Just a decade ago, the Korean taco did not exist. Ramen noodles were widely considered low-budget college-dorm fare. The banh mi was little known outside of New York City and the West Coast, and the average American would run screaming from a pungent bowl of kimchi.
The perception and acceptance of Asian foods and flavors has transformed in that time, and all indications are that its popularity will only increase. The most recent analysis of generational cuisine preferences by research firm Technomic shows that the Millennial’s tastes skew sharply toward Asian flavors. In fact, the report cites that four of their top five favored cuisines are Indian, Thai, Korean and Japanese.
With this in mind, “Asia and the Theater of World Menus,” the theme of the Worlds of Flavor Conference held this past April at The Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Campus in Napa, Calif., was particularly timely. Attendees included industry executives, food and beverage managers and corporate chefs, all seeking clues to the next opportunities to innovate foodservice menus with Asian flavors.
And while many of the international chefs who presented at the conference demonstrated classic cooking techniques and served traditional dishes from their home countries, some of the most thought-provoking cuisine featured Asian ingredients used in new, non-traditional ways.
So if some of the more avant-garde treatments tasted at the event take hold, mainstream menus of the future may feature such Asian treats as sashimi tacos with guacamole, bibimbap bowls topped with steak tartare or Southern-fried chicken, meats and seafood crusted with matcha powder, wood-grilled spring rolls sprinkled with tom yum peanut crunch, and “Shio BLT” sandwiches layered with shio koji-cured bacon and fermented tomatoes.
Given the rapid rise in the popularity of ramen bowls in restaurants across the country, it was not surprising to see it as one of the focal points of the event.
The dish was prepared and served in a wide variety of traditional and leading-edge styles, highlighting its versatility and potential for creating new versions that combine classic and contemporary flavors.
Chef Ivan Orkin is one of America’s premier authorities on ramen cuisine, and is the only non-Japanese chef to ever operate a ramen shop in Tokyo. At his acclaimed restaurants in New York, Orkin serves both highly authentic and wildly divergent versions of the dish.
During a fascinating presentation, Orkin stressed that mastering the foundational principles of ramen cookery is requisite before attempting to create new, leading-edge variations incorporating non-traditional ingredients. To illustrate this importance, he walked the audience through a breakdown of the eight essential elements that comprise his classic Shio Ramen:
- Noodles: Must be firmly textured and possess a slightly aromatic quality
- Broth: Orkin calls ramen broth “double soup,” a combination of rich chicken stock and a dashi broth made from simmered kombu seaweed, dried fish and shaved bonito tuna flakes.
- Pork Chashu: A slice of spoon-tender, soy-marinated braised pork belly
- Shio Tare: Shio means “salt,” and tare is the primary seasoning agent of the dish, made from a simmered blend of several types of Japanese salt, sake, sugar, onions and soy sauce.
- Half-Cooked Egg: Cooked exactly six minutes and 18 seconds, just until the white is firm and the yolk becomes a thick liquid, carefully split with fishing line rather than a knife
- Fat: A blend consisting primarily of chicken fat; Orkin emphasized its critical role in providing body and richness. “No fat, no ramen,” he says.
- Fish Powder: Provides the final umami “punch”
- Scallion: Thinly shredded, adding “a light burst of onion flavor as the finishing touch”
Orkin served several ramen variations from his restaurant menus, including an intense Triple Pork, Triple Garlic Mazemen featuring pork tonkatsu broth, pork chashu and bacon, and a cold interpretation of his Shio Ramen flavored with lemon and roasted tomato.
Ramen dishes prepared by San Francisco chef Richie Nakano and New York chef Chris Jaeckle also combined traditional and New Wave treatments, exemplified by Jaeckle’s Venetian Ramen, garnished with slices of roasted porchetta and pea shoots, which is a menu favorite at his Italian restaurant All’Onda.
The placement of a ramen bowl on Jaeckle’s Italian menu is an early sign of the dish’s inevitable migration to mainstream menus. Care must be taken in preparation and assembly, but the exploding popularity of ramen, fueled by its combined qualities of comfort and compelling flavors, will surely take the dish beyond the confines of the noodle bar.
Cheese: A New Asian Ingredient
In her presentation on Chinese ingredients, author Fuchsia Dunlop highlighted a white, stretched cheese called Rushan that is produced in China’s Yunnan province. She noted the exceptional nature of the product, as cheeses are generally absent from the Asian larder.
However, several of the conference chefs creatively incorporated cheeses into traditional Asian dishes, demonstrating its potential to add richness and increase levels of umami.
Orkin’s Four Cheese Mazemen-Style Ramen was an early example of the practice. The chef also spoke of a new “breakfast ramen” he is launching that features a dashi and cheddar cheese broth.
Jaeckle’s aforementioned Venetian Ramen combined Asian and Italian elements, with the noodles bathed in an intensely cheesy Parmesan dashi broth.
Tetsu Yagi, chef of Sushi of Gari in New York, topped box-shaped pieces of salmon sushi with aged mozzarella, which he melted and caramelized with a blowtorch. And Portland, Maine-based Shanghainese chef Cara Stadler served an Asian Slaw tossed with generous amounts of shaved Grana Padano.
These dishes exemplify the potential in trading a bit of authenticity to produce unique flavor combinations that appeal to a wider mainstream audience.
Congee, a savory rice porridge, offers an Asian comfort-food twist on the bowl build. This version is from Esther Danhi: salted eggs, soy-cured Chinese bacon, roasted peanuts, Chiu Chow oil, fried shallot.
Rice Throughout Menu Parts
Rice in all of its forms is a foundational ingredient in Asian cuisines, and several chefs presented ideas for creating contemporary menu items based on traditional rice treatments.
Fuschia Dunlop addressed opportunities to adopt fried rice dishes to the menu, accentuating ease and speed of preparation as positive attributes, as well as extreme flexibility when mixing and matching ingredients within a dish. She served both a Yangzhou Fried Rice, studded with bits of pork, shrimp, salami and mixed vegetables tossed with jasmine rice, wine and chicken stock, and a Pineapple Duck Fried Rice, flavored with raisins, fish sauce, garam masala and a squeeze of fresh lime. Dunlop emphasized that even the most authentic fried rice recipes leave wide room for improvisation, based on a restaurant’s theme, the kitchen’s inventory, product availability and seasonality.
Chai Siriyarn, chef-owner of Marnee Thai Restaurant in San Francisco, focused on sweet rice applications, and considering the high craveability of the dishes he served, it seems almost improbable that these desserts have not made their way onto American menus. His Mango Sticky Rice was redolent of coconut and fragrant pandan leaf, topped with slices of fresh mango and a rich coconut cream. His Sweet Rice Pudding, made with both white and black rice, was enriched with chunks of taro, longan fruit and young coconut meat. These delicious desserts bore no resemblance to conventional, Western-style rice pudding.
Porridge: The Asian Risotto?
The most interesting new concept in rice-based cuisine was discussed by San Francisco chef Brandon Jew, who spoke of several chefs across the country who are transforming the traditional dish congee into a risotto-like hybrid called porridge. While some chefs would contend that congee is itself a porridge, the name is being used to connote a thicker, more sophisticated preparation cooked in a similar fashion to risotto. Jew referenced chef Thomas Chen of restaurant Tuome in New York, who serves a porridge topped with roast chicken and basil, and chef Minh Phan, whose Los Angeles-based Porridge and Puffs features an extensive menu of creamy rice bowls with toppings that range from braised short rib and pickled egg to mustard greens with lemongrass jam.
Fermenting For Flavor
The most compelling portion of the conference centered on the principles of fermentation in Asian cuisine. The tradition spans the millennia and reached its modern forms hundreds of years ago.
While fermented ingredients such as miso and kimchi continue to make inroads on American menus, the presenting chefs made a deep dive into the many lesser-known techniques for flavoring and preserving via fermentation that imbue foods with unique flavors and vibrant levels of umami.
One such ingredient used by many of the chefs was shio koji, which is fermented rice granules that are made into a paste with salt and warm water. The paste is rubbed on meats and fish and tossed with vegetables. Shio koji has a curing and tenderizing effect, and as Tokyo-based chef Shinobu Namae explained during his demonstration, the enzyme protease in the shio koji breaks down protein into glutamates, resulting in higher levels of umami.
The flavor enhancing effect of marinating in shio koji was clearly evident in all of the dishes given this treatment.
Namae prepared a signature dish of salmon which he marinated in shio koji for six hours, pan seared and then lightly smoked by sandwiching the fish in thin sheets of cedar and finishing with a blowtorch.
Fellow Tokyo chef Zaiyu Hasegawa served a delicious shio koji-marinated vegetable salad of tomato, cucumber, taro root and carrots. Kyoto-based chef Hisato Nakahigashi prepared Shio Koji Duck, which he roasted crisply and served with grilled green onions. And chef Dan Felder of the New York-based Momofuku restaurants demonstrated the ingredient’s mainstream potential with his Shio Koji Bacon—whole pork bellies that he marinated overnight and then slowly wood smoked.
The fermented ingredient that garnered the most attention was gochujang, the Korean condiment made from ground chiles and fermented soybeans. Gochujang is not far behind miso and kimchi in its march to the mainstream, but several Korean chefs provided deeper insight into both its qualities as an ingredient and the many ways it is used throughout Korean cuisine.
Seoul-based chef Lucia Hee Kyung Cho gave a revealing presentation showing gochujang production in the city of Sunchang, where it is made in the traditional manner by hand-mixing the paste and loading it into large ceramic vats where it ages for up to two years.
Chef Rachel Tang demonstrated the many ways she uses gochujang in marinades, rubs, dressings and dipping sauces at her Korean barbecue restaurant Trove in Seattle.
Los Angeles chef Dennis Samala served the Korean classic dakgangjeong, crispy double-fried chicken chunks tossed in a sauce of gochujang, cider vinegar, mirin, sugar, garlic and ginger. And lauded Southern chef Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ky., prepared his signature Gochujang Mero, a sea bass filet richly glazed with the chile paste and served on a bed of porridge-like barley rice risotto.
The fermented beverage kombucha also received attention, warranted by its growing popularity among health-minded consumers. It is made by combining black or green tea with sugar and a “scoby,” an acronym for “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.”
The scoby consumes the sugar in the fermentation process, resulting in a slightly tart and lightly effervescent drink that is rich in probiotics. Most kombucha is enhanced with additional flavors, usually in the form of a fruit or vegetable juice.
Aside from its purported health benefits, one likely reason for its rise in popularity is that a well-made flavored kombucha is quite delicious. Consequently, new kombucha products continue to appear at the retail level, and a growing number of restaurant operators are adding a housemade version to their beverage menus.
Alex Hozven and Kevin Farley of The Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley, Calif., conducted a workshop highlighting opportunities for operators to make and sell kombucha. The pair cited the beverage’s strong profit potential, as a high yield is achieved from relatively small amounts of tea and sugar, and the scoby multiplies exponentially with each batch produced.
Serving a housemade kombucha can provide clear menu differentiation, and its popularity with Millennials will likely be mirrored by Gen Z.