The spicy taste of success

Savoring the taste of success

Sauce: A native of Cameroon developed a ready-made seasoning for West African dishes and has marketed it to many shops and restaurants.

March 30, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

As the harried mother of a newborn, frustrated in her search for a ready-made sauce to use in making the West African dishes of her native Cameroon, Julie Ndjee decided that she would have to create one.

After many months of research followed by trial and error, the Elkridge resident hit on a recipe that worked. Now she travels the Baltimore-Washington region promoting Neilly's Ultimate Seasonings, a slow-cooked blend of tomatoes, onions and spices named for her daughter.

More than 20 specialty shops stock her sauce, and Ndjee said that with other shops picking up her product and restaurants using it in their dishes, she expects to reach $1 million in sales this year, far surpassing last year's estimate of $160,000.

"I'm interested in getting into the mainstream market and getting people to recognize African seasonings and foods," Ndjee said.

Based in offices in Columbia, she plans to add two full-time employees to the part-timers she employs now, and to hire a marketing company to help promote the product.

Ndjee is also considering importing other items, such as coffee and ingredients from other African cultures, to expand "into a major seasonings manufacturer."

Americans are not skimping when it comes to spicing up meals. In 2002, consumers spent more than $7 billion on condiment sauces, according to information provided by the Association for Dressings and Sauces.

Africa might be the last frontier for finding new flavors, said Wilbert Jones, a Chicago-based food and beverage product developer.

He said foods from Africa have reached mainstream markets in Europe. A certain level of education for consumers and buyers for stores is needed for people to become familiar with such flavors in the United States, he said.

"When America embraces it, I think it's really going to give us so much more on the table," Jones said, especially for vegetarians and those looking for simple, well-seasoned foods.

Among those considering Ultimate Seasonings is Giant Food, said company spokesman Jamie Miller.

"We're very interested in the product," he said.

Finding something familiar among the international offerings available in local supermarkets inspired Ndjee to get started.

She had always been fond of entertaining and cooking, and she found herself making batches of her sauce as a marinade for friends who had requested it for their parties.

But Ndjee said she had a hard time finding prepared foods to meet her needs when the birth of her daughter Neilly, now 4, made additional demands on her time. "There were no healthy products out there that were ready-made that tasted like what I was used to making at home," she said.

While working full time as a financial consultant, Ndjee said, she began researching the possibilities, including driving to Rutgers University in New Jersey, which has a food science program.

Part of the challenge was her insistence on a product that had no preservatives but was "shelf-stable." Ndjee said she refused to add substances such as vinegar, which would have extended the sauce's life but would have changed the flavor or made it less wholesome.

It took seven months of laboratory testing and more than five tries to create a formula that had more than a one-year shelf life, Ndjee said. Garlic, ginger, lemon and chives give this spicy concoction its flavor. The hot pepper spice variety includes habanero peppers for extra kick.

After co-workers and her bosses raved about an early run of the sauce, Ndjee sold out of her supply of Ultimate Seasonings at a Cameroonian festival in Laurel. People then started recommending stores that they thought would be interested in carrying the sauce.

She took it to Roots Market in Clarksville, which let Ndjee sell her product, although the store's owners and staff members -- mostly vegetarians -- would not try it because it is made with roast chicken juices. "We definitely like to support a lot of local and small producers," said Andy Craig, a buyer of meat, cheese and salad for Roots.

At tastings, "there's a great reaction. People love it," he said.

Chefs are cooking with it, too. Several restaurants, including B. Smith's in Washington's Union Station, use Ultimate Seasonings in menu items. Eddie's of Roland Park carries the sauce at its Charles Street store, said communications director Jo Alexander. The Roland Avenue location will offer a West African scarlet snapper stew using the sauce, she said.

At demonstrations, Ndjee said, she offers samples of dishes that can be made using the sauce, such as jollof rice, a dish with vegetables and meat that can take up to two hours to prepare without Ultimate Seasonings.

Ndjee also recommends using the sauce it as a marinade for meat, especially barbecue.

"African cuisine is not a well-established cuisine here," said Albert Ndjee, Julie's husband and co-owner of the business. "One of our goals is to make people discover what we have and what we can offer."

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