May 1, 2007
By Tom Wray, Associate Editor
Asian spices, sauces and cooking add flavor to American cuisine.
Tastes in America are ever changing, especially when it comes to what goes on the dining table. And the taste that is grabbing people these days comes from across the Pacific.
Meals with Asian origins or influences are starting to become popular in restaurants and home kitchens across the country. Much of that influence, mostly of Chinese, Korean and Thai cuisine, started in restaurants and moved on down.
Dan Emery, vice president of marketing at Pilgrim’s Pride, says, “I think what’s happening is [consumers’] palates are becoming more and more adventurous, trying new things.” He pointed out that other cuisines that use strong spices, such as Mexican, Italian and Jamaican, are also popular. “I think the change from bland to tasty is a permanent change.”
Tim Tsao, vice president of marketing at Kahiki Foods, agrees. He says that current generations of Americans, especially in the past 20 years, have grown up with influences from world cuisine on a daily basis.
Asian-inspired, of course, does not necessarily mean fully Asian cuisine.
“Not many of the ‘ingredients’ are actually Asian-inspired,” says Ray Tang, founder and director of the Presidio Social Club in San Francisco. “Certain items on the menu are Asian technique-inspired.”
He uses the example of one dish at his restaurant called the “Broadway and Columbus,” named after the intersection in San Francisco where Little Italy meets Chinatown. It’s made with Chinese roasted duck and Italian egg noodles.
“The idea of the dish is that it mimics the cross section of these two immigrant cultures,” he explains.
Much of the products from Kahiki, however, are directly Asian-inspired. Much of the line traces its roots to Chinese cooking, but the company is branching out to include foods and techniques from Thailand, Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. Taste drives much of the interest.
“I think we’re seeing an up-tick, because there are a lot of ingredients that give themselves to creativity,” says Dave Zino, executive director of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Culinary Center in Chicago. “These new products have a lot of umami.” Umami, he goes on to explain, is a fifth taste to go along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Ingredients like soy and teriyaki sauces are very rich in the taste — as are meats such as beef.
Tsao says that some of that extra interest is the steady growth of Asian-inspired foods in all areas of American cuisine. He points out that many mainstream restaurants, such as Applebee’s and T.G.I. Friday’s, feature three to five Asian food selections alongside the usual burgers, steaks and more typically “American” dishes.
Zino says there is considerable fusion of diverse cuisines, with much of the inspiration coming from Asian cultures. The tastes are coming together in ways that many people wouldn’t have originally thought to put together. He highlights this with a description of one dish at Chili’s restaurants: Southwestern egg rolls.
Tsao, whose company is focused on the retail market, has seen the biggest growth in the supermarket. In fact, he says that the Asian frozen foods section is growing twice as fast as other types.
“We’re almost to the point where supermarket merchandisers want a selection of ethnic foods,” he says. “They’re recognizing that customers have a more worldly palate, and they’re allowing them to satisfy that craving in minutes.”
More than a fad
Taste trends can come and go and sometimes repeat. National cuisines like Japanese and Korean have had bursts of popularity. Others, like Chinese, have been long-term residents on American’s restaurant row. The current trend is a bit different.
“We see a lot fusion going on,” Zino says. His own operation is looking at items one would not normally see in Asian cuisine, such as a shredded beef egg roll recipe.
That fusion is getting more popular. Zino points to the success of chains such as P.F. Chang’s as an example of East meeting West on the table and receiving some good reviews.
Tsao says restaurants are taking the lead in exposing people to more Asian dishes. He explains that in a restaurant, especially one such as national chain P.F. Chang’s, customers are more immersed with a focused selection on new recipes. At a supermarket, on the other hand, Asian foods are competing in a much broader area, with a variety of different cuisines and tastes.
Tang says younger chefs are finding the trend as a way to experiment with new types of dishes, using herbs like ginger, lemongrass and cilantro. The current interest also differs from past ones in the way the food is cooked, he says, with more advanced chefs serving more raw items and the use of steaming as a cooking method.
“Miso-marinated anything seems to really be big as well,” he says.
Food from southern Asia may be next in the kitchen. Emery says that Indian food will be the next big wave in spices and cooking styles.
Tsao agrees. “It’s really remarkable how diverse the flavors of Asian cooking are,” he says. “If you go to south India and then north, the differences are 180 [degrees].” That, he continues, is true of many of the national cuisines that are now popular. Awareness of those regional differences is rising in the United States market.
Just because the food comes from an Asian culture also doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthier, one of its big draws in past trends. Tang says the both can be healthier than more common American meals, but not always.
“The healthiness of Asian foods depends on how it is consumed,” he explains. “Japanese food seems very light, but the overeating of large fish poises a risk of consuming too much mercury.”
Other cuisines can have their own health drawbacks. Vietnamese foods, while very flavorful, are often glazed with sugar. Chinese foods can bring heavy doses of sodium and MSG (monosodium glutamate).
The new versions coming to restaurants and stores do pay attention to the growing demands for healthier food. Pilgrim’s Pride, for example, has included Asian-inspired deli wings in its EatWellStayHealthy line. This line is lower in sodium.
Tsao says that Asian foods are healthier than many Western dishes. “Real Asian cuisine is comprised of bold flavors and, generally speaking, healthier cooking methods,” he explains. “True Asian cuisine doesn’t rely on heavy unhealthy ingredients a like oils, fats and starches.”
The cooking techniques used and processes have a lot to do with that, he goes on to say. “Frosh,” or quick, frying is key as is using extremely high heat. Proteins such as meat are used much more sparingly.
“You won’t go into a Chinese restaurant and order a 36-ounce filet of meat,” he points out. That goes back to the history of many Asian countries where, historically, meat was harder to obtain. So when meat is used, it’s used in smaller amounts, with other ingredients adding more of the flavor and complementing the meat.
One thing may be certain: American food will continue to change in the future.
“Kids are raised eating sushi nowadays, things adults would have never touched at that age,” says Tsao. “It will spark a whole new landscape of trends and restaurants 20 years from now.”