Regional differentiation can help restaurants deliver heightened flavor experiences.

American diners’ palates are expanding. While they used to look primarily for spice and heat from ethnic dishes, now they’re seeking complex flavors, in which spices are layered to provide a balanced flavor.

According to market research firm Datassential, 61 percent of consumers love or like foods designated “spicy,” and the word is called out on 70.6 percent of menus.

At the same time, consumers’ knowledge of international cuisines is growing. While restaurants used to peg foods as “Chinese” or “Indian,” for example, now they break those down into specific regions to more clearly define the style of cooking and flavors of diverse regions.

One of these styles is Sichuan food, which comes from the Sichuan province in the southwest of China. Many restaurants offer this style of cooking and “within the myriad of regional Chinese, Sichuan is one that is growing rapidly in the U.S.,” says Chef Robert Danhi, a consultant to Lee Kum Kee.

Common ingredients used in Sichuan cooking are Sichuan peppercorns, deep red oil-based sauces, and broths based on chili bean pastes. These, Danhi says, provide a layer of umami from bean pastes such as toban djan and pixian doban djan and “set expectations for an intensity of taste, spice, and depth of flavor. Meeting expectations is probably one of the most critical ways that a quick-service restaurant chain can succeed with introducing the flavors of Sichuan. You don’t want a customer to blow their palate out unexpectedly.”

And it’s easy to adapt this food to consumer preferences, he adds. “R&D teams can design the menu item to give the customer the option of intensity by having the mildest version built into a component that is part of standard menu items. Then, they can give customers the option to increase heat in the back of house or offer sauces or crunchy toppings to increase the level of spice to what they prefer.”

Mala is a popular sensation created by combining Sichuan peppercorns and chili, commonly found in flavorful sauces, pastes, and oils Lee Kum Kee offers. It’s a combination of two words and sensations, translated as numbing and spicy. “Ma is the tingling and numbing and La is heat/spice from chilies,” says Danhi. “Ma is a combination of sensations, firstly the tingling that can be similar to fine carbonation and then longer term, usually up to 20 minutes of numbing. From a scientific physiology perspective, it is several different types of nerve endings combining sensations from nerve fibers and light touch receptors hence a complex sensation, more so than chili spice alone.”

With quick-service restaurants battling to win in extreme cuisine, Lee Kum Kee’s portfolio of ingredients enables them “to replicate, emulate, or give flavorful hints of Sichuan taste that has become a favorite of spicy food lovers,” says Danhi. Another benefit he points to is that these foods are often bright reddish-orange, so they are very Instagramable, leading to likes, reposts, and shares to promote LTOs and menu items.

To incorporate Sichuan flavors, there are four main market forms of Sichuan peppercorns: Sichuan peppercorn oil, dried red Sichuan Peppercorns husks, ground Sichuan peppercorns, and whole dried/frozen green.

“Most people have already eaten Sichuan peppercorns as an ingredient in a spice blend, shake-on seasoning or menu item, says Danhi. “The Shichimi Togarashi, aka seven-spice mixture, in the slender cylindrical bottles in Japanese restaurants includes them, Chinese five-spice mixture often contains it, and so does salt and pepper fried shrimp, squid, or chicken.”

To learn more, visit the Lee Kum Kee website.

By Amanda Baltazar

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