Product developers put their own spin on ethnic food formulation.

Orval Kent's Szechuan Chicken Pasta balances authentic with everyday appeal.

For different views of ethnic food product development,Refrigerated & Frozen Foodsapproached Orval Kent Foods Co., a Wheeling, Ill.-based processor of refrigerated deli salads and side dishes; and Kahiki Foods Inc., a Gahanna, Ohio, processor of frozen Asian entrees.

Presented on the left is a discussion with Orval Kent’s Jamie Fibiger, chef and director of R&D; and Mark Kretzinger, executive chef and director of R&D. To the right is a discussion with Jeff Tsao, Kahiki’s director of R&D.

Q:Orval Kent’s history and strengths would be in traditional American potato and pasta salad products. Is it fair to say that Orval Kent is developing more on-trend ethnic-inspired offerings? Is there a particular product - from the recent past - that marks that turning point? If so, what?

Jamie Fibiger:As R&D chefs, we need to be current with culinary trends in cutting-edge restaurants, but recognize that it takes some time and some changes to make those innovations fit the palate and experience of mainstream consumers. That said, our consumers are more educated and interested in the culinary experience than ever before, so we work hard to recreate authentic flavors in a way that makes the food accessible.

For example, we have a Szechuan Chicken Pasta Salad that has some authentic ingredients and flavors, but uses the familiarity of pasta and everyday vegetables to bring the dish to a broader audience. We also brought the concept of ceviche to more consumers by using surimi, and Latin-inspired products - such as our Jicama Slaw - to create variety and more appeal in the deli salad case.

Mark Kretzinger:   I would add that the incredible success of the Food Network has gone a long way towards opening up consumers’ eyes to available flavors, plus expanding their palates by taking some of the fear out of trying new ingredients and dishes.

Q: How have you gained credibility and confidence with ethnic flavors and trends?

Kretzinger: We do attend conferences and rely heavily on our suppliers, not only to keep us up-to-date with trends, but also to work with us on the latest technology in delivering authentic flavors. Many times it is easy to create a dish that is in the style of a specific ethnic classic, but creating authenticity for that dish is what is difficult.

Fibiger:   Our customers - particularly those with regional strengths - also are a key element in driving innovation in the area of ethnic-inspired products. They need to cater to their consumers, and in turn, we partner with them to develop the types of products that their consumers are seeking.

Q:Of Orval Kent’s new ethnic-inspired products last year, what are one or two you’re most proud of?  Why?

Fibiger:  I’m most proud of our Fresh Toss Asian Peanut Noodle retail component salad kit. It consists of a pouch of fresh, fully cooked Asian noodles, a vinaigrette dressing with edamame, black beans, black sesame seeds, ginger, sesame oil and garlic, and a packet of chopped peanuts for garnish. With this product, we not only are able to bring this great-tasting dish with Asian flavors and ingredients, we also can offer the consumer the fresh eating experience that a component kit affords.

Kretzinger:  My best example is the Bistro 28 Red Beans and Rice that we just launched.  It is a New Orleans-style red beans and rice with Andouille sausage and seasonings from Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Magic Seasoning Blends. I am excited that we are able to bring a product with this level of authenticity to our customers with a hearty, great-tasting product that is ready-to-heat and eat - bringing a whole new level of high quality, restaurant-style cuisine attainable to consumers.

Q: Can you recall an example of an ethnic product that didn’t work? What happened? What did you learn?

Fibiger:  Curry is a profile that we have tried many times in different dishes, and it has not yet taken off for us. With Indian and middle-eastern food products growing significantly, we continue to try to use curry in our component kit salads and chicken salads, but they have not yet reached a viable level. Also, sourcing ethnic ingredients can be difficult - especially if they are imported - since a language barrier can make communicating the required specifications and paperwork difficult.

Q: What’s most problematic in developing a new ethnic-inspired product? Sourcing? Timing? In a perfect world, what would you want industry suppliers to address?

Kretzinger:   The most difficult task in developing a new ethnic-inspired product is the level of authenticity you are able to achieve. Truly authentic flavors usually are not available from suppliers who are able to produce flavors in the scale that we require. Our challenge, then, is to balance the desire for an authentic flavor profile that will still have broad appeal with the need for manufacturing scale on specialty ingredients.

Q: Each year brings many flavor, spice and menu predictions. What have you read or heard that’s right on-trend with you?

Fibiger:   I still believe that curry has to come into its own. I think that red curry might be the breakthrough profile since it has broad usage across Latin- and Asian-inspired dishes but doesn’t have the same visual look as traditional golden curries.

Kretzinger:   I think that lemon grass is a flavor that can become much more mainstream, similar to what has happened with cilantro over the past five years. I also think that a truly natural-tasting wood smoke flavor could have broad use across a wide variety of products.

Q:When it comes to Asian foods - or any ethnic food profile - in what ways have consumer tastes and expectations most changed during the past decade?

Jeff Tsao:In the past decade, diners have been able to experience more diversity of ethnic restaurants closer to home, from the local sushi joint to the churrascaria (Brazilian steak house) in the neighboring suburb. These new and exciting dining experiences have helped to expose people to many other types of ethnic foods, resulting in a frozen food consumer that is savvier to the foods that they want to eat.

A decade ago, our consumers were only interested in simple egg rolls and General Tso’s Chicken. Now, customers are asking for items such as lettuce wrap chicken and pad thai.  Not only do people recognize different regions of ethnic foods but they also desire healthier options that some ethnic foods offer.

Q: How has Kahiki’s R&D met those changing demands?
Tsao:   Kahiki’s role as a food manufacturer took its roots from its popularity as a world-renowned Tiki restaurant that happened to produce frozen food. Since the days of making egg rolls in the restaurant during the off-hours, Kahiki has come a very long way. We have had to keep constant attention to what the market has needed - from the elimination of artificial ingredients and colorants in our foods to exploring what’s hot in regional and national restaurants.

 Q: Please tell us about a noteworthy new product.

Tsao:   I’m most proud of our Kahiki Naturals line. This product line took tremendous collaboration within our company, our supplier network and with the governmental regulatory powers that be.

The products in this line up are the most delicious and most nutritious products coming from Kahiki, as well as from any other Asian food manufacturer. This line represents delicious, bold and unique flavors - while it offers wholesome nutrition that comes from brown rice and other all-natural, minimally processed ingredients.

 Q: Can you recall an example of where an ethnic product didn’t work? What happened?  What did you learn?

Tsao:   Of course! There was an item that we developed that was inspired by a very popular menu item in Canada called Ginger Beef with Celery. We thought that we would bring this concept to our American audience and felt that it was going to be a hit.

What we didn’t expect was that Americans were not familiar with it at all and were actually not interested in a Canadian version of Beef and Broccoli with a sweet ginger sauce. What’s popular in Canada does not translate to America and vice versa.

 Q:   In your opinion, what’s the hardest part of developing a new ethnic product?

Tsao:   As we are fairly unique in the ingredients that we use due to the products that we make, we have definitely had supply challenges over the years. Many of our finished products contain typical Asian ingredients that come directly from very reputable manufacturers in Asia. With that said, finding industrial sources for some of our ingredients has proven difficult but we have found that there is almost always someone able to provide it for a premium. In a perfect world, commodity and ingredient prices would be stable and about 30 percent less than they are now - a perfect world right?

 Q:  How do you “scout” new products and flavors? In what ways is this process different than, say five or 10 years ago?

 Tsao:   The way that we scout new items these days focuses more on health and nutrition and how to incorporate health benefits into the foods that we make. As a company, Kahiki is determined to provide healthier foods for its customers that taste great. Internally, when we discuss new projects, a great deal of time is spent on how we can take a concept that is well known and make it in a way that tastes wonderful and at the same time has real health benefits for our consumers.

Processors predict new product, flavor trends

A survey of more than 300 food and beverage product developers reveals that consumer “convenience” is the price of entry requirement for processors hoping to compete in 2008 for new product space.

“At the start of 2007, a majority of processors reported that organic, energy-boosting, natural, ethnic and whole grain were trends to pay attention to,” notes Sarah Corp, executive director of the food and packaging division at Clear Seas Research, based in Troy, Mich. “Trends receiving the highest sustained attention in our 2008 New Product Development Outlook survey include those in the ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ spaces. New in 2008, processors are mindful that consumers - more than ever before - desire ‘healthy’ products. Products that have healthy, natural and organic characteristics have the greatest potential for staying power in the coming year.”

Clear Seas said it surveyed product developers at 318 food and beverage processing companies, across six categories. For more information about the 2008 New Product Development Outlook survey, contact Clear Seas Research at (248) 362-3700