The nation’s capital played host to this year’s National Association for the Specialty Food Trade Summer Fancy Food Show showcasing a staggering 180,000 new products, which help account for the $60 billion in sales this industry pulls in annually. Wrapping your head (or in this case your mouth) around that many edibles in three short days is no small feat, requiring, on average, sampling some 60,000 products per day—including all manner of premium cheeses, meats, pastas, chocolates, candy, ice cream, sauces, beverages, foreign specialties, and things you haven’t even thought of (like chili stuffed olives). In fact, I dare Adam Richman of the Travel Channel’s Man Vs. Food to eat his way through this show! Of course, no one’s forcing you to try everything, but attending a food convention is akin to being a kid in a candy store—one in which tasty bites and ‘schwag’ come fast and furious with indigestion not far behind.
As a novice last year, I remember eating my way down a random aisle at the Jacob Javits Center in New York. On either side, friendly, smiling faces enticed me to try their olive oil, cheese, ice cream, cookies, prosciutto, popcorn, and hot sauce—in no particular order—and I soon paid the price for my gluttony, drowning my pain with a bottle of the pink stuff. This time around, as a seasoned grazer, I did not feel the need to shove everything into my pie-hole as if it was the last meal of a condemned man. I also strategically planned my assault on Fancy Food like a Navy Seal.
On opening day, for example, I went straight for Fage Greek Yogurt, a brand that I buy anyway, opting for cherry/pomegranate. Delicious and nutritious. Next, the good folks at Natalie’s Orange Juice from Fort Pierce, Florida, a family owned and operated business, were handing out cups of their fresh-squeezed OJ, which went down beautifully. I passed another stand handing out samples of gluten-
free waffles and syrup, thus completing my breakfast circuit. I handled lunch in a similar manner, frequenting some of the Indian food booths where you are assured a small plate of Basmathi rice topped with various curries. Or maybe, I’m in the mood for a taco, which only requires a trip to the Mexican section. Of course, I couldn’t bypass Stubbs BBQ, where they generously serve up an endless supply of ribs, pulled pork and sausage, to drench in one of their exceptional BBQ sauces. No surprise that my favorite was Spicy. But between these attempts to bring order to the chaos through structured ‘mealtimes’ I was out there with the rest of the thundering herd of buyers, distributors, writers, chefs, and industry people, grazing like a gazelle, stashing away a little schwag for later (in the very same bags they were giving away as schwag), and, this time, being careful not to overindulge (by eating only a spoonful of Ciao Bella’s fabulous Key Lime Graham gelato instead of a couple scoops). It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
Because of the nature of my blog, people try to peg me down to Indian food, which there was definitely more of this time, but unfortunately, more of the same. I’ve been making naan bread pizzas at home for years, so the frozen variety did not impress, and Sukhi’s new Naanwich, seems little more than some marketing masala. The latest innovation since frozen meals are those prepared dishes in a metallic pouch that you simply immerse in boiling water for 5 minutes. While great for convenience sake, they all end up tasting pretty much the same—dull—usually the case when you try to mass produce something. Maya Kaimal, however, has been doing similar meals for the refrigerated section since 2003, and her recent addition of shelf-ready simmer sauces taste a few notches above the competition. But of all the Indian food I sampled at Fancy Food DC 2011, I’ll put my money on a company from Pittsboro, North Carolina called Kerala Curry. Run by a very pleasant husband and wife team (the husband actually grew up in Sri Lanka), they do a whole selection of curry sauces, chutneys and masalas as well as fresh and frozen meals. Had I not seen the can from which their spicy vindaloo curry sauce came, I would not have believed it myself. Of course, the good thing about the preponderance of prepared sauces is that they are pushing Indian food into the mainstream. Eventually, people will be making them from scratch.
A product hot on my mind last year was hot sauce, and this year’s class offered even more to choose from. But finding a good hot sauce is like finding a wife—you have to find one that fits you (and with so many to choose from and so little time!) When it comes to heat, I will certainly take on any sauce for the macho satisfaction of the conquest, but personally I like a hot sauce that provides flavor as well as heat. I think I may have found just that in Hotaru Foods Yuzu Pao line of sauces. Yuzu is, of course, an east Asian citrus fruit popular in Japan, and Hotaru have skillfully incorporated this tangy note into their product. While all their flavors were up to snuff, I liked the Ginger Pao Sriracha Style Ginger Chile Sauce best.
Due to the serious competition in the hot sauce market, you really need to make yours somehow stand out. That’s why a celebrity-owned brand like singer Patti Labelle’s new Lady Marmalade line has a good chance at success. And it tasted pretty good too! Otherwise, some innovative packaging helps, like Ukuva’s necklace bottle from South Africa. But hype and packaging aside, flavor always wins out: case in point, the simple unassuming Hot Mama’s Habanero Hot Sauce from Belize packs a fiery but flavorful punch. I thought this brand was hot until I tried the first hot sauce I’ve seen made from India’s legendary ghost chili, the Bhut Jolokia. Licking a frozen flagpole or doing a shot of liquid nitrogen will not help–Melinda’s Naga Jolokia Hot Sauce wins the prize for this year’s hottest sauce.
Another category that seems to double its population each year is chocolate. There are so many brands of small-batch, artisanal chocolate these days that Hershey’s will never again cut it. Sea salt seems to be a popular addition, as are any kind of aromatic ingredient like lavender or spices—especially chili. Now the
combination of chocolate and chili is as old as the Mayan calendar, but doing it well, is a craft known only to few. One brand that I particularly liked was Taza Chipotle Chili Chocolate. In addition to being organic, bean to bar chocolate (I’m not sure exactly what that means), this is the first stone-ground chocolate I’ve ever come across. The guy at the booth showed me the type of grinding stone they use. As the chocolate melts in your mouth you can actually feel its very fine residue. The chocolate’s disk shape also sets it apart. While this new wave of dark chocolate is obviously geared towards the adult pallet, it’s also good to see spicy sweets aimed at children. I, for one, developed my penchant for chili as a child. But, of course, leave it to the Mexicans to wean their youth on such confections as watermelon and mango flavored lollipops covered in a red chili coating.
As someone who makes and sells my own spice blends (Skiz’s Original Sri Lankan Raw & Roasted Curry Powder), I am naturally inclined to products featuring spices as well as the spices themselves. I was glad to see Spicely Organic Spices exhibiting at the show since I discovered their product while looking for a quick dry-rub in New York. This time, they gave me a dry mix of their Harissa seasoning, which is a fiery condiment popular in North Africa. Made with chili flakes, garlic, parsley, caraway and coriander seed, all I need to do is add equal parts hot water and olive oil.
As there are not too many spice blends I am unfamiliar with, I was also surprised to come across Satisfy Your Soul’s Egyptian Dukkah mix. Dukkah, I learned, consists of a mix of herbs, spices and nuts pounded together and eaten as a dip with bread or fresh vegetables. I also discovered ras el hanout
(which means “top of the shop” in Arabic), a popular Indian spice blend that usually includes such spices as coriander, clove, cumin, cinnamon, chili, nutmeg, peppercorns and turmeric. In fact, if I spotted one trend, it’s that spices are finding themselves more and more in mainstream products such as popcorn. Popcorn is seriously stepping up as well, but one company that really stands out with its flavors, packaging, and taste is 479 Degrees from San Francisco. I was lured to their booth with the prospect of trying their new Madras Coconut curry with cashews (of which they ran out, but promised to send me one), but I came away with a box of Pimenton de la Vera instead, described as “smoky Spanish paprika with bursts of ripe organic tomato and onion.” Light and fluffy kernels of corn were covered in a spicy, sweet glaze with just a hint of heat. With flavors such as Chipotle caramel and almond, and black truffle with cheese, I’m definitely going to be on the lookout for these guys.
Speaking of black truffle, I actually saw some real ones at a booth selling black truffle infused olive oil. They are a lot heavier than I would expect from a fungus, and one potent whiff lets me know why they are used so sparingly.
Of course, I wouldn’t pride myself on being a gastronaut, unless I wasn’t always on the look out for something new and original that I haven’t tried before. This time around, I came across black garlic from Korea. Simply regular garlic that is fermented, it tends to have a sweeter and not so pungent taste. I tried some solo as well as in a dish, which I will tell you about in the next post (“A Taste of Korea”). I would have to say that the weirdest thing I ate at this year’s Fancy Food Show had to be the sea pineapple, which is also a Korean delicacy. I certainly would not have it again, but at least I can say I tried it! And even though Fancy Food is a wrap, there are still plenty of products left to try. Just look at the schwag on my kitchen table after I returned home from the show! Even though I got some great stuff–and I thank all those companies for their samples–the best schwag I got was a 2 cup rice cooker from the Thai rice board.
Shouts Out To:
Susie Wyshak, formerly of Foodzie
Chef Akira Back, of Yellowtail Restaurant in Vegas
High Road Craft Ice Cream & Sorbet — for the amazing flavors!!! http://www.highroadcraft.com
Half Moon Bay Trading Co. — nice & hot sauces and condiments
Walkerswood Caribbean Foods — for the best jerk sauce in the world!
Cocowater & Aloe Water — for keeping it real!!! www.naturalcocowater.com
Ginger Ale by Bruce Cost — for also keeping it real simple and good!
Eastland Food Corp. –for distributing Asian products in the US–especially the Maesri brand