Racist and sexist comments have long been hurled at food companies run by Asian American women. But in the modern tech era, where food brands have a social media presence, these cruel remarks from trolls are being dealt with in a variety of ways. Some fight back with humor, others aim to educate while some ignore it.

Kim Pham, co-founder (with her sister Vanessa) of Omsom (which sells Asian pantry staples), said it was difficult in the brand’s early days for her to read offensive comments. She came to a sad realization: “I think it’s par for the course when you are an outspoken brand run by women of color.” 

“For so long our community has been defined by this model minority myth, of being quiet, or docile, or submissive,” said Pham, “and we really just wanted to give a middle finger to that.”

Omsom’s social media policy is to remove insulting comments, but leave anything that “might generate a fruitful conversation.” 

Jing Gao of Fly By Jing (which sells Asian pantry staples, dumplings and hot pots) (pictured), though, takes a different approach. “We have no problem making fun of those people who are, you know, clearly disturbed,” said Jing Gao, the company’s 34-year-old founder, adding “We definitely troll them. … and our community seems to really love it.”

Meanwhile Sahra Nguyen, founder of Nguyen Coffee Supply, has zero tolerance for trolls. She doesn’t want her employees engaging in toxic behavior, so they don’t respond.

Read more (The New York Times)

From Chemist to Fermenter 

Four years ago, Bob Florence, 62, made a radical turn in his decades-long career as an industrial chemist. With the help of his wife Debbi Michiko Florence and business partner James Wayman, he began making small batch soy sauce, miso and other condiments under the brand name Moromi (Japanese for “mash”) Artisanal Shoyu. 

Florence always enjoyed cooking, but making soy sauce (shoyu) piqued his interest. “It’s technically really super challenging,” he says. The different types of soybeans, wheat, salt and koji that can be used to create different varieties were especially appealing. Florence trained in Japan with the president of Chiba Shoyu, Kyosuke Iida. 

Florence’s partners bring their own skills and perspectives to Moromi. Wayman, a chef at Nana’s Bakery and Pizza and Grass and Bone Butcher Shop in Connecticut, focuses on using local ingredients, some of which he forages. Michiko Florence, a third-generation Japanese American, is a children’s book author who has made food and Japanese culture features of her books.

Read more (The Day)

Miso, frozen yogurt and pickled and fermented vegetables are driving growth in the $10.97 billion fermented food and beverage category. The fermented products space grew 3.3% in 2021, outpacing the 2.1% growth achieved by natural products overall.

“It really highlights how functional products have become the norm for shoppers when they’re in stores,” says Brittany Moore, Data Product Manager for Product Intelligence at SPINS LLC, a data provider for natural, organic and specialty products. Moore notes there’s an “explosion of functional products” in the market — “[they] are appearing everywhere. And fermented products have been leading that space in the natural market for years.”

The data was shared during TFA’s conference, FERMENTATION 2021. SPINS worked with TFA to drill into data covering 10 fermented product categories and 64 product types (an increase from last year). [A note that wine, beer and cheese sales are excluded from the data. These categories are very large, and would obscure  trends in smaller segments. Wine, beer and cheese are also well-represented by other organizations.]

Yogurt dominates the fermented food and beverage landscape with 75% of the market, but sales growth is soft. Frozen yogurt and plant-based offerings, though small portions of the yogurt category, are fueling what growth there is. “Novelty products are catching shopper’s eyes,” Moore notes.

 Kombucha, the fermented tea which led the U.S. retail revival of fermented products, still rules the non-alcoholic fermented beverages market, with 86% of sales. But growth is slowing. Moore points out that this slowdown is due to kombucha having penetrated the mass market with lots of brands on grocery shelves.

“There’s opportunity in kombucha for new innovations to catch the progressive shopper’s eye,” Moore says. “Shoppers are looking for an innovative twist to their functional product.”

Moore points to successful twists like hard kombucha, which grew nearly 60%, and probiotic sodas, which grew 31%.

Growth is slowing for hard cider, too, though hard cider leads the alcoholic beverages category with 83% share of sales. 

All sectors of the pickled and fermented vegetables category are growing, totalling nearly $563 million in sales. Refrigerated products are nine of the top 10 subcategories here. The “other” pickled vegetable subcategory is increasing at a 60% growth rate, “other” being the catch-all  for vegetables that are not cucumbers, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, beets or ginger. Fermented radish, garlic and seaweed fall into this subcategory.

Soy sauce is not surprisingly still the largest product in sauces, representing 58% of the category. But that share is dropping. Gochujang is the growth leader, increasing at rate of nearly 20%.

Miso and tempeh are also performing well, which Moore attributes to the growing plant-based movement and the Covid-19 pandemic pantry stocking boom. Miso products — soups, broths, pastes and mixes — totaled over $24 million in sales in 2021. Though instant soups and meal cups represented only 8% of sales, they grew more than 110%.

The Gochujang Debate

The next “it” condiment in the U.S, gochujang is sweet and spicy, fermented for six to 12 months, and adding an umami tang. More restaurants are incorporating gochujang into their dishes, like the Shake Shack chain has done with their new Korean-Style Fried Chick’n sandwich.

But gochujang’s popularity has been a divisive issue. On one hand, many critics say mainstream food culture shouldn’t cherry-pick trends. “Ethnic foods, particularly the fermented variety, have a history of being typecast as unappetizing in the United States,” writes Hanna Park, the article author. She quotes Eric Kim, a food writer for The New York Times who says he hates that gochujang is now popular: “I never like to say a pantry ingredient is ‘trending’ or ‘mainstream,’ because that implies it is new. But new to whom? Gochujang is one of the oldest foodstuffs, beloved by millions of people for centuries.”

Meanwhile, other food experts say it’s wonderful to see Korean food used as inspiration for new dishes. Chef Hooni Kim, who owns Danji and Hanjan restaurants in New York City, says there was a time when Americans didn’t know anything about Korea, confusing it with China and Japan. Gochujang helps people appreciate Korea for its food culture. “It all comes down to execution. If they make it delicious, so people like Korean fried chicken or gochujang, then I thank them,” he said.

Read more (NBC News)

The Dodo of Gastronomic History

Scientists are working to recreate an ancient garum, considered the “dodo of gastronomic history.” Beloved by Mediterranean civilizations, the fish sauce was thought by historians to be extinct, lost along with the Roman Empire.

Food technicians got new insight into this garum when archaeologists discovered sealed dolia (large clay storage vessels) at what is believed to be a former Garum Shop at Pompeii. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the building, preserving the factory. The charred, powdered remains left in the vessels — plus a fish sauce recipe believed to have been from the 3rd century A.D. — has aided food techs in recreating the ancient garum. 

This product uses heavily salted small fish fermented for one week with dill, coriander, fennel and other dried herbs in a closed vessel. The resulting “Flor de Garum” is sold in Spain by the Matiz brand in amphora-shaped glass bottles. 

Top chefs in Spain have been using Flor de Garum in new dishes. Mario Jiménez Córdoba, chef at El Faro in Cádiz, uses it in black-truffle ice cream, a raw sea bass dish and chocolate ganache. 

“When people think of garum,” Jiménez says, “they imagine something that smells disgusting. But we have to think of garum like we would salt, or soy sauce. You use only a few drops, and the flavor is incredible.”

Read more (Smithsonian Magazine)

Foods Explores Fermentation

The international journal Foods is deep-diving into fermentation this month with a special issue: New Insights into Food Fermentation. Eleven research papers cover lactic acid bacteria, yeasts, food quality, food safety, unconventional food matrices, byproduct valorization, technological processes, strains selection, microbiological characterization and microbial community in fermented foods.

Fermented products studied include: fish sauce, natto, suanzhayu (Chinese fermented fish), artisanal sausages, cheese and fermented beverages and fruit.

“Food fermentation has been used since ancient times for food preservation. At present, fermented foods are still and even more appreciated by consumers thanks to the high quality and safety standards achieved, and the improvements in terms of nutritional and organoleptic characteristics. Many foods are still produced following traditional practices but novel approaches to food fermentation have also attracted the interest of researchers and industries. Innovative technological and biological processes, as well as novel approaches of investigation, deeply interact to steer traditional products into modern diet and to open up perspectives for the fermentation of unconventional substrates and food byproducts,” writes the issue’s guest editors, professors Valentina Bernini, PhD (University of Parma, Italy) and Juliano De Dea Lindner, PhD (Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil).

Read more (Foods)

Singapore’s so-called “Prince of Fermentation” wants his country to develop “its own brand of fermentation culture.” Tan Ding Jie says Singapore’s traditional ferments are often left out of “the gospel of fermentation.”

“Cinchalok, fish sauce, fermented bean curd, fermented bamboo shoots – these are all very interesting ideas. People who are more mature have been quite ready to adapt koji from Japan and red yeast rice from Asia in their Western restaurants – so I think we should also be able to adapt or loan some of their ideas and use them in our cuisine.”

Tan Ding Jie, a researcher for Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research, is currently pursuing a master’s degree in food science. Jie consults for different Singapore restaurants and bars on how to use ferments in their menus. He created a fish sauce and nata de coco at the Michelin-starred Labyrinth restaurant, and created kombucha-infused cocktails for Gibson, one of Asia’s top bars. He started his own brand, Starter Culture, and teaches fermentation workshops and sells his own kombucha.

In an interview with Channel News Asia, Jie said he thinks there’s “much to be discovered from looking into our Southeast Asian culinary heritage. … I think Singapore is unique because we haven’t been afraid to say, ‘Let’s learn what are the best practices in the world today, and then apply it to our local context.’ If you look at Southeast Asian ferments, it’s also very simple – we took what immigrants brought over and said, ‘All right, that’s the history, let’s make it local.’”

Read more (Channel News Asia)

In America, where 40% of the population identifies as nonwhite, why do grocery stores still have an ethnic aisle? The outdated aisle initially began after World War II as a way for soldiers to buy the food they ate while in Italy, Germany or Japan. But the European foods, like pasta sauces and sauerkraut, eventually became integrated with the rest of the store, while foods from BIPOC countries stayed put. 

Heads of ethnic food brands and grocery chains have been pushing for a change, but it’s been a hard sell. Doing away with the aisle is a layered problem — and still not the most popular approach with food professionals.

“Several food purveyors of colors see the aisle as a necessary evil — a way to introduce their products to shoppers who may be unfamiliar with, say, Indian food — though a barrier to bigger success,” reads an article in The New York Times

Some ethnic brands come to store buyers with little capital to get their products on the shelf, so the only spot for them is on the ethnic aisle. They will never break out unless they’re acquired by a larger company. Larger corporations, like Pepsi or Nestlé, can afford to pay stores to put their products on shelves with prime product placement. And large ethnic brands (like Goya beans and Maruchan ramen) are placed on both ethnic aisles and their respective traditional product section because they’re considered broadly recognized.

But many products with international flavors made by nonwhite brands are not placed on the ethnic shelf. The Times shares the story of Toyin Kolawole, who runs the African ingredients brand Iya Foods. Kolawole tried to get her cassava flour into the flour aisle with a Midwestern retailer with no success. But when cassava flour began trending as a substitute for traditional flour, bigger companies launched their own cassava brands — which were put in the flour aisle. 

On the flip side, other food professionals note that consumers turn to the ethic aisle in search of international flavors. Customers like the convenience. There is a fear that unique ingredients (like tamarind or pomegranate molasses) without a clear spot in a grocery store would get lost in a conventional aisle. And, even worse for some brands, integration in an American grocery store means being “divorced from its cultural background.”

Read more (The New York Times)

Will fermentation be key to the future of the food industry? A third of food produced globally is thrown out, but an article in Forbes explores a promising solution — more companies are using fermentation as a way to decrease food waste. 

A new Danish startup, Resauce, gives companies the resources to turn their food waste into fermented products. Their success stories include a farmer who made fermented onion paste and sauerkraut from excess onions and cabbages, and a vineyard owner who converted grapes into a honey-fermented grape syrup. Each producer then sold their product under their own brand.

Resauce founder Philip Bindesbøll said: “Now we can give companies an innovative product, financial benefits, as well as a positive sustainable story.”

Read more (Forbes)

“If there were a country whose cuisine excels in the realm of fermented foods, it’s Japan,” highlights an article in Discover Magazine. In Japan, hakkо̄ (which translates to “fermentation”) forms “the very basis of gastronomy in the island nation,” continues the article.

Tsukemono (pickles), miso (fermented soy bean paste), soy sauce, nattо̄ (fermented soy beans), katsuobushi (dried fermented bonito flakes), nukazuke (vegetables pickled in rice bran), sake and shōchū (liquor distilled from rice, brown sugar, buckwheat or barley) are all staples of traditional Japanese meals. 

Nattо̄ in particular has been proven to lower obesity rates, boost levels of dietary fiber, protein, calcium, iron and potassium and reduce diastolic blood pressure.

Though the article highlights the few, limited studies on the effects of other fermented foods, it also noted how difficult it is to study them. There little money behind the study of traditional foods (outside of yogurt), and participants in any such research would need to be on the same diets and exercise programs in order to produce objective results. A study would also need to take place over multiple years — “the cost would be vast, the ethics questionable.”

Read more (Discover Magazine)