Ethnic cooking sauces are riding a wave of popularity

By Sean Moon
May 14, 2013

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that hungry diners looking for a way to top their favourite burger or add some zing to grilled meats had a simple menu from which to choose – from mustard to mayo – or maybe even a fancy-schmancy béarnaise sauce for the more upwardly mobile. But with today’s global marketplace standing virtually at our front door, things aren’t quite so simple anymore. You can now slather your chicken with piri-piri from Portugal, spice up your life with a little Vietnamese-inspired sriracha or chow down on chimichurri from Argentina. Ethnic sauces have indeed become the new ketchup.

For the last several years, some of the hottest trends noted in the annual CRFA Canadian Chef Survey have been those involving the increased use of ethnic seasonings and spices. And anyone who has dined out in a Canadian restaurant in the last couple of years – whether quick or full service – hasn’t been able to ignore the preponderance of ethnic sauces gracing everything from sautéed shrimp to grilled chicken sandwiches.

Exciting new flavours

“It seems like every day I hear someone talk about the wonderful sauces popular in South America,” says trend expert and Food Network personality Dana McCauley. “Chimichurri from Argentina is replacing béarnaise sauce with steaks and adding tang and depth to chicken skewers and fish.

“Sriracha is by far the sauce star of the last few years,” adds McCauley, who is also the culinary director of Janes Family Foods. “While it used to be ‘that sauce with the rooster on the label,’ it’s now a household word and used not just in savoury foods but in cocktails and even desserts to add kick and flavour. But the biggest news in sauce in the last year has been the rise of gochujang, the zesty fermented Korean sauce that is served with bibimbap and other Korean dishes. It was unheard of two years ago outside of Korean kitchens, and it’s becoming as widely used and well-known as its Korean condiment cousin, kimchi.”

International influence

Although Asian sauces have been riding a huge wave of popularity in recent months, other regions of the world have also received their due accolades. Portuguese, Indian and Moroccan influences are reaching around the world to influence the imaginations of chefs and the palates of Canadian consumers.

In fact, 2012 research by Technomic Inc., suggests that in terms of both “sophistication” and a perception of health, ethnic foods and sauces are increasingly top-of-mind for Canadian diners, with Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Mediterranean flavours leading the charge.

“Canadians have an adventurous palate, as well as strong influence from other cultures coming to Canada,” says Ryan Marquis, corporate chef of C.W. Shasky & Associates, which represents the Tabasco and Patak cooking sauce brands. “Thai, Indian, and Korean flavours have been on the rise for the past few years, and are actually becoming quite mainstream. I believe part of the reason for this acceptability is due to the breadth of application for the flavours, as well demographic changes in the population.”

Healthy ethnic foods and flavours

Best of both worlds

Not only are most of the popular ethnic sauces used in cooking, they are also becoming more frequently combined with traditional Western condiments. According to Technomic, chefs are mixing ethnic flavours into mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup to help ease their patrons into trying these new flavor profiles. In addition, it is often the use of sauces that actually results in a dish being perceived by the consumer as “ethnic,” according to Technomic data.

“Consumers report that of all Asian condiments and sauces measured, curry sauce has the greatest impact on consumers’ perception of a dish as ethnic (89 per cent), while four out of five consumers say sriracha hot sauce makes a dish more ethnic,” according to Technomic’s 2012 Canadian Ethnic Consumer Trend Report.

Based on a number of similar recent trend reports and surveys, here’s a closer look at some of the more popular ethnic sauces influencing Canadian restaurant menus moving into 2013:

  • Sriracha: A Southeast Asian hot sauce made from chillies, garlic, sugar, salt and vinegar, sriracha is widely used in soups, sauces, pastas, pizzas, hot dogs, hamburgers, chow mein and in a growing variety of other dishes. In Thailand, Sriracha is frequently used as a dipping sauce, particularly for seafood. In Vietnamese cuisine, sriracha is used as a condiment for pho, as a topping for spring rolls and in sauces. In North America, sriracha sauce is often associated with the so-called “rooster sauce” produced by Huy Fong Foods in California. “Sriracha  is turning up in everything from Bloody Marys to mayonnaise and pickles as well as being used as a table condiment,” says Dana McCauley.
  • Piri oiri: Adopted by the Portuguese from their former African colonies, piri piri is made from crushed African bird-eye chilies (malagueta), citrus peel, onion, garlic, pepper, salt, lemon juice, bay leaves, paprika, pimiento, basil, oregano, and tarragon. “Many market hot sauces are so vinegar based, it`s hard to taste or savour your food,” says Pedro Pereira, owner of Fishbone Bistro in Stouffville, Ontario which specializes in Portuguese cuisine. “But piri piri has just enough acidity to compliment what you are eating without there being a power struggle over which tastes better— the food or the sauce. Grilled chicken stands out as a favorite because the char marks and crispy skin just ask to be basted by piri piri on the grill as the heat will enhance the garlic and smoky nuances. French fries and piri piri are also a match made in heaven!
  • Chimichurri: Chimichurri sauce, made from finely chopped parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, oregano and vinegar, is often flavoured with ingredients such as cilantro, paprika, cumin, thyme and lemon. Originally from Argentina, it is also traditionally used throughout South America and as far north as Nicaragua and Mexico. It is most often served with grilled steak and meats. “Chimichurri doubles as a marinade for many chefs who use it before cooking to add flavor,” says McCauley, “and I’ve used it myself as the base for a vinaigrette.”
  • Gochujang: Gochujang is a savory and pungent fermented Korean condiment made from red chili, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and salt. Traditionally, it is naturally fermented over years in large earthen pots outdoors. Gochujang is also used as a base for making other condiments, such as chogochujang and ssamjang. In addition, McCauley says gochujang is being used as a flavouring for soups as well as a marinade or basting sauce base for grilled meats like pork and chicken.
  • Harissa: Harissa is a Tunisian hot chili sauce whose main ingredients are a variety of chili peppers, spices, herbs and seasonings such as garlic paste, coriander and caraway. It is common throughout North Africa as well as in countries with a strong Arab presence such as France and Germany. In Tunisia, harissa is used as an ingredient in a meat or fish stew and as a flavoring for couscous. It is also used for lablabi, a chickpea soup usually eaten for breakfast. Harissa paste can also be used as a rub for meat.

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