Few consumers are in a position to judge the authenticity of their ethnic ready meal by direct comparison with what they might find on the streets of Beijing, Bangalore, or Bologna. The yardstick is more likely to be much closer to home, among the local restaurants and takeaways on the high street.
That the ethnic foods category is subject to a unique synergy between the foodservice and retail trends should not come as a surprise. But how that feeds into consumer expectations and perceptions of credibility is a rather more complex and evolving story.
That relationship is all the more complicated because, having in the past played second fiddle to both ‘British’ foods in retail and to the restaurant sector in the wider world, retail- processed ethnic foods are now leading – and in many ways shaping – the overall market. In its 2012 ready meals report, Key Note concluded that retail sales of Italian dishes had outsold 'English’ recipes for the first time during 2011.
Decline in eating out (Return to top)
The Key Note data also highlighted the downturn-driven decline in eating out.
In April this year, research company The NPD Group quantified this trend, claiming that the previous three years had seen 123M fewer visits to ethnic takeaways and restaurants around the UK. That massive amount of slack, it deduced, had been taken up by retail ready meals and other prepared foods.
The NPD Group report painted a picture of an out-of-touch foodservice sector playing catch-up with go-getting retail activity, effectively reversing the previous dynamic of the relationship.
But that link remains as important as ever. Head of development at Bakkavör Meals, Angela McKay underlines the way consumers compare the authenticity of supermarket ethnic meals with those in restaurants. “In terms of flavour, it is essential we reflect the out-of-home experience. This is important to shoppers looking for an in-home ethnic meal,” she says.
Bakkavör has a team of development chefs who specialise in Indian cuisine. “We blend our own spices, using bespoke mixes created specifically for each recipe,” says McKay. Flavour is all-important, with spices being tempered in each sauce and chicken flame-seared after marinating in yogurt, she explains.
Then again, discerning consumers may be looking for evidence of more direct, contemporary influence from the source country. Looking back to when she founded S&A Foods in the 1980s, chief executive Perween Warsi says: “There was a lack of authentic, tasty food on the UK market, and that's what I wanted to provide.” In her case, the point of reference has always been the country of origin.
Provenance (Return to top)
“It's about provenance, so we source spices from the south of India, selected and picked when they're at their best. We don't spot buy,” she states. “Then it comes down to using the right herbs and spices and in the right proportions.” This would include, for instance, including fenugreek seeds in fish curries and curry leaf in a Madras.
When it comes to a product being seen as ‘the real thing’, the burden of proof is likely to rest on particular ingredients. McKay at Bakkavör says: “This involves ensuring they are best-in-class and sourced from specific regions, that suppliers use traditional processing methods and specialist expertise is applied,” she says. “By highlighting the provenance of the product, including specific ingredients, retailers are able to engage with their consumers on a more emotive level, instead of merely listing the ingredients used.”
In Tex-Mex cooking, one such ‘golden’ ingredient calculated to send out a strong authenticity signal is Mexican oregano. Sales and marketing director at EHL Ingredients Tasneem Backhouse explains: “This variety offers a stronger, more robust taste and has a slightly bitter flavour, which works well with spicy foods, combining well with other ingredients such as cumin.”
She adds: “We've noted an increase in demand for other spices and blends such as Ras el Hanout, a complex, aromatic blend of spices with origins in North Africa, and Spanish Smoked Paprika (Pimenton).”
Meanwhile, the British appetite for chillies continues to grow. “We’ve seen a boost in sales for all our Mexican chillies: red and green jalapeño, habanero and ancho,” says Backhouse. “The British palate has become more accustomed to spicier foods and, as a result, sales of our hotter Mexican chillies increased by around 20% in the year to June 2013.”
Authenticity (Return to top)
S&A, too, has a Mexican range, and Warsi once again emphasises her company's avoidance of premixed spices, and stresses the specific, blended flavours achieved. “In our Pollo Fuego chilli chicken, for example, we use chipotle chillies sourced from Mexico,” she explains.
The labelling for the regional Indian chutneys, curry pastes and sauces in the Geeta’s Foods range picks out the specific flavours and individual spices used in each product. Says the company’s director Anita Samtani: “We are soon going to be introducing new chutney varieties containing ingredients widely used in India, but not necessarily seen in Indian products for the UK market.”
With an image of company founder Geeta Samtani front-of-pack, this is also one of many Indian brands that stress authenticity through family heritage. S&A's new Perween Cooking Secrets range of oil-infused spice mixes does the same by reverting to the founder's name and, likewise, featuring her portrait. The range, which enables consumers to combine each pre-mixed blend with their own meat or vegetables, includes Haldi: a traditional staple of Indian home cooking, as well as other blends more likely to feature on British restaurant menus.
But why spell out ‘authenticity’ by spotlighting ingredients or flaunting family heritage when you can spell it out, rather more literally, in your company name?
The Authentic Curry Company, based in South Wales, plays a rather different ethnic card with some of its products. Alongside the various Tikka Masalas, Kormas and Jalfrezis, its range extends to curry dishes with names such as Dragon’s Fire, Dragon's Kiss and even Dragon's Cuddle – or the Welsh language equivalent.
This range highlights the sometimes contradictory concerns prompting consumers of ethnic meals. On the one hand, we want authentic ingredients, ideally those specific to the region in question. But we also want our food to be safe, high-quality and – increasingly – ethically sourced. So the Authentic Curry Company is one of those emphasising on-pack the fact that they use locally sourced meat, and other ingredients, in their products.
Other manufacturers point to growing consumer interest in ‘free-from' variants. Bakkavör, for instance, says it currently has no free-from ethnic products, but is considering this for the future. In some cases, this might provide another reason for compromise – or at least a rethink – when it comes to ideas of authenticity.
It is possible in any case to launch into a philosophical debate about the meaning of the word. In Indian culture, can the word ‘authentic’ be applied to products of the British Raj such as Baltis? And as S&A's Warsi points out, up to the 16th Century, black pepper rather than chilli was used for that key element of spiciness. Do we give 'authenticity’ a historical as well as a geographical dimension?
Different eating experiences (Return to top)
Meanwhile, McKay at Bakkavör places the emphasis elsewhere, and reaffirms the importance of the link with restaurants. “Consumers are looking for new products that offer different eating experiences,” she says. “The future of ethnic ready meals is not only about authentic recipes and ingredients; it is also about creating an overall dining experience in your home that mirrors the out-of-home experience.”
Longer term, we might see less adherence to strict ethnic classifications. As McKay puts it: “‘Global my way’ is another emerging trend, which is about discovering the unlimited flavour possibilities of global ingredients beyond the traditional flavours of ethnic foods.”
For her part, Warsi at S&A sees the potential (as yet unrealised, in her company’s case) of fusion cuisine. “I don't preclude that in the future,” she says. “You just have to be totally honest with the consumer.”
For now, at least, consumers seem to want honesty, yes, but also ranges that are emphatically individual and faithfully reflect specific cultures.
Ethnic foods in figures (Return to top)
Cunning number crunchers may have worked out that Italian food sales overtook those of typically ‘English’ fare a couple of years ago, but, even if this is the case, it is not a first.
In ready meals alone, Euromonitor calculates that Indian recipes left ‘western’ (excluding Italian) dishes behind some time ago. Western products accounted for £320M of the almost £1.5bn chilled ready meals market in 2012, Indian ranges notched up a value of £363M.
The types of cuisine growing fastest in ready meals are the most recent arrivals, such as Thai (8.8% year-on-year since 2007), Moroccan (10.6%) and Mexican (13%), says Euromonitor.
EHL Ingredients cites IRI figures putting growth in the Mexican/Tex-Mex retail market at 9.8% in the year to 2012. Most impressively, perhaps, in its 2012 report on ethnic foods, Key Note forecasts growth of 45.1% by 2016 for the UK ethnic foods industry as a whole, says EHL.
For breaking news on the fast-moving world of food and drink manufacturing, subscribe to our free email newsletter, delivered directly to your desktop, laptop, tablet or I-phone every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.