Steeped in Tradition and Exotic Allure
The people of the Western Hemisphere have long had an insatiable curiosity about the culinary treasures of Asia. European explorers brought home the secrets of fantastic dishes made with rice or noodles, unusual vegetables and fish, flavored with exotic spices and sauces that were foreign to the Western palate. These spell-binding dishes were incorporated into the cuisines of Europe faster than one could say Marco Polo, and formed the basis for some of the first forays into fusion.
There are myriad nuances, influences and preferences in Asian cuisine. Each region developed its own unique traditions, cultivated its own special ingredients and devised distinctive methods of preparation. Rice and noodles are the staples, with vegetables, fish, seafood and meat all playing major roles in this dramatic culinary theater. Spices, herbs and sauces all joined hands in flavor enhancement, fragrance and a panoply of colors and textures.
Independents and chains in the U.S. have found commercial success with the authentic foods and flavors of Asia. For example, David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar caused a sensation when it opened in New York in 2004. The chef has since developed an Asian restaurant dynasty, including Ko, his multi-course tasting menu concept.
Grab your chopsticks, and join us for an excursion into some of the best eats of the East.
The lively banquets of China are legendary. Feasts are served family style from large platters, placed on lazy susans so that all can share. China is a vast country, with many diverse cooking styles. Three of the most prevalent in the United States are Cantonese, Szechuan and Hunan. The proliferation of Chinese restaurants here is testament to the food’s universal appeal. Here are several traditional faves.
This time-honored delicacy was once reserved for the imperial palace in old Peking. In modern Beijing, it’s served to the masses. Birds are roasted to perfection, and presented whole at tableside. The crispy skin and succulent meat are thinly carved, and tucked into pancakes with scallions and hoisin sauce. This is exactly how the dish is served at Michelin-starred Wing Lei in the Wynn Las Vegas.
One of the most revered Chinese traditions is Dim Sum, the loud and energetic Cantonese brunch. Bite-size delicacies – steamed dumplings, spring rolls, pot stickers and buns filled with savory specialties –are presented in bamboo baskets and small plates on wheeled carts. Yank Sing in San Francisco is considered one of the best and has served top-notch Dim Sum since 1958.
Due to their close proximity, the cuisines of Korea and Japan have similarities, including the presence of rice at nearly every meal. Rice was not indigenous to Korea; thus, when it was first cultivated, it was considered most precious.
This versatile rice dish is served in a sizzling hot stone bowl called a dolsot. “Bap” means “bowl of rice” in Korean. A variety of ingredients can appear in the dolsot, and the dish is topped off with a fried egg. At Bbbop Seoul Kitchen in Dallas, poetic license turned “bap” into “bop.” The Spicy Spicy Bop is made with pork or chicken, corn, mushrooms, pickled carrots and cabbage (kimchi), garlic and red pepper oil.
One characteristic of Korean cuisine is the abundance of side dishes. The beloved kimchi is by far the most popular. This fermented dish is made with vegetables (napa cabbage is most prevalent) and seasonings.
Parachute in Chicago serves both of these Korean specialties to much acclaim.
Vietnam has emerged as an important destination for foodies. This nation’s enviable position with the South China Sea running along its entire eastern coastline ensures an abundance of seafood available to chefs, street vendors and cooks.
Pho is one of the signature dishes of Vietnam. It is basically an aromatic broth with rice noodles, complemented with meats, seafood, herbs and various other ingredients.
Banh Mi Sandwich
This east-meets-west sammy features a crusty French baguette (introduced to Vietnam during the French colonial period), stuffed with grilled meats, pate, pickled vegetables, fresh herbs and mayo.
Oohlala! in Morris Plains, New Jersey, specializes in both Pho and Banh Mi, with interesting variations of each.
The chefs of this densely populated island nation have turned cookery into an exquisitely refined art. The word “umami” was coined in Japan. It stands for pleasant, savory taste -- which joined sweet, sour, bitter and salty as the fifth basic taste. One name stands out as the epitome of Japanese fusion – Nobu. Chef Nobu Matsuhisa was born in Japan, immigrated first to Peru then the U.S., and built a culinary empire that today includes 22 locations worldwide.
Sushi and Sashimi
These masterpieces have legions of devotees, and showcase the elegance and skill of an accomplished chef. The word “sushi” means “sour taste” in Japanese. All sushi dishes contain rice laced with vinegar. Nigiri sushi is a bite-size ball of rice topped with raw or cooked fish or seafood. Maki is the term for sushi that is rolled into cylinders wrapped with sheets of dried seaweed (nori). The word “sashimi” means “pierced flesh,” and in restaurants, it is basically just raw fish with no rice. At the acclaimed Nishino in Seattle, you can order from the menu or leave it up to the chef.
Another famous Japanese import is tempura, in which jumbo shrimp or other seafood and vegetables are dipped into a light batter and deep-fried. The trick here is to perfect the batter so that it doesn’t absorb oil. A light sauce of dashi (dried fish and seaweed stock), soy sauce and rice wine is the perfect accompaniment. Sushi Muramoto in Madison, Wisconsin, serves up a fine Shrimp and Asparagus Tempura with spicy mayo for dipping.