NUS students create food innovations with a Hakodate twist

Students from NUS Food Science and Technology (FST), have worked with two companies from Hakodate City in Hokkaido, Japan, to develop two unique food products from Japanese produce while catering to Singaporean taste buds.

The products, Shiokamala and Sesame Miso Flounder, showcase key ingredients from Hakodate – shiokara seasoning, a powdered flavouring made from salted, fermented squid, and fresh flounder respectively. The NUS students developed these products as part of their projects for an FST module on food product development and packaging. The module provides an opportunity for students to develop commercially-feasible food innovations, at times in collaboration with local and overseas enterprises. This collaboration with Hakodate City is a first undertaken by FST.

Hakodate, located at the southern part of Hokkaido, is a city by the sea well-known for high-quality seafood including squid, kelp, sea urchin and a variety of fish. The city has an extensive network of resources that support food-related industries, including wholesale markets, academic research centres and trade-support organisations. It is also home to food processing businesses that utilise Hakodate’s natural produce to create original food products.

Introducing an iconic Japanese flavour to local tastebuds

Shiokamala – the name reflects two flavours married into one snack. The 75-gram snack pack comprises commonly eaten mala hotpot ingredients - broccoli, mushroom, lotus root and peanut - and, another popular snack ingredient among Singaporeans, fish skin. These are vacuum-fried and coated in an innovative blend of shiokara and mala seasoning. Shiokara, a Japanese delicacy made from dried salted squid, has a cuttlefish-like aroma, while mala is a spicy and numbing Chinese flavour made from a combination of Sichuan peppercorn and chillies.

FST students Paulie Teo and Frederick Oon were part of the team that developed Shiokamala. They worked with Dainibussan, a business that produces and exports Japanese snacks, which sought to produce a shiokara-flavoured product for the Singapore market using the company’s vacuum-frying technology. “As most Singapore consumers are not familiar with the taste of shiokara, we decided to complement it with a locally popular flavour. Besides its popularity, mala was selected because its fragrant aroma and unique tingly effect on the tastebuds can balance out the strong flavour of shiokara,” said Paulie.

Through working on the project, the team learnt about current food trends and products within the Japanese market, Japanese taste preferences and how shiokara was consumed in Japan. “We benefitted from the exchange of ideas from different cultures. We also learnt to adapt the company’s product to reach international markets, while tactfully preserving the authentic flavours of shiokara,” said Frederick.

Fresh and flavourful flounder from sea to table

Another student team worked with Sakai Shoten, a fish-supply company passed down through generations. The team aimed to create a product from fresh flounder fillets that would be well-received in the Singapore market, while preserving the freshness and quality of the premium ingredient.

Armed with insights from their consumer survey done in Singapore, and after discussions with the company, the team developed frozen Sesame Miso Flounder, a vacuum-packed sashimi-grade, sesame miso-marinated flounder product that can be consumed both raw and cooked. The sesame miso marinade provides a sweet-salty flavour that accentuates the natural sweetness of the flounder when eaten raw. As a pan-fried dish, the miso caramelises to give an umami flavour to the fish.

“From our market research and consumer survey, we found that there is growing demand for Japanese foods in Singapore. Thus, we decided to incorporate mainly Japanese elements in the marinade, such as miso, mirin and bonito flakes, to develop a product with an authentic Japanese flavour,” explained Christopher.

The team also worked closely with Sakai Shoten to understand the company’s priorities for product development. Christopher elaborated, “Sakai Shoten’s determination to keep the processing methods of seafood as simple as possible to enable to natural taste of the product to shine is something that we have grown to appreciate. This is in contrast with our usual mindset where feasibility and consumer acceptance tend to be prioritised. It is a challenging but enjoyable journey for us to develop a product that is both in line with the company’s requirements and the local palate.”

Food for thought

“An important part of our food science students’ education is to understand the key elements of food product development. Through working with Hakodate’s reputable businesses, our students acquired invaluable lessons and practical experience in balancing business and market requirements, marketing skills, as well as technical innovations in food science,” said Dr Leong Lai Peng, a Senior Lecturer with NUS Food Science and Technology.

“It is also important for Singapore to expand food supply chains – working with overseas businesses is a way of achieving that. Japanese products are known for their consistently high quality, and we are delighted that Hakodate City is keen to tap on the skills and creativity of our students to develop foods that have the potential to be brought to market,” Dr Leong added.

“In the last seven years, Hakodate City had launched various food promotional sales activities in Singapore and recognised that Hakodate's food export does not fit the local palate in terms of taste and packaging. This time, FST students developed two creative products with ideas, taste, ingredients and packaging that Japanese would not think of. The two participating companies and Hakodate City were both grateful and amazed by the students' effort on hygiene control and export regulation in developing such high-quality products,” said Ms Tanaka Maiko, Manager of the Food Industry Promotion Section, Economy Department, Hakodate City.

The Shiokamala and Sesame Miso Flounder products are in the midst of being fine-tuned for potential commercial production and distribution in Singapore.