When most American consumers crave comfort food, they’re accustomed to reaching toward traditional, old-school favorite dishes, such as meatloaf, macaroni and chicken soup. Yet the very concept of comfort food is evolving—and rapidly at that.
Ethnic comfort foods, such as polenta, posolé, risotto and ramen, are rapidly joining the ranks of American comfort foods not in their original forms, but with “upgrades” that merge cultures and “bend the rules” of original forms and ingredients.
The “typical” American consumers haven’t shared similar ethnic backgrounds for at least a couple of generations.
More, the desire to assimilate at the table has diminished rapidly, as consumers more eagerly seek out and embrace comfort foods from other cultures and countries.
More than ever, consumers are engaging with comfort foods that were not originally familiar to them while they were growing up. Jamaican Jerk products, such as spice blends and wet marinades, are showing up more often in ethnic aisles in grocery stores. The pre-packaged Indian food market continues to grow rapidly, with frozen Indian food, as well as jarred chutneys, ready-to-drink chai beverages and even chapatti-inspired lentil chips appearing on neighborhood market shelves.
What has been especially exciting in food product development is the way consumers are taking aspects of other cuisines and, in acts of cultural cross-pollination, happily making them their own. Borders have weakened, as old-fashioned mac-n-cheese or chicken and dumplings get redefined and rebooted with either upscale ingredients more European than American (think truffles or artisanal cheeses); or wear spices they never thought to try on, such as Thai chili peppers or lemongrass.
Another turn, and they’re adapting to fit trends such as gluten-free or vegan. With increasing frequency, classic American comfort dishes swap grains to do away with gluten or sit in for traditional foods parents once ate but are now meat-free. Against all tradition, product developers are answering modern requests to revise and revamp old favorites.
Consumers first encounter specific flavors and ingredients of so-called ethnic foods through local restaurants and chefs. For example, currently trending posolé, a Mexican stew made from hominy accompanied with a protein like pork, chicken or turkey, is a classic staple of Mexican cuisine. It is a comforting hot stew with hearty flavor that could almost be considered a cousin to chicken noodle soup in the cultural context of American comfort food.
In the Italian style, pasta e fagioli, an Italian bean soup, also is a comfort food that combines pasta and beans in a soup that has the same hearty comforting qualities as posolé. Pasta e fagioli is more often than not a vegetarian soup, though some preparations do use a meat-based broth to boost flavor.
Pilaf, a classic and filling South Asian and Middle Eastern rice dish, is experiencing a rise in popularity. In its most simple form, it involves rice cooked in a seasoned broth. It is often seen in the prepared foods section of most markets and is popular due to the convenience of being an all-in-one side dish with easy preparation.
Pilaf also is merging into mainstream American comfort as a full-meal dish that not only consists of rice, but also incorporates meat, vegetables, spices, nuts and dried fruits in the Indian-Pakistani-Afghani style. But different grains, such as quinoa, bulghur and millet, have been popular rice substitutes in pilafs. Also, the ancient Arabic roasted green wheat freekeh hit big last year with a number of cook-and-eat freekeh pilaf kits rolling oout, in multiple flavor combinations.
The Build Up
Ready to talk about full flavor? It used to be that formulators had to tone down the flavors and spices in ethnic comfort foods for the unaccustomed palate. Today, these dishes are more celebrated for their full, authentic flavors. Consumers have become accustomed to full-impact, boldly-seasoned dishes with the strong flavors of their originating country.
Kimchi is an excellent example. The Korean side dish that appears as a condiment is an unapologetically pungent and spicy, pickled and fermented cabbage. In addition to being heavily spiced with garlic, it also makes generous use of Korean dried chili pepper flakes (gochugaru).
Today, kimchi spices and powders are used in a variety of products, from noodle bowls and tofu dishes to ketchup and potato chips. The trend spurred—and is expanded by—the development of kimchi spice mixes that can be used industrially to add kimchi flavor to multiple products on a consistent basis.
These mixes use authentic ingredients and are designed to streamline the kimchi flavoring process for product developers. Having demand for such a spice blend indicates a spike in consumer interest for uniquely flavored ingredients that are both spicy and pervasive at the same time.
This type of fusion cuisine—mixing trademark cultural ingredients with others—is something that continues to surprise and innovate in the food industry. For example, ramen noodles, a consistent favorite since cheap-and-filling instant versions hit the college campuses in the 1970s, have crossed over into unique fusions.
The comfort of chewy noodles in a steaming broth, amply seasoned with the savory flavors of meat, soy sauce and spices is being translated into versions that take such leaps as Italian Beef ramen and comforting roasted chicken.
Italian-style corn polenta has been a popular comfort staple for decades. It enjoyed a brief period of trendiness in the 1970s, but all the dressing up in restaurants detracted from its “home and family” feel. It’s making a comeback, but now competes with a related revival it helped spark: that of its Southern American counterpart—grits. Grits are essentially the same dish, a cornmeal porridge. But grits are based on ground hominy, which is alkali-treated corn.
Both polenta and grits are often combined with a heavily seasoned protein. The starchy, relatively plain quality of the boiled corn makes it an ideal canvas for dry spices and seasoning. Prepared polenta items have been making their way onto supermarket shelves in multiple formats, including green chili-cilantro and Provençal style.
Southwestern green chile polenta was designed to bridge the Italian starch with the grassy-and-spicy profile of green chili peppers, including poblano and jalapeño. In its classic porridge form, it can be topped with such Southwestern ingredients as shredded chicken in tomatillo sauce or with shrimp and Cajun spices in a Creole-inspired homage to its Louisiana staple cousin, the aforementioned grits. Again, the drive always seems to be toward introducing a new angle to a time-honored culinary tradition.
With the Grain
Risotto, a creamy, starchy rice dish, has similarly returned to popularity. The Italian classic is properly made with Arborio rice, a starchy short-grain rice. More rarely, it is made with carnaroli, a medium-grain rice. Both rice types naturally deliver a creamy quality to the finished dish.
Because of its “blank canvas” culinary properties (similarly to polenta), risotto lends itself to a myriad of toppings and mix-in seasonings.
Risotto products using dehydrated vegetables, such as butternut squash or pumpkin, can readily star as sides or light main dishes.
Dried, hearty winter squashes rehydrate well and keep a sweet flavor—plus they take on a slightly meaty texture. Adding a hint of maple sugar gives this kind of dish a distinct and delicate finish. Most of all, these flavors combine in a comforting autumn-style dish that fits within the boundaries of comfort foods redefined with an American harvest twist.
As North African-style cuisines continue to gain popularity, they, too, are adapting to suit the new comfort-fusion paradigm. Today’s couscous mixes integrate staple ingredients from many cultural pantries across the world.
Couscous, by itself, takes on the flavor from the ingredients with which it is cooked. Sometimes erroneously classed as a type of pasta, it is actually a type of finely rolled semolina. The tiny grain is sold in bulk as an unseasoned product, but a number of cook-and-serve mixes reflect the flavors commonly find in a North African tagine. As it is being prepared, the seasoning permeates deeply into the couscous, giving it a bold, authentic and ethnic flavor that gives the consumer a convenient way to try something sophisticated and regional.
The large, true pasta couscous called “Israeli couscous” or “pearl couscous” was created in Israel in the late 1940s as a cheap, plain pasta It was meant to fill in for rice or beans, then in short supply. Israeli couscous is enjoying more limelight based on the sudden rise of that other Middle-Eastern comfort favorite, hummus. Today, both are seasoned with everything from North African spices, such as ras el hanout, to Italian-style iterations using sun-dried tomatoes and basil.
West Meets East, South Heads North
One of the more common retakes on traditional foods is to add Oriental flavors to Occidental dishes and vice--versa. Japanese panko-crumb coatings are laced with jalapeño pepper and cilantro, while coconut milk becomes the base for a pumpkin soup.
Intriguing new flavoring concepts break out faster than food makers can try them. Meat-heavy Brazilian barbecue restaurants introduced consumers here to the idea of South American comfort foods; now such ingredient offerings as Brazilian churrascaria spice rubs won’t raise as many eyebrows.
Malaysian panang rich in galangal root and lemongrass; Laotian larb chili and mint seasoning; Indian nut and yogurt korma curry spices; Cambodian spice blends; and nuoc cham fish sauce still might raise eyebrows. However, when they land in a familiar setting, today’s world-wise consumers have been primed to at least try them out.
In its spring 2014 Culinary Trends Tracking Series, research trend-tracking group Packaged Facts Inc. noted that, “Foodservice operators are looking beyond the veil of Mexican cuisine,” and that “indigenous foods from South America hold the key to new opportunities in the food industry.”
The group cited such ingredients as purple corn, aji peppers and pichu berries—known in the US as Cape gooseberries or choke cherries. In a word, if a flavor comes from Brazil, Peru or elsewhere in South America, it will likely be big.
Another East-meets-West scenario is happening along internal borders. Southwestern-style seasonings have been big for a while and enjoyed crossover to broader American favorites. One company, Matlaw’s Food Products Inc., decided to really mix it up with a line of chorizo and chili-Lime versions of the near-sacrosanct New England stuffed clams.
Comfort on the Side
Comfort foods require comfort condiments. Ethnic condiments are ubiquitous on tables across the country. Continuing this crossover theme, they’re having a striking effect on typically American comfort dishes. Condiments blending in with more universal flavors and attracting the American consumer are updated mustards, rice vinegars and spice blends.
Hummus is now nearly as American as apple pie. The chickpea-and-sesame dip benefitted from a health halo of being a low-cost, high-protein dip or spread plus a heavy marketing campaign by the Sabra Dipping Co. It took only a few years before hummus landed on the shopping list of tens of millions of American consumers.
Companies such as Sabra, as well as Tribe Mediterranean Foods Inc., Oasis Mediterranean Cuisine Co. and others, offer distinctively non-Middle Eastern flavored hummus products, such as Basil Pesto, Chipotlé, Tuscan Garden, Jalapeño, Sweet Roasted Pepper and Horseradish.
Sriracha, the chili pepper-and-garlic hot sauce from Thailand, is currently one of the most popular condiments on the market. The best example of this phenomenon are sriracha French fries—one of the more trendy mixings of culinary culture to create a new comfort paradigm. Many non-Asian restaurants even now feature sriracha on the table next to ketchup and mustard.
Translating that small application of an ethnic condiment to a prepared food item becomes easier as suppliers create such ingredient systems as sriracha in a dry format. Harissa spice blend, the fashionable Algerian hot chili paste of a mix of roasted red chili peppers, spices and oil, also is available in dry versions.
Powder forms of these spices make it easy to blend into sauces, rubs or directly into meat preparations. The right applications can give a dish a distinctly ethnic feel without adulterating the dish itself. Consider it almost like creating a fusion dish with the simple addition of a dash of sauce. Chutneys, salsas, pestos and sauces all can elevate a formulation in this manner.
So-called dry condiments—condiments that are used as-is, either sprinkled directly onto food or for dipping food into for added flavor—are newly arrived in the American culinary consciousness. Coming out of the ramen renaissance, the most popular Asian version of these condiments is the Japanese shichimi togarashi. Shichimi Togarashi is typically made with chili peppers, orange peel, sesame, ginger, nori and, in some instances, hemp seed.
Shichimi Togarashi is typically sprinkled directly onto rice or ramen, but can be incorporated into sauces. An Egyptian dry condiment, dukkah (sometimes known as duqqah or dakkah), is served in classic street food settings as a dip with bread and vegetables. The mix of dry-roasted spices, herbs and hazelnuts is common comfort snack.
These dry condiments have made their way up the trend chain—from food carts and trucks onto tables. Some ingredient makers have launched versions for the food manufacturing industry that allow a consistency of flavor notes and versatility of use.
While culinary borrowings and swappings have always gone on in the melting pot of American cuisine, the industry is seeing more fearlessness when it comes to culinary experimentation. And that’s a good thing. Through such devices and designs, the American palate is expanded and choices increase.