Today’s consumers carry more culinary knowledge than ever before, and can boast familiarity with ingredients such as lemongrass and kaffir limes, black garlic, fenugreek and carob. This creates high expectations for product developers to deliver more genuine flavors of Asia in easy to understand formats and flavors.
The good news is, food makers now have access to these ingredients and a treasure trove of others, and in multiple forms. Whether purées of galangal, IQF lemongrass, fermented Chinese black beans in bulk, or fruit and pepper pastes, research chefs have access to nearly everything they need to create and recreate traditional flavors. Moreover, there is a veritable library of ready-to-use sauces that can be incorporated into a formulation to bring a level of authenticity without needing a vast inventory of new ingredients.
Trending sauces such as doban djan and chiu chow create opportunities for food manufacturers to replicate traditional dishes of Asia in simple formats and with authentic flavors. Think of recent additions to the supermarket like gochujang rice bowls, or bi bim bop.
Concurrently, a parallel trend is boosting culinary cross-pollenation. For example “all-American” mac ‘n’ cheese spiced with Madras curry from India, Thai sriracha drizzled on Cal-Mex nachos, and burgers slathered with Vietnamese black pepper garlic sauce. In these fusions, there’s no rush to preserve tradition or ever-elusive cultural authenticity.
To satisfy consumer cravings for either of these multidimensional flavor experiences —traditional or fusion — there currently are multiple opportunities that allow developers to inject new combinations of culturally-based flavors into the innovation pipeline.
Food manufacturers can leverage the thriving retail market for internationally influenced food and beverage choices by looking to the trusted ingredients of the past. These can be artfully employed to create the new flavor combinations of the future. Exploring global flavor options and accompanying native imagery to develop a new product can inspire creative branding, as well, to tap into the unfulfilled desire of consumers to travel to such places.
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Exploring globally diverse ingredients that may be desired yet unfamiliar can require specialized know how, equipment, or facilities to execute the new product objectives. Hence, leveraging ingredient suppliers, sauce and paste manufacturers, and other co-manufacturers that have specialties in your target cuisine will offer the most efficient path to utilizing these new ingredients via their established products.
Product developers now have easy access to ingredients like the aforementioned purées of galangal, IQF minced lemongrass, and artisanal, high-quality miso made in distinct styles specific to individual prefectures throughout Japan. Similarly, other flavor pastes from across Asia (and made here in North America in the correct styles) are both cost-effective and immediate ways of incorporating a fresh level of authenticity into formulations, without adding stores of new inventory items and processes. Moreover, a wide variety of these prepared ingredients are now readily available at volumes to satisfy even the largest national brands.
US-based agile manufacturers have adapted to the wave of trends and now offer single-ingredient solutions in every form desired. These include purées, pastes, minced, and diced essential aromatics, as well as all the natural extracts, flavors, and other compounds that deliver otherwise hard-to-procure kaffir lime leaves, jasmine flower, or even the numbing Sichuan peppercorn oil that is fast becoming a trendy representative signature ingredient.
Other workhorses on the formulation bench are “flavor profile” sauces and pastes that are thoughtfully created by R&D teams to emulate a familiar flavor. They consist of a combination of ingredients that, while not necessarily traditional or authentic, are indicative of a country, cuisine, or dish. While some developers might hesitate over such representative components, such solutions can be an efficient way to add layers of complex flavor with only one inventory item. And, of course, they simplify the manufacturing process.
Examples would include Korean BBQ sauce, Thai red curry, Sichuan chili sauce, Malaysian laksa, South Asian curry sauces, or even West Asian dips and marinades. Each can act as a reasonable shortcut in R&D.
For example, the rising popularity of gochujang, the legendary Korean fermented bean paste and chili sauce, has opened opportunities for leading manufacturers to launch Gochujang rice bowls in the retail freezer section and they are selling well.
The Western love for spice is always expanding, as proven by product sales, especially for common but varied flavors, such as the gamut of regional hot sauces across Asia that find their fiery way into prepared food products. But ingredients for adding that kick of spice are not limited to capsicum. While used liberally throughout Asia, it’s easy to forget they are a New World ingredient.
True traditional cuisines of Asia turned to peppercorns in various forms and types for heat. Whether dried and cooked black, brined unripened green, or ripened and peeled raw white seed, the prepared berries of the Piper nigrum were the primary spice to excite the palate for thousands of year before chili peppers were brought from South American to the Eastern hemisphere.
Today, the diverse food cultures of Southeast Asia — especially Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore — are returning to their roots and fashioning recipes that include black pepper front and center for spice, aroma, and a unique cravability. Examples currently trending are Malaysian black pepper sauce for crab, pork ribs, or clams, or in Cambodian cuisine, black pepper paired with garlic and dark soy for meat marinades in products destined for grilling.
Another now-classic superstar is the Thai version of the quick-fermented brilliant red sriracha chili sauce, nahm prik sriracha. This has become widely used in multiple variations and forms with its rich garlic flavor, fermented chili peppers, and exciting colorful spice. It gives an umami boost to nearly anything savory. Incorporating sriracha into the sauce base for a dish even as humble as mac-‘n’-cheese brightens its flavor and appearance with a welcome bite.
Other popular applications have included a brush or spray of the sauce on a flatbread dough added to enhance tomato sauce for such items as pasta dishes. Irregular bits of garlic and smashed skins of chilies become elements that also increase visual appeal of products such as prepared sauces and dips. Simply scaling in a small percentage of Asian chili sauce into a chili-cheese dip or guacamole can dramatically improve it with both a unique visual appeal and a fiery burst of flavor.
As product developers delve into these ingredients and prepared sauces to incorporate intoxicating and inscrutable flavors into new products, yet without adding extra layers of complexity to production, the caveat is to take care not to oversimplify a cuisine that has taken thousands of years to evolve. Still, we can expect to see both trusted and surprising culinary fusions that highlight traditional, original flavors and also add a decided spark to non-Asian items in the coming years.