Lend Eastern intrigue to restaurant menus with 10 tips for adding easy Asian accents from India, Korea and beyond.
This article first appeared in the 1 October 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
The new Korean menu at Murray State University in Murray, Ky., is a hit, and the best proof is the empty plates. Dishes come back bare when students sample recipes such as beef bulgogi, seaweed soup and spicy chicken. To meet demand, the kitchen has more than doubled production of the recipes since the items debuted in August.
"It's amazing how many people are trying the Korean items," says Director of Dining Services Richard Fritz, who introduced the menu after a staff trip to South Korea this summer. "We're fairly fresh into this, and we want to see what overall acceptance will be. If we find it's quite successful, our goal is to expand it."
At Murray State, the winning strategy wasn't just to start off slowly with simple, approachable recipes but also to make sure dishes were done correctly from the beginning. Instead of asking staff to work through unfamiliar recipes and possibly introduce Korean menu items that were not up to par, Fritz recruited an expert. Korean-born Soojin McKibben, married to a member of the university's international studies program, prepares the dishes with help from staff cooks.
Early big sellers include seaweed soup, made with sautéed beef, wakame seaweed, soy sauce, fish powder and fish sauce, and beef bulgogi (thin-sliced beef marinated with soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, garlic and onions and then grilled).
"Our goal is that long-term, our cooks will be familiar enough with the dishes to make them authentically," Fritz says.
- Tapping the expertise of someone with intimate knowledge of a particular cuisine is one of many tactics operators can employ to encourage guests to venture beyond their comfort zone. Here are nine more ways to unlock the menu potential of emerging Asian flavors.
"There are specialists in every field, and it's their responsibility to educate customers," says Ranveer Brar, executive chef at BanQ Restaurant & Lounge in Boston. "For chefs] it's introducing them to new flavor profiles."
Since the restaurant opened in February, Brar has eased diners into influences from Singapore, India and Southeast Asia. One starter marries seared scallops with Indian-accented lentils. The lentils, cooked in fish stock, are seasoned with black cumin, nutmeg, mace, fennel seeds and anise powder, and finished with butter and cream.
A tandoor oven produces naan, juicy Cornish-hen breasts and savory potatoes. Both the hens and the potatoes are roasted on skewers with a house-made tandoori spice blend that includes coriander, cumin, nutmeg, dried mint, pomegranate seeds and mace. For the Cornish hens, the spices are mixed with yogurt to create an overnight marinade. The potatoes are hollowed out; the scooped-out portion is blanched and deep-fried and then mixed with apricots, mint, cilantro and tandoori spices. The fried mixture is stuffed into the hollowed potatoes, which roast in the tandoor.
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For operators new to Asian cooking, it helps to learn differences among Asian cuisines and master a few flavor profiles authentic to each region, says Chef-consultant Jet Tila, who helps Palo Alto, Calif.-based Bon Appétit Management Co. develop Asian recipes for business and industry accounts; he also will open modern-Asian bistro Wazuzu at the new Encore Suites at Wynn Las Vegas this winter.
For Thai dishes, these recipes might include pad Thai sauce flavored with fish sauce and tamarind; for Szechuan, chile-garlic sauce and Szechuan peppercorns are good starting points; and for Indian, chaat or garam masala are good foundations. Operators can start with purchased products and transition to mixing their own sauces and spice blends once they gain experience-and an audience.
"As long as you get a few key ingredients right, you can get the right flavor profile," Tila says.
Hands-on guidance can pay dividends, he adds. Not every operator can bring in a nationally known consultant, but most can find local ethnic restaurants to conduct half-day seminars or hands-on cooking demonstrations.
When Chef-owner Glenn Harris at The Smith in New York City wanted to add "a vegetarian dish that wasn't boring" to his updated brasserie menu, a spin on the Korean rice-and-vegetable bowls called bibimbap fit the bill. An ideal fit for restaurant kitchens, the versatile dish can accommodate just nearly any ingredient on hand.
Traditional renditions feature white rice, mushrooms and sautéed vegetables such as cucumbers, zucchini, daikon and spinach. Harris' adopted version starts with sushi rice par-cooked risotto-style with vegetable stock. For pickup, the rice is sautéed in sesame oil with garlic, shiitake mushrooms, spinach, edamame and green onions and then piled into a hot cast-iron bowl. Customers can stir in the soft, sunny-side up egg and puréed kimchee on top.
"It's not just for vegetarians," Harris says. Servers often get requests to add chicken or shrimp, and the kitchen complies.
"I don't think Blackbird would ever be perceived as an Asian restaurant," says Mike Sheerin, chef de cuisine at the upscale Chicago restaurant. "We're definitely more known for French, Mediterranean and American flavor profiles."
But that doesn't stop Sheerin from injecting into the menu subtle Eastern accents, such as "artichoke kimchee" to accompany grilled wagyu flat-iron steak.
Fresh, halved artichokes are fermented for seven to 10 days in ginger, red bell peppers, red finger hot peppers, garlic, salt and sugar. To serve, they are sliced thin and tossed with apricots for a sweet, acidic complement to the spicy, more bitter kimchee. For textural contrast, Sheerin dehyrates some of the artichokes and adds the crispy bits to the mix.
"It's classically an Asian technique, but I wanted to use more of an American style," he says.
In a similar approach, a plum preparation that Sheerin will pair with Atlantic rock bass was inspired by umeboshi, a Japanese condiment of pickled, unripened plums soaked in brine and red shiso leaves. For Sheerin's rendition, green plums are cured in salt, rinsed and dehydrated a bit to intensify their flavor, and then tossed with olive oil, candied walnuts and celery.
At Takami Sushi & Robata Restaurant in Los Angeles, Director of Service Andrew Bredeson says that instructing the staff on every recipe's details is essential for getting customers comfortable enough to try new things. Tastings are part of the learning process so that servers can make informed recommendations.
Offering items such as Shishito Poppers-fried Japanese chiles filled with spicy tuna-gives customers a construct they can understand, even if they've never heard of the mild, green shishito peppers featured in the dish. The chiles are stuffed with the same mix of minced tuna, sriracha-spiked mayonnaise and flying-fish roe that stars in Takami's popular spicy tuna rolls and tuna tataki. Tempura-battered and deep-fried to order, the poppers come with ponzu dipping sauce.
Understanding which lesser-known Asian dishes are likely to translate well across audiences and mixing in their components among familiar recipes also is the approach at Gyenari Korean BBQ & Lounge, a contemporary Korean-Californian concept in Los Angeles.
"A lot of Korean food is not too far of a stretch," says managing partner and Executive Chef Robert Benson. "Braised short ribs-people love that in America. The Korean version, kalbi, is the same idea but a little sweeter, a little spicier."
Besides kalbi, the menu includes pa jeon-savory Korean pancakes traditionally made with green onions and often seafood. They make crisp, tasty vehicles for an assortment of on-hand ingredients.
Gyenari does a typical version with shrimp, calamari and kimchee in a batter of rice and white flours, eggs, water, salt and baking powder, and an all-American adaptation with applewood-smoked bacon, Cheddar cheese and sour-cream-and-chive dip. The quick-cooking pancakes are sautéed in 8-inch pans to give them their shape and then flipped and deep-fried.
Every Thursday, about a third of the students dining at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., visit the Indian line, digging into dishes such as lamb vindaloo, masoor dal and cucumber-coriander raita. Chef Bob Wall relies on a combination of purchased and house-made components to execute authentic, consistent recipes.
Whole spices such as coriander, fenugreek, fennel seeds, mustard seeds and cumin are ground on-site and mixed with yogurt, coconut milk, cream or stock for a host of house-made curries. The thick yogurt also is combined with vegetables and spices to yield the cooling condiments called raitas. Students customize meals with a selection of chutneys and traditional Indian pickles purchased from a specialty Asian foods vendor that also provides naan, stuffed paratha (griddle-fried whole-wheat bread) and frozen samosas.
"It's a formative time between ages 18 and 22, and some of our students are the biggest advocates," Wall says. "We have something going on where the students themselves bring in their friends to try new things."
At Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va., the Indian snack called papri chaat doesn't seem to meld with the bistro concept. Yet the recipe's robust, complex flavor profile and reliance on house-made elements is right in line with Chef-owner Cathal Armstrong's menu philosophy, making it an ideal vegetarian starter.
The foundation of the dish is a mixture of boiled potatoes, garbanzo beans and roasted onions tossed with cumin, lime juice and ajwain seeds. Poori, the deep-fried, puffed crisps Armstrong makes from maida (Indian wheat flour) and seasons with cumin, chile powder, turmeric, asafoetida and ajwain seeds, are placed on top.
To round out the taste and textural contrasts, Armstrong serves papri chaat with house-made tamarind and green-chile chutneys and yogurt sauce spiced with cumin and mustard seeds.
Red Lion Pub in Houston is located in the heart of Tex-Mex country and caters to a big English clientele that loves Indian flavors, so Chef Kevin Jumangalsing says it makes sense to bring the two together. His "Original" Beef Quesadillas are a prime example.
Beef tenderloin tips marinate overnight in a purée of ginger, garlic, onions, carrots and pickled habanero seasoned with garam masala, curry powder and salt. The next day, the meat is julienned, grilled medium-rare and layered between naan with whole-milk mozzarella, tomatoes, cilantro, pickled ginger and chaat masala (a purchased spice blend). Pickled-habanero relish stands in for traditional salsa, while yogurt sauce with cucumber, mint, cilantro and lemon juice replaces sour cream.
Jumangalsing says that years of experience cooking with Indian cuisine's complex spices and aggressive flavors give him a good sense of what will and won't work when combining diverse cuisines.
"It's also about trial and error," he says. "We always try it, play with it, give it a taste."
Stocking building blocks to execute a variety of Asian recipes means more than just soy sauce and teriyaki, but the good news is that any pantry is just a few jars, boxes and bottles away from getting started.
"Three or four ingredients per flavor profile will get you more than halfway there," says Chef-consultant Jet Tila, who develops Asian recipes for Palo Alto, Calif.-based Bon Appétit Management Co. and will open Asian bistro Wazuzu at the Wynn Las Vegas this winter.
Following are Tila's entry-level recommendations for four Far Eastern cuisines:
- Thai: Fish sauce, lime or tamarind, palm sugar or brown sugar, chiles (Thai, serranos, jalapeÁ±os)
- Indian: Garam masala, chaat masala, chutneys, Greek yogurt
- Chinese stir-fry: Chinese soy sauce, black bean sauce, chile-garlic sauce, hoisin sauce
- Indonesian: Kecap manis, fried garlic or shallots, fish sauce, soy sauce
Mainstream restaurant-chain audiences might not be ready for garam masala and Szechuan peppercorns. Still, the same would have been said a few years back about edamame, now a fixture in salads menued by operators ranging from Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's to Dallas-based Corner Bakery Cafe, and wasabi, a popular addition to all sorts of spreads and sauces. The next crop of Asian ingredients gaining traction on chain menus includes daikon, miso, sriracha and sweet-chile sauce, as evidenced in the sampling below.
- Los Angeles-based California Pizza Kitchen's Miso Salad: Napa cabbage, avocado, cucumbers, daikon, edamame, carrots, red cabbage, green onions, cilantro, rice noodles and wontons in miso dressing with blue crab and shrimp.
- Scottsdale, Ariz.-based P.F. Chang's Wedge Salad: Grilled steak, cucumbers, daikon radish, grape tomatoes and blue cheese tossed in a creamy dressing.
- Leawood, Kan.-based Houlihan's Thai Chile Wings, glazed with serrano chiles, honey, ginger, soy and sriracha and served with sesame-ginger dipping sauce.
- Lynnwood, Wash.-based Blazing Onion Burger Company's Thai Peanut Burger: Thai peanut sauce, red onions, shredded cabbage and julienned daikon radish.
- Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant's Blackened Fish Wrap: Blackened mahi mahi, mozzarella and honey-sriracha mayonnaise in a flour tortilla with Asian slaw.
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