With the growing diversity of the US population, people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds are constantly exposed to new cultures through work, social groups and media. Likewise, one of the best ways to learn about a new culture is through its food. Meanwhile, this is the time when global cuisine is influencing everything and popping up everywhere—from top-end restaurants to food trucks.
The proximity of Mexico to the United States, and the large Hispanic population here, are two contributors to the fajitas and burritos consumers encounter with increasing frequency at many casual dining restaurants. But these items are not the slick, cookie-cutter fare of the past. Today’s consumers want more sophisticated and authentic options. They want to experience Mexican cuisines as though these foods were prepared in the heart of Mexico City or from individual regions throughout that huge nation.
As a result of these influences, chefs from New York to Chicago to San Francisco are creating dishes that incorporate the flavors of the Yucatan’s Cochinita Pibil, Oaxacan molé sauce or the traditional Salsa Veracruz. The goal is to educate and entice consumers regarding what flourishes beyond green enchilada sauce or beef and cheese tacos in what once passed for Mexican cuisine.
From the other side of the globe, the South Asian population continues to expand in numbers and influence. Thus, it’s no surprise that the nation’s appetite for Indian cuisine has gone from the ubiquitous “curry” to the more specific and refined Rogan Josh, Butter Chicken or Kerala Coconut Shrimp. Indian fusion restaurants, such as Vermilion in Chicago and New York, have made great strides unveiling the more unfamiliar Indian cuisines by drawing on similar spices the subcontinent shares with Latin American traditions. This minimizes the risks for diners to try something new.
No matter what the region, true ethnic specialties are complex. A slow-cooked sauce from South India, for example, can have eight to 10 herbs and spices, and numerous steps in the spice preparation. A typical Mexican molé sauce can have upward of 25 ingredients, some of which might not be easily available.
A true Thai Massaman curry uses tamarind, palm sugar, galangal, cilantro root and bird’s eye chili to form the basis of the sauce. Some of those ingredients can be difficult to find in typical American grocery stores and even in specialized Asian supermarkets as well.
For consumers, solutions to time and ingredient limitations are found in such formats as “meal kits,” most which include such focal points as the ethnic simmer sauce. Buy a pouch, and in 15 minutes, your home-cooked ethnic dish can take you to a different corner of the world – Bangkok on Tuesday night, Goa on Thursday night and Rome on Saturday.
Bring it Home
Mintel analyst David Turner noted that 2014 was a “strong year for cooking sauce sales,” with global sales forecast to reach nearly $25 billion. This reflects a 3% growth over 2013, and indicates a slow-but-steady climb for this category. Busy working families are demanding such convenient, yet exciting, meal solutions, and simmer sauces fit the bill.
Today’s research chefs are taking inspiration from such authentic, ethnic home-cooked dishes and high-end dining experiences and bringing them to general consumers’ kitchens. But this exercise is not without challenges. It can be difficult to have all the ingredients available in the kitchen to experiment with a trendy formulation.
When developing ethnic simmer sauces, a manufacturer’s primary challenge is to capture authenticity with the correct ingredients. Sourcing indigenous ingredients takes tight control over availability and cost fluctuation. And of course, freshness, taste consistency and other quality aspects all need to be monitored—while keeping an eye on everything from import regulations to potential market growth.
Replicating an ethnic sauce on a large scale presents other difficulties. Making an Indian masala, for example, takes many steps: First, the roasting or frying of the spices and herbs; then, the careful; grinding of the mixture that goes into making the sauce; and, finally, the long simmering period that allows the flavors to fully mature and develop.
One way to simplify the entire process is to use natural flavors because one carefully crafted flavor can capture the essence of a multitude of ingredients. Also, following ethnic cooking techniques can be difficult for commercialized products. That’s also why it’s important to select natural flavors. They can capture these cooked notes through thermal processes and ensure taste consistency from batch to batch.
Thermal processed flavors—also known as reaction flavors—are natural ingredients that have gone through thermal reactions, where the specific combination of temperature, pH level, pressure and time “cooks” the ingredients to pinpoint perfection. This way, the final flavor is a single item that can represent the identity of the ethnic sauce.
Another benefit of using natural flavors in ethnic simmer sauces is that the process allows for piquancy level modulation. In a flavor system, the heat from capsicums could become separated from the main body of flavor. The mainstream American palate—although far more accepting of hot foods than a generation ago—has yet to be acclimated to the strength and spice levels of truly authentic Thai, Korean or Indian cuisines. Using natural flavor systems as described allows product developers to adjust the heat level in the sauces.
Natural flavor systems also create opportunities for product-line extension based on heat levels. That is, developers can create separate kits of varying heat or have a single kit that includes a “hot” package for the consumers to experiment with and thus customize their home-cooked ethnic dishes.
Simmer sauces take the trepidation out of cooking ethnic foods at home, while preserving the fun of cooking for consumers to experience. Whether a traditional ethnic sauce, or a dynamic fusion such as Indo-French or Korean-Latin sauce, the opportunities are truly limitless for consumers and research chefs to explore.
This is a time when ethnic sauces can take center stage. Consumers increasingly want to satisfy their culinary curiosity and they’re calling upon chefs and product developers to deliver. Natural flavor systems not only simplify ingredient sourcing and commercialization processes but they also capture the authenticity consumers crave. No less important, natural flavors ensure higher product quality while they allow for greater customization and future product extensions.