Nearly every list of trends to watch includes all things Asian, and interest is no longer confined to China. Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and Indian concepts also pique culinary creativity and chefs have discovered the ease with which ingredients and techniques can slide onto American menus. Maybe it’s time to stop watching trends and start doing something about it.
CHEFS often have a secret arsenal of ingredients, things they turn to for punching up flavors and adding that certain something that elevates and sets their fare apart. For Chris Jaeckle, chef of New York City’s All’onda, it often is a judicious splash of dashi, a traditional Japanese stock based on dried kombu kelp and dried bonito flakes. He is especially prone to adding it to his Italian-inflected Parmesan stock that shows up in many of the restaurant’s preparations.
“There’s no way that guests know it is there but the kombu is strongly flavorful, loaded with glutamates,” Jaeckle says. “It brings completeness, that sense of umami.” Glutamic acid along with its ions and salts—the glutamates—are naturally occurring flavor enhancers, often found in fermented and aged foods. They are thought to be the foundational underpinning of umami, the so-called fifth flavor sense, joining the more familiar sweet, salty, bitter and sour.
After culinary school, Jaeckle’s first job was at An American Place, Larry Forgione’s paean to stateside culinary bounty. After stints at Indian-influenced Tabla and Eleven Madison Park, Jaeckle worked for years at Morimoto, a noted Japanese restaurant in New York. “That experience is very deep in my stylistic choices,” he says. “I no longer think of Asian ingredients as foreign. They’re all available to us as chefs. In culinary school, people would stress over what to do with black vinegar. To me, it’s vinegar so use it like vinegar,” he says. “If it tastes good, go ahead. Does it really matter if it’s Chinese and you use it in an American dish?”
In fact, Asian ingredients and techniques are working their way into non-Asian menus, sometimes gingerly and other times with big feet firmly planted. Asian accents are increasingly prevalent on menus spurred by consumer interest, increased availability of ingredients, exposure to Asian cultures through travel and television and the creative urges of chefs to expand their own skillset.
Ahi tuna tartare with red yuzu koshu and hot peppers, Japanese cucumbers with white miso sesame and peanuts, myoga, ginger and scallions, served with sesame umami crackers sells as an appetizer at Boulevard, the venerable San Francisco restaurant while the Korean short rib tacos with kimchee and sweet chili are a hit at J. Coco in Omaha, Nebraska. The Saratoga, a classic, old-time favorite spot in Terre Haute, Ind. serves calamari with sesame seeds and spicy Asian sauce. All skim lightly over the lines of authenticity and yet they work well, mixing up the delicious melting pot we call American cuisine.
Chicago-based consultancy Technomic reports that 34% of Americans report being even more interested in ethnic cuisines than they were a year ago, with Millennials the most avid adventure seekers. Chinese remains the most commonly sought Asian cuisine, with 76% of diners reporting dining on it; 32% have tried Japanese, 24% Thai and 19% Indian.
Howard Gordon, a Los Angeles-based restaurant industry consultant and concept developer, says The Cheesecake Factory, for which he worked for many years, is the first restaurant that springs to mind when he thinks of mixing multi-ethnic influences. “Right from the start it was very Pan-Asian and Pacific Rim combined with California influences,” he says. “Bob Okura was from Hawaii so there was a natural inclination to reach beyond borders and yet do it with authenticity.” Okura is the vice-president of culinary development for the California-based concept.
“Back then, there was no social media to promote and spread the idea but customers quickly caught on to the Asian touches,” Gordon recalls, adding that many of the chain’s most popular dishes tap the Asian pantry for inspiration. “The flavors are clean, bright and a little different; there will always be appeal in that.”
Danny Rodriguez, a California-based franchise partner for Smoke’s Poutinerie, counted on that broad-based appeal to help launch a local variation for classic poutine, a dish of seasoned french fries ladled with gravy and cheese curds. With five U.S. locations augmenting the 40 or so units in Canada, the chain has a limited menu, with optional toppings acting as the vehicle to customize the dish via different flavors. Offerings include Hogtown Poutine with double-smoked bacon, Italian sausage, mushrooms and caramelized onions and Fajita Poutine with flat-iron steak, roasted red peppers, onions, salsa and sour cream.
Taking advantage of franchisees’ option to add a local menu item, Rodriguez explored what was unique about his location close to the University of California at Berkeley campus to help guide his decision. “We’re a late-night, after-the-bars spot for one thing. We have a lot of students coming in and many are Asian, especially Korean,” he says. And thus was born the Bulgoger Poutine with Korean-marinated and grilled beef, kimchee, green onions and sriracha mayo. Its flavor inspiration clearly is bulgogi. “That’s exactly what it is,” says Rodriguez. “We wanted to make the name a little cooler.”
That the Bulgoger is one of the top sellers is not entirely a surprise, says Rodriguez. “I looked at what Roy Choi and others who are stretching the limits are doing and wondered if it was a trend. But it keeps expanding. Ramen burgers don’t seem to be flagging at all. It all has become mainstream so Bulgoger should be with us for a long time.”
In addition to fresh, lively and nuanced flavor profiles, Gordon notes that other inherent traits bode well for Asian cuisines. “The profile can be very healthy and that appeals to a lot of consumers. From an operational standpoint, some preparations are pretty simple and can be less expensive,” he says, noting that the protein often shares space with noodles or rice and vegetables.
He also points to the fun factor, a playful aspect that can mow down any sense of the unknown with customers. “I just had pastrami dumplings with hot mustard sauce. Bulgogi pizza, spicy pork pasta and egg rolls with steak are out there on menus and doing well. People relate to them and like them.” He adds that noodles and soups are growing in popularity as are Korean, Filipino and Indian cuisines. “There is something for any restaurant in any segment. Any American restaurant can find a way to bring Asian to the menu without turning the kitchen upside down.”
Michael Whiteman, a New York City-based consultant agrees that the trend has legs with lots of the territory so far unexplored. “Most Americans only are aware of a fraction of Asian ingredients,” he says, noting that a generation ago, the same was true of now-ubiquitous Mexican fare. “But when you see Japanese and Korean fried chicken appearing on menus in the same year, you know something is afoot.”
On his list of foods that have traction are spring rolls and egg rolls with multi-ethic fillings, bao-based sandwiches, pot stickers with eccentric fillings, prosciutto, pastrami or guanciale as the meaty ingredient in fried rice, Korean barbecue bibimbap and the full range of Asian seasonings and sauces.
“Do I think Red Lobster’s customers are ready for tongue-twisters like gochujang? I do not. But might you find it namelessly applied to ribs at, say, Tony Roma’s? Wouldn’t surprise me.”