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A Taste of the Tropics

From: Food Product Design, Mar 26, 2012

By Don Giampetro and Kasi Sundaresen, Ph.D., Contributing Editors

America is a land of immigrants and a huge influx over the years has brought a rich cornucopia of different cultures and cuisines to this country. But for a very long time, the only ethnic cuisine that gained any significant degree of prominence on our plates was Italian, with sides of Americanized Chinese and Mexican.

Over the past decade or two, this situation has drastically changed. Multiple ethnic cuisines now influence American restaurant menus, and new retail product introductions. While Italian, Chinese and Mexican cuisines are on the top (but now with more authentic flavors coming to the fore, along with regional dishes), new menu items and product launches are inspired by foods from tropical areas like Hawaii, the Caribbean, South America and Southeast Asia.

Hawaii's melting pot

Hawaiian cuisine has become a melting pot of different ethnic cuisines, including American, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Polynesian and Portuguese. Common ingredients used in Hawaiian cuisine include Asian teriyaki, Chinese five-spice powder, wasabi, Japanese soy sauce, Filipino bagoong (fermented fish or shrimp and salt), and huli-huli sauce (ginger, soy sauce, red chiles, salt and water). Hawaiian sea salt is a traditional seasoning for native Hawaiian dishes such as kalua pork (wrapped in ti or banana leaves and roasted in an underground pit), poke (a cold salad made with raw fish, soy sauce, green onions, seaweed and sesame oil) and Hawaiian jerky (beef made with soy sauce and sometimes pineapple juice). Alaea (volcanic red clay) enriches the salt with iron oxide and imparts a characteristic red color.

Coconuts are extremely popular in Hawaiian cuisine and go into coconut-based gelatin and pudding, and even doughnuts with coconut filling. Some of the fruits used extensively in Hawaiian cooking include pineapple, papaya , guava, bananas, grapes, mangoes, litchi and jaboticaba (a sweet, grape-like fruit).

Fish-based meals are extremely popular in Hawaii. Lomi-lomi salmon is a traditional side dish made with salted and diced salmon, crushed ice, tomatoes and Maui onions. Mahi-mahi is prepared a variety of ways, including breaded with macadamia nuts and baked or fried, or teriyaki-style.

The "loco moco," a breakfast dish of rice, hamburger patties, fried eggs and brown gravy, is a popular food-truck item in Hawaii. The quintessentially Hawaiian "plate lunch" consists of rice, macaroni salad and an entrée, often teriyaki beef or chicken katsu (fried boneless chicken served with tonkatsu sauce; the sauce is made with soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and mirin).

An absolute island treat is malasada, originally from Portugal-a light, fluffy, fried doughnut coated with sugar and sometimes filled with jelly or cream (in Hawaii, Fat Tuesday is known as Malasada Day). Another popular dessert in Hawaii is haupia, a thick coconut-cream gelatin served sliced into blocks.

The Caribbean culinary sea

Barbecue-style cooking likely originated in the Caribbean islands, which blend African, Native American, European and Chinese cuisines. Some ingredients common to the Caribbean islands include rice, plantains, beans, cassava root, ackee, bell peppers and chiles, tamarind, chickpeas, tomatoes, sweet potatoes (boniata), yucca, onion, citrus fruits, and coconut. Common herbs and spices include cilantro, allspice, annatto seeds, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, ginger, mace, nutmeg and thyme.

Caribbean dishes are often both sweet and savory due to the use of aromatic spices like allspice, cinnamon, etc. in rubs for meats, as well as in chutneys, ceviches and curries. The famous Jamaican jerk spice rub, traditionally dry-rubbed onto pork and chicken, is made with Scotch bonnet or habanero chiles, allspice, scallions, garlic, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, thyme and salt. In Guyana (a northern coastal South American country but considered part of the Caribbean), pepperpot is a spicy Native American stew made with meat (typically beef, pork or mutton), chiles, cinnamon and boiled-down cassava juice (cassareep). Curry is also common in Jamaican cooking, often with goat or mutton-something that is finding street-food appeal in the United States. Yvonne's Jamaican Food Truck in New York serves curried goat, and curried chicken.

Caribbean cuisine is famous for introducing unique flavor combinations: the sweet-spicy concept, whereby hot chiles are used to balance sweetness (often from fruit), as well as the sweet-sour concept, such as with tamarind adding tanginess to sweet items like the tambran balls of Trinidad and Tobago.

Caribbean fruits like papaya, mango, guava, tamarind and soursop add color and variety to various dishes. Guava is common in compotes, pastes and jellies. Guava paste is served with cream cheese, or spread on cassava, crisp breads or crackers. Guava is also an ingredient in marinades, sauces, ice cream and sorbet. Green mangoes are a main constituent of chutneys and stews. Pickapeppa sauce ("Jamaican ketchup"), is made with mango, tamarind and chiles. Papaya goes into drinks, salads and desserts. Soursop is widely used in drinks, sorbet and ice cream. Other classic Caribbean desserts include Cuban coconut rice pudding, Tortugan pineapple rum cake, Puerto Rican mango puff pastry turnovers, and coconut sugar cake from Trinidad and Tobago.

Distinctly Brazilian

Brazil is home to various native, indigenous peoples, and was settled by the Portuguese. Immigrants later came from various points in Europe (mainly Italy, Spain and Germany), Japan and the Middle East.

Rice, black beans and cassava, along with a range of fruits like açaí, cupuaçu, mango, papaya and guava, are staples of Brazilian cuisine. The national dish is feijoada, a thick stew of black beans, salted pork and sausage (Portuguese chouriço is common), often with onions and garlic. In some parts of Brazil, it is served with orange salad, white rice, farofa (ground manioc with butter and bacon), and couve (wilted collard greens or kale). Rice and beans are common on Brazilian tables.

Pizza is also popular in Brazil, made with a thin, flexible crust and very little or no sauce-but sometimes ketchup. Pizza is sometimes for dessert in Brazil, with toppings like guava paste, Nutella, plantains, chocolate, banana, or cinnamon.

Brazil is famous for its street food mostly sold in corner shops. All over Brazil, salgadinhos (similar to Spanish tapas) are popular. Famous street foods include pão de queijo (cheese buns), pastéis del Belém (egg tarts) and coxinha (doughy, deep-fried balls of shredded chicken thigh and sometimes cheese that have a shape reminiscent of a chicken leg). In some parts of Brazil, caruru, a condiment made with okra, onion, dried shrimp and toasted peanuts and/or cashews and cooked with palm oil until a spread-like consistency is reached, is served inside split acarajé, a fried street food made from black-eyed peas.

Açaí, cupuaçu, starfruit and many other tropical fruits are shipped from the Amazon all over the country and consumed in smoothies or as fresh fruit. Açaí berries are widely consumed in puréed form as açaí na tigela, in a bowl or as a smoothie, often accented with granola, other fruit and guarana syrup; the berries also go into ice cream, juices and tonics. Fruit go into many amazing Brazilian desserts like passionfruit mousse cake and quindim, delicious little coconut flans.

Southeast Asia

Although Thai and Indian cuisine have already made strong inroads to mainstream American foodways, foods from other areas in Southeast Asia, like the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, show great promise-and some are already beginning to take hold.

The Philippines. Filipino food is has been influenced greatly by China, Taiwan, Spain, the United States and Mexico. Ingredients used in Filipino cooking include ginger, chiles, garlic, onions, lemongrass, pandan and bay leaves. Rice and coconuts are common, along with root vegetables like cassava, potatoes and yams. Tropical fruits available include banana, guava, mango, calamansi (a small, sour citrus), jackfruit, papaya and pineapple.

Adobo, often made with pork or chicken, is considered the national dish of the Philippines. The meat is often braised in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, onion, bay leaves and peppercorns, served over steamed jasmine rice.

Lumpia, a popular fried, handheld item similar to a spring roll, is made with thin pastry sheets, meat and/or vegetables. Vegetable lumpia might include carrots, cabbage, onions, garlic and mung bean sprouts. Another classic lumpia recipe contains hamburger meat, carrots, garlic, pepper, onions and ginger. Beef tapa is dried, cured beef (like jerky) that's fried or grilled and served with rice, often with garnishes like fried egg, pickled chiles and/or achara (pickled green papaya). Cured longganisa pork sausages are served with caramelized onions and mango jam.

For dessert, halo-halo is a mixture of shaved ice, evaporated milk, sweet mung beans and fruit. Taho is a soft, gelatin-like sweet snack made with tofu, arnibal (a syrup of brown sugar and vanilla) and pearl sago. Turon is sweet lumpia, often with bananas, jackfruit or sweet mung beans, glazed with a sticky, sweet syrup after frying.

Indonesia. A famous Indonesian condiment is called sambal, often made from chiles, shallots, garlic and shrimp paste, but a wide range of ingredients are fair game, including candlenuts, fingerroot (Chinese ginger), galangal, Sichuan pepper, lemongrass, turmeric, etc. Fish, vegetables and meat are sometimes cooked with sambal. Another key condiment is kecap manis, a thick soy sauce sweetened with palm sugar. Indonesian lumpia are similar to Filipino, but almost always include bamboo shoots. Nasi goreng, Indonesian fried rice, can include a mixture of shallots, garlic, pepper, salt, sambal or chili sauce, and kecap manis.

Fruit is usually served fresh, or made into dessert or jelly. It also goes into various types of rujak (salads of fruits and/or vegetables mixed with savory sauce). Tropical fruits, such as banana, papaya, coconut, pineapple, mangosteen, rambutan and jackfruit, are available throughout the islands.

Common Indonesian desserts include martabak manis (a sweet pancake often stuffed or topped with chocolate), pisang goreng (deep-fried bananas) and lapis legit (an elegant cake with many layers).

Vietnam. Vietnamese cuisine highlights fresh vegetables, herbs and a minimal amount of oil, with meat generally used as a condiment for flavoring rather than as the main course. Fresh herbs like lemongrass, Vietnamese coriander, parsley, mint and Thai basil are common. Nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce) accents many Vietnamese recipes. Peanuts, star anise, garlic, shallots, basil, black pepper, rice vinegar, sugar, green onions, cucumber, bean sprouts and lime juice all come into play. To provide texture and flavor, vegetables are often left raw and julienned (cut into matchstick strips).

Bánh mì sandwiches-which have become popular in the United States-are made with a wide range of vegetables and meats, accented with chili sauce and daikon radish slaw and served on a baguette. Nom Nom, with food trucks in San Francisco and Los Angeles, is famous for serving up authentic bánh mì, as well as Vietnamese tacos.

Common Vietnamese fruits include banana, mango, pineapple, persimmon, papaya, mangosteen, litchi, rambutan, dragon fruit and longan. Dessert is often a piece of fresh fruit. An exception is che dau do, a sweet red bean and coconut milk custard made for celebrations.

Bringing the tropics home

Ethnic trends, like those emerging from tropical cuisines, are creating waves throughout foodservice and into retail. Some markets will prefer authenticity, while others are intrigued by approaches that integrate fusion (think meatloaf with jerk seasonings, bánh mì barbecue sandwiches, etc.). Drastic changes to food patterns can prove difficult. Thus, fusion cuisine lets people enjoy everyday foods with a slight twist.

Either way, tropical cuisine is bound to heat up in the coming months and years.

Don Giampetro is vice president of innovation at iTi tropicals, Inc., Lawrenceville, NJ. He holds a B.S. in Biochemistry from Rutgers and has more than 20 years experience in the food industry. He is a member of the Institute of Food Technologists and Juice Products Association.

Kasi Sundaresan possesses a Ph.D. in Food Science from Rutgers University and is manager of research development and quality at iTi tropicals. She is a member of the Institute of Food Technologists, Juice Products Association, Technical Committee for Juice and Juice Products, and Research Chefs Association.

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Authentically Ethnic

Research released in early 2012 by Chicago-based Mintel-in connection with its Jan. 2012 "Ethnic Foods-U.S." report-notes that two-thirds of surveyed consumers cite "authenticity" as the most-important factor when it comes to ethnic cuisine, whether dining out at a restaurant or buying retail products for home preparation. The other top characteristics for ethnic foods were "all-natural" and "premium/gourmet or artisanal," both of which were valued by 49% of respondents.

-The Editors




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