Cash in one’s chips: The humble potato’s new Asian markets
That was evident in Saigon this year, at the recent Fi Vietnam trade show, where American potatoes had a sizeable representation in the exhibition halls.
“Potato ingredients have had a growing presence in Asia for some time, especially in Southeast Asia, where they are being used increasingly in snacks, bakery and bread-making,” says Julian Awry of Idaho Pacific.
A couple of consulting bakeries in Singapore and Malaysia have been doing extensive work with the US Potato Board on the use of potatoes in bread, he says. It is a technique goes back to the late 1800s in Europe, when housewives would use left-over potatoes to prolong a loaf's life and reduce household waste.
The moisture in potatoes as an additive extends how long bread will last, allowing for an extra few extra days of shelf-life. While this is not new science in Europe and North America, Asian bakers have recently been cottoning on to the use of potato flour to also give up to a 10% yield improvement in their products, thereby helping their bottom lines.
Doing so is especially popular in the Philippines, Thailand and China, where pizza-makers are increasingly using a percentage of potato flour as a raising agent in crusts.
Aside from established Western techniques, Asian manufacturers are now adopting potato ingredients into local fare, such as in fillings for mooncakes in China and countries with large Chinese populations, and for snacks that would be viewed as wacky elsewhere.
“Asia is very creative as a snack food producer—in some ways much more creative than in the US,” says Awdry.
“The Philippines stands out in this regard with brands like Jack & Jill, which makes potato rings, and Mr Potato in Malaysia uses US flour in their canister chips. Korean companies are opening up to use dehydrated potato in extruded snacks.”
Companies like these have developed innovations such as a french fry that is totally dehydrated, and a snack from Japan that looks like a drinking store that is actually an extruded french fry.
“In Japan, they are using french fries as a Jenga game,” says Teresa Kuwahara of Potatoes USA, a representative body (see video). “It’s like a puzzle; you can’t take the wrong french fry or the whole pile will fall down.”
Much of the source of the innovation stems from the expectation that many popular snack varieties may only last a year before they depart the market. However, in the US, the undisputed home of the snack, tastes traditionally revolve around barbecue, cheese and original, and change is slow, says Awdry.
“Seasoning profiles change regularly in Asia—it’s almost seasonal. One company we deal with in Japan actually has eight flavours launched every year. We are seeing things like blueberry potato chips, cucumber, melon, which to us in America might seem pretty weird—honey flavour, too.
“We think of chips as being salty snacks that go with beer, maybe. But if you’re drinking fruit juice, a berry snack goes very well,” he adds.
Based in Idaho, Awdry’s company has been present in Southeast Asia for some time, supplying potato flakes, granules and mashed potatoes to food service, bakery and industrial food manufacturers mainly to the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Yet he is only now scouting for business in Vietnam with its largely young population of almost 90m. This late approach to the country, he says, is largely due to emotional baggage.
“I think America has a much more emotional relationship with Vietnam, and American companies have been very slow to step up. We are probably a bit late in all honesty, but I think today there is a willingness to engage, which wasn’t apparent maybe 10-15 years ago.”
Despite this late arrival—Idaho Pacific has a distributor and a budding market—the company doesn’t expect to be alone in Vietnam, where increasingly Western tastes and growing incomes have been attracting more international potato ingredients companies not only to bakery but to bolster local dishes.
Awdry believes it is important to cater for these regional tastes: “Part of my role here is to look around and see where our ingredients might fit into a local context. I find we are most successful when we find a customer in a country like Vietnam who is willing to adapt our products to a local taste profile or requirement.”
Being viewed solely as providing ingredients for foods you might find in the US is not sustainable, he says, because imported tastes often turn out to be fads in Asian countries.
“We shouldn’t do something like barbecue just because we like it; we should offer products that local markets want.
“But if we can provide a tool for traditional cooking, that could be for the long-term,” he adds.