Pan-Asian Appetizers

July 11, 2006

14 Min Read
Pan-Asian Appetizers

Pan-Asian Appetizers

By Anne Druschitz, C.R.C.

The concept of pan-Asian cuisine may initially seem difficult to define. In some ways, we can consider all cuisine from every Asian country as pan- Asian, due to ruling groups changing and populations migrating throughout history. As cooking techniques and ingredients moved from one geographic area to the next, the inhabitants incorporated them into their own culinary arsenals.

Some of the dishes that we associate today with a particular Asian country have, in fact, originated elsewhere. For instance, beef or chicken sataymarinated, grilled skewers of meatwhich is usually associated with Thai cooking, originated in Malaysia. Interestingly, the cuisine of Malaysia gathers influence from the three major ethnic groups that populate the countryMalay, Chinese and Indian.

This is but one way to frame the idea of pan-Asian cooking. Put simply, something that is pan-Asian highlights one or more of the many countries that comprise the continent of Asia.

Eastern fusion 

It is impossible to discuss pan-Asian cooking without also touching on the topic of culinary fusion. Fusions starting point usually combines several factors, including geography, history and personal experience. It can be localized between neighboring countries and even occurs inter-regionally within the same country. This is evident in the similarities and subtle differences that abound in many of the dishes and ingredients found throughout the Asian continent.

From Japan to Singapore to Sri Lankaand all of the many countries in betweennearly every culture shares common food-ways. Major Asian themes include dumplings, noodles and ingredient sauces, like fish sauce and soy sauce. The residents of each place have their own ways of customizing their specialties, like making the noodles from sweet-potato flour, as in Korea, versus rice flour, which is the custom in Thailand and Vietnamthough overlap certainly does occur. The variety of dumplings and dipping sauces that proliferate from country to country, province to province and probably even town to townnot to mention the multitude of options for cooking themcould likely comprise an entire dissertation. These common threads and others make up the complementary tapestry of pan-Asian flavors.

Fusion exists on other levels, as well. Any restaurant that focuses on a particular cuisine invariably ends up melding the food at least somewhat with the country in which the restaurant is located. Factors such as availability, quality and cost of ingredients; the preferences of the countrys population; and skill level and experience of the employees in the restaurant can all play a role in defining these parameters. This applies both to an ethnic restaurant that modifies the dishes on its menu so they are more suited to the American palate, and to an American restaurant that incorporates ethnic dishes, ingredients and/or techniques into its own menu.

For instance, an American-based Chinese restaurantor product developermay use celery and broccoli in some of its stir-fried dishes. However, these ingredients will most likely be the North American varieties; Chinese celery (kun choy) and broccoli (gai lan) are different from their U.S. counterparts in appearance and flavor. Although the Chinese ingredients are probably available in our global marketplace on an ever-widening basis, it still is more cost effective to use the American counterparts. Besides, they are what the average customer is accustomed to and expects.

Surveying the landscape 

As a food industry buzzword over the last decade, fusion can also be viewed through a more intercontinental lens. Fine-dining restaurant chefs wowed their customers with dishes that were Japanese-Peruvian, Vietnamese- French and Indian-Latin American, to name but a few examples. For example, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, a Japanese chef, lived and cooked in Peru early in his culinary career. Another chef, Roland Liccioni, is Vietnamese but was trained in France. He then brought these influences to America. Maneet Chauhan has a background in Indian cuisine and a strong interest in Latin American food.

The successful blending of two seemingly disparate culinary cultures occurs when the focus is placed on the similarities between the cuisines ingredients and preparation methods. Peru and Japan may be far away from each other geographically, but they overlap in places, at least from a culinary perspective. Since both countries have large coastal areas, fresh fish is an important part of their respective cuisines. The Japanese might high light their fish in a nigiri sushi platter to be dipped in a savory, salty soy sauce and garnished with pungent wasabi. The Peruvians would instead marinate theirs in lime juice and chiles for seviche. Similarities in these ingredients and preparations lend well to their crossover.

Parallels exist between Indian and Latin American cuisines, as well. Take the Latin American appetizer empanadas. A simple dough is made from wheat flour or masa harinaor a combination of the twoand filled with a variety of ingredients, including seasoned ground beef, sweet potato, pork, cheese and/or spinach, just to name a few options. This appetizer is very similar to the Indian samosa, in which a basic dough is filled, sealed and deep-fried. Samosa fillings may include curried potatoes, cauliflower, ground lamb, spinach and/or cheese. Juxtaposing the typical dipping sauces for these fried treats can create a successful fusion. The spicy richness of the samosa contrasts well with the cool crema or tart chimichurri usually reserved for Latin and South American empanadas. On the other hand, a vinegary chutney made with mango, coconut and chiles would provide a nice counterpoint to the sweet, mild potato empanada.

These examples of cross-cultural fusion sometimes trickle down through the casual chain, quick-service and other foodservice and retail markets, often evolving to better match the target customers needs and expectations. Some of this influence is evident just in viewing the menus at popular American restaurants. It is interesting to see how the inclusion of Asian ingredients and preparations has become almost as common as the hamburger or the Buffalo wing. In the casual-dining arena, there is the ubiquitous Chinese chicken salad. It is usually garnished with chow mein noodles or fried wonton crisps, mandarin oranges, and something containing sesame and/or ginger. Although this concoction is far from authentic, and its main ingredients are merely examples of Americanized Asian food, this top seller has the potential to become the Chicken Caesar salad of its time. Even McDonalds Corporation, Oak Brook, IL, recently launched a new Asian salad that includes orange-glazed chicken over fresh greens, garnished with soybeans, snow peas and a sesame-ginger dressing. Lees Sandwiches, San Jose, CA, features the Vietnamese sandwich banh my. Another chain, Sushi Itto, was originally in started in Mexico City by two Mexican businessmen and has spread around the world. The menu includes Mexican-influenced maki rolls, including salmon with chipotle sauce and crab surimi with avocado, mushroom and minced jalapeños.

Pot stickers are present on the menus of several fast-casual restaurants. The pot stickers from T.G.I. Fridaysowned by Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, Minneapolisare filled with ground chicken and vegetables, and are cooked by first steaming and then pan frying until crispy, which is one way the dish is traditionally prepared in Asia. The Zen chicken pot sticker starts with the same dumpling, but instead it is grilled and sprinkled with pico de gallo, a fresh Mexican salsa. Both versions are served with sweet-and-tangy Szechwan sauce. Traditionally Szechwan cuisine contains a good amount of chiles and/or Szechuwan pepper plus vinegar, but the fiery peppers would probably be best toned down to appeal to a wider range of American palates. These examples of fusion exhibit the inevitable give and take that occurs during the real-time evolution of cuisine.

The next time you venture into your local grocery store, take a stroll down the ethnic or international aisle. Once upon a time, that section typically consisted of a few measly shelves filled with products that were mediocre at best: metallic-tasting, canned bamboo shoots and mushy vegetables for stir-fries; and insipid jars of sweet-and-sour sauce. Today, theres a far greater selection of a much-wider range of cuisines; some retailers even devote both sides of an entire aisle to the category. Now you can usually find at least half a dozen types of soy sauce from as many countries.

Pan-Asian egg rolls might fuse the ginger-and garlic-spiced meat of samosas with vegetables common to Vietnamese egg rolls accompanied by a dipping sauce inspired by a spicy, traditional nuoc cham.

Depending on the country of origin, ingredients and method of manufacture, soy sauces vary in color, complexity of flavor, sweetness, bitterness and saltiness. Also, at least a few varieties of fish sauce typically grace supermarket shelves. Fish sauces vary from country to country depending on the type of fish used in the processing, the length of fermentation and the number of pressingsthe first pressing yields stronger fish sauce, while subsequent pressings are not as pungent We also sometimes see colorful rainbows of dal, ghee (clarified, shelf-stable butter) and chutneys for Indian dishes. The list most definitely could go on.

The produce section has also received an ethnic makeover. Lemongrass, ginger, bok choy and napa cabbage are virtually staples, as are fresh shiitake mushrooms and several varieties of tofu. This change hasnt happened overnight, but it is still amazing to see how markedly our options have improved over a relatively brief period of time.

The selection of available Asian appetizers has followed these other grocery sections. For decades, La Choy® egg rolls were the end all of Asian convenience products at the grocery store. Now, most markets carry sushi or at least maki rolls in the refrigerated case. Shelled or whole edamame, a popular soybean appetizer at Japanese restaurants, is sold in the frozen-foods aisle, as are ready-made pot stickers, tempura-battered shrimp and crab Rangoon. Even store-brand frozen appetizerspreviously never a source of innovationserve up choices like miniature spring rolls or curried potato samosas.

On accurate translations 

The way a food is prepared, what techniques are used and even how it is served also play an important role in capturing the authenticity of a dish.

Lets take a Vietnamese spring roll (cha gio) as an example. Think of it as a more-delicate cousin of the wheat-flour-based, wonton-wrapped egg roll ubiquitous to Chinese restaurants across the United States. The Vietnamese version is petite, cigar-like in size and shape, and usually is made up of a finely chopped pork and shrimp mixture rolled into a rice-paper wrapper and deep fried. The typical dipping sauce (nuoc cham) is a thinner, lighter alternative to sweet-and-sour sauce and features fish sauce, garlic, chiles, lime juice (with pulp), sugar and shredded carrots.

The spring roll, along with the dipping sauce, is a combination thats full of delicious flavor sensations and texturesthough this isnt the entire picture. There usually are a few additional steps that take place when this dish is served in Vietnam. The fried spring rolls are cut into three or four pieces and served with lettuce leaves and assorted garnishes, including holy basil leaves (which taste like a cross between mint and Italian basil), thinly sliced red chile peppers, and peeled, seeded, thinly sliced cucumbers. To eat them, you take a lettuce leaf (Boston or bibb work well for this), put a few pieces of the spring roll into it, top with as much sauce and/or garnish as you like, roll the whole thing up and eat. The flavors, textures and temperatures of this experience are exhilarating!

Translating the experience of that spring roll into something that can be consistently reproduced in a manufacturing environment is an entirely different story. It wouldnt be that difficult to recreate the dish in a restaurant setting. In theory, the concept would be similar to that of Thai lettuce wraps, where customers assemble and garnish the dish according to their preferences. An idea to help this succeed in a foodservice environment would be to set up the lettuce leaves and garnishes like a salad bar so people could still customize their rolls to their liking. Also, leaving the spring rolls whole instead of precutting them into pieces would keep them hot enough in the middle without negatively affecting the crispness of the rice paper wrapper.

In addition, this concept has the potential to succeed in a refrigerated format, though issues such as water activity and shelf-life requirements would need solutions first. The packagingmost likely modified-atmosphere packaging (MAP)would be paramount in this case. Each individual component might require packaging separately in one comprehensive kit. Then the end user could assemble, fry and wrap the rolls. Depending on the target audience, that option might involve too many steps.

A frozen spring roll might call for some instant starch or prehydrated gum to bind free water in its filling and help the roll stay crispy once thawed and baked or fried. For precooked fillings, it would also help to add an antioxidant to help avoid warmed-over flavors that might develop in the meat when the end user reheats the product. Frozen lettuce leaves, cucumbers and basil will be of compromised quality once defrosted; an alternative garnish option would need to be explored. One option might be to incorporate the basil into the filling with an individually quick-frozen (IQF), chopped product and/or a basil flavor. Serving suggestions printed on the packaging could recommend a garnish of fresh lettuce leaves and sliced cucumber.

The dipping sauce should fare better. Using dehydrated or freeze-dried carrots and chiles could be an option, and the salt in the fish sauce and acidic lime juice would help with stability. As always, cost hurdles, ingredient availability, packaging and current manufacturing capabilities, among other details, need to be taken into consideration when determining which direction to go.

Retaining a dishs authenticity also needs to be reviewed in context with the targeted consumers comfort level.

An example of this can be found in the spicy Thai soup, tom yum. Ingredients such as kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass stalks are added to the broth to act as flavoring agents. The lime leaves are usually added whole; the lemongrass may be bruised and/or coarsely chopped. In Thailand, these items often arent removed before the soup is served. The Thai know that theyre not supposed to eat them and simply leave them in their bowls.

Obviously, this practice could not be tolerated in a commercial manufacturing situation. The QA/QC department would probably spontaneously combust if you told them, No, its not supposed to be eaten but, yes, were leaving it in there! All it would take is one high-profile lawsuit from someone who choked on a piece of that lemongrass to understand the potential impact of such a decision.

But fear not, product developers! There is hope for you and your goal of creating authentically minded soups. Using purées, juice concentrates, pastes and flavors are but a few of the options. For example, a solution to this dilemma might involve a kaffir-lime flavor and some lemongrass purée for texture without the choking threat. These manufacturing-friendly ingredients can help product designers develop an accurate, yet accessible, interpretation of an authentic product.

A recent study researched the three most-recognizable ethnic cuisines in America today and found the results are Chinese, Mexican and Italian. Out of these three choices, 63% of those responding said they preferred Chinese food to authentic American food. Since once-exotic Chinese food is now considered mainstream, consumers are digging deeper within the realm of the Asian continent to uncover exciting new tastes.

As product developers, we are also embarking on a journey. It is our job to take the similarities found in pan-Asian foods and use them to introduce our customers to new tastes while giving them a familiar frame of reference. 

Anne Druschitz has been a research chef with T. Hasegawa USA for the past three years. Her duties include application development, sales support and customer interaction; she also oversees operations at the companys Culinary Creation Center in Northbrook, IL. She earned an A.A.S. degree in Culinary Arts from Kendall College and a B.S. in Food Studies from New York University. Her experience in the restaurant industry includes work in both fine dining and institutional foodservice. In addition to being an active member of both the Institute of Food Technologists and the Research Chefs Association, Anne has earned the designation of Certified Research Chef® through the RCA, and is also enjoying life as a newlywed.

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