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A New World of Protein The next generation of global inspiration brings big, diverse flavors to protein dishes

Anchoring an introduction to global flavors on familiar proteins—as with this comforting bowl of Vietnamese pho with chicken—is a sure bet to new flavor experiences that build on the next generation of global influences.
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In the United States, protein makes the plate go ’round. When you imbue pork, lamb, beef, poultry and seafood with global flavor influences, you add excitement and diversity. And beyond Mexico, Italy and China, there’s a world of inspiration, from Malaysian chile crab to Brazilian feijoada.

One thing is certain: People in other parts of the world have a markedly different relationship with protein than does the average American. And that’s a good thing, because globally inspired protein dishes bring a vast range of flavor-filled ideas to the table.

“With protein prices going up, we need to embrace the idea of eating less meat and utilizing the lesser cuts,” says Bill Briwa, chef-instructor at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif. “In the long run, that’s a much more sustainable way to eat, economically as well as environmentally. We need to learn to eat and handle protein differently—and the rest of the world can help teach us that.”

Here, we’ve selected five “second-generation” global regions whose time has come, and that will likely offer inspiration for new approaches to protein flavor strategies and menu applications.

The Eastern Mediterranean: an Abundance of Flavor
“I just came back from Turkey, and my head is spinning with inspiration,” says Christopher Koetke, vice president of the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts in Chicago. The whole region, from Greece to Turkey to Lebanon, represents an untapped culinary gold mine, full of flavors that are big and bold and ingredients that are relatively familiar. “It’s the center of so much civilization and cultural influence, and you see that in the food.”

The moderate Mediterranean climate and trade routes between these countries over the millennia have shaped a culinary melting pot that is heavily dependent upon olives and olive oil, yogurt and cheese, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and fruits and vegetables like figs, pomegranate, lemons, grapes, eggplant, peppers and—once the New World was discovered—tomatoes.

While chicken and fish are widely eaten, the region’s cuisine is really all about lamb, presenting an opportunity for introduction to American diners. Many Eastern Mediterranean lamb dishes utilize ground lamb, including Greek moussaka and keftedes (meatballs) and the doner kebab of Turkey. The method of shaping spiced ground lamb around skewers, in fact, is popular throughout the Mediterranean region, as in the kefta kebab of Morocco.

“Introducing global cuisine concepts is all about creating familiar items with more exotic flavors and ingredients,” says Adam Moore, corporate chef of Chicago-based Charlie Baggs Culinary Innovations. Such an introduction could be a gateway for wider acceptance of lamb here in the United States, in the form of accessible meatballs as well as Greek-style lamb “burgers.”

Koetke gives a shout-out to the chiles of the region, particularly in Turkey, where they add flavor to proteins without destructive heat. These include the bright red Aleppo and the sun-dried Urfa biber. Another distinctive flavoring that seems destined for a wider audience is sumac, the lemony dried berry that is a key component of za’atar.

And glazes made with dates, figs and pomegranate bring sweetness and caramelization to a number of Mediterranean recipes for lamb chops and leg of lamb in a way that is readily transferable to the American palate, notes Koetke.

Korea: Power to the Palate
Who would have ever guessed 10 years ago that food as loud and funky as kimchi and gochujang (fermented soybean paste with hot pepper) would ever show up on American menus? Indeed, these two Korean condiments figure prominently in its meat cookery—the bulgogi and kalbi (marinated grilled beef), the twice-fried chicken, and the many hearty stews and casseroles that sustained the country through its long harsh winters and centuries of geographic isolation.

The CIA’s Briwa thinks that the time is right for Korean food. “It has a lot going on that’s more familiar to us, including a reliance on meat as the centerpiece of a meal [as in Korean barbecue], particularly beef and pork.” The seasoning pantry is familiar, too—salt, garlic, sugar, black pepper, sesame oil, ginger—with just a few basic sauces and condiments, and there’s lots of sweetness and umami in the marinades. “And their chile pastes actually aren’t all that fiery; they bring more of a fireside glow,” he adds.

The popularity of Korean tabletop barbecue may well be key to the cuisine’s future mainstreaming, according to Kathy Casey, a chef, consultant, cookbook author and television personality based in Seattle. The DIY fun of taking freshly grilled marinated meats (chicken, thinly sliced beef and pork, and boneless short ribs), then wrapping them in lettuce leaves with condiments and dipping sauces is like fajitas 2.0. And the banchan—accompanying little dishes of kimchi and other flavorful side dishes—are the next-generation relish tray.

Indochina: Next Generation Cuisine
Of all the “second-generation” global cuisines, Thai and Vietnamese—with their complex curries and noodle soups, their abundant fresh herbs and assertive spices—have made some of the most inroads here, especially as part of pan-Asian or Asian street-food concepts like ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen. But the food of Indochina (which also includes inland Laos and Cambodia) is still rich with possibilities for translation.

You can see neighboring India reflected in the cooking of Thailand, with its famous red, yellow and green curries, made with various types of meat and seafood. Meanwhile, Vietnam takes its culinary cues from both China and from more than six decades of French colonialism.

China brought its ubiquitous noodles to the region, as well as the wok and the all-important techniques of frying and stir-frying. “China’s influence on the entire region cannot be overstated,” says chef Robert Danhi, author of Southeast Asian Flavor: Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia & Singapore (Small Press United, 2008) and host of the upcoming “Taste of Vietnam” television show. “Its ancient culture has influenced nearly every country in Asia, but especially Southeast Asia.” Thai and Vietnamese cooks simply adapted their own local, tropical ingredients.

Seafood is central to the food of both Thailand and Vietnam—and even chicken, beef and pork are often flavored with fermented fish sauce (nam pla and nuoc mam, respectively). Among the animal proteins, versatile pork is the most utilized, notes Danhi.

Maritime Southeast Asia: Multicultural Mélange
Malaysia and the Philippines, the island nations of Southeast Asia, are home to some of the world’s original fusion cuisine, a legacy of their long history of sea-lane trade, immigration and foreign colonialism.

“Indian food is always going to be polarizing based on the intensity,” says Danhi, but Malaysia’s cuisine has many of its virtues, plus Chinese, Indonesian, Thai, Portuguese, Dutch and British influences.

Officially a Muslim nation, Malaysia is a land of rice-based chicken, beef and seafood cookery and its tropical climate ensures year-round availability of interesting produce.

Danhi cites the appeal of the Malaysian rempah, an iconic spice paste that might include shallot, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, chiles and candlenuts; these are fried and then combined with coconut milk to simmer with chicken until it cooks to a thick paste for chicken rendang.

The Indian-style roti canai flatbread and relish-like sambal dishes also hold possibilities for Malaysian-style sandwiches and condiments.

The most popular food in street-food-crazy Malaysia, however, is satay: seasoned, skewered and grilled meat often served with a dipping sauce and accompanied by chopped cucumber, tomato and onion.

Inventive global fusion can be found at SushiSamba, where Japanese, Peruvian and Brazilian flavors meet. A churrasco dish combines wagyu picanha, ribeye and chorizo with house dipping sauce and sides. photo courtesy of sushisamba

Filipino cuisine is also generating a lot of interest these days. Small wonder. “To me it is true fusion cuisine,” says chef Erwin Joven, who was born in Manila and now works in Fiji, after stints in the United States and the Caribbean. “It is essentially Southeast Asian and Pacific Islands cuisine layered with Chinese, Spanish and now American influences.”

Many of the ingredients and cooking techniques are already familiar to American diners. “Many Filipino poultry, beef and pork recipes are cooked in a tomato-based sauce with sweet peppers, as in Spanish cuisine,” says Joven—although in the Philippines, these dishes are seasoned with fish sauce or soy sauce. “The building block of flavor—ginisa [which means sautéed]—in many dishes in the Philippines is similar to the Spanish sofrito, but with garlic, onion and tomato.”

Filipinos love crispy meats (particularly pork and chicken), so grilling and deep-frying are common, after marinating in soy sauce, lime juice and garlic, with sweetness from sugar, ketchup, pineapple juice or Coke or Sprite, says Joven. “Fried foods are often served with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce that provides contrast.” In fact, many Filipino foods are accompanied by dipping sauces, often DIY from table condiments including vinegar (pinakurat), soy sauce, native limes (calamansi), bagoong (fermented fish or shrimp paste), patis (fish sauce) and chiles.

The quintessential Filipino dish, however, is adobo, a stew of pork, chicken or seafood simmered in vinegar with soy sauce, garlic, bay leaves and peppercorns. “As a marinade and sauce, adobo has some real legs,” says Kathy Casey. “It’s complex and delicious, yet still fairly familiar. It is usually chicken- or pork-based, but really, you could ‘adobo’ anything.”

In fact, sauces, condiments, marinades and toppings are all great entry points into various kinds of global protein specialties, according to Casey, from harissa and za’atar in the Eastern Mediterranean—which might be turned into a marinade or dip with the addition of yogurt—to the bright, “zoomy” lift of calamansi and other Southeast Asian citrus fruits.

Tropical South America: Meat-Centric Cuisines
Brazil and Peru, both relatively prosperous countries, have a relationship with protein that will feel familiar to American diners. “In South America, any occasion is a good excuse to get together and eat meat—lots of it,” writes Marian Blazes, an expert in South American cuisine who lives in Peru. “The traditional grilling extravaganza, called an asado, is a great way to spend time with family and friends.”

Like Chile, Argentina and the other countries of the Pampas, southern Brazil is the land of the gauchos (cowboys) and the birthplace of churrasco, a Spanish and Portuguese term that refers to grilled meat, particularly beef. As with any South American barbecue, meats for churrasco encompass many different cuts, from filet mignon to picanha (rump cap) to sausage and variety meats, simply grilled and accompanied by toasted bread with garlic sauce and a side of chimichurri. How translatable is that to American menus?

The other iconic Brazilian meat-based dish—indeed, it’s arguably the national dish of Brazil—is feijoada, a hearty bean stew laden with smoked and fresh beef, pork and sausages, traditionally served with rice, collard greens, and the toasted-manioc meal known as farofa. Reflecting the region’s long association with Portugal, the name comes from feijão, which is Portuguese for “beans.”

“There’s a rich tradition of sausage and charcuterie in Brazil,” says  the CIA’s Briwa, “where the tender prime cuts of meat were grilled and the tougher cuts were used in stews.”

In Peru, “the fish is amazing, and so are the ceviches,” says Casey. Common to all of the coastal regions of Central and South America, in Peru this citrus-marinated raw fish specialty approaches high art, garnished not only with onions and chiles but also ingredients such as coconut, purple yams and toasted corn.

The Spanish brought beef, pork and chicken to Peru, and the Peruvians repaid the favor with specialties such as anticuchos (grilled marinated beef on skewers), pollo a la brasa (chicken brined with cumin, garlic, paprika, chile, vinegar, soy and oregano, then grilled or spit-roasted) and butifarra (a kind of sandwich filled with roast pork and marinated onion sauce).

Woven throughout Peruvian cuisine are its many chiles—more than 300 varieties according to some sources—which, along with quinoa, corn and potatoes, are the country’s most famous traditional native foods. “There is so much to explore here,” says Christopher Koetke, “especially when it comes to how these chiles are used with proteins.”

About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.