For centuries, cooks have artfully cross-pollinated cultural elements of flavor, and now culinologists are combining Latin and Asian ingredients and cooking techniques to launch innovative and flavorful prepared foods. Today’s retail shelves display a world atlas of culturally inspired experiences that might not be authentic, yet answer the consumers’ desires to nourish themselves with fresh new takes on flavorful foods that simply taste good.
Fusion is not confusion; it’s part of a timeless evolution of people, places, techniques, ingredients, tools, and rituals revolving around flavor. Similar ingredients, elements, and techniques can be found in the kitchens of Latin America, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East abound.
Just as grilling is a universal technique, hot chili peppers can be found in equally hot climes from Southeast Asia to Africa, and from India to Mexico. And certain ingredients pop up in surprisingly dissimilar locations, such as cilantro in dishes of Mexico and Vietnam, or fennel seeds in favorite specialities in both Italy and the Middle East.
Fusions do not necessarily have to be labeled as such—there are products that fuse cultures and flavors without “announcing” it. A stroll through one of today’s ubiquitous specialty supermarkets reveals prepared items ranging from Thai turkey and Korean bulgoki burgers, to banh mi pizzas and ramen burritos, to mac-n-cheese quesadillas and “everything but the bagel” seasonings in, well, everything but bagels.
The global ingredient trade that brought citrus to the New World half a millennium ago worked both ways, of course. Chili peppers, a New World native, are now ubiquitous in Southeast and South Asian cuisines. Even foods as “all-American” dishes like a classic Texas barbecue brisket, simply rubbed with black pepper and salt, can’t escape flavors rooted in Mexican barbacoa or the key Piper nigrum ingredient from India.
Developing and successfully introducing new flavor blends successfully in the current market requires flexibility and creativity to meet consumer expectations. This applies not only to flavor and complexity, but also to providing broad, intercultural appeal without narrowly profiled cuisine labels. When anticipating consumer expectations for both culinary comfort zones and flavor, simply mashing together two culinary components to describe a new cross-cultural product doesn’t do it.
Today’s flavor fusion evolution is impacted by modern consumers’ hypersensitivity to cultural language and how that attracts or discourages identifying with the food product. This can create barriers based on flavor expectations, cultural appropriation, and previous culinary experiences. Certain flavors can have associated identities that lead, confirm, or confuse consumer expectations.
For example, leaf of the kaffir lime, also called a magrut lime, is a signature ingredient of Southeast Asia. To the American palate, it will most often be a flavorful cue of Southeast Asia and, more specifically, Thai cuisine. Although most singular in its powerful floral fragrance, it is a reminder that the limes that today figure so prominently in Latin and Caribbean cuisines originally were native to Asia.
Coming in hot
Informed by current trends, the number of American consumers aware of North African flavors is growing at a quick pace. This awareness is likely owed to the signature condiment of North Africa, harissa. The spicy crimson chili, garlic, herb, and caraway paste has been popping up in prepared foods such as Luvo Inc.’s Luvo Bowl Chicken Harissa & Chickpeas meal and Nestlé SA’s Lean Cuisine brand Sweet & Spicy Harissa Meatballs. The latter is not only an example of the popularity of the condiment, but the product’s flavor-fusion addition of sweet notes also plays to the US palate preference for sweet-n-spicy items.
Another example of this penchant for North African flavors is Amore Cucina, Inc.’s Kitchen & Love brand Cauliflower Quick Meal. Leveraging the recent healthy obsession with cauliflower, the base for this ready-to-eat pouch meal is cauliflower mashed together with harissa. But the company has been flexing its flavor trend muscles in other directions as well, biting into the latest Latin trend of South American flavors via its Peruvian Vegetable Ceviche and Artichoke & Roasted Peppers Quinoa.
Successful creation and marketing of new flavor fusions will continue to deliver on today’s consumer expectations for the exotic and exciting. As R&D professionals intentionally create and curate new combinations, it is possible to utilize data analysis tools to efficiently perform qualitative consumer insights research.
Such tools gather real-time tasting and testing experiences throughout the product development process, not only discovering up-and-coming flavor trends but also laying the foundation for what’s around the culinary corner. Such tools can inform an idea for a marketing protocol, with actual experiential descriptors that unambiguously describe the product from the perspective of a flavor complex.
Research chef Robert Danhi is an award-winning author and TV host. The co-founder of Flavor360 Solutions, he is an in-demand consultant to the F&B industry, maximizing the Flavor360 software platform for innovation, new product development, and operations excellence, all designed to save time and improve data quality at every stage of the R&D process. Chef Danhi can be reached via www.flavor360software.com.