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Perspective:
Dairy Marketing

The universal language of pizza

Mark Todd

Mark Todd is consulting pizza chef for the California Milk Advisory Board. He contributes this column exclusively for Cheese Market News®.

Dough. Sauce. Cheese. Such simple ingredients have made an enormous impact on our lives. As pizza lovers and pizza makers descend upon Las Vegas this week for Pizza Expo, it’s only appropriate to reflect upon this humble food and how it has evolved through generations and expansion into new cultures.

In the continuously unfolding history of humanity, simple flatbreads have come a long way. One of the big landmarks along the way was the discovery of special grains that had a mysterious substance which would transform our crumbly, cake-like baked goods into the more elastic loaves we cherish today — and millennia later spark one of the liveliest food debates in modern times: gluten or gluten-free? Because of gluten, we were able to evolve beyond humble unleavened planks to create the ultimate expression of flavored flatbread: The Foldable New York Pizza slice. In the hearts of many Americans, this was the ultimate pinnacle of pizza prowess, the end of the line.

From out West came a new trend. With little regard for proper manners or culinary decency, the “California Pizza” proved that pizza crust could be used as a canvas to deliver an unimaginably wide range of toppings, from Peking Duck to Squash Blossoms and Burrata. The people marveled at the audacity, the rebellious spirit. This was Impressionist Pizza!

Then Pizza came to Asia, and WOW, talk about a love affair! Because of the large number of U.S. soldiers and bases, the Philippines was already on the pizza bandwagon, having been introduced to the delicacy about the same time it began to gather momentum in America, the early 1960s. But while a couple of major local players joined the fray (Greenwich and Yellow Cab), the dominant player was Shakey’s, and traditional U.S-style pizzas were the norm.

Japan was the first serious convert in the efforts to introduce cheese to the more traditional Asian diet. We went over in the 1970s with a strong tool, pizza! By the 1990s, Japan was introducing the world to its favorite new pizza toppings — Mayonnaise and Sweet Corn! Now, you’d be hard pressed to find a commercial block in any major Japanese city that does not have a pizza shop, most founded and run by locals. The Japanese taste for non-traditional pizza toppings branched out from mayo and corn into curry, mustard, seaweed, squid, canned tuna, strawberries, cranberries and chocolate to name a few.

It seems the farther West one wanders, the further from normality, reality, comprehensibility, we (and pizza) travel. In 10 years of meandering through Asia, I’ve seen the stuffed crust go from simple string cheese to cream cheese, raisins and caramelized sugar, all manners of sweet or spicy Asian sausages, shrimp in mayonnaise, sweet potato, even a wreath of mini cheeseburgers! Toppings have gone from the typical to the truly unexpected. The first time we saw a pizza with Bonito Flakes on top, writhing in the steam, as if alive, it was admittedly a bit outside our normal pizza experience.

Next in line was Korea. In Seoul, Bulgogi was an instant hit. Anything from the sea was also a big win — squid, shrimp, tuna (raw and canned). Someone there developed the Pizza Bomba, a multi-layered squid ink crust with a regular pizza that has a second layer of dough on top that puffs up like a balloon when cooked, leaving the inside “pizza” to cook by steam. The server uses large kitchen shears to remove the top, tableside, unveiling the steamy pizza inside. A dramatic presentation, if not my preferred cooking method.

From there it spread to Thailand, Indonesia, China, Vietnam and beyond. All over Asia now, pizza is king and one of the fastest growing foodservice channels! There is not a corner of the continent that is untouched.

From Inner Mongolia to Borneo, from Seoul to Singapore, pizza has crept into the everyday life of the urban Asian. In many places, you can get pizza very similar to what the U.S. customer would recognize. But one can also order ingredients even the most adventurous “California Pizza” maker in America would not think to use. Plus, their innovative takes on crust are show stopping. Arranging the crust to resemble flower petals, lava pits or volcano craters is not uncommon. Employing multi-layered crusts, sometimes made with completely different ingredients, and filling AND topping them is also becoming a regular practice.

One of the most significant pizza trends taking hold in Asia — and the one most important to our dairy business — is the transition by many, if not most, of the serious pizza purveyors to natural cheese. As the biggest producer of pizza’s most popular cheese, Mozzarella, this matters to California dairy producers and processors. The California Milk Advisory Board has spent the last decade teaching pizza chefs how to use real cheese to their advantage and it’s working. Natural cheese blends, using four cheeses or more, are common. The improved quality from using real, wholesome ingredients paired with innovative ideas has propelled Asian Pizza beyond a quirky sideshow product to a uniquely crafted and seriously craved foodstuff.

So, come and experience the evolution of pizza at Pizza Expo. I’ll be serving up slices in booth #1662. I can’t promise Bonito Flakes but you’re sure to be delighted.

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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