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The Exploding American Palate: Ethnic Flavors Spice Up the Mix

Date: 07/06/04 | Source: Specialty Food Magazine | Author: Denise Shoukas
Categories: Trends and Statistics; Market Trends
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The Exploding American Palate: Ethnic Flavors Spice Up the Mix

There’s no end in sight to American consumers’ curiosity about ethnic foods. What once meant foreign tastes—or ethnic—now means flavor. Entire aisles devoted to international foods are found not only in neighborhood ethnic grocers, but also in specialty food stores and supermarkets across the country.

According to the Food Marketing Institute’s “Trends in the United States, seven out of ten shoppers aged 25 through 39 purchase ethnic foods at least once a month. The Washington Post reported that one in five Americans is eating more ethnic food than two years ago. Ethnic ingredients, once known solely as staples for immigrants, have become creative fodder for American shoppers and profit builders for importers, manufacturers and retailers.

The Evolving American Palate
According to the NASFT’s 2004 State of the Specialty Food Industry Report, the American palate is in a state of constant evolution, driven by a growing number of immigrants from a wide array of countries bringing their new foods to an already diverse U.S. population. Immigration from places such as the Philippines, Mexico, India, Korea, Russia and other non-European nations is growing ethnic food way beyond Italian.

These new populations often open restaurants featuring the cuisine of their homeland. While the initial target market may be other immigrants, these restaurants become increasingly patronized by a curious American public. A growth in discretionary income and a desire to spend some of that income on eating away from home have led to a greater interest in foods from different countries.

According to the NASFT State of the Specialty Food Industry, an increase in foreign and national travel; more attention given to food on television and in magazines; a greater concern with integrity of the food supply, which leads consumers to seek out foods that they may perceive as more healthful; and the growing availability of specialty or fancy foods through diverse channels, from gourmet food stores to the Internet to supermarkets and local restaurants that sell their own signature lines of food, have all contributed to the booming sales of ethnic foods.

“There’s more awareness and dietary consciousness with American consumers than ten years ago, says Tom Hann, general manager of Jungle Jim’s International Grocery, located in Fairfield, Ohio. Jungle Jim’s international section fills 60,000 square feet of space, and stocks 47,000 products from 75 countries, including India, Great Britain, Eastern Europe, Germany and China.

Mollie Stone's Markets, a seven-store chain, offers a wide range of international foods to the San Francisco Bay area. Products from Great Britain, Germany, the Middle East, Italy, Greece, Japan, Spain, the Philippines, Ireland, South America, Holland, France and Mexico help comprise the department coined The World of Food. The selections are extensive. For example, in the India section, the market sells four SKUs of ghee; in the Spanish section, canned baby eels. To meet the desire for Latin foods, Mollie Stone’s owner Dave Bennett installed a Tortilleria at the San Mateo location, where a tortilla-making machine pumps out thousands of fresh tortillas a day.

An Awareness of Latin Flavors
Jungle Jim’s also operates the Mercado Gigante (Jungle Jim's Hispanic market), offering salsas, tortillas, spices, sweets, beans, soda and piñatas. “For the longest time, Italian dominated, but Hispanic and Indian are more popular now, observes Hann. “Consumers are exploring regions as well, becoming familiar with the difference between Tuscan and Sicilian Italian foods, Szechuan and Mandarin Chinese foods, and different regions of Mexico.

The nation’s Asian and Hispanic populations will roughly triple in size by 2050, when minorities overall will be nearly equal in number with whites, according to the Census Bureau. This change in demographics forces retailers and manufacturers to think about the way people eat and buy food.

While Chinese, Italian and Mexican food have had a major impact on eating trends, to the point that the National Restaurant Association does not consider them to be “foreign or “ethnic, other cuisines are increasingly influencing eating habits. Thai foods have become extremely popular as restaurant menu items, while Japanese sushi can be found in supermarkets. Greek/Mediterranean restaurants are also on the rise, according to The State of the Specialty Food Industry Report.

The expansion of Latin flavors promises to expand and fuse with other cuisines. “Mexican food is exciting in the U.S. right now as more traditional flavors, such as molés, are being accepted, noted Zarela Martinez, cookbook author, public television host and owner of Zarela’s in New York City, at the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference in Baltimore in April. “There’s a Latinization of other cuisines as well. For instance, Chef Nobu Matsuhisa incorporates jalapeños and chiles into the Japanese dishes at his renowned restaurants.

Martinez continued, “For the future, I see molés being very big, as well as other cooking sauces. Flavors, such as chile-lime, will continue to grow. She noted that 40 percent of all line extensions introduced in supermarkets in 2001 were either spicy or had a spicy profile. Manufacturers, such as El Paso Chile Co.’s Desert Pepper Trading brand, have combined the meal kit concept with Latin accents by introducing a Mexican Dessert. The kit contains caramel and Mexican chocolate sauce, Mexican candy sprinkles and Pirouline cookies; the consumer simply adds vanilla ice cream to complete.

Simplicity and Flavor
When perusing the ethnic selection at specialty food stores, you will see a variety of packaged meal kits, grilling sauces, spice blends, frozen entrées and prepared foods. Easy preparation and simple cooking methods are in demand.

And the countries of origin are becoming more exotic. Consumer interest in exotic cuisines is “taking us by storm, says Sasha Hare, vice president of product development and marketing, Peaceworks, New York City. Its newest line, Bali Spice, is authentic, easy-to-prepare Indonesian food, best described as a fusion of Thai, Indian and Chinese, with items such as Coconut Chicken Curry Seasoning, Red Chili Stir-Fry Noodle Kit, and Tom Yum Soup Kit. “Indonesian food is not wildly spicy, which works well with the American palate, Hare notes.

“Consumers are hungry for new Asian tastes. We thought no one would know about Indonesian food and that we’d spend a lot of effort familiarizing people with the products, but it’s not the barrier we imagined. People are ready for it. With these types of items, consumers can prepare a healthy, flavorful dish in five to ten minutes.

Selling instant soup packets to make Traditional Japanese Soup White Miso with Tofu and Scallions or Traditional Japanese Broth Wakame with Shiitake Mushrooms, San-J is a 200-year-old Japan-based company that began exporting products to the U.S. 25 years ago. “We started with Tamari, the company’s signature item, to see how the American palate would accept it. Even back then, consumers were interested in moving from chemically brewed soy sauce to naturally brewed. Just a few years after importing products, we built a plant in Richmond and now everything we sell in the states, aside from the rice crackers and soup cups, are made there from organic and non-GMO American soy beans, says Kathy Mattisz, director of marketing, San-J International, Richmond, Va.

“Miso soup is popular because it’s offered in so many restaurants and has great recognition. Wakame broth, made of seaweed, black pepper, sesame seeds and tofu, is gaining in popularity too. People are eager for related products. They think, ‘I know miso, now let me try this.’

“We try to keep up with the trends. Our new grilling sauce line is based on the interest in Asian fusion flavors. Ethnic and gourmet blend now as more ethnic flavors show up in gourmet products. Americans want authentic Japanese but also the American taste, particularly the younger generations. So we’ve added chile powder and garlic that Americans love to the authentic Tamari flavor of Asia.

Global Flavors at Home
One path for more exotic ethnic ingredients to find their way onto shelves in America starts with need and grows as the flavors become interesting and familiar to consumers. Huma Siddiqui, author of Jasmine in Her Hair and owner of White Jasmine, a company that celebrates Pakistani culture through cooking classes, a line of teas and spices and accessories, wanted to bring the foods of her homeland of Pakistan to her new home in Madison, Wis., when she moved there nine years ago. Siddiqui recalls, “The need for spices was so great for me. It was hard to find the quality I was used to in Pakistan.

By creating her own line, she solved sourcing problems and created a niche market. Siddiqui felt the flavors and aromas of Pakistani food would appeal to Americans. Pakistani food is easier to prepare than Indian food, which is widely accepted in restaurants but complex to cook at home. Siddiqui says, “It doesn’t take a lot of spices to make; it’s a layering of flavors. And you don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen.

While many traditional ethnic specialty foods are manufactured in the U.S., some firms believe in the genuineness of imported products. “My job is to take an ethnic food from another country, maintain its authenticity and communicate it in a way to be understood in the American marketplace, says Hare of Peaceworks.

The Ziyad family began selling freshly baked pita breads and other hard-to-find Middle Eastern specialties to the ethnic communities on the south side of Chicago in 1966. Their shop, Syrian Bakers & Grocery, Inc., eventually expanded to become Ziyad Importing, a wholesale and importing business distributing Middle Eastern and other ethnic products to 46 states and six countries. Items range from Al Ghazal vegetable ghee from Jordan to Ghandour products from Lebanon, complemented by Jerusalem Foods’ Frozen Falafel, Al Safa Halal Beef Patties and Chicken Strips and Ziyad Halal meat products.

Caribbean Jewels imports and distributes Jamaican herbs, spices and sauces directly from Lost Beach Resort on Jamaica's southwest coast. In an attempt to recreate the flavors of Jamaica, the company decided to produce a line of jerk sauces, vinegar and a variety of spices unique to Jamaica. Jamaican Dread Jerk Sauce is a spicy hot barbecue sauce loaded with what Jamaicans call “country peppers, better known as habaneros, which are estimated to be 1,000 times hotter than jalapeños. Knowing American’s desire for spicy, but aware that the authentic heat level may blow repeat sales, the company offers Tourist Class, which is spicy but not so hot, and Original, for those who can take the heat.

Educating Staff and Customers
Produce departments are an ideal venue to familiarize consumers with ethnic ingredients. “We have a 200-foot ethnic produce section. We find that customers prefer to buy the lemongrass and fish sauce to make their own Thai food and we cross-merchandise it there, says Hann of Jungle Jim’s.

The prepared foods department is an excellent place to incorporate ethnic foods that shoppers can take home to enjoy. Mollie Stone’s has installed a Burrito Bar, which encourages shoppers to create their own Mexican burritos and tacos. For instance, the Mollie Special, priced at $5.49, includes a choice of meat or vegetable, pinto beans, Mexican rice, sour cream, guacamole and fresh pico de gallo salsa. For customers interested in Asian soups, Mollie Stone’s Noodle Soup Bar offers ramen and broth, which can be enhanced with 28 different items, in addition to chicken, fish or tofu.

Stocking meals kits and spice packets makes it easier for consumers to create ethnic dishes at home. Jarred Indian sauces, such as Curried Flavors’ Maya Kaimal Tikka Masala, take away the mystique of cooking with all the spices of Indian cuisine, and seasoning and and marinades from Ultimate Seasonings brings the flavors of African dishes to consumers. Ethnic frozen entrées, such as Kohinoor Foods’ Heat & Eat Curries, spice combinations, such as Tom Douglas Seattle Kitchen Bengal Masala Rub, and meal kits like Annie Chun’s soup bowls and Thai Kitchen’s noodle meal kit, make it easy for consumers to bring ethnic home. “We recommend demos to show how easy to prepare our soups are. We don’t add anything and it surprises people how easy it is to make, says San-J’s Mattisz.

The Spanish Table stocks thousands of shelf-stable products in each of its three 3,000-square-foot stores, in Berkeley, Calif., Seattle and Santa Fe. Although it sells more readily accepted Spanish products, the sales philosophy and merchandising techniques can be copied to promote any unfamiliar food. “We have shelf talkers that detail items and how they’re used, as well as the different things we do with them in our kitchen. We also hand out recipes by ingredient, such as saffron, says Libby Creed, store manager.

Knowledgeable staff is paramount when selling ethnic products. “We’ll find that a vinegar popular in Berkeley won’t be in Seattle. Often it’s linked to how excited the staff is about a product. To encourage this type of involvement, we let the staff taste the items and take them home to use them. That way they can be really educated about the products and share that enthusiasm with customers, Creed continues.

The Next Stop
According to the U.S. Market for Emerging Ethnic Foods, cuisine contenders for the future include Caribbean and African cuisines, Mediterranean beyond Italian and kosher and halal foods, which are attracting consumers beyond their core Jewish and Muslim markets.

Maricel Presilla, owner-chef of Zafra and Cucharamama Restaurants in Hoboken, N.J., and a culinary historian, believes South American is the next big Latin cuisine. Andean peppers, potatoes, South American tamales made with dried corn and floral, aromatic Amazonian fruits are items she believes will appeal to the specialty and health food segments.

Hare of Peaceworks points out, “The consumer is getting more worldly and sophisticated. The younger generation has access to the Internet, is educated and curious and is a widely exposed group of kids. Ethnic will continue to grow not only because of the changing demographics, but because younger consumers have access to information that we never did growing up.

Creed of the Spanish Table observes, “Gourmet and ethnic are overlapping. Gourmet shops are always looking for inspiration and with the amount of exposure consumers have to other parts of the world and cuisines, it’s opening up a new world of flavors.

Denise Shoukas is a contributing editor to Specialty Food Magazine.

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The Exploding American Palate: Ethnic Flavors Spice Up the Mix


There’s no end in sight to American consumers’ curiosity about ethnic foods. What once meant foreign tastes—or ethnic—now means flavor. Entire aisles devoted to international foods are found not only in neighborhood ethnic grocers, but also in specialty food stores and supermarkets across the country.


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