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June 1, 2000

26 Min Read

June 2000

Tackling the Melting Pot

By: Karen Grenus, Ph.D.
Contributing Editor

  Good-bye tomato, chicken noodle and vegetable. Hello gazpacho, tom kha kai and callaloo.

  While traditional soups still enjoy consumer acceptance, current food trends allow opportunities for more diverse offerings. In an on-the-go society where a family sit-down dinner at 6:30 sharp has given way to a quick meal between daytime and evening activities, soups are a natural fit for quick "meal solutions" or home meal replacements. They're traditionally nutritious, often low in fat, and economical.

  As soups move from lunch to dinner, there's room for more sophisticated, contemporary flavor profiles. Next to tomato and chicken noodle on the retail shelf are minestrone, pasta e fagioli, gazpacho, Thai hot-and-sour, Japanese miso and southwestern black bean soups. Our challenge as product developers is to blend the comfort and convenience of soup with the ethnic-inspired flavor profiles of the melting pot.

Around the world

  To develop an ethnic soup, Joel Minkoff, corporate research chef for foodservice product development at Campbell Soup Company, Camden, NJ, starts by searching for recipes that will eventually be used to create a gold standard. He retrieves recipes from the Internet and from cookbooks, but the preferred source is restaurants.

  Minkoff looks for common threads in terms of regional ingredients and cooking techniques, such as the high-heat/short-time stir-fries in Asia or the long-cooking/simmered dishes of Thailand. Ghee, a browned, clarified butter, serves as an example of a distinct regional ingredient. Its flavor is difficult to duplicate, but basic to Indian cuisine.

  Many cuisines offer "soup-er" opportunities for today's market. Their dishes can provide inspiration for ingredients and characteristic profiles that give soups an ethnic flavor.

  China. Chinese cuisine varies greatly within the country. To the north, wheat and millet are the common grains, accompanied by tofu, salted fish and vegetables. Stir-frying, requiring a very short time, is a popular cooking method in the north due to the short supply of fuel. Eastern China is known for its seafood and vegetables. Stews and stocks, as well as elaborate kitchen techniques, distinguish eastern China from the other regions. The central-western area of China includes the Hunan and Szechwan regions. Hunan cooking includes meat, fish, poultry and a wide range of vegetables. Szechwan uses mostly pork, poultry and tofu, along with a variety of herbs for their aromatic and medicinal properties. Chiles are common in the central western region, as are garlic, ginger and scallions. Five-spice powder used in Chinese cooking combines star anise, Szechwan pepper, fennel or anise seeds, clove and cinnamon (licorice root, cardamom or ginger may be substituted for clove and cinnamon). Southern Chinese cuisine, Cantonese, is the most widely recognized Chinese cooking style in the United States. Dishes from this region are based on rice and contain seafood or poultry for protein. Fresh vegetables provide color and texture to the dishes.

  "It's important to note with Asian cuisine that contrast is a big part of what's going on with most dishes," says Jonathan Crossland, corporate chef for Woodland Foods, Gurnee, IL, also noting that both flavors and textures are used to form this contrast. With mushrooms used in soup, for example, he notes that wood ear and cloud ear mushrooms impart unique, "squeaky" textures, while oyster mushrooms and chantrelles are used for flavor. Wood ear and cloud ear mushrooms are sliced into strips before being added to soup to provide a more palatable chewing experience. Hot-and-sour soup contains bamboo shoots and water chestnuts for crunch and tofu for a soft, creamy texture.

  Japan. The key to Japanese cooking is simplicity and freshness. Seafood is prevalent boiled or broiled, and also as a dried, flaked seasoning known as katsuobushi (dried bonito). Soybean products, soy sauce, miso (fermented soy paste) and tofu are widely used for seasoning and protein. Miso is available in different strengths and salt levels; shinshu miso is mild and high in salt, while hatcho miso is dark brown and lower in salt. Soups constitute an important part of the Japanese diet, and are eaten throughout the day. A common clear soup or soup base, dashi, is made of a blend of katsuobushi and dried kelp. Blending different flavors in one dish is kept to a minimum so as not to detract from the experience of tasting individual ingredients. A standard recipe for miso soup combines tofu, mushrooms, sliced green onions, water, dashi and miso.

  Thailand. Thai cuisine offers something for everyone, from rich curries with coconut milk and peanuts to light, fragrant soups with lemongrass and ginger. Rice, particularly fragrant jasmine rice, is a staple in Thai cooking, and is often necessary for the Western consumer since Thai food can pack a lot of heat. Red and green chiles and curry powder provide this heat, while fresh vegetables and fruit give a cooling effect. Fragrant aromas associated with Thai dishes are derived from lemongrass, mints, basils and coriander, while cumin and brown spices are used in curries. Pad Thai, which is quickly becoming an American comfort food, combines rice noodles with garlic, chili peppers, fish sauce (nam pla), lemon juice, cilantro, basil and peanuts. Galangal, a rhizome common in Thai cooking, has flavors of ginger and black pepper. Tom kha kai, chicken coconut soup, contains coconut milk for richness and sweetness, chicken and fish sauce for savory notes, galangal, lime juice and cilantro for aromatics, and chile paste for heat. (For more information on Thai cuisine, see "Thai Dining" in the April 2000 issue of Food Product Design.)

  Vietnam. Vietnamese cuisine reflects influences from China, India and France. The Chinese influence is reflected by the presence of tofu, noodles and star anise in the daily diet. Indian curries are popular in south Vietnam, while bread and sausage reveal the French influence. Fresh coriander, mints, dill and several types of basil are common accompaniments for fish dishes. Pho is a popular breakfast soup in Vietnam. For this dish, a stock is made from beef or chicken with sautéed ginger and star anise. Meat slices are added with rice noodles to cook in the stock, and coriander, green onion and mint join the mix just before serving. The soup is further seasoned at the table with fresh lime juice, chili paste and fish sauce.

  Indonesia. Soups are often poured on top of rice, which is at the center of Indonesian plates. For a rijstafel meal, rice is placed on the table followed by a procession of 20 to 30 dishes eaten alongside or blended with the rice. Common ingredients in these dishes include coconut milk, curry leaves, lemongrass, coriander, cumin and ginger. Spices and herbs are widely used in Indonesian cuisine due to their easy availability. Sambal is a very hot, popular side dish made with a relish of hot chili peppers. A widely consumed soup, sajur lodeh, is made from coconut milk, sambal ulek (chili paste), Laos powder (powdered galangal), vegetables, ketjap manis (thick, sweet soy sauce), hard boiled eggs and chicken.

  India. Although many seasonings used in India are similar to those used in the rest of Asia, the protein source is dictated by religious beliefs. Southern India is predominantly Hindu, and therefore ranges from beef avoidance to strict vegetarianism. Islam is observed in the northern region of India, where the diet precludes pork products. Rice is the prevalent grain in India, followed by wheat. Lentils and chickpeas serve as protein sources in vegetarian diets. Ghee, a common ingredient for preparing meat dishes, is produced by boiling butter for hours to burn off impurities. In northern India, spices are ground and dried for use year-round. Garam masala is a northern spice blend made of crushed cardamom pods, cloves, cumin, peppercorns and cinnamon. Masala can also be produced in a wet form by grinding green spices with coconut milk, water and lime juice. Curry (kari) is used in the form of fresh or dried leaves, and is an essential ingredient in curry powder, which also contains coriander, cumin, mustard, chili peppers, fenugreek and turmeric. Indian food tends to be very hot, and the curries range from korma, a milder, rich dish to vindaloo, a lively hot and sour dish. Mulligatawny is a chicken-based cream soup that takes its cue from curry powder.

  Greece. Eggplant, zucchini, olives and lamb are identified with Greek cuisine. Spinach and feta cheese appear in casseroles, or wrapped in pastry to make spanakopita. Garlic, oregano, mint, basil and dill are common seasonings. Avgolemono, a lemon and egg sauce, may adorn lamb or seafood, or be poured over rice for a soup. Kakavia, or fish soup, combines fish, olive oil, onions, tomatoes and salt and pepper.

  Italy. Italian foods vary greatly by region due to this country's natural mountain and sea barriers. Cuisine from the Toscana region has gained popularity for its elegance and simplicity. High-quality ingredients and a minimum of sauces and seasonings are a hallmark of Tuscan cooking. Common soups from this region are minestrone with beans and vegetables and caciucco with seafood ladled over bread. To the north, in Italy's rice-growing Piemonte region, creamy risotto made with arborio rice is popular. Truffles, frogs, porcini mushrooms and fondue appear in this region as well. East of Piemonte, Venetian cuisine includes fish, polenta and beans. The Campania region gave rise to the cuisine of Naples, complete with pizza and tomato sauce with basil and oregano. Seafood also finds its way into the dishes of this area. Food in Rome, in the Lazio region, tends to be simple and economical. Stracciatella is a parmesan soup made of chicken broth, parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, parsley, garlic and nutmeg, into which a beaten egg is dropped to form strands of cooked egg in the soup. (For more information on Italian cuisine, see "Real Italian" and "Regional Italian" in the January 2000 issue of Food Product Design.)

  France. Many are familiar with French haute cuisine, in which dishes are composed with attention to shape and color, and covered with rich, complex sauces. Ingredients such as crème fraîche, heavy cream fermented in the presence of naturally occurring microorganisms, appear frequently in haute cuisine. The antithesis to this approach is cuisine bourgeoisie, much less involved, but no less tasty. Common to both cuisines is balance of flavors and tastes within the meal and the dish, with excess the greatest of faults. Ingredients range from cream, cheese and apples in the north to seafood on the northwest coast to tomatoes, sausage and peppers near Spain. Soups in France range from consommés, clarified broth garnished with vegetables, to cream soups based on butter and heavy cream. Potage, or puree-based soup, is of intermediate richness. Much of the flavor in puree soups comes from mirepoix, a mixture of carrots, onion and celery sautéed in butter or other fat. Seasonings, water and other vegetables such as potatoes are added and cooked until tender. The soup is milled, and may be enriched with cream or butter and garnished with vegetables or pasta.

  Spain. Seafood is a staple for Spanish cooking, with beef important only in the northern regions. Common ingredients include chicken, olives, oranges, grapes and other fruits and vegetables. In Madrid, influences of the surrounding regions in Spain are evident, from roasted game in the rural areas to paella and calamari from the Catalonia region on the east coast. Aragon and Navarre are known for their sauces with tomato, onion and garlic, and for ham and roasted peppers. In the southern region of Andalusia, the warmer climate lends itself to refreshing sangria and gazpacho, a cold soup made of pureed and finely chopped cucumber, tomato, green pepper, onion and jalapeño. A warm soup of the Basque region might contain spicy sausage, such as chorizo, and onion, celery and potato in chicken broth, seasoned with thyme.

  Mexico. Mexican cuisine blends native and European influences. Corn, tomatoes, squash and turkey were staples for native Mexicans, and Europeans added beef, chicken, pork, rice, cinnamon and cloves. Common seasonings include cumin, basil, Mexican oregano, garlic and cilantro. Chile peppers are used to impart heat and flavor, and jalapeño, poblano and serrano peppers also are used frequently. Tortillas are widely used in a number of finished forms, including as a topping for chicken-broth-based tortilla soups. Tomatillo, a tomato relative, is found in Mexican guacamole and salsas, where it adds lemon- and apple-like flavors. A hearty soup common to Spain and Mexico is sopa de albóndigas, a beef broth with vegetables and spicy meatballs.

  Southwestern United States. Like nearby Mexico, the Native Americans of the Pueblo tribe used corn, beans, chiles, squash and tomatoes, giving rise to a distinct southwestern cuisine. In Texas, chili reigns supreme, with fajitas following close behind. New Mexico offers a variety of flavors, including piñon nuts (pine nuts), hominy and stews spiced-up with chiles. Arizona, or Sonoran, cuisine is the mildest southwest variety. Cumin and cilantro are common flavorings for bean dishes and stews. Combined, these influences might result in a southwestern-style soup such as black-bean chili with stewed tomatoes, chili powder, cumin and chipotle chiles.

  The Caribbean. Caribbean food is characterized by seafood, citrus, coconut, fresh fruits and vegetables, and brown spices. Chiles are also prevalent in the dishes of this warm climate. Jerk is a popular seasoning in Caribbean cooking, and is made from a blend of lime juice, chile peppers (habenero or Scotch bonnet), vinegar, scallions, basil, thyme, allspice, mustard, cloves and black pepper. Jerk is typically used as a marinade for chicken or pork. Callaloo is a traditional Caribbean soup that takes its name from a green leafy vegetable called callaloo, which is added to a rich chicken broth with bacon, ham, onion, garlic and thyme. Crab meat and fish are also added to the stew, followed by coconut milk.

  No matter which cuisine inspires creation of a soup, once an idea has been researched, the challenge is to find a flavor profile within the identified recognizable characteristics that will appeal to a mass audience, says John Faulkner, director of corporate and brand communications for Campbell. Minkoff adds that because food perception is personal, it's critical to get consumer and operator feedback. He uses full 8- to 10-oz. servings of soup at his tastings because product perception can change along with the amount of soup consumed.

  Ethnic soup should "taste like it sounds," says Charlie Baggs, executive chef for Charlie Baggs Inc., Chicago. Hot-and-sour soup must have heat from red pepper, sour from vinegar and contain visible mushrooms and tofu. If the flavor of coconut milk in callaloo gets lost, it will be a disappointment to the educated consumer (and they are educated). If flavor is lost or changed with processing, the product won't live up to its name.

Foodservice and retail soups

  Soups vary from simple to complex. The foundation may contain any combination of meat or vegetable stock, cream or cheese, or pureed vegetables. In the case of congee, a breakfast soup in China, the soup's foundation is boiled rice. Soups are given body with starch, flour and gums. Fats contribute body, mouthfeel and flavor, and also help blend the flavors of the soup. Particulates, or garnishes, include meat, vegetables, vegetable proteins and cereal products. These add texture, flavor and visual appeal. Herbs, spices and flavors give soup its flavor profile, while enhancers magnify and round out that profile.

  For retail and foodservice consumption, soups are either prepared from dried, canned, frozen or refrigerated products. Each manner of processing brings challenges that must be addressed by the product designer. Dry soup mixes offer the advantages of cost and storage convenience. Preparation method for a dry soup mix and its holding requirements dictate which thickeners and stabilizes are required. Ingredient selection is critical, since the preparation method may not allow for a cooking step. For example, the wrong thickener in dry-mix applications will result in an undesirable texture if insufficient heat is available to gelatinize the starch. Freeze-dried vegetables are more costly than dehydrated vegetables, but are superior in maintaining their original shape and color.

  Canned, or retorted, soups reflect the amount of heating that has taken place in their flavor, texture and appearance. Typically, canned soups are heated to a temperature of 250°F for several minutes. "There's a lot of Maillard reactions and other heat reactions that are taking place in a retorted product," says Kent Crosby, group leader for soups, sauces and gravies at Innova, a Griffith Laboratories Company, Oak Brook, IL. The Maillard reaction between the amino acids, reducing sugars and water occurs at a pH of 6 to 9 upon heating. Caramelization reactions result from the heating of sugars, and are magnified in the presence of salt and acid. Flavors and colors resulting from this reaction are similar to those in homemade soups simmered for hours on the stove. According to Crosby, the slow-cooked flavors created during the heating process may or may not be desirable depending on the application.

  "Another thing you get with retorting is a lot of blending of flavors and textures," says Crosby. The flavor of vegetable soups is enhanced by reaction flavors in the retort, whereas the fresh, clean dairy flavors in cream soups would be lost. Similarly, the texture and color of many vegetables are compromised by lengthy exposure to the high temperatures of retorting.

  Freezing soup, although more costly than canning, is the method of choice to maintain the texture of the garnish and fresh flavors. For example, freezing is ideal for cream of broccoli soup. The fresh dairy flavors are preserved and the broccoli florets retain much of their texture. Freezing does not create the reaction flavors that would develop in a retorted product. The flavors of garnishes do not have an opportunity to blend since they are not cooked together; for this reason, frozen vegetable soups often improve as they are held on the steam table, according to Crosby.

  Refrigerated soups are still a relatively young product, especially for retail. While refrigerated soups deliver the closest flavor, texture and appearance to homemade products, the soup must be purchased and consumed within days of production.

Stock pot beginnings

  When creating ethnic soups for retail or foodservice, several special considerations must be kept in mind. Raw materials must be available and of consistent quality. Callaloo, for example, may be very difficult to source in great quantities, but spinach or Swiss chard can serve as substitutes. Wild mushrooms, notes Crossland, tend to be expensive and less consistent in quality than cultivated domestic mushrooms. Rather than sliced wild porcini mushrooms, which tend to vary in physical quality, try using porcini powder for flavor and domestic shiitake mushrooms for piece identity.

  When introducing raw materials to a particular process, the ingredients' reactions to heating, pumping, freezing and storage must also be considered. For Asian soups with tofu, for example, the developer must be aware that tofu can be retorted and dehydrated without altering its texture, but not frozen.

  The soup matrix will most likely consist of meat, fish, poultry or vegetable broth, cream, coconut milk or purees of vegetables or tofu. In the case of Japanese soups, dried dashi or miso are added to water to form a broth. Coconut milk is extracted from shredded coconut by steeping in boiling water or milk. Coconut cream rises to the top of the liquid soup, as does cream, due to high fat content. Coconut milk and cream are both sensitive to heating, and coconut-containing soups need watching during processing to make sure color and flavor are maintained. Dashi is also sensitive to heating and freezing. Miso, a fermented soybean paste created by injecting soybeans with mold (koji), is available in many varieties. Darker shades of miso are usually saltier and stronger tasting than the lighter forms. Miso is available in different textures, and a smooth texture is more desirable for soup. Miso does not spoil, but will lose flavor intensity over time.

Holding it together

  According to Neil Grimwood, vice president for technical service and marketing at National Starch's food division, Bridgewater, NJ, a combination of starches is generally needed for processed soups. "In most canned soups containing particulates, a fill-viscosity starch is needed that will develop enough viscosity to keep the particulates suspended to ensure a uniform distribution among cans of soup," he says. "The job of the fill-viscosity starch now successfully completed, the viscosity should quickly break down during the sterilization process to allow a better flow of heat throughout the product. Toward the end of the heating cycle, a second specialty starch will rebuild the viscosity of the soup. Once achieved, this viscosity forms the final body and texture of the product. What you want is almost a thick, thin, thick profile."   Frozen soups require highly stabilized starches that can withstand temperature fluctuations, including temperatures below the freezing point of the product. Specialty starches are also available for other applications. Grimwood notes that "highly stabilized starches tend to give a very creamy mouthfeel." Brighter flavor profiles can be attained by using tapioca starches or functional native starches instead of the traditional modified waxy-maize starches. A particular challenge is providing a starch that mimics the mouthfeel of fat in low-viscosity applications such as miso soup. "Starches do tend to add a lot of viscosity, and sometimes you want mouthfeel without the viscosity," says Grimwood.

Soup parts

  Rice has very broad application in ethnic soups. According to Pamela Jefferson, technical service coordinator for Riceland Foods, Little Rock, AR, rice offers value because it's nutritious, economical and versatile. "Every rice won't work for every application," she notes. "A good understanding of the functionality of different rice types allows a product developer to easily make substitutions if necessary."

  Parboiled rice is the grain of choice for many canned or frozen soups. It is soaked, pressure-steamed and dried in order to gelatinize some of the starch in the grain. The result is a rice that is fluffy when cooked, and maintains its integrity through processing better than the original milled rice. "A regular milled rice, as opposed to parboiled, would continue to absorb liquid to the point at which the kernels will rupture," says Dean Oliver, pilot plant coordinator for Riceland Foods. It's important for food scientists to understand that even parboiled rice will continue to absorb water after it is cooked if it remains above its gelatinization temperature and excess water is available.

  Rice is commonly classified as long-, medium- and short-grain based on the length-to-width ratio of the kernels. These also vary in starch ratios. Within the basic categories, rices offering a wide range of cooked textures and related sensory traits are available. Combined with processing and cooking techniques, specific types have come to characterize foods consumed in various parts of the world. Basmati and jasmine, two long-grain types with a nut-like aroma, are associated with Indian and Thai cuisine respectively. But long-grain types typically grown in the southern United States may be used in applications typically calling for imported basmati or jasmine.

  Parboiled rice is highly favored in Indian and Middle Eastern foods, but is rarely used in Asian foods since Asians usually prefer the flavor and texture of regular milled rice. Arborio rice, a medium-grain rice, traditionally forms the basis for Italian risotto, noted for its creamy, firm-kerneled consistency, but is not commonly used in soup.

  Found in soups from Japan to Italy, noodles are selected to impart a characteristic flavor, texture and appearance to an ethnic soup. "In general," says Mark Vermylen, vice president of A. Zerega's Sons, Inc., Fair Lawn, NJ, "a clear broth should be paired with a very thin pasta shape such as a fine noodle or vermicelli, while a hearty soup can be matched with a larger piece of pasta.

  "All pasta shapes have different mouthfeels and ability to carry flavors and other ingredients," continues Vermylen. "For example, a shell will actually carry some of the broth inside it. A ridged piece of penne will tend to pick up pieces of spices or herbs in its ridges." He notes that a pasta can be flavored by the amount of egg it contains as well as vegetable powders such as tomato, spinach and beet, and other flavorings such as basil.

  The pasta form chosen often depends on whether the soup will be canned or frozen. Vermylen recommends using small, thick-walled shapes for retorting, while a wider variety of shapes are applicable for freezing. Pasta can be strengthened with whole egg, egg white or wheat gluten. Instantized pasta, in which the starch is pregelatinized, is available for instant soups. Vermylen reminds the product development scientist that store-bought pastas may not be suitable for all soup applications.

  Cellophane noodles, which are derived from mung beans, rice noodles and soba (buckwheat) noodles all enhance the ethnic appeal of foods, says Crossland, but are more difficult to handle than wheat-based pastas. These are best reserved for dry-soup applications where the consumer can cook the noodles briefly for the correct time. Vermylen recommends using angel-hair pasta or a very thin, ribbon-shaped pasta to come as close as possible to Asian-noodle characteristics.

  A consumer's first impression of a soup is often based on the appearance of its vegetables. As mentioned, freeze-dried vegetables possess superior shape and color as compared to dehydrated vegetables when used in instant soup mixes. Fresh or frozen vegetables are suitable for frozen or retort applications as long as they do not break down to an unrecognizable form or gain an unpleasant texture. For example, broccoli stems will maintain piece identity better than a floret after retorting, and okra and prickly pear have a tendency toward sliminess if overcooked. Frozen vegetables that have been roasted, grilled or sautéed prior to freezing are available. These products not only add flavor to a soup, but their descriptors also look good on a label. IQF vegetables maintain better color and textural integrity from the rapid freezing process they undergo. For visual appeal, notes Crossland, "wild" mushrooms (basically anything but button mushrooms) add to the sophistication of a soup.

  Tofu is available at different levels of firmness, dictated by the ratio of water to soybean, and ranges from silken to extra firm, says Nicole McGee, communications manager at Vitasoy, San Francisco. She adds that since tofu absorbs the flavors of the ingredients around it, it can be used in a wide range of dishes. In miso soup, cubes of silken or soft tofu are used to enhance flavor while providing additional protein. For sturdier cubes of tofu in product, she recommends using larger cubes and a firmer product.

Spicing it up

  The current "hot list" of flavors, says Crossland, includes varietal chiles, lemongrass, saffron, Szechwan peppercorns, wasabi and white horseradish. Appropriately, these ingredients enjoy broad usage in ethnic soups. Donna Immel, senior director of product development at Griffith Laboratories, provides examples of different chiles that can be used in soup. Guajillo, common in Mexican cooking, is predominant in the aromatics of cooked chile pepper pulp. The widely used jalapeño pepper is strong in green vegetable notes, and can be dried and smoked to form a chipotle chile, which is high in smoky character. The ancho chile (the dried form of poblano), says Immel, is high in sugar, which provides sweet, caramelized notes. De arbol chile has a strong woody, or tree bark, aromatic that limits it to meaty and smoky applications, or to blending with other chiles. Although habeneros are extremely hot, their tropical fruit notes are useful.

  When working with chiles, Immel notes that it's important to keep in mind the consumer's eating experience. For an appropriate heat level for each customer, details about a soup's form are necessary, along with heat tolerances appropriate for the demographic being served. Scoville units, which measure heat, are helpful, but do not reflect the whole picture. For example, "you can mask heat by having fat in the system. This works because the heat comes from an oil, or lipophilic, compound," says Immel. "Capsaicins are lipophilic, so they link with fat, which masks the sensation, whereas water actually intensifies it by spreading it out more." She notes that "as we reduce the amount of enhancers, consumers still want that hit of flavor." Wasabi, white horseradish and ginger can provide a "burn" that can simulate the taste buds when flavor enhancers such as MSG are unwelcome.

  Herb and spice origin may dictate their flavor. "There are quite a few of the widely used herbs and spices that do have unique characteristics based on their origin, that is, where they are grown," says Immel. "That is driven by the botanical nature of the plant and its genetic makeup as well as by the growing conditions and any potential cross-pollination."

  For example, something as basic as black pepper can vary widely depending on the country of origin. Brazilian, Malabar and Lampong are common designations for black peppercorns. Even if their volatile oil content (aromatic portion of black pepper) and piperine content (the black pepper "bite") are the same, overall flavor profile may still be different, especially if they originate from different regions. "You may want a specific origin, or a proprietary blend," notes Immel. If black pepper is an important ingredient in a particular product, volatile oil content, piperine level and origin must be specified to the pepper supplier. If variability in volatile and non-volatile components of other herbs and spices is an issue, oils and oleoresins can be used when visual identity isn't needed.

  Once the main flavor components are in place, they may need balancing or enhancing to ensure that the product is still flavorful after processing. Enhancers such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) are no strangers to ethnic cooking. Using MSG to amplify savory flavors originated in Japan, and presents a low-cost alternative to using meat products and flavors for reinforcing savory flavor. Soy sauce contains MSG, as does hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), making these ingredients good alternatives when MSG cannot appear on the product label. HVP contains salt, MSG and flavor components. According to Crosby, an HVP can be selected to provide a background flavor of soy, beef or chicken. For retorted soups, Crosby suggests using fully reacted flavors that will remain unchanged with subsequent heat treatment.

  Minkoff emphasizes the importance of getting involved with flavor houses early in the development of ethnic soups. He notes that experienced flavor houses many times already have products available for ethnic dishes, and may have suggestions for achieving the flavors characteristic to those cuisines. "Use flavors with real spices," he recommends.

  "I think we, as research chefs and food scientists, are instructed to think outside the box. Now we have to put more colors on the palette," says Crossland. This is an exciting time for soups - who knows, you may be the first product developer to put callaloo in a can or tom kha kai in a frozen pouch.

  Karen Grenus is a senior scientist in product development at Griffith Laboratories, Alsip, IL. She received her doctorate in biochemical and food process engineering from Purdue University, her master's in agricultural engineering from the University of Missouri and a bachelor's in agricultural engineering from The Ohio State University.

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