Originally Published NO April 2010
American consumers have always been attracted to ethnic foods and the adventure and discovery of new flavors. Many are also drawn to the healthful nature of foreign cuisines-think Japanese or Indian cuisine, with their reliance on vegetables, grains, and legumes. And then there is the thrill of new flavors: the power of umami, the savory fifth flavor; the artfully balanced hot-sour-salty-sweet Southeast Asian sauces; the aromatic, cinnamon-spice-scented Moroccan tagines. Today, a variety of ethnic ingredients, flavors, and foods from around the world are gaining in popularity throughout the United States.
As U.S. food retailers focus more on ethnic flavors, it should come as no surprise that sales of branded ethnic foods are poised for growth in 2010. Expect a rise of ethnic and globally inspired packaged prepared foods in a variety of retail channels. Among the emerging ethnic cuisines currently on the precipice of mainstream acceptance are: Peruvian, Moroccan, Korean, Japanese, and New Southern, a fusion cuisine.
Interest in Latin American food has grown significantly over the past decade. Peruvian is the Latin American cuisine getting the most attention right now for unique versions of familiar ingredients, such as corn, potatoes, and chiles.
The cuisine incorporates influences from various regions-Spain, Italy, Africa, China, and Japan. At the same time, Peru's indigenous ingredients-corn (35 species), potatoes (more than 2000 varieties), yucca, seafood, and aji chiles-retain a strong place in the diet. This mixture of ingredients makes for a fascinating fusion cuisine, and one that is very translatable, as Americans are already familiar with many of the authentic ingredients and global influences that make up Peruvian dishes. Fish and seafood, rotisserie chicken, and skewered meats are also commonly used.
Moroccan dishes are poised to capitalize on the health benefits associated with Mediterranean food and America's growing appetite for the freshness and appealing flavors that traditional Mediterranean food offers. Moroccan cuisine is based on healthy ingredients: grains, olive oil, lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and spices.
While healthful, the cuisine also manages to be very rich, flavorful, and satisfying, incorporating elements of Middle Eastern, African, and Mediterranean cooking. Many dishes combine both sweet and savory elements, with key ingredients including lamb, couscous, raisins, honey, olives, ginger, parsley, chile peppers, lemon, mint, and cilantro.
As is the case with Peruvian cuisine, the crossover potential of Moroccan food lies in its distinctive take on foods and cooking techniques that Americans already love: ingredients like semolina pasta, olives, citrus, and cinnamon, along with cooking techniques such as stewing, roasting, and grilling. Moreover, the fruit flavors of many Moroccan dishes are a good match with an American palate accustomed to sweets.
Barely debuting on the U.S. food scene (outside of California and New York) just a few years ago, traditional Korean dishes and improvisations, or Korean fusion, are suddenly popping up all over the country.
The staples of Korean cuisine are rice, noodles, tofu, meat, and vegetables such as cabbage, greens, cucumbers, and squash. Seasonings include sesame oil, fermented soybean paste, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, chile peppers, and a red chili paste called gochujang-making the cuisine more strongly flavored than its Japanese counterpart. Korean meals traditionally include a variety of small side dishes known as banchan; always among these is the fermented cabbage dish kimchee. Soups and stews also figure prominently in the Korean diet.
Many of Korea's flavors are already familiar to Americans, who have grown up with Chinese and Japanese food, but it also makes enough departures from those cuisines to command attention and create significant potential for growth.
It's a safe bet that the popularity of Japanese food will be greater than ever throughout 2010. The recession appears to have increased interest in Japanese noodle dishes as a result of several factors, including their relative affordability, reputation as a great comfort food, and the enticing flavor profiles available.
Beyond noodles and sushi, a widening range of Japanese flavors and dishes are now popping up on the American scene, with strong potential for translation across the packaged-food markets. Japanese cuisine focuses on staple foods like rice or noodles, often eaten in combination with soup. Known as okazu, dishes including vegetables and proteins are served alongside.
Because Japan is an island nation whose main natural resource is the ocean, seafood is ubiquitous. Meat and tofu (and other soy products) also appear in the diet. Japanese food is typically flavored with dashi (fish stock), miso (soybean paste), or soy sauce, making it low in fat but high in flavor. While the healthful connotation of Japanese food stands in good stead, dishes rich in umami (the fifth flavor) guarantee that flavor isn't lacking. Japanese fish, meat, and noodle dishes are natural translations to the American market, poised for broad consumer acceptance.
New Southern earned its place during a faltering economy that provided an opportunity for the cuisine to reach beyond its usual borders and become more popular throughout the United States. The time is right for this ultimate comfort food, which uses some of the most affordable ingredients available.
Corn, greens, sweet potatoes, peas, beans, peppers, and tomatoes frequently show up in dishes. Pork, chicken, and seafood all make appearances, though they are just as likely to be an ingredient in a dish as they are to be a main course. Quick-frying (fried chicken, okra, or green tomatoes) and long, slow cooking (barbecue, long-simmered greens, or beans) both have their places.
Making the Most of Emerging Ethnic Cuisines
When it comes to translating ethnic flavors into new business opportunities, the trick will be properly mapping out the landscape to match the right flavor, nutritional, or interactive appeal with the right audience of hungry, adventurous consumers.
By pairing distinct consumer demographics and their respective needs with the overarching factors that drive consumer demand for ethnic foods-new flavors, culinary adventure, and health and wellness-a brave new world of exciting and flavorful opportunities will be created to drive this growing market. Some strategic ideas for furthering acceptance of ethnic cuisine involve relatively direct translations of ethnic condiments, ingredients, or dishes currently unknown to mainstream consumers, but familiar enough to be accessible. However, opportunities also exist in creating uniquely American ways to add flavor and excitement, taking the idea one step further.