Fiesta of Flavors
By Katie Brandt
Processors have plenty of options when it comes to flavorings from Hispanic cuisines.
The increasing Hispanic population in the United States has been a hot topic in the media, at the office water cooler and around some family dinner tables. The population’s growing influence in the food that U.S. families eat has kept the meals hot as well — not necessarily spicy, but unique, light, fresh and progressively more commonplace.
This trend has not gone unnoticed in the meat and poultry industry, of course. The term “Hispanic” refers to people of Spanish descent from Mexico and Central and South American countries. Currently, 43 million Hispanics reside in the U.S., and that number is projected to increase to 53 million by 2010. Three-fourths come from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba.
Often, when people migrate to different countries, their languages and cuisines follow. Spanish-language TV and radio shows are common in many areas of the country, for example, and Hispanic restaurants and markets are regular sights. The foods from these countries are full of color and taste, but vary as much as each country’s climate and culture.
Mexican foods, for example, involve a great deal of chilies and citrus fruits; they grow in abundance in the country’s hot climate. The citrus’ acidity, in turn, “sharpens and heightens (other) flavors nicely,” says Bruce Armstrong, R&D manager of meat and poultry at Kerry Specialty Ingredients, Beloit, Wis.
The chipotle flavor is also a popular item in Mexican dishes. Made from peppers, chipotle is a smoked jalapeno and accounts for one-fifth of the country’s jalapeno crop. “It’s definitely a hot button,” says Ken Hopkins, president of Everson Spice Co., Signal Hill, Calif.
Danny Bruns, corporate chef at Kerry, says when he visited the company’s facilities in Brazil, he discovered that the food there was very mild. This is a direct result of Europeans’ heavy influence on the country’s culture.
“They don’t even keep pepper on the tables,” he says, adding that Brazilians tend to cook with gentler fruits such as green bell peppers, tomato and coconut.
Meanwhile, Caribbean foods feature various fruits and nutmeg. They also tend to include allspice, a berry commonly used as a spice when dried and also known as Jamaica pepper or pimento. Allspice earned its name from its aroma. It smells of everything from cloves and pepper to cinnamon and nutmeg.
In order to develop a variety of Hispanic flavors while keeping them genuine, American companies often go directly to a resource they have within their walls — their own Hispanic employees. When Everson Spice Co. began developing Hispanic flavor profiles a few years ago, they consulted with their Hispanic plant workers and formed a tasting panel.
“We went to the people who know,” says Hopkins. The laborers-turned-tasters helped the company develop profiles based on proteins that they believed Hispanics prefer. Using fruits from Puerto Rico, jalapeno peppers, a wide array of chilies and other items, Hopkins explains that they developed a sweet-and-sour marinade, barbecue rubs and ground-beef seasonings. He adds that all have proven popular across the United States, useful in adding and bringing out flavor in American favorites such as chicken and darker meats.
The idea has not been lost on Kerry Specialty Ingredients either, which also has sought advice from its Hispanic employees. “It’s a group process to develop [the profiles],” Armstrong says. Each flavor begins as a “verbal concept” before scientists develop them, and they’re put to the test through a “cutting,” or judging contest. On hand are scientists such as Fabiola Morales, a native of Mexico. Armstrong says, “We have Fabiola, and we can ask, ‘Is this how it should be?’” The ultimate goal is to develop flavorings new to the vast American public that are true to the originals.
At Kraft Food Ingredients (KFI), senior creative flavorist Andrew Bosch says he looks to how Hispanic people cook their food, which usually involves wood-burning stoves or ovens. One of the company’s Mexican flavors with flavor notes of smoke, fatty, nutty, fried and spicy was developed in this type of cooking process in Kraft’s culinary center.
“I’m always working to make something better, get more depth and flavor,” he says.
Bosch also says he asks his customers what type of restaurants or menu items they consider Hispanic and uses this as a target. Across the U.S., Hispanic-style flavors vary greatly, along with perceptions of what is deemed to be “Hispanic cuisine.”
“People differ in what they consider Hispanic foods,” he says. “Some people may want to make it more American and call it Southwestern, so we’ll tweak it.”
A likely fan base
Yet, while some companies draw upon Hispanics to develop profiles reminiscent of their native lands, Armstrong says he has found that the mass-produced Hispanic flavorings sold in stores are more popular among non-Hispanics.
“Traditionally, Hispanic cooking is done in the home, from scratch,” he says. “The idea of buying convenience food will develop slowly [for non-acculturated Hispanic immigrants in the U.S.]. [Mass-produced flavorings] are surviving outside of the Hispanic population.”
When non-Hispanics taste certain flavors at Hispanic restaurants or friends’ homes, they now can return to their own kitchens and easily reproduce the taste in their meats and poultry.
Bruns holds restaurant chains like Chipotle and Taco Bell responsible for bringing true Hispanic foods to the forefront. He also says increased immigration has made the country’s move toward a more-Hispanic diet easier.
“[Hispanic-based foods] seem more user-friendly, more familiar,” Bruns says. “It’s an easy transition to explore Cuban and other flavors. … They’re unique, complex, more accented.”
Armstrong agrees that the flavors have become more familiar to the non-Hispanic communities in the United States. “They’re savory flavors that people are used to,” he adds. “They’re not so hot that it’s offensive.”
Unlike buffalo wings, for which the focus always seems to center on how to increase their spiciness, Hispanic foods and flavorings bring a wide variety of tastes and possibilities to the table.
Armstrong says the flavors lend warmness to whichever meat or poultry they’re applied.
“[Their variety] opens up the bottom of the pyramid,” he says, because people realize they can build out from their basic protein with the tremendous variety of fruits, vegetables and spices found in Hispanic dishes.
Through the extensive use of fruits, vegetables and spices, these flavorings and the rice and bean side dishes associated with Hispanic meals provide a healthy alternative for an American population seeking an improved diet.
“Part of the cuisine implies a lot of fresh produce — fresh vegetables, fruits,” Bruns says. “It lends itself to being very nutrient-rich.”
Aside from the vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables and the protein from meat and poultry, chili peppers also provide an important health benefit. They grow from a plant called Capsicum and contain capsaicin, the chemical which triggers a burning sensation in people’s mouths. And while the burning may turn some people away from peppers, as nature intended it to do, recent studies have shown it may be a valuable antioxidant.
It is important to note, however, that the method in which these items are cooked once combined may decrease their positive health effects. Bruns offers refried beans cooked in lard as an example. But he says there’s a trend in the United States to move away from such cooking in a general attempt to improve the overall health of a country known lately for obesity and heart issues brought on by poor diets.
Past & future
In 1998, Bosch began looking at authentic Hispanic food processing after receiving a greater amount of requests for the flavors. Now, he says creating Hispanic flavor profiles accounts for 15 to 25 percent of the profiles he develops, and he expects the figure will grow.
In the last six to nine months, Hispanic flavorings have received even more attention, as heavy hitters such as Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., which released a line of fresh, thin-sliced beef products in December — do their part to tailor their brand to the Hispanic population.
Across the United States, the popularity of these items depends on each region’s consumer base. The South and Southwest have seen the strongest pushes for Hispanic foods, and often companies test their new lines in cities with high Hispanic populations in those areas, such as Miami or Los Angeles.
Hopkins says he has talked to people who don’t realize the growing number of Hispanic people in their areas. Yet, almost behind these folks’ backs, Hispanic cuisines are changing the look of many Americans’ dinner tables with a variety of savory, healthy options capable of fusing with traditional American foods for a new beginning. While some of those people Hopkins queried may not have noticed, those who supply the meat and poultry industries with their flavorings certainly have kept watch over the Hispanic flavorings boom and are prepared to give processors a medley of Hispanic flavorings to enhance their products for consumers’ widening scope of tastes. NP
Katie Brandt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago metropolitan area.