The Asian Occasion

The traditional view of Asian food is a thing of the past. Now, as influence from multiple regions of the Pacific Rim and the Asian continent permeate the American landscape, menu choices take on new life, flavor and menu usage.

By the end of the decade there will be approximately 40,000 Asian farmers throughout the United States, according to the projections of August Schumacher, consultant to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and former undersecretary of the United States Department of Agriculture. Furthermore, approximately 1,200 of them, mostly Hmong farmers from Laos and Vietnam, have moved to fairly isolated regions of the country where they hope for higher yields from the land. “So there’s now more diverse cuisine in areas where they’ve never seen such produce,” he reports.

Schumacher, who spoke during the recently held Flavor, Quality and American Menus conference sponsored by the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone in St. Helena, CA, also points to the links some foodservice operators, including Harvard University, have forged with Asian growers to get their vegetables delivered fresh from the farm.

Over the years, American palates have become increasingly accepting of soy products, edamame (a green soy bean), bok choy, lemon grass, sushi, etc. Soon our taste buds may be treated to the flavors of yu choy, one of the most nutritious of Asian greens, perhaps garnished with edible chrysanthemums, suggests Mai Pham, Asian food expert and chef/owner of Lemon Grass, a restaurant in Sacramento, CA, who also spoke at the CIA conference.

Enjoy choy: “It enhances the flavors of curry and has an interesting flavor (in itself) when cooked a lot or not so much,” she asserts. “And chrysanthemum—to me it tastes like fresh pine.”

Slowly but surely, expanded Asian produce offerings are coming to local markets and loading docks, ready to be incorporated into stir-fries, rice bowls and center-of-the-plate entrees, adding heightened authenticity and flavor appeal to the menu.

Of the approximately 1,100 students attending Willamette University, a Bon Appetit Management Company account in Salem, Ore., about 120 are Japanese. Until quite recently, a separate kitchen produced home-style meals to their taste. Since it’s now closed for renovation until February, executive chef Paul Lieggi is valiantly trying to meet their needs. “At the main café we always offer Asian meals about three times a week for all students and tried to do a Mongolian Grill nightly,” he says. “We weren’t able to keep up with demand since we only had flat top grills. Now we’re doing it twice a week with most of the prep done back of the house.”

A dash of hon dashi: Early in October, Lieggi and his staff introduced a Japanese Noodle Bar that runs Monday through Friday. This build-it-your-way concept provides a choice of about 16 items with the students indicating their preference to the noodle bar chef. The chef puts the selected ingredients in a saucepan and pours hot hon dashi broth over all. The broth is prepared from bonita flakes, memmi (a concentrated soy product), water and boiled kombu or seaweed. Pork, misu or soy sauce are added, then served with a choice of udon or buckwheat noodles.

“I have one Japanese chef on staff, Takako Schaumburg, and she’s been here 13 years,” Lieggi says. “She knows all the recipes and homesick kids tell her what they want her to prepare. In the mornings we do ‘om rice’—an omelette with rice in it as well as lots of ketchup. To prepare, we put the medium grain rice on the griddle, mix it with ketchup, add slices (coin shapes) of sausage and whatever else they want—perhaps tomatoes, mushrooms or spinach.”

At Santa Clara (Calf.) University, also a Bon Appetit account, executive chef Mike Brinkmann finds that the approximately 3,400 students he serves each day enjoy the Asian Bowl concept that’s menued twice a week. Typically there’s sticky rice, stir-fried vegetables, teriyaki sauce plus Mongolian beef that frequently alternates with Szechuan beef, beef and broccoli, or crispy orange beef.

Mongolian skirt: “Teriyaki chicken—prepared from thigh meat—is always available (and priced at $6.29), but the beef dish (at $7.29) is different each time,” he notes. “For Mongolian beef, I use skirt steak since it has a good quality and flavor. It’s marinated overnight in soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, sugar and Szechuan peppers.”

To prepare, Brinkmann fire-broils or grills the steak, then slices it into strips. He prepares a Mongolian sauce of fire-roasted Szechuan red peppers, onion, garlic, sesame oil, a bit of soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, ginger and mirin (i.e., Japanese cooking wine). Ingredients are tossed in the sauce, then topped with scallions—mostly the green parts, sliced on the bias—plus toasted sesame seeds.

Tasty togarashi: Every Thursday night there’s a seafood exhibition station that occasionally features Thai recipes such as togarashi, a seared salmon seasoned with hot Japanese chili and served on a bed of soba noodles with an Asian vinaigrette; or perhaps miso-glazed halibut with sticky rice and stir-fried vegetables.

“When we did a Night in Tokyo as a theme night in the spring, we served togarashi seared salmon with miso ginger dipping sauce, a chilled soba noodle salad plus a Japanese salad of fried calamari in a teriyaki plum vinaigrette,” Brinkmann recalls. “We also menued Japanese hot pot—like a noodle soup—with udon noodles, prawns and fresh vegetables.”

Every quarter, Sodexho’s Retail Brand Group, based in Allentown, Penn., rolls out several limited-time specials for its Mein Bowl brand. They’ll run for four or five weeks at the most in the contractor’s college, corporate dining and healthcare accounts. “We provide photos, banners and the recipes and we try to keep the prices at the same level or just a bit above—we suggested $4.99—for a premium item,” notes Rob D’Orsi, director of product development. “Mein Bowl has four woks backed to an interior window ‘on stage’—that’s our primary cooking method and venue.”

Adding wings and pork: Specials for November and December are sesame teriyaki chicken and honey chai pork stir-fry. “Chicken wings have been missing from the menu for a while and will be served with white rice, garnished with scallions and toasted sesame seeds,” D’Orsi says.“The honey chai pork is more unique and incorporates a chai concentrate plus honey and a chili garlic paste for a sweet and spicy flavor. This also expands our menu variety in this brand with pork—and a new flavor profile.”

In Volusia County Schools, in Deland, Fla., coordinator of culinary operations Costa Magoulas, CEC, CCE, AAC, reports that Asian flavors, including stir-fries, were not real popular in the recent past among the K-12 students he serves, but they’re very well received by the adults attending private parties within the school district.

Fresh-rolled sushi is also a big hit. “For the Teacher of the Year banquet held in the large atrium at Charter Technical School, we do a lot of California rolls with English cucumber—they’re long and seedless so you can easily cut long strips—plus carrots, red peppers and short-grain sticky rice with Japanese vinegar mixed into the rice after cooking,” he says. “You can use raw tuna as well—and people love to watch it being made.”

Magoulas also enjoys grilling for display cooking as well as carving-to-order huge, nut-encrusted tuna fillets that have been seared on the outside but are still raw on the inside. He slices the Japanese-style tuna and plates it with a ginger, wasabi, mango dressing.

Asian chicken salad sandwiches or Thai chicken wraps of peanut chicken, peppers and Napa cabbage, as well as Thai coconut soup with cubed chicken and vegetables, are all very well received by a fair number of the more than 800 daily lunchtime customers at Echostar Communications, a Brock and Company location in Littleton, Col. But executive chef Chris Kinney finds his easy-to-prepare Thai coconut curry dish served over sticky rice is always a sell-out.

“I put enough rice for approximately 20 portions in the steamer for about 30 minutes,” he says. “I do an eight-piece chicken—a whole chicken with drumsticks, wings and breast—and bake it for two hours or until it reaches 165°F. Prior to baking, the chicken is placed in a hotel pan, then covered with a sauce of coconut milk, chicken stock and green curry paste. Halfway through the baking process, you add red onions, julienned carrots and celery, plus green and red peppers. I still like to finish off with cilantro and mint.”

“Asian is huge,” exclaims Robert Hart, executive chef at Yahoo! in Sunnyvale, Calf.. And Hart obviously knows what he’s doing since he was one of the trainers for Bon Appetit’s Bambooz (Asian cuisine) training program, touring the flavors of Southeast Asia to accounts across the country.

Within the main café at Yahoo! there’s a station divided into two parts. One is set up as a wok station to present traditional Chinese stir-fries. The other, the Pacific Rim station, features foods of Japan, India, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand, all priced at $5.25.

Short ribs, tall sales: “Korean short ribs are on once a month and our customers love it,” Hart reports. “The ribs are marinated overnight in soy sauce, rice vinegar, ginger and garlic, balanced with a bit of sugar, then grilled. They’re served with steamed rice, bean sprouts, spinach salad and the spicy-hot condiment, kimchi.”

While many of his 2,500 daily lunchtime customers also enjoy pho, the traditional Vietnamese steaming bowl of rice noodles and thinly sliced beef, it’s his recipe for pad thai that Hart is most proud of for its authenticity. “The dish includes rice noodles stir-fried with dried shrimp that have a very intense flavor,” he explains.