Fungi fermenter Shared Cultures was the featured cover story in a recent Food & Wine section of the San Francisco Chronicle. Company co-owners Elena Hsu and Kevin Gondo make small-batch fermented soy sauce, miso, and sauces and marinades using koji and wild, foraged mushrooms. 

The article calls Shared Cultures “the darling of the Bay Area food scene.” It details how they use traditional techniques with unexpected ingredients, like a shoyu with quinoa and lentils, a miso with cacao nib and a koji salt with leek flowers.

Hsu and Gondo also open up about the challenges of scaling  artisanal fermentation. They are the only employees at the companys and can’t keep up with the demand. Their ferments require a lot of time, some fermenting for eight months in a closet-size room in their rented commercial kitchen. They note that it is too expensive to rent or purchase their own warehouse in the Bay Area. 

Multiple California chefs use Shared Cultures products for an added umami punch. Hsu encourages home cooks to experiment with their products, too, “You don’t have to have a $300 tasting menu to try these flavors,” she says. “You can be the chef.”

Read more (San Francisco Chronicle)

Soy sauce is arguably the most important seasoning in Japanese cooking. Its well-balanced, salty-sweet taste and deep layer of umami richness make nearly all foods taste more delicious and satisfying. Its uses range from a dab on sushi to a splash into noodle soups and stir-fries, as well as the featured flavor of glazed dishes like teriyaki,” reads an article in BBC Travel.

The author traveled to the port town of Yuasa to learn more about the history of the “holy grail of Japanese cuisine: soy sauce.” In 2017, the country’s Agency for Cultural Affairs designated Yuasa as a Japan Heritage Site for being the birthplace of Japanese soy sauce. Soy sauce was first made in Yuasa in the 13th Century. 

At its peak, the small town with a population of around 1,000 had more than 90 soy sauce breweries. Today, there are five soy sauce shops and six Kinzanji-miso makers. The decline is related to the rise of mass-produced soy sauce brands, who skimp on quality for a lower-priced soy sauce. It’s estimated that only 1% of soy sauce brewers still produce using traditional methods.

Read more (BBC)

The United States is becoming more diverse, with 4 of every 10 Americans identifying as non-white. But grocery stores have been a poor reflection of that mix of cultures. Now, a group of BIPOC food entrepreneurs are encouraging buyers and retailers to expand the range of products featured on store shelves.

“It has to start with leadership at the top saying, ‘We have to champion emerging brands because it’s good business,’” says Clara Paye, founder of UNiTE Foods, a maker of protein bars with international flavors. “Let’s face it. Your customers are diverse. They’re looking for diverse products. Create the incentive structures for buyers out there to have those placements and do it confidently.”

Paye was part of a panel at Natural Products Expo West discussing the challenges and opportunities for founders of color. The U.S. food system, the panelists lamented, is far from equitable. For example, though foods like kimchi and miso are staples in Asian countries, shoppers are hard-pressed to find a broad and deep array of multicultural food products at a typical American grocery.

“There wasn’t an avenue if you weren’t born and raised in America,” Paye explains.

Reclaiming Food Culture

The panel stressed that they could never find the traditional foods they ate growing up when they went to American grocery stores. First- and second-generation immigrants have never been the focus of major retail food brands. Underserved in this way, these BIPOC founders say they started their companies to reconnect with the flavors of their cultures.

“We felt it was a travesty that the second largest continent in the world [Africa] didn’t have any reflection in mainstream grocery,” says Perteet Spencer, founder of Ayo Foods, which sells West African frozen dishes and jarred sauces. (Spencer — a former employee of SPINS, a retail sales data provider for natural products — spoke at a TFA webinar in 2021). 

But she notes the food system is changing: “It’s clear that the market has shifted over the last several years and is embracing global flavors.”

Expanding the flavor of Mexican cuisine is the goal of Miguel Leal, co-founder and CEO of Somos, maker of Mexican meal kits.

“There’s stereotypically this (belief) that ethnic food has to be cheap,” he says. “It can be beautiful or clean or premium.”

Vanessa Pham agrees, adding there’s a narrative that authentic ethnic food should only be served in hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Pham is co-founder of Omsom, which makes chef-created Asian dishes. “Authentic” is a complicated term, she says.

“Authenticity sometimes pegs and limits food founders and chefs to a nostalgic idea, ‘How my grandma made it’ or ‘The traditional way,’” she explains. “We believe BIPOC chefs should be able to innovate. Cultural integrity is much more about doing your research, involving the right people and compensating ethically.”

Ethnic Aisle: Integrate or Celebrate? 

The ethnic aisle in groceries is a debated topic among BIPOC food leaders. Some say it’s an easy way for shoppers to find international products; others argue it’s an antiquated and offensive placement.

“I like the ethnic aisle, I just don’t like the way it’s showing us today,” Leal says. “It’s a little bit of a caricature.”

A recent survey by Adobe found 66% of African Americans and 53% of Latinos feel their ethnicity is portrayed stereotypically in food advertisements.

Pham views a future where the hodgepodge of products in the ethnic aisle disappears, and rice noodles are sold next to spaghetti. Paye agrees. “I think it will be a thing of the past, a funny thing where we put candles and beans and matzo balls.”.

An Overlooked Wine Category

“Aaliyah Nitoto, winemaker at Free Range Flower Winery, is tired of hearing that the category of wine is exclusive to grapes. For centuries, wine has been made from many kinds of plant products, she says, like grapes, apples, pears, rice and flowers,” reads an article in Wine Enthusiast. 

The magazine highlights the history of flower wine, which has variations in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and even the U.S. The process to make the wine is different from a traditional grape wine. Fresh or dried flowers are boiled and crushed, then yeast and a sugar source are added to start the fermentation process.

Flower winemakers lament that their product is not respected in the wine industry. Flower wine has been made primarily by middle- to lower-income women.

“That can tell you right there why they were relegated to obscurity. The people who owned tracts of lands that had money and influence and got to name things like ‘noble grapes,’ they got to say what was wine and what wasn’t,” Nitoto (pictured) adds. “The opinion of people in this country over the last 100-odd years to try to get rid of this category doesn’t stand up to the history of winemaking, which is thousands of years old, which does call this wine.”

Read more (Wine Enthusiast)

Japanese Cheese

Using local microbes, sakura blossoms, sake and takesumi (bamboo charcoal), chef and microbiologist Chiyo Shibata wants to “introduce Japan through cheese.” She runs cheesery Fromage Sen in mountainous Chiba Prefecture east of Tokyo.

Shibata fell in love with cheese — not a part of a traditional Japanese diet — while visiting France as a child. She later studied microbiology and fermentation at Tokyo University, then apprenticed to cheesemakers in France. When she returned to Japan to work at a government food safety lab, cheesemaking became her side hobby. Asked to analyze the safety of dried fish maker Koshida Shouten’s 50-year-old brine, Shibata made an interesting discovery. Not only was it safe, but the brine was teaming with lactobacilli. Inspired by the world of microbes, Shibata used a sample of brine as the foundation for her Japanese cheese.

“These microbes are the way to realize the terroir unique to this place and convey the message that this is our own cheese,” she says. She opened her rural cheesery in 2014 and has since won multiple honors, including Japan Cheese and World Cheese awards. Her handcrafted cheese, made with local ingredients, is aged 2-4 weeks. “Each ingredient is good on its own, but when you bring them together, they draw out their strengths and become something even more beautiful.”

Interestingly, Eric C. Rath, a professor of Japanese history at the University of Kansas, says cheese was never traditional fare in Japan because grazing cows on the country’s rocky terrain is difficult. But ancient texts describe three things similar to cheese: so, raku and daigo. Daigo was described as “the epitome of dairy products. Buddhist monks compared its taste to enlightenment,” Rath said. It’s unknown how these dairy products were made.

Read more (Atlas Obscura)

For nearly two decades, the Mediterranean diet has been the food choice recommended by dietitians and the USDA.. This approach to eating has been proven to improve health and reduce risk of chronic disease. 

But there’s a new contender: the Nordic diet. 

This plan focuses on eating fermented foods and beverages, with less meat and more legumes than in the Mediterranean diet. Both approaches are plant-based and full of lean proteins, complex carbs and healthy fats.

“The nordic diet really does promote a lifelong approach to healthy eating,” says Valerie Agyeman, RDN (pictured). “It also really really focuses on seasonal, local, organic and sustainably sourced whole foods that are traditionally eaten in the Nordic region.”

Agyeman, founder of Flourish Heights, shared her research during a Today’s Dietitian webinar “Breaking Down the Nordic Diet: Why is it Gaining So Much Popularity?” The presentation was designed to help registered dietitians better counsel clients on healthy eating habits.

What is Nordic Eating?

The diet embraces traditional Nordic cuisine, with a focus on ingredients that are fresh and local. The core of the fare is from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

“Fresh, pure and earthly are the words used to describe this food movement that was born out of the landscape and culture,” Agyeman says. “The Nordic movement is all about using what is available.”

The goal is not to invent a new cuisine, but to get back to its roots. Seafood is central, but meat – scarce during the long Nordic winters – is treated as a side dish Fresh vegetables and berries – the most common Nordic fruit – are prevalent during the summer. Fermented foods were born out of the necessity to preserve food from the warmer months to eat during winter. The indigenous Nordic people traditionally fermented vegetables, fish and dairy.

“It really takes the focus off calories and puts it on healthy food,” Agyeman adds. “This way of eating is pretty nutrient-dense.”

Nordic foods, she continues, are served in their natural state with minimal processing. They’re high in antioxidants, prebiotics, probiotics, fiber, minerals and vitamins; low in saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars and added salts.

“The Nordic diet is really not that straightforward,” Agyeman says. “When you think of other cuisines, like Italian cuisine, they have signature flavors and various culinary techniques that make up Italian cuisine. When it comes to Nordic cooking, it’s very diverse.”

Sustainability

Key, too, is sustainability. Foods from the Nordic countries have a lower environmental impact because they’re sourced locally and eaten in season. 

Sustainability is also partly why Nordic cuisine has become a staple at many restaurants. The farm-to-table style continues to expand in restaurant dining, along with fermentation. Restaurants around the world are following the lead of Copenhagen’s Noma and building their own labs to explore the flavors and textures fermentation adds to dishes.

“Today [fermentation] is not something that’s needed,” like it was before a global food scene made it simpler to eat fresh food year round, Agyeman says. “But culinary wise, fermentation has evolved. It’s become a big part of these new creations.”

Fermented foods and beverages add to the “epicurean experience,” adds Dr. Luiza Petre, a cardiologist and nutrition expert based in New York. 

“Savory flavors and fermented food with spices make it a culinary experience,” she says.

Health Benefits 

Studies show eating the Nordic diet prevents obesity and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. 

The health effects of the Nordic diet were always assumed to be solely due to weight loss. But results of the most recent study of the diet, published in the journal Clinical Nutrition in February, found the positive health effects are “irrespective of weight loss.”

“It’s surprising because most people believe that positive effects on blood sugar and cholesterol are solely due to weight loss. Here, we have found this not to be the case. Other mechanisms are also at play,” said Lars Ove Dragsted, of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports in a statement on the study

The researchers  from Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland studied 200 people over 50 years of age with elevated BMI. All were at an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. For six months, the group ate the Nordic diet while a control group ate their regular meals.

“The group that had been on the Nordic diet for six months became significantly healthier, with lower cholesterol levels, lower overall levels of both saturated and unsaturated fat in the blood, and better regulation of glucose, compared to the control group,” Dragsted said. “We kept the group on the Nordic diet weight stable, meaning that we asked them to eat more if they lost weight. Even without weight loss, we could see an improvement in their health.”

China’s Secret Sauce

NPR highlights “Lu, the secret sauce at the heart of many Chinese family cuisines.” Every Chinese region uses a variation of Lu in their cuisine. It is made from a base of salty liquid (like soy sauce) mixed with sugar and spices. But salt is core to the product, more so than the spices. 

Lu takes on “the characteristics of each of China’s regional cuisines.” In Sichuan, Lu is spicy;  in Zao, it is alcoholic, made from the fermented rice left over from brewing Chinese yellow wine. 

One Chinese restaurant chef (pictured, who asked NPR to keep him anonymous so his restaurant stays out of the limelight) traces his Lu sauce to “an unbroken chain of sauces dating back to that first batch his mother made in the 1980s.” The chef takes his sauce at the end of each day and gives it “nutrients” – fresh spices and meat boiled in Lu. 
“It is a bit like sourdough, where the last batch seeds the next batch, and the flavor intensifies over the years,” the piece continues.

Read more (NPR)

Jewish Delis GoVegan 

Jewish delis are evolving for modern consumers, offering plant-based alternatives to lox and pastrami. 

“We’re literally saving the Jewish deli. We’re giving it the modern twist that’s desperately needed to stay delicious and relevant to a growing segment of the population,” said Jenny Goldfarb, the founder and CEO of Unreal Deli. Goldfarb’s plant-based corned-beef-pastrami hybrid attracted an investment deal on SharkTank, and today it’s available in 2,200 grocery stores.

Though Jewish cuisine is known for being heavy on meat, vegetarian food has a part in Ashkenazi culture, notes Jeremy Umansky, chef at Larder Deli in Cleveland. He points out that kashruth (kosher dietary laws) and periods of poverty meant Jewish cuisine always included vegetarian recipes. 

The food at Larder — which includes vegan and vegetarian dishes — is put through the same process as animal-based items. Umansky cures mushrooms with salt and koji for a smoky, savory flavor and meat-like texture. 

“It’s all about the method and technique behind the production of those foods,” Umansky said. “You know, going back and looking at things and seeing that there is historical precedent for this.” Pictured, a selection of vegan Jewish deli fare at Ben & Esther’s in Portland, Oregon.

Read more (Insider)

Expo West Returns

In March 2020, Natural Products Expo West became one of the first casualties in the U.S. events world, shut down by the outbreak of Covid-19 even as booths were being set up in Anaheim. Now, two years later, Expo West   returns to Orange County  with natural food exhibitors from around the world. TFA staff and advisory board members will also be in attendance.

In 2019, the enormous spring trade show attracted around 88,000 registrations; this year, that number is estimated at 55,000-60,000. Show producer New Hope Network (part of London-based Informa PLC) is also including  a virtual option for attendees still unable or unwilling to travel.

The trends at this year’s event are being driven by Millennial and Gen Z consumers. New Hope  put a spotlight on six top themes in a recent webinar:

No. 1: Functional Ingredients. “Health and wellness products make up a quarter of the volume of the industry but represent two-thirds of all growth,” said SPINS Data Analyst Scott Dicker. “We’re seeing consumers pushing for individual pursuit of wellness across channels.”

No. 2: Organic & Regenerative. Food that focuses on performance nutrition, food made with ashwagandha or food with paleo ingredients are driving growth for organic and regenerative products. Sodas and carbonated beverages are also helping organic products grow, “one of the last ‘junk food’ categories penetrated by natural and organic,” Dicker said. Gut health sodas, especially.

No. 3: Climate and Sustainability. Media headlines are declaring carbon as the new calorie. Consumer surveys speak to that — 70% will pay more for “premium, sustainable, climate-friendly products” and 80% want brands to educate them on their roles in climate issues. Companies are changing ingredient sources and product packaging to be more environmentally-friendly.

No. 4: Diversity. “Over the past couple years, we’ve seen tremendous growth in women, minority, NGLCC (National LGBT Chamber of Commerce) certified and veteran-owned businesses and you’re going to see it all over the show floor,” Dicker said.

No. 5: Plant-Based Innovation. Plant-based eating has skyrocketed over the last five years. “But plant-based alone isn’t enough anymore. What are plant-based brands doing to keep up with innovation?” Dicker said.

No. 6: Sustainable Meat & Dairy. Though the sustainable meat and dairy category is down 2.1%, pockets of it are growing, specifically grass-fed, fair trade and animal welfare and sustainability claims. Innovations are coming from small and local farms.

Read more (New Hope Network)

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)