Asian Allures

06 April 2006
Asian Allures

As American palates grow accustomed to adventure, chefs are amping up menus with Far Eastern ingredients that venture beyond the mainstream.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2006 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

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

A decade after first carving a path into mainstream menus, Asian influences are more widespread than ever, on display in independent dining rooms, hospital food courts and all segments between. Chefs point to wider accessibility of ingredients, greater knowledge of regional nuances and increasing consumer familiarity as significant drivers of Eastern cuisines' growing stronghold on the culinary scene.

"Asian ingredients take food to another level," says Greg O'Neill, who as chef and manager of conference services at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas regularly recruits elements such as sambals, fish sauce and kaffir lime. "Most Americans didn't grow up with these things in their pantries, and that's why people love them."

"There is a long-term cycle, a mega-trend interest in Asian food," says Greg Drescher, senior director for strategic initiatives at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. "In the '90s we saw an urgency to quickly master a market basket of Asian flavors and put them on the menu. Now there's a sense that this is a really complex topic. People are digging in and trying to learn."

Mix and Match

At BANK Jean-Georges at Hotel Icon in Houston, coloring the New American menu with Asian influences helps Chef de Cuisine Bryan Caswell cater to a sizeable local Asian population as well as diverse hotel guests.

He teams with partner Jean-Georges Vongerichten to create such entrées as Golden Tilefish With Malaysian Chile Sauce and Thai Basil, pairing locally sourced seafood with a sauce inspired by Vongerichten's culinary experience and travels. Chicken-and-coconut-milk soup with galangal and shiitake mushrooms recalls a Thai standard but incorporates French techniques such as sweating onions, curry, galangal and lemongrass in butter to start the recipe and later adding spices and a sachet of herbs to the simmering stock.

The clean, fresh appeal of Asian flavors makes them a natural fit at six-unit, Emeryville, Calif.-based California Cafe, where seasonal choices include ahi tuna crusted with tagarashi (a Japanese seven-pepper spice) atop green-tea-infused rice, bok choy and orange-chili glaze.

"With a few key Asian ingredients, you can get a lot of flavor from minimal use," says Jim Oetting, executive chef at the Park Meadows, Colo., location.

Cost-effective products such as lemongrass and red curry paste also help kitchens work within tighter food-cost targets, he says.

At lunch, California Cafe offers a bento box special that lets guests sample four dishes in separate compartments. Providence-Portland Medical Center in Oregon has launched a similar program at its employee food court, menuing bento boxes that allow diners to choose among proteins, sauces and sides that include turmeric-lemon chicken, yellow-curry coconut-corn soup and Asian pesto salad.

Recipes such as coriander-soy pork-chunks of meat marinated in a mixture that includes star anise, ginger, sesame oil and spicy Asian Santaka peppers-are inspired more by Southeast Asian street food than traditional Japanese components, says Ted Greene, production manager of food and nutrition services.

Will Travel

Like many who seek to experience regional Asian cuisines firsthand, Executive Chef Frank Fronda of Cafe del Rey in Los Angeles travels to countries such as Singapore and Indonesia, where he samples street food, attends cooking classes and dines with locals in their homes.

Flavor profiles and techniques learned on these trips shape such recipes as grilled coconut-lemongrass tiger prawns drizzled with tamarind reduction, and whole Thai snapper with jasmine rice, cucumber-mizuna salad, Dijon-sambal aioli and roasted lime.

"I'm not trying to put my signature on authentic recipes because I wouldn't be able to-they're classics, and they already work," Fronda says. "What I can do is take their influence."

During a recent trip to Vietnam, Executive Chef Michael Bloise of Wish in Miami learned not only about regional ingredients but also about ways the country's straightforward, unpretentious cuisine could influence his progressive American menu.

Inspired by the clean flavors of a popular table condiment of sea salt, baby limes and Thai chile, Bloise created an entrée of grilled, sugarcane-skewered pork loin with salad of bamboo shoots, rice noodles and Thai basil in yuzu-cilantro dressing. He also menus breaded shrimp accompanied by spicy pickled cabbage with watermelon and chopped tomatoes cooked in honey, lemon, garlic and fish sauce.

Fits the Bill

Nearly 30% of menu items from Yale University Dining Services in New Haven, Conn., carry Asian influences, in part because the cuisine's fresh emphasis and short cook times adapt well to the campus' made-to-order dining stations. At one facility, Vietnamese summer rolls are wrapped to order in rice paper with students' choice of fillings such as mung bean sprouts, carrots, cabbage and tofu.

Authenticity in ingredients is important to the university's widely ethnic population, but recipes sometimes are modified to meet operational needs, says Thomas Peterlik, executive chef for residential and retail operations. Thai coconut chicken, served as a stew in its native country, becomes a stir-fry option at Yale so it can be prepared on a flat-top grill. Chicken is sliced rather than cubed, and thicker vegetables such as potatoes are omitted to allow uniform cook times.

For Spartanburg, S.C.-based contractor Centerplate Inc., the quest to elevate regional concession menus at stadium and convention-center accounts spurred development of Taste of the East, a concept that menus soba, udon and ramen noodles with house-made sauces-including spicy Thai peanut curry and Szechuan peppercorn-matched with proteins and vegetables.

On the catering side, Corporate Executive Chef Brett Lewis' Asian pantry features less-familiar components such as litchi, galangal and fresh water chestnuts. Event menus might include brown sugar-and-sweet-chile-sauce marinated chicken breasts over ramen noodle salad in miso dressing, complemented with fresh fruit salad featuring litchis and litchi syrup.

"These ingredients open up a lot of opportunities to add depth of flavor with the combination of sweet, salty and hot," he says. "But it's difficult in this environment to use really off-the-wall flavors. You need to stay fairly mainstream."

Asian Made East

Keep these simple ingredients on hand to lend easy Asian flair to any menu.

  • Spicy XO sauce (a modern Hong Kong-style concoction of dried shrimp, dried scallops, chile and garlic) is a go-to condiment for Executive Chef Mark Sapienza of Julien at the Langham Hotel in Boston to kick up anything from plain linguini to seared scallops.
  • Tamarind juice extracted from pulp mixed with hot water is reduced with honey, chiles, fish sauce, garlic and paprika to create a simple glaze for "Pad Thai" Vegetable Ravioli at Jo Bar & Rotisserie in Portland, Ore.
  • Chef Greg O'Neill creates a base for a host of Asian-accented soups by flavoring house-made or purchased chicken stock with kaffir lime, lemongrass, ginger, sambals and fish sauce at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas.
  • Bottled Thai sweet chile sauce works as a simple starter for all manner of condiments. Add purchased mayonnaise or house-made aioli to create a sandwich spread, or mix it with orange juice and segments, jalapeÁ±o and aromatics as a base sauce for ahi tuna, says Executive Chef Jim Oetting at California Cafe. Teriyaki, hoisin and soy sauces are similarly versatile, offering simplicity as well as a range of tastes that can spike sauces, marinades and dressings.
  • An accompaniment of yuzu reduction and pickled diced vegetables adds zing to Executive Chef Ulises Salas' Kobe-wrapped scallops at 1515 Restaurant in Denver.
39% of operators experimented with or introduced flavors and new spices on their menus in 2005. Oriental flavors and sauces were the top choice, selected by 16%. (R&I Menu Forecast 2005)

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