Beyond Egg Rolls
asian appetizers are springing to life on american menus
Don’t get us wrong, we love a fried egg roll or crunchy wonton as much as the rest of America. But for those looking to delve deeper into this appealing cuisine, and meld the hot, the spicy and the sweet with authenticity and respect, the appetizer tray may be completely transformed in 2016.
There’s much we can learn from Asian cuisine, particularly the emphasis on building and balancing flavors within a dish, says Mike Kostyo of Datessentials, a research firm for the foodservice industry. For instance, the key to Korea’s classic bibimbap is the way the marinated vegetables and beef play off each other; a very different taste experience than brushing beef with sriracha sauce and placing it on a skewer. Sweet flavors are more common than expected, but cheese isn’t used as frequently as it is on the American appetizer menu.
Start with appetizers and sides that already have high penetration on menus, advises Kostyo, and take them to the next level. “Consumers are already familiar with dumplings, egg rolls and wontons, so operators looking to expand on that can incorporate more authentic flavors and ingredients.” Begin with a well-known ingredient, like a dumpling but add togarashi and sashito peppers to evoke a more genuine Asian experience. Consider these: xiaolongbao, or Chinese soup dumplings; goi cuon, Vietnamese spring rolls; lumpia, Filipino egg rolls filled with lobster or crabmeat; and bao, steamed buns with a variety of fillings.
Don’t be intimidated by the surge of Asian-centric offerings, as chains like Ippudo Ramen from Japan, BonChon and Bibigo from South Korea, Little Sheep from China and Jollibee from the Philippines, arrive stateside. Chef casual and fine dining restaurants continue to incorporate the cuisine as well, such as Pok Pok’s take on the foods of Thailand, now open in Portland, LA and NY.
On Chicago’s west side, Matthias Merges drew on his Japanese travels and high profile as executive chef at Charlie Trotter’s to launch Yusho, inspired by the energy and sensibility of the culture and cuisine. “The presentation is clean, uncluttered and precise; product is first and foremost,” he says.
“Being an American from Chicago, I did not want to copy or recreate a Japanese restaurant or Izakaya,” explains Merges. “I wanted to create a cuisine and environment which was unique but spoke to place.” Yusho delivers on all levels, serving up more than just a meal to a savvy dining public.
“The biggest misconception people have is that all Japanese food is based around sushi, and this could not be further from the truth,” says Merges. His menu stretches way beyond, starting with appetizers like crispy fried chicken in a puffy bao (bun), loaded French fries served with sudachi-chili mayo, lamb tskune accompanied by charred shishitos and Szechuan pepper…and bowls of luscious ramen.
Further south in downtown Chicago is Momotaro, where chef Mark Hellyar is inspired by Japan’s blend of cultural history and forward-thinking innovation. Hellyar’s aim was to offer fare based on everyday foods eaten in Japan, and make it accessible to American diners in a modern environment. He’s succeeded brilliantly at both, packing the multi-level restaurant nightly, and winning a clutch of prestigious awards for his menu of more than 85 distinctive dishes.
The cuisine is inventive, even playful – favorites include the “Momotaro Tartare” that tastes like meat, looks like meat, but contains only the sweet Japanese Momotaro tomato with Maui onion and shiso; plates of mentaiko spaghetti based on a 1950s Tokyo recipe (hot pasta with marinated pollack roe, mayonnaise, butter, chili oil, soy and ginger juice); and curry udon, a hearty bowl of long noodles, curried pork and shishito peppers. What it’s not is a fusion menu, Hellyar stresses, he keeps it strictly Japanese.
While Hellyar is not Asian, he has an intense passion for the cuisine, and encourages other restaurateurs to try it. Some starting points might be mixing up some mentaiko mayonnaise to use as a unique dipping sauce, or stirring up a simple miso soup with authentic ingredients, or trying your hand at chicken karaage (Japanese fried chicken), which he calls “a totally different eating experience than the American version.”
Hellyar’s excellent advice: “You don’t need to be Asian to serve authentic dishes, but you need to do your research and always respect the cuisine.”
the southeast asian influence
Interest in Vietnamese cuisine continues to rise, according to World Bites. These delicacies have the potential to become new mainstays of the mainstream, so keep an eye on:
Bahn mi, the sandwich maker. A crisp baguette that can be stuffed with barbecued pork, veggies and pate for sliders and tacos, or with ice cream and peanuts for a unique dessert.
Bahn xeo, crepes or sizzling cakes, made from a batter of rice flour, turmeric and coconut milk, stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts.
Goi cuon, spring rolls, often wrapped in rice paper, making them ideal for the gluten-free diner. These can be stuffed with shrimp, pork, herbs and rice noodles and dipped in a variety of sauces - try peanut, chili or hoisin.
Chao tom, a sweet dish, with shrimp, meat pate flavored with pork, fish sauce, garlic and spices, all wrapped around a fresh sugarcane that’s meant to be chewed, but not eaten, at the end.
Chuoi chen, a Vietnamese-style banana split, featuring batter coated, fried bananas served with dipping sauce or ice cream.