Asian cuisine is either the second or third largest ethnic category in the US, depending on whether Italian is included in the definition. Indeed, the top three cuisines—Italian, Hispanic and Asian—are all regarded as standard components of the national diet (rather than as ethnic options). Demographic and social changes help drive demand for ethnic foods and drinks and this involves specific ethnic groups as well as other consumers (including world travellers) simply looking to broaden their horizons.

Asian flavors and foods are an integral part of the US diet and this trend seems set to continue. With many national Asian cuisines now established in the retail market—or on the way via the restaurant sector—demand for Asian food is becoming even more focused on authenticity. Next-generation products are true-to-region, often spicier and stronger-flavored and are moving further into the consumer consciousness. Put simply, more consumers are recognizing the vast variety of eating habits and diets in such a large and diverse region.

At the same time, Asian flavors also are increasingly featured across the food market in a range of fusion-type applications. These flavors add a new element to existing recipes and potentially bring new consumers who may then want to try more authentic options. Many Asian products also portray a healthy, often minimally processed image (addressing clean label, free-from and sustainable trends) and these elements all resonate with consumers.

Chinese foods were the first to arrive in the US and they appeared initially within Chinese communities before moving out into the wider community via the foodservice industry. Retail products then started to appear, initially ingredients and accompaniments but then as the convenience foods market developed, in ready-to-eat formats. They have now been joined by other Asian cuisines, including Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese.

Indian foods also are sometimes included under the Asian umbrella; and other Southeast Asian cuisines, such as Malaysian and Filipino dishes, are starting to take on greater significance in the restaurant sector.

Meanwhile, this increasing range of cuisines provides more opportunities to Asian fusion—combining various modes of Asian cooking with Western ones. In Malaysia, for example, Eurasian foods combine European dishes with Asian ingredients or vice versa in the wake of the colonial and historical periods that allowed elements of Portuguese, Dutch, British, Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisines to be utilized.

Many Asian products now appearing in the US market are made stateside—not only by Asian company subsidiaries but also by generations of new ethnic entrepreneurs that have grown up in the US. These new business owners  are launching authentic-style products but with a modern twist, often focusing on spicier and more flavorful options targeted at an increasingly sophisticated and demanding consumer base.

Sriracha Wave

Sriracha has been a rising star in flavor and ingredient trends. A hot sauce made with chilis, sriracha was named after the city of Si Racha in eastern Thailand, where it is reported to have originated. In Thailand, it tends to be used as a dipping sauce. It also is used as a condiment in Vietnamese cooking, as well as an ingredient in a wide range of products.

Sriracha sauce made its commercial US debut in the 1980s, when it was produced and marketed by California-based Huy Fong Foods. More recently, however, sriracha has experienced dynamic growth with a host of rival sauces. Elsewhere, it’s grown as a popular flavor in restaurant dishes (including leading chains’ menu items) and has appeared in a wide range of prepared packaged foods—including soups, ready meals, snacks and even beverages.

Although numbers remain relatively low overall, Innova Market Insights data show that numbers of new US sriracha (and sriracha-flavored) products doubled in 2015 compared to 2014. Pulling back a little more, there were hundreds of new sriracha products in 2015 compared to just double-digit gains in 2013. Sauces, seasonings, dips, glazes and rubs accounted for more than half of the 2015 new products total. Sriracha-flavored snacks were the second most popular category, ahead of ready meals and spreads, which shared third place in terms of sriracha new product mentions.

The sauces category now features some major brands. They include Heinz Sriracha ketchup; Lee Kum Kee, with its Sriracha Chili sauce and ketchup products; CHA! By Texas Pete and McIlhenny Company’s Tabasco with a Thai Chili Sauce featuring sriracha.

The flavor also is taking new colorful new directions. For example, gourmet food and cooking retailer Williams-Sonoma expanded its private label line with Orange and Green sriracha sauce varieties (joining a Red variety). These offerings feature different chili peppers and ingredients to achieve alternative colors. In other related sauce, dressing and dip news, consumers are finding sriracha in new places, such as Hidden Valley Sriracha Ranch Dressing (The Clorox Company), Terrapin Ridge Sriracha Horseradish Sauce and Stonewall Kitchen’s Sriracha Honey Mustard Dip.

New product launches also show sriracha mentions throughout the salty snack, nuts and seed, popcorn, meat snack and baked snack categories. Leading brands as well as smaller specialists have been active, with Kellogg’s Cheez-It for example launching a sriracha variety under its Bold Snacks sub-brand, while General Mills’ Chex introduced an Xtreme Spicy Sriracha option. Sriracha also was a finalist in Fritolay’s Lay’s 2013 “Do Us a Flavor” contest in 2013.

Last but not least, sriracha also appears in various ready meal products—particularly snack-style lines that feature chicken (although there are also some seafood and vegetarian combinations). Retailers’ private label brands also are getting in on the sriracha boom with with 2015 launches including Trader Joe’s Sriracha Potato Chips and Kroger’s Braided Crust Spicy Chicken Pizza with Sriracha Ranch Sauce.

Here Comes Korea!

One trending food is kimchi, Korea’s traditional vegetable side dish with seasonings. It is considered as Korea’s national dish and South Koreans reportedly consume about 40lb per person per year.

Consumers are showing greater interest in all fermented foods and kimchi certainly is enjoying that popularity. There are many different types of kimchi depending on the ingredients used. Most popular options include napa cabbage, radish, scallions and cucumber.

US kimchi new product activity has been relatively limited to date, although numbers have risen in recent years. One company driving awareness is MILKimchi Inc., New York, which offers several bottled kimchi varieties in addition to Gochujang sauces and even a DIY Kimchi Making Kit. Founder Lauren Chun re-created recipes from her mother’s restaurant kitchen in California and also published The Kimchi Cookbook. Ready-made kimchi are increasingly appearing not only in Korean grocers and health food stores, but also in many supermarkets.

The Korean food company Nongshim, also has been instrumental in promoting the availability of kimchi and other Korean ingredients and recipes in a number of international markets. In the US, for example, it offers a variety of noodle products including both wet and dried noodle soups (featuring kimchi) as well as bowl noodles and dried noodles. It entered the North American market back in the 1990s, but moved forward in the mid-2000s with its own US production facility. Other Korean food companies active in the US include Taekyung Nongsan Co. Ltd., with its O’taste sauces, seasonings and meal options; and Pulmuone Co., Ltd., with its Pulmuone, Soga, and I’m Real soybean products, fresh noodles, juice, bottled water, pastas, and sauces.

There’s growing Korean food activity involving US frozen food specialists and brands such Saffron Road (American Halal Company Inc.) and Evol (part of Boulder Brands/Pinnacle Foods). Saffron Road focuses on ethnic recipes using natural, halal recipes with sustainably sourced ingredients. Its product line includes traditional Korean entrees, such as Beef Bulgogi, Bimibop with Beef and Bimibop with Tofu, Gochujang Chili. For its part, Evol offers a range of frozen products, including a Korean Style Beef & Kimchi in its hand-held Street Tacos line.

There are still more signs of mainstream foods and drinks embracing Korean recipes. Last year saw Nestlé Prepared Foods expand its Lean Cuisine line with a new Marketplace collection. It includes Sweet & Spicy Korean Style Beef, along with nine other Asian-style recipes. Meanwhile, retailers also are also getting into the market with their own private label options. Examples include Target’s Simply Balanced health range, which has a Brown Rice & Korean Inspired Beef option; Kroger’s Korean Kalbi Beef; and Trader Joe’s Korean Inspired Pork Shoulder.

Korean BBQ flavor also is appearing in more new products. New launch examples include Lee Kum Kee’s Korean Marinade, Jack Links’ Korean BBQ Recipe Jerky and Eat Your Vegetable’s Taste Veggie Chips with Korean BBQ flavor.

More Asian Adventures

There is evidence that adventurous consumers are using more sauces and preparing more recipes from scratch. As a result, complete meals may be losing share to ingredients in the ethnic foods market. It’s all because meal kits and seasoning mixes are adding a certain amount of convenience, in purchasing and preparation, and can bridge the gap between fully prepared foods and scratch cooking.

One example involves General Mills’ 2015 launch of The Good Table. The new product line of gourmet-style sauce and crust mixes for chicken and fish includes four restaurant-inspired flavors: Parmesan & Herb, Southwest Tortilla and Thai Peanut for Chicken, and Lemon & Herb for fish.

For families tired of the same old chicken and fish at dinnertime, officials say The Good Table offers a simple way to spice up dinner staples. The Good Table package contains two parts: a coating sauce, which keeps meat moist and juicy; as well as crust mix that contains flavorful additions such as tomato pieces, crushed tortilla chips, herbs and peanuts.

“The Good Table line of products illustrates the latest in General Mills’ continued innovation in high-quality family food solutions,” said Michael Bortinger, associate marketing manager at General Mills. “A flavorful, convenient way to bring the family together, The Good Table deepens our commitment to following our consumers’ tastes and interests, offering a nutritious way for consumers to make great-tasting, restaurant-style meals at home.”

Interest in Asian flavors and ingredients also is reflected in perhaps more unlikely food and drinks sub-categories. In this instance, flavors from Vietnam and the Philippines have influenced the dairy category.

It was in 2013-2014, for example, that Tarte Foods LLC, Santa Monica, Calif., introduced an Asian alternative to Greek yogurt. Officials say Tarte Asian Yogurt, a French-Vietnamese-style product, has a lighter texture and less sweet taste compared to most flavored yogurts—yet it still has a high protein content. The yogurt comes in five flavors: Strawberry & Guanabana, Mango & Coconut, the Original, Green Tea & Honey and Acai & Blueberry.

Last year brought another Asian-style dairy treat to California stores. AC Creamery Inc., Anaheim, Calif., introduced Manila Sky ice cream, a nine-item line (six 16oz flavors, three 48oz flavors) featuring California-sourced milk and fruit purees from the Philippines.

Six “gourmet fusion” pint varieties include Mango Verde (with Filipino green mangoes), Nutty Jack (with jackfruit, cashews and sea salt), Viva Avocado (avocado with honey), Purple Yumm (with Filipino ube, as known as purple yam), Mango Dream (with a blend of Filipino and Mexican mangoes) Coco Rico (with Filipino macapuno coconuts and coconut swirl).

The 16oz containers carry a suggested retail price of $3.99 to $4.99 and 48oz containers retail for $5.99 to $6.99. The ice cream is available at Asian retailers in California and selected farmers markets.


Originally appeared in the May, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Asian Inspirations.