"Innovation and new product development (NPD) are the heart of the ethnic foods business and always will be," says Perween Warsi, founder and chief executive of S&A Foods, which supplies ethnic ready meals to Asda. "What's driving the market is more variety and choice than ever before."
Consumers are also becoming more adventurous in their tastes, and are being forced to look for ways to enjoy ethnic dishes at home as they rein in their restaurant spending amid the continuing economic gloom. "In in the last year, around one third of adults have cut back on eating out at ethnic restaurants," says Mintel's head of food and drink research, Kiti Soininen. "As a result, around one in four is buying more ethnic food from supermarkets instead."
The drivers may be very different, but they're all conspiring to push in the same direction: healthy growth and a proliferation of NPD in ethnic food.
The longstanding favourites of Italian, Indian and Chinese foods continue to dominate among the non-British cuisines in ready meals, but other national styles are also gaining popularity.
"Thai posted the fastest sales growth over 200911, seeing its sales nearly double, but this comes from a very low base (of £19M in 2009), compared with much larger segments such as Indian (£383M in 2009) and Chinese (£143M in 2009)," says Soininen.
For example, CP Foods' Authentic Asia brand hit the freezers in Morrisons last year, with a mixture of Chinese and Thai dishes. Part of the worldwide CPF Group, the company's Thai origins mean it's well placed to tap into the Far Eastern trend.
"Demand for more exotic dishes continues to grow, particularly for Thai, Chinese and Japanese cuisine and, thanks to CP's heritage, we can offer customers the opportunity to experience expertly prepared Asian-inspired food using only the finest Asian ingredients," says Jane Dunford, development manager at CP Foods UK.
While most ethnic offerings focus on savoury dishes, CP's latest innovation also ventures into the desserts arena, with its colourful Fruit Sushi, which is a sweet take on the Japanese classic.
But ethnic food for home consumption is about more than complete dishes. Cooking kits are increasingly popular, as people look for a halfway house between ready meals and cooking from scratch.
"In terms of ready meals in particular, some of the main consumer concerns include the sentiment that they contain high levels of salt, fat and additives and that they don't feel fresh. This should offer opportunities for ready-to-cook meals or meal kits to gain share, given their associations with freshness and transparency," says Soininen.
"However, it is worth noting that while ready-to-cook meals posted sales growth that was broadly on a par with chilled ready meals in 2011 (at 12.9% and 12.0% respectively), [ready-to-cook] is still a niche sector, with sales of £192M in 2011, compared with £2.2bn for chilled ready meals."
Bespoke Foods sells meal kits under the Thai Taste and Malay Taste brands and has seen a surge of interest from supermarkets. "Sales of Thai Taste and Malay Taste's Easy Kits have dramatically increased in the past year due to both brands' success in significantly expanding distribution of these products within the mainstream retailers and meeting consumer demand for convenient meal options from new international cuisines," says Carine Gauyet, head of marketing and NPD at Bespoke.
"Initially stocked solely in Waitrose, distribution across other stores has expanded in 2012, while Waitrose continues to have a strong presence and distribution."
In March, Thai Taste secured a new listing for its Easy Pad Thai Kit, with Tesco announcing that the product would be stocked across its UK stores. Increased distribution of the Easy Green and Red Curry Kits from 76 to 541 stores also strengthened Thai Taste's presence within Tesco.
"In Asda alone, distribution for Thai Taste has grown from 90 stores to 446 stores for the Easy Green Curry Kits and 372 stores for the Easy Red Curry Kit, with a new product listing secured for the Easy Pad Thai Kit in 109 stores and for Malay Taste's Nasi Goreng Kit from June 26. Both Thai Taste's Easy Curry Kits have also been available in Morrisons since February 2011," says Gauyet.
In June Bespoke Foods also launched a new range of Thai Taste salad dressings, intending to bring a Thai flavour to the barbecue season. Chilli & Garlic dressing can be used as a marinade, as well as in stir fries and salads. Coriander, Lime & Chilli dressing suits stir fries, marinades or as a dipping sauce. And Sweet Mango dressing's sweet flavour means it can even be used in desserts, as well as in stir fries and salads.
Newcomer Kent's Kitchen
Newcomer Kent's Kitchen arrived on the ethnic scene last year and its range of kits are currently available online and in delis and farm shops. "A lot of people are nervous of cooking but, with these kits, it's a 123-step process. It's very simple and anyone can do it," says co-founder Alex Gardner. "Even a novice cook will get it right. The kits also work out cost-effectively because people don't end up having to over-buy the key ingredients."
The company already offers kits covering both the Far Eastern and Indian portions of the flavour spectrum, and plans to take a step-by-step approach to expanding its range. "We've started with things like red and green curry, korma and balti as you'd expect, because we know there's good demand for those. You could say we're playing it safe to begin with but we'll continue to push out new recipes one by one. South American flavours are very in vogue at the moment," he says.
While most of the Kent's Kitchen kits involve consumers adding their own ingredients to the flavour formulations provided, the company's latest innovation is a new take on, arguably, the most well-established meal kit of all potted noodles. The Kent's Kitchen Posh Noodles come in five flavours: Beef Pho, Teriyaki, Pad Thai, Spicy Szechuan and Miso Style Prawn & Garlic.
Posh Noodles average 220 calories and less than 1g of saturated fat per pot. "These delicious pots offer those seeking quality, flavoursome and authentic-tasting noodles a fabulously healthy alternative," says Gardner.
Oriental and Indian favourites may dominate the ethnic sector, but cuisines from other parts of the world are also gaining ground among novelty-hungry consumers. "Indian and Chinese are still the most popular, but others are growing fast from a small base, including Mexican, Caribbean, Polish, Nordic and South American," confirms Warsi. For example, S&A's latest addition is the Jamaican speciality, Jerk Chicken.
"American-style dishes, which include Tex Mex, are increasingly popular, supported by trends in the foodservice market," says Soininen. "Similarly, there has been growth from other European meals, which includes Spanish tapas or paella dishes, for example, and from other international meals, which include Levi Roots' Caribbean food."
Spanish Passion is a good example of the 'new European' trend. The brand comprises two ranges that are imported from Spain and distributed in the UK by TSL Foods.
The Deli range includes products such as green chilli pepper in white wine vinegar and spicy Mediterranean vegetables on skewers in mild vinegar. They're aimed at snacking and add a Spanish touch to British cheese boards.
The Artisan Collection includes soups, sauces and preserves. Products include peaches in syrup, orange preserve with chocolate and white asparagus soup.
While companies may be sourcing their ideas from a wider range of locations, they're also increasingly looking to broaden the appeal of ethnic foods by targeting a group of consumers who have not traditionally been attracted to the strong flavours that characterise international dishes: children.
"46% of parents who eat ready meals would like to see more products tailored for children. This is something that could also hold growth going forward in ethnic meals, with Asda for example launching a Mild Fajita Kit, Mild Chilli & Wedges Kit; Chinese Meal for 1 Meal Kit; and Indian Meal for 1 Meal Kit as part of its Great Stuff range in May 2012," says Soininen.
As well as all the development effort in non-traditional ethnic opportunities, there's still plenty of activity going on in the most established cuisines and formats. For example, May saw Tesco team up with Bakkavör to spice up chilled ready meals with a new Taste of India selection. The range includes seven new curries, four starters and five side dishes for a mix-and-match menu.
Meanwhile S&A provides the curries that enabled Asda to scoop up the "Best Supermarket Curry Award" at the Scottish Curry Awards in June. And far from resting on its laurels, the company is continuing to innovate, with Warsi pointing to the company's hot vindaloo as an example of the UK's evolving loving affair with spicier products.