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On-Trend Tropics

Pineapple brings tropical sweetness to savory dishes like this Steak Milanesa with Pina Criolla Salsa. Photo courtesy of dole food co.
Exotic and refreshing, tropical flavors are blowing in like a warm breeze

By Joan Lang

The fascination with regional foods and menu concepts is creating an impetus for creative chefs to deep-dive into new parts of the world for culinary inspiration — and the tropics, with its long tradition of sweet-heat flavors and exotic produce, is as good a place as any.

This isn’t tacky tiki and sticky sweet-and-sour sauces, but sophisticated interpretations of food from the warmer latitudes, incorporating influences and ingredients from Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Hawaii and other tropical cultures. Many of these places have supported multiculturalism since the oldest colonial times, thanks to the wandering ways of the Portuguese, Japanese and other seafaring nations. That has given rise to some of the world’s original fusion food, ripe for adventurous interpretation.

The distinctive ingredients of these parts of the world — especially the fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices — are also being used to bring interesting flavors and textures to signature recipes, on all kinds of menus.

It’s a very warming trend.

Perhaps no single ingredient says “tropical” more than coconut. Delicately sweet and appealingly mysterious, this seed of the coconut palm comes in so many forms, from sweetened coconut milk and toasted flakes to coconut oil or water.

Coconut liquids are versatile: The iconoclastic Brazilian chef Alex Atala, who has made his name adapting native Brazilian products to innovative recipes, has made a signature of sea scallops cooked with coconut milk, aromatic pepper oil (flavored with cachaça, vinegar and rosemary), crispy mango and Brazil nuts.

Coconut also has more mainstream applications, particularly when it’s used in shredded form as a crust. At Alan Wong’s in Honolulu, one of the most popular dishes is the Macadamia Nut-Coconut Crusted Lamb Chops, served with Asian ratatouille, roasted garlic smashed potatoes and red wine lamb jus. Coconut curry sauce — another strong menu showing — is widely available in prepared form for use with fish, chicken and other proteins.

> Coconut-Crusted Crab Cake: Three crab cakes crusted with panko and coconut served with mango sweet chile sauce — The Speakeasy, Janesville, Wisc.
> Steamed Blue Mussels: Coconut-green curry broth, celery, cilantro, fresno chiles, grilled sourdough — W.A. Frost & Co., St. Paul, Minn.

Pineapple is best known for dessert, on its own or as juice, but it’s a perfect sweet-heat agent in savory applications such as salsas, glazes and barbecue sauce. It’s delicious roasted or caramelized on the grill, and the juice contains enzymes that make it useful as a marinade.  Chicago’s Townhouse Restaurant & Wine Bar has a number of interesting pineapple preparations, including mango-pineapple slaw with its ancho-chile tuna tacos and Baja fish tacos, and grilled pineapple accompanying its calamari starter.

Pineapple is used extensively in tropical Mexican cooking, particularly in the kebab-like marinated meat dish al pastor. At the new Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix, the Al Pastor Pork Burrito touts sliced pork shoulder marinated in achiote citrus with diced pineapple, cilantro, white onions and pinto beans.

> Plantain Crusted Mahi-Mahi with roasted squash and a habanero-grilled pineapple salsa — Cay, Dania Beach, Fla.
> Crispy Al Pastor Roasted Chicken: Achiote-marinated half chicken with potato-poblano hash, grilled pineapple relish and spicy carrot salad — Agave, Las Vegas

This ambrosial fruit has many intriguing uses. Mango marinades and sauces have long been popular, thanks in part to the mango’s tenderizing enzymes, thought to aid digestion. Today, the fruit is also popular in relishes, barbecue sauce and salsas, as well as in juices and aguas frescas, smoothies, mango nectar, fruit bars, fruit leather, ice cream and sorbet.

Ripe mangoes are used in Indian curries, as well as mango lassi, made by mixing ripe mangoes or mango pulp with buttermilk and sugar. Unripe green mangoes are used in puckery chutneys, pickles, or salad/side dishes, paired with the contrasting flavors of salt, chile or soy sauce, particularly in Thai and other Southeast Asian cuisines.

> Island Steak Frites: Grilled churrasco served with a cone of fries and topped with a mango-cilantro chimichurri sauce  — Cay, Dania Beach, Fla.
> Rhubarb Salad with spiced oat granola, fromage blanc, mango, endive and arugula, strawberry vinaigrette — Acadia Bistro, Portland, Ore.

If a spritz of lemon can do so much for a piece of grilled fish, think what Key lime, blood orange, Meyer lemon or pomelo can do for a signature menu item.

Citrus fruits say “tropical” and are valuable during the winter when other fruits are out of season. The ever-growing selection of available citrus — each with a unique flavor profile — includes: Mexican lime, Mandarins, clementines, tangelos, tangerines, Satsuma, Ugli fruit, yuzu and sudachi, bergamot, kumquats, citron, sour or bitter oranges, finger lime, calamondin, calamansis and kaffir lime.

Citrus is also a major flavor in juices, smoothies and cocktails, like the Gabby’s Little Helper (vodka, St. Germaine, fresh pressed Ruby Red grapefruit) at Gabardine in San Diego.

> Parfait of Foie Gras with banana bread, pignoli nut, finger lime, pineapple — The Lambs Club, New York City
> Pan-Fried Walleye with almonds, capers and tangerine brown butter; served with roasted cauliflower, braised kale and buttermilk mashed potatoes — Meadowlark Restaurant, Dayton, Ohio

Among the elements that evoke the tropics in this Mango Coconut Dessert Risotto, by pastry chef Francis Ang of Fifth Floor in San Francisco: tamarind purée, mango chile jam and risotto made with coconut milk. Photo courtesy of national mango board.
The tropics are teeming with exotic ingredients, including lychee and taro, that are wending their way onto ethnic and mainstream menus. Here are a few that warrant a shout-out:

> Banana Flowers: Large, red-purple flowers on the end of a bunch of bananas, these are treated as a vegetable in Asian cuisines, used raw with a dip, as a garnish to soups and noodle dishes, or stir-fried with other ingredients.
> Chayote: Also known as christophene or mirliton, this fist-size squash has a mild flavor that serves as a foil for spicier ingredients in cuisines ranging from Thai to Creole.
> Cherimoya: From Central America, the sweet “ice cream fruit” lends itself to desserts and beverages; fully ripe, its flavor is a blend of bananas, coconut, strawberries and mangoes.
> Manioc: Also called yuca and cassava, this shrub-like plant is cultivated for its starchy root, which can be ground for flour and tapioca
> Rambutan: Related to lychees and resembling a prickly chestnut, the juicy, almond-flavored flesh can be muddled into cocktails, tossed with fruit salads or simmered with aromatics to make a syrup.

There is a whole category of “magical fruits” that confer an aura of health-giving properties, along with flavor and tropical appeal.

Brazilian acai berries are believed to be higher in antioxidants than blueberries; powdered acai and acai juice can be used in smoothies, beverages and sauces. The seeds of sweet and crunchy Southeast Asian dragon fruit are made up of 50 percent oleic acid, an essential fatty acid that helps lower bad cholesterol. Fragrant papaya is bursting with vitamin C (one cup provides the minimum RDA) and is also a good source of vitamins A and E, two powerful antioxidants. Pomegranate juice topped the list of beverages ranked by antioxidant levels in a recent UCLA study. Multiple forms, including seeds and syrup, have helped the pomegranate go platinum in beverages and food.

> Like Water for Chocolate: Fried quail, dragon fruit, rose petals, chestnut and dragon fruit sauce — China Poblano Noodles & Tacos, Las Vegas
> Berry Bowl: Blended acai, banana, strawberries and apple juice topped with banana, fresh berries, goji berries, granola and honey — Backyard Bowls, Santa Barbara, Calif.

Hawaiian cuisine combines the influence of Polynesians with that of the newer arrivals from Europe and the Pacific Rim, particularly the Philippines and Japan. Ask Hawaii expats what they miss about the food and they might say “plate lunch,” a cheap and comforting meal consisting of a filling, saucy entrée and about a day’s worth of carbs in the form of rice and macaroni salad.

Bend, Ore., has Big Island Kona Mix Plate, with its “mix it up” menu of items like bulgogi, chicken katsu and fried calamari alongside a choice of sides, including rice, fries and “Grandma’s famous PotatoMac salad.”

And Chicago has Aloha Eats, a Hawaiian grill with combination plate lunches,  saimin noodle soups and musubi “Hawaiian handrolls” made with Spam, chicken or tofu.

> Blue Hawaiian Sliders: Hawaiian sweet roll topped with Kalua Pork and special sauce — Got Plate Lunch food truck, Benicia, Calif.
> Loco Moco: Savory, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue hamburger patties over rice, with brown gravy and two eggs — L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, Honolulu-based chain with more than 175 locations in 11 states

It’s been some 25 years since the “Mango Gang” — Norman Van Aken, Allen Susser, Mark Militello and Douglas Rodriguez — created New World or Floribbean cuisine. With its heavy emphasis on local and tropical products, this style set the stage for fresh interpretations of regional cooking and locavorism.

At Van Aken’s restaurant, Norman’s, the menu skews to Cuban and South American with items like Mofongo with sweet plantain stuffing, very black beans and pineapple-papaya-cachaça salsa. Florida Cookery, in the James Royal Palm Hotel in Miami, offers what Mark Militello calls “hyper-local Florida cuisine” — examples include a Conch Chowder & Fritter Dipper; and Sebastian Inlet Whitewater Clams with lemon aïoli and fried green tomatoes.

> Pan-Sautéed Grouper: Marinated in teriyaki and sesame oil, with an Ortanique orange liqueur and Bacardi Limón sauce, topped with steamed seasoned chayote and carrots on a citrus sweet plantain-boniato mash — Ortanique on the Mile, Coral Gables, Fla.
> Luces Meat Pulled Pork, rum barbecue sauce, green mango slaw on crispy green plantains — Carmen at the Danforth, Portland, Maine

California’s Lazy Dog Café serves up island comfort fare of Hawaiian fried rice loaded with hickory smoked bacon, pork sausage, veggies and eggs. Photo courtesy of lazy dog cafe.
Comprised of more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines is home to true mashup cuisine, with cultural influences from Spain, Malaysia, China and America, fused with indigenous tropical ingredients and flavors. The result is spicy, salty, savory, complex flavors — fitting with the today’s on-trend applications.

Tarsier, a café catering company offering “post-modern Filipino & American cuisine” in Washington, D.C., offers the likes of adobo-marinated Chicken Skewers with a trio of sauces (chile-kalamansi-citrus soy, cilantro ginger oil, and garlic confit vinegar). At Pig & Khao, a new Manhattan spot inspired by “Top Chef” contestant Leah Cohen’s travels, the modernized menu features Filipino-influenced dishes like Crispy Pata (pork shank cooked in soy sauce and five spice, garnished with coriander, crispy garlic; served with dipping sauce and pickled green mango salad).

> Puso Ng Saging: Banana blossoms sauteed with coconut milk and dilis (small dried fish) — Karilagan, San Francisco
> Foot-long Lumpia: Egg roll stuffed with a special ground pork mixture and a side of sweet chile dipping sauce — Pogi Boy Truck, Anaheim, Calif.

For awhile, daiquiris and other frozen drinks were the Rodney Dangerfields of the cocktail list, but they’re now getting some respect.

Partly it’s the tiki bar craze (see below), but also because a well-made daiquiri can be just as appealing as any of the other fruit-fueled cocktails, including Collinses, sours and sidecars. Add the frozen element, and you’ve got added enticement. Could the pina colada be far behind?

The Red Parrot in Newport, R.I., has no fewer than 12 frozen drinks on its cocktail menu, including the Psychedelic Iguana (Bacardi, Midori, coconut milk, pineapple juice and vanilla ice cream with chocolate and raspberries). Wet Willy’s, with 14 locations in the Southeast and California, touts the Kiwi (blended with fresh kiwi fruit and vodka) and a frozen banana daiquiri called the Monkeyshine. Dave & Buster’s menu offers seven different margaritas (including peach, strawberry-banana and mango, served frozen or on the rocks).

> Blue Sky: Frozen Dekuyper Peachtree Schnapps, pineapple juice, cream of coconut and blue curacao — The Noisy Oyster, Charleston, S.C.
> Kahlua Jamaican Shake — Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, all locations

Frozen smoothies are the ultimate vehicle for tropical flavors. Smoothie chains lead the way, but there’s plenty of opportunity for full-menu operations of all kinds.

Froots (30 units) lists such tropical delights as the Pina Cooolada (pineapples, bananas, pineapple juice and cream of coconut). And Shake Smart (a new two-unit operation that specializes in protein shakes and healthy food options) has the Mea Aloha (pineapple, banana, acai and apple juice).

The menus at Southeast Asian restaurants offer smoothie selections in such exotic flavors as lychee, strawberry cherimoya, avocado and more. New York City’s The Kingswood restaurant makes brunch smoothies out of ingredients already on hand for cocktails or food items, including a Banana Date Smoothie (bananas, dates, milk and honey) and a Blood Orange Smoothie (made with blood orange purée, orange juice, bananas and vanilla yogurt).

> Mango Passionfruit Smoothie; Red Bean Taro Smoothie; Papaya Yogurt Smoothie — Café Tapioca, Pleasanton, Calif.
> Jumpin’ Ginseng Mega Smoothie: Mango banana with whey protein and ginseng — Nrgize Café, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Polynesian-themed bars — with high-octane rum drinks, portable palm trees, carved statues, thatched roofs, and knowingly faux hors d’oeuvres (can you say “rumaki”?) — are opening in many locales. And it’s no accident that many are in cold climates.

Milwaukee’s new Lucky Joe’s Tiki serves drinks in specialty mugs. “Fanny the Hipster in a Room full of Barracudas” is a classic daiquiri with a touch of honey for $8 in a standard glass, or $13 in a skull mug. In Denver, Adrift Tiki Bar & Grill features classic tiki drinks (Suffering Bastard, Mai Tai, Scorpion Bowl) to accompany its island-themed menu with offerings such as Mofongo Chips with coconut rum drizzle and a “Spam Mi” sandwich.

> King Kalani: Chocolate milkshake with rum, cocoa, strawberry and banana, topped with whipped cream — Hala Kahiki Lounge, Chicago
> Shrunken Zombie Head: Reserve and aged rums, tropical juices, falernum and cinnamon — Tai ­Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar, Disneyland Hotel, Anaheim, Calif.


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.