized American consumers might just be both more familiar with and more amenable to hummus and began marketing it to the whole country. A decade later, hummus category sales now are above $622 million (according to research group IRI).
According to Greg Greene, a marketing director at Sabra, in the past five years, Sabra’s presence in American households has risen 118%. Now co-owned by PepsiCo. Corp. and Israel-based global food giant Strauss Group Ltd., Sabra has expanded its line to include a full line of classic Middle Eastern and North African salads, condiments and dips.
Adds Greene, “In earlier years, Sabra had to educate the influencers -- retailers and media -- about the benefits of hummus. As distribution expanded, the company moved to educating the consumer. Now we continue to extoll the virtues of hummus on both a personal and national level.”
Greene notes that, true to the paradigm of how American consumers latch on to other cultures’ comfort foods, the typical consumers’ introduction to Sabra products “often comes in a social setting, through friends and family. Once it is in the home, Sabra’s versatility beyond being a dip emerges as an excellent spread or ingredient.”
The comfort fare of the Near and Middle East isn’t only hummus and pita. More than a century after the return of hundreds of thousands of Jews to Israel from Eastern European countries, some of the food traditions melded with those of the indigenous Jews influenced by Arab and North African culture. Challah bread, a traditional braided egg bread, became a weekly staple for all Jews, partaken at the Sabbath but also eaten throughout the rest of the week.
“I wanted to sell an experience, not just bread,” says Leah Hadad, president and founder of Tribes-a-Dozen LLC, makers of Voila! Challah bread mixes. “The challenge was to come up with a technique that makes it easier and faster for home bakers to produce the loaf of bread they did not even know they missed -- help people reconnect with home baking traditions, even if they did not grow up with challah. It is really about duplicating the traditional experience, and the ingredients were crucial in order for me to achieve that goal.”
In developing the Voila! line, Hadad adhered to the basic ingredients for challah, but included three main principles: no preservatives, no coloring and nothing artificial. That meant only premium ingredients. Also, while developing the two whole-grain products in the line, Wholey Wheat and Simply Spelt, she opted for organic whole-grain flours to produce the texture and flavors required.
Finally, Hadad kept to her standard that the egg-bread mix recipe be quite simple: “It had to be an egg-bread mix I would purchase. It had to be all-natural and produce a loaf that smells good; looks, feels and tastes as good as a loaf of bread baked from scratch at home; the kind of bread your grandma used to bake.”