Singaporeans are crazy about Italian food. On TripAdvisor four of the top ten rated restaurants in Singapore are Italian, as is the top rated restaurant, Fratini La Trattoria. PastaMania, Singapore's biggest pasta chain, has a busy restaurant in almost every mall. Singapore also boasts the only Jamie's Italian, a restaurant by British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, in Asia.
Why do Singaporeans love Italian food so much?
Perhaps it's the obvious symmetry between Italian and Chinese-Singaporean cuisines. It is not surprising that most of the highlights of the on-going Singapore Food Festival feature local food. Spaghetti, tagliatelli, and ravioli have their Eastern counterparts in egg and wonton noodles as well as Chinese dumplings – and there's always chilli oil on hand if your bolognese isn’t spicy enough.
The science of taste
But food scientists believe the answer lies elsewhere. There is a common component to many Asian and Italian dishes that most people are probably unaware of. It is an elusive flavour called "umami" – something that Chinese and Italian dishes share in abundance.
In fact, the umami taste is more potent in many Italian dishes when compared to Asian favourites. So, our love for Italian pasta with tomatoes, parmesan, and olives is because these ingredients enable Italian chefs to pack more umami flavours into their creations.
Umami, a Japanese word that literally translates as "pleasant savoury taste", is now recognised as the fifth basic taste alongside sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. It corresponds to the flavour of glutamates – monosodium glutamate (MSG) in particular.
But it wasn't long ago that the term was unknown both to the general public and most Western chefs. Even as late as the 1990s there was still a question mark over whether umami was one of the basic tastes at all.
Umami confers a sense of "deliciousness" to many savoury dishes. In Singapore, local ingredients such as fish paste, soy sauce, cabbage, dried shrimp, and bean curd give Asian fare an umami kick, while Italians rely on tomatoes, beef, hard cheeses, olives, mushrooms, and cured meats to achieve the same effect. Italian food is exotic, but it's also implicitly familiar.
Boosting business with umami
MSG – a food additive designed to target our umami taste receptors – has revolutionised the food industry: it can make cheap, bland food taste delicious. This is very true in Singapore, where MSG has been used liberally by food hawkers for decades to sell moreish local dishes at low prices.
However, modern consumers are wising up to the possible health risks associated with MSG. Local food retail outlets that want to adapt to this shift in consumer demand could follow the Italian example of sourcing umami flavours from fresh quality produce rather than taking shortcuts.
Restauranteurs too might want to consider going back to basics to create dishes that maximise umami flavours. In 2009, Adam Fleischman created the menu for his famous Umami Burger chain in Los Angeles by spending a month experimenting with seaweed, miso, fish sauce, soy, cheese, and pungent dried fish to create the ultimate umami burger.
Now, local Singaporean burger outlets too have their own umami-themed burgers, such as Wildfire Burgers' Umami Burger, featuring baked mushrooms, parmesan, and house-made umami dust.
Localise for success in Asia
International food chains should rely on this sense of familiarity with local food to succeed in Asian markets. Not all cuisines pack the umami punch of Italian food, so local success can be difficult, even for the largest Western brands.
To global food companies, Asia represents a huge untapped market. But it can be hard to convince Asian consumers to try unfamiliar foods. So companies can't just enter the market with a standard product as they can across North America, Europe, and Australasia.
As a result, Western fast food companies must make changes to their menus to appeal to the Asian palate, even though global chains such as KFC, Burger King, Wendy's, and McDonald's have very consistent menus throughout the rest of the world. Of course there are local variants outside of Asia, but no other regional market demands quite the same degree of customisation, with 70% of Asian fast food menus featuring bespoke locally-relevant dishes.
For brands looking to enter Asian markets, umami-rich options like McDonald's Prosperity Burger with aromatic black pepper sauce are irresistible to local palates.
Over recent years, the pressure on global food manufacturers to create healthier, yet equally tasty, food products has escalated. Giants such as Nestlé, the Campbell Soup Company, and Frito-Lay have cottoned onto the ability of umami flavours to improve the taste of their low-sodium products.
For local brands looking to boost regional and international business, umami could become their "not-so-secret" weapon. Many local dishes and sauces are packed with umami, and food manufacturers could take advantage of this by marketing their products as such.
Fish- and seafood-flavoured snacks are very popular locally, but these products can be scary for the uninitiated. Food labels such as "Bursting with natural umami flavour" could help local produce reach a wider audience on the back of the umami trend.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
Do you know more about this story? Contact us anonymously through this link.
Gemma Calvert is Professor of Marketing at Nanyang Business School, and Director for Research & Development at the Institute for Asian Consumer Insight, NTU Singapore. A pioneer of neuromarketing, she helps companies to break into Asian emerging markets through deeper understanding of Asian consumers.