One of the biggest deals in the food world is the NASFT Fancy Food show, which takes place twice a year–in San Francisco in the winter, and either New York or DC in the summer. Hundreds of exhibitors from all over the world come together to debut their new products, and the rest of the food industry follows. Unfortunately, this exclusive event/feeding frenzy is not open to the public.
After having just attended my third Fancy Food Show, I can honestly say that the novelty has worn off, but that doesn’t mean it’s still not (literally) a gas to eat your way through two floors–and we’re talking two floors which are each the size of a football field, crammed with booths bursting with free samples of the latest fine foods to hit the market–at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in DC. Actually, grazing is a better word to describe what one does at a Fancy Food show, because you’re really getting a ‘tasting menu’ of small bites and bits supplied by the 1000 plus vendors, as opposed to a full meal (though what you will consume in a day is probably the equivalent of several big meals). Of course, the bigger companies like Fage (pronounced “Fah-yay,” as I discovered) can afford to give you a whole container of their superior Greek yogurt, which you’ll probably want to eat right on the spot. Those probiotics will come in handy for the heavy digestion ahead. But it’s also essential to bring a few empty bags to take away the endless shwag you accumulate visiting booth after booth. You’ll be eating for days afterwards from all the booty you copped at Fancy Food.
I remember my first time down on the feasting floor, eating a path down aisle one, and turning down nary a free mouthful until the motley contents of my stomach eventually caught up with me. It doesn’t pay to be too eager (read: greedy) at Fancy Food or else you might find yourself doubled over in pain and bowing before the porcelin messiah. But far from being a glutton, this time I was a study in restraint, putting only those things I really wanted to try into my pie hole; asking for smaller bites than were offered; and even observing several “no eating” breaks to allow time for some precious digestion. When eating becomes such a serious business, the key to surviving the three days of the convention is to pace yourself.
As a veteran, I can afford to be a little jaded at this point as well, and let you know that not everything I encountered at this convention qualified as “fancy.” What the hell was Hormel doing there for example? Potted meats I can do without–not to mention the guy at one of the China booths who was selling MSG by the ton. Hasn’t word got around that we are at least trying to be healthy? I guess the recession is news worldwide because I noticed a lot of the same bigger companies (who can afford to be here) exhibiting and not as many new, smaller vendors. Still, there was plenty to see, smell, and taste.
In previous years I focussed on the incursion of ethnic foods or did a rundown of the latest hot sauces to hit the market, but this year, since there was less of both, I’m just sort of highlighting products I liked or found interesting . The Caribbean section, which used to be good for a scorching selection of hot sauces, for example, was reduced to only about 5 or 6 booths this time around. I still managed, however, to find some interesting hot sauces from some unlikely places.
Don Joaquin from Ecuador uses passion fruit to add sweetness to their heat while Mi Madre’s Pique from Puerto Rico doesn’t even bother grinding whole chilies, garlic, peppercorns and spices to create their ‘rustic’ looking salsa. While neither is super spicy, both are big on flavor. I was also able to pick up samples of my old standby, Mexico’s El Yucateco, made with nothing less than the hottest habaneros as well as some Iguana sauces from Florida, which come in a whole range of great flavors. My favorite sauce, however, was the straight orange habanero puree from Interfoods, which I plan to use to create my own customized hot sauce.
With the breakout success of Indian food and Asian food in general over the past year, I expected to see a whole slew of newer Asian products at this years’ show, but sadly, I think the economy has thwarted such an expansion. Tandoori Chef, purveyors of the frozen naan pizza, maintained its presence, however, joined by smaller companies such as Maya Kaimal and Sukhi’s, which was serving up plates of Indian food better than many restaurants. In addition to their line of frozen foods, and their trademark Naanwich, I’m excited to try Sukhi’s Vindaloo Curry Sauce since their stuff tastes authentic–especially the tangy cilantro yoghurt chutney I had with my samosa.
Aside from the odd Korean and Thai vendor, the Asian representation at this years’ show was a bit of a disappointment, though there were a couple pleasant surprises. Since I’m not so familiar with Filipino Food, it was nice to run into Mama Sita, who was hawking her line of Filipino sauces and mixes. She was also good enough to give me a cookbook with a variety of Filipino dishes that I will definitely try as well as a spice mix for Sinigang Sa Sampalok, a prawn soup made with Tamarind . Another Filipino lady, representing the company Sun Tropics, was debuting calamansi juice, a typical citrus fruit from the Phillipines that tastes like a cross between a lime and a tangerine. Calamansi is one of those products which is not so easy to find in the U.S., but I guess those days are behind us now.
Speaking of Asian flavors, I am very happy to witness the day that Sriarcha sauce has become a mainstream condiment, speaking volumes on the evolution of the American palette. I, who routinely douse everything with Sriracha, was pleasantly surprised to find those crunchy dried peas usually flavored with wasabi, now available with a coating of spicy, garlicky Sriracha.
Being partial to anything coconut, I was also excited about several new products from the palm tree to hit the U.S. market. The first is Dang‘s toasted coconut chips from Thailand. Slightly sweet/salty with a great coconut taste, I could think of a myriad uses for these little chips–first and foremost as a topping for ice cream. I just wish Vincent, the company’s Chief Culinary Officer, had been a little more forthcoming with some samples so I could test them out because I already finished the small pack he gave me on the way home.
Another coconut product I’m psyched about is Kelapo‘s Coconut oil spray. In the west, we are just finding out about the health benefits of coconuts, and this product makes it both easy and convenient to use coconut oil in baking, salads, or whatever. And I might add that none other than Sri Lankan coconuts are used to make this oil, which is another plus because the coconut oil we have there is organic and unprocessed. Incidentally, I also came across several olive oil sprays and even a balsamic vinegar spray.
Speaking of balsamic vinegar, there were plenty of different types to try, but the most interesting product I found was the balsamic ketchup from Di Nigris. Regular ketchup is made from white vinegar, so why not subsititute some black balsamic vinegar instead? It tasted just as good if not better.
One last coconut product worth mentioning would be Maggi‘s coconut powder. Owned by Nestle, Maggi is a name well-known in Asia, but virtually unknown in the U.S. While several brands of canned coconut milk are currently available here, Maggi is finally bringing over their powdered coconut milk, which should make cooking Asian food a lot easier. Did I also mention that they get their coconuts from Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is one of the few countries that is not usually well represented at Fancy Food, but this time I ran into several Sri Lankans–even a whole family represented Chami Tea. Dilmah Tea, one of the largest independent Sri Lankan tea producers, also showed for the first time at Fancy Food.
Fancy Food is a great place to be introduced to products from abroad as I would estimate that roughly a quarter of all exhibitors represent foreign countries. One of the stranger new products I came across this year, in fact, came from Peru. Having just visited that country in March I was curious to try Kaptive, their new energy drink made from coca leaves, which have a very unique and bitter taste. People in Peru routinely chew coca leaves–especially for relief from the high altitudes in the Andes–which contain the active ingredient of cocaine (though in miniscule amounts). While I was not surprised to see an energy drink made of coca leaves, I was puzzled to learn that its active ingredient–the cocanoids–had been removed. So what gave these drinks their energy? The print on the bottle was too small to read. But the drink itself tasted good–much more than I can say for chewing coca leaves.
As with every Fancy Food show, there is inevitably a surplus of fine chocolate, most of it organic and dark and sourced from practically every tropical clime in the world. But some of the best bars I tasted this time came from Germany. Ritter Sport, with their trademark square bar, is a favorite for everyday consumption. Surprise, surprise: I also discovered a funky new product out of Germany called IChoc by Vivani. These vaguely i-pod shaped bars each bear a different musical motif, but what makes them special is their intense flavor. I tried “Beat Berry,” which was brimming with dried raspberry shavings which also gave it a nice crunch. Meanwhile “GoGo Mango,” a white chocolate bar laced with yogurt and pieces of dried mango was the clear winner. Wow! And I’m not even usually a fan of white chocolate.
One thing I do love, however, is pie, and while I did not come across any pies, per se, I did discover that a respected brand of ready made pie crust, Wholly Wholesome, now comes in a gluten free variety.
Last year, I feel like I came away from the show with more free stuff (i.e. “shwag), but this year, some of the shwag was more impressive. I certainly can’t beat the rice cooker that the Thai Rice Board gave me last year, but Good Fellas Foods came mighty close with a package that was delivered to me only days after the convention. No dead fish in that delivery, but rather an apron, a cookbook from the late mobster Henry Hill, and 2 bottles of their awesome sauce, which I will sure be enjoying.
There were also some very strange freebies to be had. For anyone who thinks the bacon craze has died down, for example, guess again. One booth was not only giving out samples of their bacon lip balm but, yes, I hate to say it, bacon lube….
No celebrity sightings this time, although I did run into Aarti Sequeira, the Indian host of Food Network’s Aarti Party, which started off as a her own self-produced cooking show on YouTube. Hey, that means there’s still hope for Pan Asian…
Though noticeably scaled back, this year’s Fancy Food did seem to have more alcohol–from French, Spanish, and Italian wines, to German and Belgian beers, to all manner of Mexican tequila and mescal. I would spend at least a segment of each day boozing it up, not for a buzz, but rather to burn some of the calories sitting in my stomach. I was also happy to see my drink of choice up in the mix this time I around: Cachaca from Brasil. Thanks to the folks at Tatuzinho, I must have ended every day of Fancy Food 2012 with a couple caipirinhas! Salute!
And here’s my little space in the Buyer’s Best Friend booth: