The next wave of Asian menu items is ready to come ashore, gathering momentum as consumers embrace foods of Korea, India, Malaysia and more.
This article first appeared in the 1 April 2007 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. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
America's infatuation with Asian cuisine is growing up, still embracing favorites such as kung pao chicken, pad Thai and teriyaki but looking for more. Diners are ready to graduate to the next class of Asian recipes filtering down to mainstream menus. The same consumers who already are gleefully attracted to the bold, bright flavors of spicy tuna rolls, Thai curries and tandoori chicken provide a ready-made market for exciting dishes culled from the diverse cuisines of Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan and India.
Recognizable presentations help make many exotic-sounding dishes approachable, as evident in recipes such as the Korean barbecued short ribs called kalbi, menued at upscale seafood restaurant Salty's on Alki Beach in Seattle, and Filipino-style spring rolls known as lumpia, at the University of California-San Diego (UCSD). Less visually familiar fare, including Vietnamese crêpes and Indian dals, sell themselves on simplicity and vibrant flavor.
"No matter what region of Asia you're working with, it's fun, because there's so much out there," says Tom Clarke, executive chef of residential dining at UCSD, where the multi-ethnic clientele also can choose from spring rolls and banh mi sandwiches. "And students are willing to try almost anything."
Another signal that the latest crop of Asian flavors is ready for prime time is their emergence on chain menus. uWink, a dining-entertainment hybrid concept based in Los Angeles, serves Vietnamese Shrimp Salad with Napa cabbage, jackfruit, daikon and rice noodles, while Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taneko Japanese Tavern features Chicken Namban, a grilled, pickled chicken breast over greens and vegetables.
"So much of these Asian cuisines' appeal is that they're all about things that are fun to eat," says Noah Barton, executive chef and general manager at Chino Latino in Minneapolis. "They're full of hands-on foods like spring rolls and lettuce wraps, or things you can put together yourself like Korean and Vietnamese food, where you get sides and condiments with everything you order. People really enjoy eating like that."
India's Ocean of Options
India, a vast continent of many regions, has far more to offer American menus than the golden curry powder and chutneys that so far are its most familiar culinary contributions. Possibilities are endless, from naan and poori breads, to dals, dosas, samosas and other staples.
Naan, the leavened, white-flour flatbread traditionally baked in tandoori ovens, is an especially versatile menu player because it lends so well to customization. At Qube in Seattle, every table gets a basket of Executive Chef Lisa Nakamura's shiso-lime naan with spicy mango and toasted-sesame dips. Other chefs flavor the bread's exterior with coatings such as garlic, cilantro or onion, or stuff the inside with potatoes, ground meat and other savory fillings.
Dals, the thick, spicy stews made with lentils or split peas, are cost-effective, simple to prepare and full of soul-satisfying flavor. Ideal as vegetarian and vegan options, they appear on residential-dining menus from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., to the University of California in Berkeley. At Rioja, Chef-owner Jennifer Jasinski uses red channa dal purée to complement seared tuna with pappadam chips (Indian lentil bread) and Mediterranean compote.
Korea Comes Up Big
Compatibility with current menu trends is helping several Korean-inspired dishes carve a path into American restaurants. Matthias Kindl, executive sous-chef at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel's Café MoZU in Washington, D.C., says customers' interest in Asian small plates inspired choices such as Kimchee Beef Rolls, bite-size pieces of spicy steak wrapped with Chinese cabbage, and fried mandu, Korean dumplings of minced pork and duck.
Bi bim bop, a traditional dish of rice, vegetables, beef and fried egg with kimchee (spicy fermented cabbage) and Korean chile paste, offers an ideal way to present the local, organic produce diners want, says Chef Noah Bekofsky of The Fairmont Chicago hotel.
"As bi bim bop becomes more mainstream, chefs will realize it's something different they can do on menus that doesn't cost a lot to make, but still tastes great and appeals to a wide array of people," says Bekofsky, who also offers a vegetarian version with grilled tofu.
In New York City, David Chang and Joaquin Baca's burrito-style riff on Korean ssäm (bite-size meats, rice and condiments wrapped in vegetable leaves) have made Momofuku Ssäm Bar a hotspot. Diners choose flour pancakes, Bibb lettuce or toasted nori to fill with Berkshire pork, Angus beef or braised tofu and add toppings such as kimchee purée, adzuki beans and pickled shiitake mushrooms.
Gaining the most traction in mainstream dining are two of Korea's best-known dishes, kimchee and bulgogi. Kimchee, which accompanies most Korean meals, appears in the above recipes from Bekofsky and Kindl as well as on menus from high-end steakhouse Prime in Atlanta to French-Korean restaurant Coupage in Seattle.
Southeast Asia's Got Style
With its emphasis on fresh herbs, rice noodles and fish sauce, Vietnamese cuisine is poised to make a big play with consumers keen on clean flavors and healthful profiles. Paul Carr, senior director of culinary for Aramark Innovative Dining Solutions, is experimenting with lively, noodle-based salads, which offer fertile ground for experimentation on menus of all kinds.
For a dish soon to debut at the Philadelphia-based contractor's campus-dining accounts, Carr tosses thin rice noodles with cabbage, Thai basil, cilantro, chiles and fish-sauce-based dressing.
"Vietnamese food works great for grab-and-go choices," says Carr. He also is working on spring rolls filled with pork, shrimp, rice noodles and vegetables and wrapped in rice paper and herb leaves. Nuoc cham, a common condiment of fish sauce, chiles, garlic and lime juice, comes alongside for dipping.
Banh xeo, lacy Vietnamese crÁªpes made with a batter of rice flour and coconut milk, is another traditional recipe ripe for adaptation using at-hand ingredients. At An restaurant in Cary, N.C., Chef Michael Chuong's version encases shrimp, roast pork, bean sprouts, mung beans and green onions. Diners wrap pieces of the large crÁªpes in Boston lettuce leaves, adding such condiments as pickled vegetables, cucumbers and fresh mint, basil and cilantro.
More Southeast Asian influences are just beginning to creep onto menus from Malaysia, where the diverse cuisine draws heavily on Chinese, Indian and Thai traditions. At Wynn Las Vegas' pan-Asian restaurant Red 8, Chef Hisham Johari hopes to familiarize American audiences with such recipes as Nyonya Chili Prawns: shrimp sautéed in coconut milk with shallots, garlic, jalapeÁ±os, lemongrass, ginger, lime leaves and shrimp paste.
"Nyonya food [a subset of Malaysian cuisine] uses pastes made with lots of garlic, chiles, lemongrass, shrimp paste and coconut milk. There are so many things you can do with them," Johari says.
Japan Heats Up
"When people think about Japanese food, they think of sushi and sashimi, but I see more cooked foods becoming popular," says author Hiroko Shimbo, who consulted on menu development for Taneko Japanese Tavern.
The hands-on theatrics of ishiyaki (cooking thin-sliced meat or fish tableside atop hot rocks) engage customers at Taneko and other dining destinations including Chino Latino and upscale restaurant Japonais in Chicago, Las Vegas and New York City. The do-it-yourself appeal of cooking ingredients in hot broth at the table may stir increased interest of hot-pot methods such as shabu shabu and sukiyaki as well, Shimbo says.
"When you're asking diners to cook food at the table, you have to be sure the ingredients are extremely fresh-and fresh looking," she advises.
Another cooking method ready for greater menu exposure is robatayaki (also known as sumibiyaki), in which ingredients are grilled over a special type of hard, super-hot charcoal called binchotan. At China Grill Management's Ono restaurant in New York City, "robata" menu selections are presented on skewers with an array of dipping sauces. Extensive choices include Kobe beef, asparagus and scallops as well as more-unusual options such as quail, foie gras with pineapple, and duck with litchi.
A New Mix
A new assortment of Asian ingredients is sweeping onto menus, carrying unique flavors and a touch of the exotic.
Yuzu kosho: This Japanese paste blends aromatic, citrusy yuzu zest with red or green chiles and salt. At 3030 Ocean, Max uses the prepared mix in light vinaigrettes for recipes such as Grilled Florida Pompano (below).
Ground pomegranate seeds: At 3030 Ocean in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Chef Dean Max sprinkles seafood with this Indian ingredient, also known as anardana powder, to lend sweet-and-sour taste to poached or sautéed preparations.
Kochujang (gochujang): Chef-owner Rich Landau uses this Korean condiment of fermented red bean paste and chile powder to glaze Pacific Rim Grilled Tofu at "new vegan" restaurant Horizons in Philadelphia.
Mushroom soy sauce: Infused with dried straw mushrooms or shiitakes, this intensely flavored ingredient lends earthy notes to Executive Chef Jamie Achmoody's stir-fries and noodle dishes at Soba in Pittsburgh.
Palm sugar: Also known as jaggery, this dark, coarse, unrefined sugar adds not only sweetness but also depth to recipes, says Executive Sous-Chef Matthias Kindl, who uses it in house-made curry pastes.
Pappadam: Made from lentil flour, this thin, crisp bread often is accented with red or black pepper, garlic and other seasonings. It accompanies curried chicken salad with mixed greens at globally influenced restaurant Canoe Club in Hanover, N.H.
Winter melon: Executive Chef Jeffrey Stout uses this sweet, mild gourd-which can be either round or oblong-to add texture to soups and garnishes at Alexander's Steakhouse in Cupertino, Calif.