ST. HELENA — More chefs from all over the United States are looking to Asia for menu inspiration.
They’re incorporating in their culinary repertoires age-old techniques, flavors and intriguing textures from halfway around the world as well as making more and more use of vegetables and seafood generally associated with Asian cookery.
Not only that, restaurateurs are embracing the Asian aesthetic when it comes to design, decor and table service.
Those issues and more were examined last week at a three-day conference held annually at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, under the all-encompassing umbrella this time around of “Asia and the Theater of World Menus.”
“Asian flavors continue to be a juggernaut in America,” said conference founder Greg Drescher, CIA’s vice president of strategic initiatives. “Asia is the immense breadth of China and the beaches of Indonesia, the neon street corners of Tokyo and the temples of Kyoto, the rice-filled plains of Thailand and the peaks of India’s Himalayas. It is faces, sights, colors, sounds and flavors that vary as much within a country as they do over the continent.
“Whether it is a cook serving a plate of just-fried char kway teow on a banana leaf-covered plastic plate at a hawker stall in Singapore, 10 curries in an alley restaurant in New Delhi, a suckling pig fresh off the spit in Ubud, a fully orchestrated kaiseki menu with antique china embracing every morsel of seasonal beauty in a dining room with a Zen garden view in Tokyo, or a modernist tasting menu in a secret dining room in Shanghai, dining throughout Asia is deeply embedded in performances and rituals. As diners — even as culinary professional diners — we are as likely to be moved by these elements as we are by the foods foreign and familiar.”
To that end, Drescher welcomed more than 75 chefs from eight countries — Japan, India, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Laos — to provide more than 500 conferees (chefs, restaurateurs, purveyors and media) with everything from cooking demonstrations to inspiring talks, workshops to one-on-one conversations, book signings to the incredible street fare of the Greystone’s renowned annual world marketplace.
“Americans are becoming as familiar with kimchee and banh mi sandwiches as they are with pizza and burritos,” said Ken Albala, director of the University of the Pacific’s food studies master’s program in San Francisco. Albala maintains the recent interest in Asian cookery is not something new but rather a “rediscovery” in the Western world.
He pointed out Western cooking in the Middle Ages made use of Asian ingredients, and that Japanese cuisine at that time was “far more refined than that of Europeans.” In the 18th and 19th centuries, French cuisine took center stage, forsaking spicy, sweet and pungent flavors for ingredients that complemented rather than contrasted one another.
Asian cuisine earned a place at the table with the arrival of hundreds of Asians — mostly male — during the California Gold Rush, Albala said. “They never made it in mining so they opened restaurants and laundries, adapted recipes to please American palates. Restaurants popped up — first Chinese and Japanese, then later on, Vietnamese, Thai and Korean.
“Most of us learned to cook Asian dishes thanks to (cookbook author/TV chef) Martin Yan (who cooked and gave demonstrations at the conference).
“When French chefs began adopting Asian flavors, ingredients and techniques (three decades ago), Asian cuisine began its ascendancy.”
New York Times Magazine columnist Francis Lam acknowledged a wealth of cuisines from all over the world compete for inclusion in the American diet. That comes as no surprise, he said, because this country is a nation of immigrants who brought their cuisines with them.
But it’s not fair to paint the cookery of one nation with a broad brush, said Fuchsia Dunlop, award-winning cook and food writer specializing in Chinese cuisine. She pointed out there are 56 distinct ethnic groups in China living in 34 provinces and regions with an equal number of regional cuisines.
Dunlop said there’s more to Chinese food than Sichuan and Cantonese cookery. “You can find practically anything in China,” she added, underscoring the statement with photographs of a donkey burger in Beijing, oat pasta with a regional sauce, countless noodle variations, and lots of fermented and pickled foods.
Chef/restaurateur Masaharu Morimoto provided conferees with evidence that East meets West amiably in the dining room. Some diners insist they won’t eat raw fish, he said. He came up with a tuna pizza to ease those diners into the world of sushi — grilling a tortilla to make it crispy then topping it with raw tuna, cherry tomatoes, red onion, olives, sliced jalapenos and anchovy aioli. Once they’ve tasted Morimoto’s tuna pizza, diners are often willing to give sushi, even sashimi, a try, the renowned Iron Chef said.
Morimoto and his culinary team from the Napa restaurant also demonstrated the preparation of ramen soup, something the chef also prepared for guests at the recent Pebble Beach Food & Wine event. “Ramen is the second most popular menu item in Japan,” Morimoto said. Fans of Morimoto’s cookery shouldn’t be surprised if the chef opens up a ramen shop before long.
Sacramento chef/restaurateur Mai Pham noted Vietnamese cookery is a “very farm-to-table cuisine,” certainly ahead of the current trend. She predicted that diners should expect to see more regional dishes at Vietnamese restaurants soon.
Chef Robert Danhi, who specializes in the cuisines of Vietnam and Malaysia, told conference attendees that “600 years ago there were no chilies in Asia, and 600 years ago there was no citrus in Mexico. But as trade routes opened, so did culinary culture.”
He asked all to imagine if those exchanges hadn’t taken place, what dishes in Bangkok would be without Thai chilies, or what Mexican cookery would be without limes.
“How do we make food approachable and keep the soul of (ethnic) food intact?” was the rhetorical question posed by Oakland’s James Syhabout, chef/owner of both fine dining and Hawker Fare eateries.
Christopher Kostow, chef of three-Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood, agreed today’s American chefs have enjoyed “a wide variety of culinary experiences. It’s important our dishes are referential not copycat. We should be embracing what we know and who we are rather than how (ethnic cuisine) is defined.”