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A Food Fusion Is Spicing Up Sales

The melding of Latino and Asian cuisines is creating opportunities for suppliers.

October 10, 2005|Annette Haddad | Times Staff Writer

Two decades ago, Laura Diaz Brown was dining with her family at the posh Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles when her dad, the owner of several Mexican restaurants, made a simple request: Do you have any hot sauce?

Their waiter was stumped, but the largely Latino kitchen staff had stowed a bottle of salsa picante for their own use and offered to share it.

"That was only 20 years ago when you couldn't find products like that in mainstream restaurants," said Brown, a professional chef.

Today, Mexican hot sauce is a fixture on the tables of countless non-Latino restaurants, a testament to the fusion of cuisines that has bubbled to the surface of Southern California's melting pot.

The melding of exotic flavors with more mainstream tastes remains a growth opportunity for the food business, which is one reason a joint exposition of Asian and Latino food makers and distributors attracted more than 5,000 attendees at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Sunday. The expo runs through today.

The business of selling Asian and Latino food is substantial -- combined, sales of such products in the United States amount to nearly $10 billion a year.

Much of the growth has come from targeting the expanding number of Asian and Latino households looking for the flavors of their homelands, either when shopping at specialty markets or dining at ethnic eateries.

"As these communities spread across the United States, it's everything for us to do just to keep up with the growth," said Mac Moore, chief executive of Cacique, a La Puente maker of fresh cheeses used in Mexican cooking.

As a supplier that caters almost entirely to Latino shoppers, Cacique sells its products at the stores where Latinos shop, be they mom-and-pop neighborhood markets or national supermarket chains.

"The mainstream supermarkets know their consumer base is changing," Moore said.

But even as supermarkets expand shelf space to accommodate new kinds of products and customers, they are also serving the growing demand of non-Asian and Latino shoppers who are increasingly spicing up their palates and their pantries with nontraditional flavors.

Lately, a grass-roots fusion culinary style is emerging, one that combines the common ingredients of Asian and Latino cuisines in new ways.

Luis Saavedra, general manager of Tapatio Hot Sauce Co. in Vernon, sees it at small restaurants and at the food court in his local mall where diners will add his company's salsa picante to dishes such as kung pao chicken.

"A lot of people go to restaurants that aren't Mexican restaurants and ask for hot sauce," he said.

Brown, who is known professionally as Chef LaLa, sees such culinary convergence as a byproduct of Southern California's cultural diversity.

"There are lots of similar ingredients," she said, ticking off such items as cilantro, hot peppers, skirt steak. "You could say moo shu pork is a kind of burrito."

At the food expo Sunday, Brown tied some of those ingredients together in a new, unnamed recipe. For it, she prepared a salsa made with mangoes that she spooned on fried wontons stuffed with Mexican cheese.

"It's inevitable that we have this kind of fusion," Brown said. "We are doing it here naturally. So many places are predominantly Latino and Asian already."

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