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As American restaurants increasingly add international flavors, dozens of overseas companies have set up shop at the annual NRA Show in Chicago, hoping their food products, seasonings, and equipment entice chefs and operators.
"We're definitely looking to increase our business in the U.S.," says Akira Mii, overseas division manager for Yamato Manufacturing Co. Ltd. in Japan. The company makes machines that roll out and cut various sizes of Japanese noodles.
The space-efficient noodle machines can be an integral part of any operation that may want to expand its Asian offerings, "not just a Japanese restaurant," Mii says.
In addition, the devices can serve as a conversation piece for diners, who watch the noodles being reduced from a ball of dough into various widths and shapes.
One of the company's biggest customers is Marukame Udon, a chain of 445 restaurants in Japan that recently opened its first U.S. stores in Hawaii. Customers move down a serving line, choosing their noodle, tempura, and side dishes and then pay the cashier.
A number of countries have pavilions at the NRA Show that allow several exhibiters to display their wares in a one-stop location.
There are 15 businesses at the Taiwan pavilion, where many of the food items are snacks, like San Li Food's yogurt fruit puddings and mochi-style cookies from Royal Family Food.
A few hundred steps away is the Korean pavilion, which features a variety of food products from different manufacturers, as well as some great chefs creating dishes.
Much of the interest focuses on items such as bulgogi—a lettuce leaf with fermented soybean paste—and kimchi, or pickled cabbage.
Kimchi has become popular because it's one of the ingredients in Korean barbecue tacos, popularized by Kogi food truck in Los Angeles. This type of taco has also made its way to the brick-and-mortar world at chains such as California Tortilla.
Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, an American-born chef and author who is cooking at the Korean pavilion, says interest in kimchi has grown "because it’s so delicious." She admits, however, it is something of an acquired taste and can be odiferous.
There are 187 different kimchi varieties, but the one that is best-known is made with Napa cabbage. "You can make a great kimchi from ingredients available in this country," Lee says. "It can improve any menu."
At the Japanese pavilion, the benefits of umami—the so-called "fifth taste"—was being extolled by Yukio Shigemune, vice president of Ajinomoto, which makes seasonings.
One of the company's items is a salt with umami that can be used on french fries or other salty menu items to reduce sodium by more than 25 percent. "This is a healthier alternative," Shigemune says.
Canada was represented at the show by several companies. Garden Protein International, of Vancouver, British Columbia, was cooking up its Gardein-brand vegan burgers and chicken, which were being scooped up by hungry attendees.
The burgers consist of soy, ancient grain flour, and other ingredients, "but they taste and have the texture of meat burgers," says Thaddeus Thorn, director, foodservice sales, North America.
Stonefire Authentic Flatbreads, based in Toronto, was displaying its naan, roti, and Mediterranean pita that use centuries-old recipes. All are made with hand-stretched dough and baked at 950 degrees for 35 seconds, using a special technology designed by the company.
A restaurant can bring the bread to life by baking it up a few minutes more.
At the Italian pavilion, Barilla, best known in America for its pasta, shows off its entire line of fine Italian products under the Academia Barilla banner.
Academia Barilla is an international center based in Parma, Italy, and it is dedicated to spreading Italian food culture through products and training. Its food products include 100 percent extra virgin olive oils from various regions of Italy, canned peeled tomatoes, pecorino dolce cheese (made with sheep's milk), and pesto with Italian pine nuts.
"We strive to give chefs and restaurants the best quality, from the small operator to a quick-service operation," says Mario Rizzotti, Midwest regional manager for Academia Barilla.
Although the items may be more expensive than some others, "our quality is so good you don't have to use as much," Rizzotti explains. "Plus, they can save time and effort at the restaurant."
By Barney Wolf