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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
For more information, visit ititropicals.com.
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