This site is part of the Global Exhibitions Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 3099067.


Ethnic Side Dishes


Ethnic Side Dishes

November 1997 -- Design Elements

By: Susheela Uhl
Contributing Editor

  In ever-growing numbers, Americans are learning about the sensations that ethnic side dishes can create. In traditional U.S. meals, the focus is on a main course of meat, chicken or fish, with accompanying starch- and vegetable-based side dishes to nutritionally balance the meal. But for many ethnic groups, the main dish is a starch-based carbohydrate, such as rice or noodles. Interesting and tasty side dishes are served to provide variety, and enhance the flavor and texture of the main dish. When ethnic side dishes are eaten, zest is added.

  The changing U.S. demographic profile, combined with greater global travel and communication, has contributed to American palates becoming more daring and adventurous. These changes will create a great demand for foods balanced with the hot and spicy, sweet, sour, astringent, savory, and crunchy profiles ethnic side dishes offer.

  To develop ethnic side dishes successfully, food technologists must understand ingredients, their preparation and how they interact. This understanding is essential to creating balanced flavor, texture and color in side dishes. Knowing ingredients' nutritional values is likewise important.

Spice it up

  Spices (including herbs and chili peppers) and spice blends are increasing in consumption because today's consumers seek greater variety, stronger flavor and heat profiles, and healthier ingredients. Spices often are used in ethnic side dishes to create hot, sweet, sour, savory and aromatic sensations -- all in one bite.

  Certain spices, such as ginger, garlic or black pepper, appeal to different ethnic groups. However, with other spices, regional preferences exist. To develop successful ethnic side dishes, food technologists must understand spices in all their varieties. If the side dish requires cinnamon, what type of cinnamon should be used? This might well depend on whether the ethnic side dish being created is Mexican or Cantonese. Mexican cuisine uses the more pungent canela, whereas the Chinese use the milder cassia. Spices often are available in various forms: fresh, dried, ground, whole, pureed as pastes, or as extractives. These forms significantly affect flavor, texture and mouthfeel, as well as functionality in a food system. Each form possesses advantages and disadvantages important to the food developer.

  Differences in flavors and colors also will occur, depending on how the spice is prepared before being utilized in the recipe. Spice preparation -- such as dry-roasting, toasting in oil, or rehydration in water -- promotes flavor enhancement by removing certain bitter notes, intensifying others, or even developing certain flavors. Different ethnic groups process spices to suit specific applications, and create a multitude of flavors and colors.

  The order in which spices are added in a recipe -- first, last, in succession or simultaneously -- creates differences in flavor as well. For example, flavor is retained when star anise, turmeric or fenugreek are added towards the end of cooking. Spices are used with acids, salt, sugar, starch and oils to create blends for rubs, glazes, marinades or topical seasonings. Interaction and balance of spices with each other, and with other ingredients in a food system to form a blend, creates unique tastes and textures.

  A food technologist has to be aware that not all generic ethnic spice blends are the same. For example, not all adobos or curries contain identical ingredients. They vary depending on where they originate, who uses them, and the end product being created. Asian Indians have perfected spice combinations to create uniquely balanced curry blends, but differences exist between regions in India. Curry blends also vary around the world. Food developers have endless numbers of spice blends for use in fish, chicken or beef, and should learn which spices complement these various products.

  The popularity of chilies is increasing as the hot and spicy food trend grows. Chile peppers, either fresh, cooked, pureed, dried or pickled, have traditionally been used as a vegetable, "on the table" as a flavor enhancer, or incorporated with tubers or vegetables to add zest to a meal. Today, product designers are discovering the value of chilies as visual tools, and flavor and color enhancers -- not just for heat. Chilies range in color from red and orange-yellow to green. Color differences are used for visual appeal in Caribbean, Szechuan or Thai cuisines.

  By stimulating the salivary glands, chilies increase the palatability of starchy foods, such as rice, breads or tortillas. They enhance the existing flavors of meat, poultry or fish, and also suppress undesirable flavors. They balance well with sweet, savory, sour and "cold" flavor profiles. When the heat-producing parts, such as seeds or veins, are removed from the pungent varieties, great-tasting purees or condiments can be developed. Ethnic groups have mastered these characteristics (along with heat) to suit their end product, whether it be sambals, salsas, salads or garnishes. To learn the varieties and uses of chilies, it is important to study their application in authentic regional ethnic dishes.

  Hispanics prepare chilies to achieve a certain flavor, bite or color. Chipotle is used for smoke; ancho for flavor; jalapeño for heat; and mulatto for color. Mexicans use not only jalapeños and serranos, but other varieties and styles, such as anchos, guajillos, chipotles or pasillas, to spice up the meal. Chilies are stuffed with chopped fruits, vegetables or seeds in chile en nogado, or blended with spices and tomatoes for recados, moles or salsas. Selection of chilies for salsas depends on the region from which the salsa recipe originated, and whether salsa is fresh or cooked. In the Caribbean, Scotch bonnets, a variety of habañero, are mixed with onions, spices, herbs, tomatoes, mustard and fruits to create side dishes or marinades to spice up grilled meat, fish or lobster. Famous Caribbean pepper sauces include sauce chien, chimmichurris, jerk marinade, bajan sauce or pickapeppa sauce.


  Pasta and noodles still represent a leading side-dish category, along with rice, potatoes and salad. Pasta and noodles can be made from various ingredients, including rice flour, mung bean or wheat flour. Pasta's flavor may be enhanced by added seasonings, herbs and sauces as well as by ingredients such as egg. Variety increases as different blends of spices and herbs are added for visual appeal, flavor, color, texture or used as garnishes.

  Pasta permits almost endless possibilities for side dishes that appeal to many different market segments, including young people, and mainstream and ethnic groups. Authentic and fusion pasta dishes, using ingredients such as porcini mushrooms, lemongrass, chili peppers, turmeric or "new" pestos, will experience substantial future growth.

  As creators of new authentic and fusion pasta and noodle side dishes, food product designers should be aware of the textural and mouthfeel preferences for pasta and Asian noodles. In traditional Italian cooking, pasta made from durum semolina flour is preferred al dente, whereas Asian-type noodles made from rice, egg or mung bean flour possess a softer texture. Also, pasta shapes and sizes have varying appeal among different consumer groups. Authentic Asian recipes call for long-and-thin or broad-and-flat noodles. The bow-tie or penne types desired by Italians may not appeal to older, traditional Asians, but might attract younger Asians.

  Couscous is a coarse-textured, pregelatinized pasta typically found in North African and Middle Eastern cuisines. It is made from durum wheat, pearl millet or corn. Couscous is convenient to prepare, and takes on the flavors of the other ingredients with which it is prepared. Various ethnic flavors can be added to couscous to create exciting side dishes. Spices and fruit or vegetable flavors will increase its palatability. Because couscous is healthful and easy to prepare, it will grow as both a savory or sweet accompaniment at meals.

  Couscous comes in coarse, medium and fine grades. Coarse couscous is used under high-heat conditions. The medium-grade couscous is currently popular as a side dish, but recipes that use the coarser and finer grades, mixed with chopped fruits, raisins or vegetables, will grow in popularity as sweet and savory combined side dishes.

  In traditional Moroccan cuisine, couscous is prepared by steaming it for 40 to 50 minutes over broth or stew. For packaged, prepared side dishes, precooked couscous can be reconstituted with hot or boiling water. After cooking, couscous triples in size, becomes fluffy, and also maintains particle integrity when sauce is added. The texture is similar to rice, and may appeal to consumers if well-seasoned, as a change from rice or breads. It can be eaten with "dry" curries, stews, fried chicken, fish or seasoned vegetables.

Meal stretchers

  Legumes are growing in use, because of the strong flavor profiles created with seasonings from Asian, Latin American and Mediterranean cuisines. Legumes can be used whole, pureed or ground into flour, and incorporated into side dishes such as stews, soups, crepes, noodles or sauces. Legumes can stretch a meal, and at the same time, provide texture and mouthfeel to a finished product. Many bean and lentil varieties have emerged in the United States, due to growing ethnic diversity. Legumes are eaten in almost every culture -- Italian, French, Hispanic or Asian -- with regional and cultural preferences. Depending upon the variety of legumes and cooking techniques employed, different textures and mouthfeels can be created. Pink lentils (masoor dal) give a smooth, creamy mouthfeel; whereas green lentils, because integrity is maintained, give a firm mouthfeel.

  In Indian cuisine, "dal" is the name for any member of the legume family, with lentils being the most commonly eaten form. Dals become aromatic and delicate in flavor when cooked. They are selected and prepared in Indian cooking to complement the flavor, appearance and texture of rice or specialty breads at breakfast, lunches or dinners. They can be boiled, braised and fried with spices and herbs for side dishes of vegetables, stews, soups, condiments or dips. In Latin America, beans are served whole in soups, cooked with rice or mashed and fried (refried), and served as side dishes. Legume "dips" also are used as side dishes, such as hummus, which is a Middle Eastern dip made from pureed chickpeas and garlic. In Ethiopia, "injera" bread is eaten with a dip of spicy lentils, while the Mexicans create a dip consisting of black beans with spices and herbs.

  U.S. soybean consumption is increasing as its use rises as a meat substitute and as an ingredient in crepes, sauces and condiments. Soybean fermented pastes are major ingredients in Szechuan, Korean and Japanese condiments and marinades. They are used in side dishes, such as kochujang (a spicy Korean bean condiment), and as "miso" in Japanese sauces and soups. Used in stir fries, dips, salads, and as a topping or garnish in side dishes, tofu takes on the flavor of any ingredient with which it is cooked. It often is mixed with spices and other flavorings to create healthful dips that will appeal to Asians as well as mainstream vegetarians.

  Cooking time varies with different beans or lentils, anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on bean size and age. Precooked, pregelatinized bean powder and dehydrated whole beans or lentils have been developed to cut preparation and cooking time down to three minutes for soups, stews or rices. Compared to fully cooked beans, these types of products will feature differences in flavor and texture. This is the case with black beans, which become pasty and chalky when reconstituted.

  Legume popularity will increase further, once we can provide consumers with strongly seasoned, easy-to-prepare products that will retain the texture profiles of the original product.

  The future interest in legumes also will focus on their nutritional and health-promoting properties. For vegetarians, side dishes of legumes provide the essential amino acid, lysine.

Spuds for the taste buds

  When consumed as french fries, potatoes represent the No. 1 vegetable among Americans, and appeal to the taste buds of mainstream and ethnic consumers. After years of slackened interest, the non-french-fried forms of the potato are making a comeback in the side-dish category, including mashed potatoes. This vegetable is in greatest demand by consumers seeking "comfort foods," but who want the variety offered by such side dishes as scalloped or au gratin potatoes.

  The specific characteristics of the potato, such as shape, size, defects and solids content, affect its ultimate end use. Most french fries, hash browns and potato chips come from the russet variety.

  While french fries will maintain their popularity among young people and those seeking comfort food, they can appear in newer flavors, such as chipotle or "Floribbean." Combined with herbs, they will appeal to gourmet consumers as well. In addition to the yellow, red-skinned or russet varieties used by mainstream consumers, exotic types of potatoes, with different colors, shapes and flavors, will emerge from Peruvian and other South American cuisines. Peruvians eat potatoes with a passion, and use them in salads with mint, chilies and cheese. A continuing trend will be roasted potatoes, mostly the red-skinned variety. As the trend for fusion cuisines grow, tubers such as taro root, tapioca or yucca will be used in various side dishes to create an ethnic touch to a meal.


  Rice is the most widely consumed grain in the world. In the Malay language, the word "nasi" means "cooked rice," but "nasi" also is the word for "meal." In many Asian nations, rice is thought to nourish body and soul; without rice, food is only a snack, and not considered a true meal. Thus, rice is the centerpiece of every Asian meal, accompanied by various vegetables, spicy condiments, fried tempeh or crunchy extras. Rice is achieving popularity with mainstream consumers as a side dish, due to its nutritional and nonallergenic properties. The prevalence of ethnic cuisine also is fueling the fondness for this grain.

  Several different rice varieties are used by ethnic communities. Food technologists need to understand the properties of each type during processing and preparation, the textural and taste qualities after cooking, and how best to present each type as a side dish. Three basic varieties of rice, categorized by kernel dimensions, exist: long, medium and short. Each of these varieties exhibits textural and flavor properties based on granule size and shape, and starch composition (the ratio of amylose and amylopectin), which gives distinct properties to the finished product. In addition, there are rices classified as aromatic, where the amount of 2-acetyl 1-pyrroline affects the aroma.

  Long grain rices are the most widely used, whether Carolina, basmati, wehani or della. Long grain rices contain high amounts of amylose. Therefore, when cooked, the kernels expand, separate and retain their distinct shape, becoming fluffy. Basmati, the most fragrant of rices, gives a distinct delicate flavor and a very light and perfect al dente texture after cooking. It contains eight to 10 times the amount of 2-acetyl 1-pyrroline as other rices. In Hindi, the word "basmati" literally means "queen of fragrance." When basmati rice is cooked, it elongates rather than expands in width. Basmati is either white or brown.

  Similar varieties such as Kasmati or Texmati have been developed, but are not an exact match for basmati's elongation, flavor or light texture.

  Asians take their rice seriously and white rice, which they prefer, symbolizes life and longevity. It is enjoyed by Asian Indians and Southeast Asians, who complement it with sauced products or condiments. Basmati is cooked with whole spices and nuts to create great pilafs and biryanis for Indian- or Muslim-style side dishes. Carolina and della do not come close to basmati in terms of appearance, texture or flavor, but are more economical.

  Jasmine, or Thai fragrant rice, typically consumed by Southeast Asians, is classified as long-grain, but exhibits some of the properties of medium-grain rice. Upon cooking, it becomes moist and somewhat sticky like medium-grain rice (it contains less amylose than the other long-grain rices), and turns from an off-white color to a beautiful white. Aromatic, it has a slightly sweet flavor. Jasmine rice is sold in white and brown versions. It is whiter than basmati, with a less strong aroma. It remains soft at refrigeration temperatures, unlike the other types of rices, which harden after cooling.

  Asians, Hispanics and Italians typically eat medium-grain rices, such as Valencia, japonica or arborio, which are used in paellas, fried rice or risottos. Southeast Asians also use the more glutinous black japonica (with bran intact) to provide a nutty flavor for desserts and other sweet dishes. Medium grain is lower in amylose than long grain, but contains more amylopectin than the waxy or short grain rices, so it clumps as it cools. Arborio rice is bland in flavor, so it soaks up the flavors it's cooked with; when making risotto, constant stirring while slowly adding water or broth is required for a creamy surface texture and a firm texture at its center.

  Short grain rice, such as glutinous, sweet, Japanese, sushi or Thai sticky rice, has increasing amounts of amylopectin which, when cooked, gives a chalky white appearance and soft, sticky texture. Japanese, Koreans and Chinese prefer this stickier type of rice. When cooked, kernels become opaque, plump up, lose their shape, and become sticky. It is easy to pick them up with chopsticks, because the grains cling together. It also is used as a stuffing, to make sushi, or ground into flour for rice noodles. The Malaysians wrap it in banana leaves, steam it, and serve it as a side dish alongside hot flavors, such as sambals or satays.

  The color of brown rice comes from the bran, which is not removed. The bran features a high fiber content, vitamins and minerals. Water absorption is slower in brown rice, therefore cooking takes longer. Brown rice has a nutty flavor and chewy texture. It has a shorter shelf life than white rice, because it contains more oil which may become rancid. Its different color, texture and flavor will appeal to the mainstream vegetarian, but perhaps not the Asian vegetarian.

  Quick-to-prepare precooked "instant" rices do not give the same texture as conventional cooked rice. In authentic dishes, rice that fails to provide familiar mouthfeel sensations is unlikely to succeed. Basmati, jasmine and glutinous rices will be increasingly in demand, but their textural and flavor characteristics need to be maintained in the final product. Side dishes, such as fried rice (using glutinous rice) and flavorful pilafs (using basmati and well-seasoned brown basmati or long grain) will be on the rise.

  Besides rice, other unique grains, such as quinoa, teff, kasha (roasted buckwheat), bulgar or millet also are gaining in popularity because of positive health implications. Bulgar is used in taboullehs and Mediterranean pilafs; millet is used in salads or breads; and quinoa is used in pilafs, stews, pastas and breads.

Vegetables equal variety

  In addition to their nutritional value, vegetables and fruits provide a meal with variety and balance through their flavors, colors, cuts and textures. The popularity of ethnic vegetarian dishes or use of "authentic ethnic" vegetables or fruits has increased recently because of their varied and enhancing flavors. The numerous ways of preparing ethnic vegetable side dishes also provide variety. The variety in flavors has come, in particular, from the increased influence and popularity of Caribbean, Chinese and Middle Eastern cuisines. New varieties of eggplant, squash and greens, such as Japanese or Chinese eggplant, chayote, calabaza, tatsoi or mizuna, are emerging in supermarkets, and food product designers need to understand their flavors and textures to create variety for consumers. A food technologist also needs to learn the different ways of seasoning vegetables and be conversant in preparation techniques such as steaming, stir-frying, pickling and chutneying. How is kimchi prepared and what vegetables and spices go into it? What is amchur, and how is it prepared and eaten? These types of information will provide great concepts for vegetables as salads or other side dishes.

  Tropical and semitropical fruits, such as mangos, lichees, guavas, cherimoyas or pomegranates, which combine with savory flavors such as chilies, spices or fish pastes, are the trend in fusion cooking. Fruits and vegetables originating from the Caribbean, Asia and Latin America, and combined with seasoning, will become alternatives to meat-based roux. They also will be combined with spices and herbs to create unique sauces or condiments. Fruits and vegetables will give a side dish a healthy look. Frozen or dehydrated forms of vegetables and fruits (freeze- or air-dried, or puffed and infused) are used in prepared foods, but often fail to retain freshness, flavor, color and texture when rehydrated or thawed. Proper storage and handling instructions should be given to the consumer to optimize their sensory qualities.

Maintaining quality

  As food developers, we need to understand the trends as well as consider the technical, quality control and purchasing issues when creating prepared side dishes. Side dishes are found on the supermarket shelf, in the freezer case, in the produce section, in deli cabinets and on the steam table. A side dish designed for each of these requires different technical and quality control measures for ingredients, processing, handling, packaging and shelf life.

  Consumers want food to taste like it's been made from scratch. Side dishes should be perceived as natural and "freshly made." The challenge for the food manufacturer is to develop products that offer this perception, but also can be prepared quickly and easily. To meet the growing demand for home-meal replacements, preparation time will prove key. Therefore, pasta and rice side dishes must come in quick-cook or instant form, but retain the original flavor and texture. Consumers don't want instant noodles that do not resemble the original texture when rehydrated. What is the best way to achieve this freshness and homemade feeling? Can the side dish be developed as dry, frozen, refrigerated or fresh, and still retain its aesthetic qualities? The choice largely depends on ingredients selected, process treatment used, interaction with other ingredients, and storage requirements.

  With spices, the fresher the whole or ground spice, the better its flavor. Spice flavor and color stability depend on length of time in storage, storage conditions, source, form, and age since harvesting. Excessive heat volatilizes the essential oil in ground spices, and high humidity will tend to cake them. Exposure to light, humidity variations, air and metals can discolor spices. Proper storage will protect against flavor and aroma losses, as well as insect and rodent infestation. Spices and spice extracts should be stored in tightly closed containers in cool, dark and dry conditions.

  Food technologists also must search for a quality supplier because spices and chilies come from many parts of the globe, and suppliers have varying degrees of quality control. Also, when purchasing spices or chilies, it is crucial to have a reliable supplier that consistently meets specifications. In the production of ground spices and chili powders, variations in pungency, color and flavor can occur. To ensure product consistency, food technologists should develop the appropriate specifications with the supplier. These specifications should include: the variety of the spice or chili desired; the form of the spice or chili required (ground or whole, for example); and the physical and chemical characteristics needed (including color, granulation, moisture, volatiles, and pungency).

  When formulating seasonings or foods with chilies, it is important to choose the right type of heat and flavor, as well as the processing techniques that create a particular smokiness or combination of fried notes. Balancing heat with flavor is critical for creating hot and spicy foods. Pungency and flavor perceptions also must take into account the entire product system -- whether it's a starch, gum, water or oil-based system, its pH and heating methods, and the addition of other spices and herbs. When using seasoning blends in a product, it is important to have ingredients with similar particle sizes, so that the blend is homogeneous when rehydrated.

  Legumes have to be processed at appropriate temperatures for proper digestion.

  More consumers would eat more beans if preparation time were convenient. The food technologist needs to be aware of each type of lentil or bean, whether whole, hulled and split; its optimum cooking time; and how the color changes through cooking. Beans also need to be soaked and rinsed before cooking to remove most of the raffinose (responsible for flatulence). The Asian Indians and Mexican Indians have traditionally used spices such as epazote, ginger or asafoetida to decrease flatulence.

  The amount of water and cooking time are very important for obtaining the right textural qualities in cooked rice products, whether shelf-stable, refrigerated or frozen. Regular white rice takes about 20 minutes, while brown rice takes about 40 minutes. Cooling the cooked rice must be done quickly to maintain optimum texture. White and brown rice can be precooked and dehydrated, which reduces cooking time, but as with frozen rice dishes, flavor and texture becomes a problem. Instant rice takes five minutes to cook, and is used for side dishes that require instant hydration.

  Frozen or refrigeration temperatures can promote starch retrogradation in rice. Rice gives off some liquid when thawed, which creates a drier end product and also can affect the viscosity of any sauces used. Short- and medium-grain rices have more amylopectin, making them more resistant to starch retrogradation, and reducing their tendency to absorb moisture over time. Therefore these rices should be used when formulating frozen products.

  Long periods of cooking and high temperatures adversely affect pasta texture and color, making it starchy and soft. Therefore, for retort and steam table products, the type of flour becomes important, as does the use of stabilizers, such as egg albumen or glycerol monostearate. Also, retorted pasta should be rehydrated more slowly than pasta for home use, in order to reduce overcooking. This can be done by increasing pasta-wall thickness, and adding ingredients for slowing the cooking process (or starch gelatinization). With couscous, texture and mouthfeel are important. When allowed to sit for long periods of time at 160° to 200°F on steam tables, couscous becomes dry and unpalatable. Alternatively, if too much moisture is added, it becomes mushy, and particle identity might be lost.

  Consumers want freshness as well as convenience. Their preference for fresh vegetables will create a demand for packaged vegetable side dishes that can be prepared quickly, but still taste fresh. Also fresh-cut vegetables create a visual as well as a "natural" appeal for consumers. Dehydrated vegetables, though convenient, lack flavor, texture and color, and are less likely to appeal to consumers. Dehydrated vegetables, when rehydrated, tend to lack crispness and fresh flavor. Frozen vegetables, when thawed, lose their firm textures, especially the greens. Can we provide frozen or refrigerated side dishes that still appeal to the consumer? For refrigerated products, the packaging environment is important. It has to have a high humidity to minimize moisture loss. With tropical fruits and vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, taro, plantain or chayote, food technologists need to know the storage conditions that will maintain optimum textural qualities.

  As the importance of nutrition grows, newer varieties of potatoes with less oil absorption, containing "acceptable" alternatives to sulfites or stabilizers, will become more popular. Fried potatoes for frozen or refrigerated prepared side dishes should be blanched or quick-cooked to prevent enzymatic browning. Roasted potatoes should not be mushy after microwaving, and should retain their firm surface when sauce is added. Total solids and type of sugar determine whether an end product has the right flavor, and a firm or mushy texture. Therefore, a knowledge of the potato varieties and their properties is important.

  Ethnic side dishes are growing in popularity because they provide mealtime excitement. They satisfy consumers' demands for variety, flavor, texture and appearance, as well as nutrition. Varying side dishes also will appeal to the consumer's sense of adventure. Side dishes will emerge as the primary attraction in a meal. When an array of side dishes is served, whether rice, pasta, vegetables or condiments, consumers will become more enthusiastic about sitting down to eat.

© 1997 by Weeks Publishing Company

Weeks Publishing Co.

3400 Dundee Rd. Suite #100
Northbrook, IL 60062
Phone: 847-559-0385
Fax: 847-559-0389

comments powered by Disqus