Japanese flavor and scent makers are sniffing around for business opportunities in Southeast Asia, relying on local talent to guide them through the subtleties of the region's palates and into the hearts of growing markets.
Green tea or seaweed?
"Japanese matcha green-tea drinks taste like seaweed."
Masaya Tanno, head of T. Hasegawa's Bangkok unit, was shocked when he recently overheard a Thai say this.
When he looked into the beverages, he discovered that they indeed contained compounds found in seaweed.
Suddenly aware that this formula was not working in Thailand, he asked company headquarters in Japan to make the tea less seaweed-like so he can better market it to local business partners.
The human brain determines what tastes good or bad based on a lifetime of experience.
Most people sense that something is off when they try something they have never tasted before.
Thai cuisine is filled with spices and seasonings unfamiliar to Japanese taste buds, such as fish sauce.
"Only local staff can discover new flavors that fit the regional preference," said a T. Hasegawa representative.
Tanno is on a constant hunt for new snacks and beverages.
He tries out uniquely Thai items such as snacks flavored like ground pork or green papaya salad with his trusted right-hand assistant, Sittisak Wattanasirin, hoping to gain insight into local appetites.
For example, Japanese mango flavoring used in gummies and cream is a little bitter, while the Thai version is very sweet, Wattanasirin said.
Because Japanese flavoring is subjected to strict quality controls and other measures, the Thai sales manager believes they have a strong chance of success if they are adapted to the local market.