Asian is Smokin'

Southeast-inspired dishes ignite non-commercial interest in Asian.

By 
Pamela Parseghian, Contributing Food Writer

This Asian noodle salad brings Asian flavors to seafood.

It’s probably the most exciting time for Asian food,” says Mai Pham, chef/owner of the Star Ginger Restaurant Group, who just opened her first Star Ginger Asian Grill & Noodle Bar with Sodexo at a B&I account in Boston. “It’s one of the top trends right now.”

Pham, who last year rolled out an Asian food truck at the University of California, Davis, adds that other commercial entrepreneurs are adding to the buzz about Asian.

“We’ve heard about Southeast Asian food for quite a long time now,” she says, “but when leaders like Steve Ells [chef/creator of Chipotle] open [concepts such as] ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, it signals that [Asian has] arrived.”

Sodexo opened the Star Ginger unit in December 2011 in a food court at State Street Financial Center in Boston. The menu features Vietnamese pho noodle soup, salad rolls, wok-fried rice, pad Thai, curries and toasted banh mi sandwiches.

Why the new, greater acceptance of Southeast Asian in the U.S.? Operators say it’s because Asian is viewed as healthful, uses less protein and is based primarily on produce that’s readily available with the recent proliferation of farmers’ markets, according to Pham, who was born in Saigon and raised in Vietnam and Thailand. In addition, she says, the cuisine is highly “adaptable,” making use of bunches of herbs and whatever’s on hand.

Da Bowl’s da bomb: At Yale University, in New Haven, Conn., students are lining up 20-deep for “Da Bowl,” a dish based on using available Asian ingredients, according to Ron DeSantis, director of culinary excellence. Da Bowls are made to order and feature an Asian-spiced broth or sauce, noodles or dumplings, a protein such as duck or tofu and vegetables like “naughty peas,” which DeSantis says gained their name from their level of spice.

“The bowls are handmade in front of the students,” DeSantis adds, “so it’s not like they have been sitting around. There are vegetables in them that are crisp-tender. It’s all these things put together” that leads to the bowls’ popularity.

Da Bowl was developed by the kitchen team at the recently renovated Ezra Stiles & Morse Dining Hall, led by Alexa Martindale, the hall’s chef/production manager. It quickly has become the most popular item at the hall, with about 250 of the 350 lunches served there coming from Da Bowl. Martindale says her team likes the fact that it is easy to execute and fast to prep in the morning. In addition, it can help clean the walk-in of excess produce.

Asian cooking is so popular at Yale, extra wok stations will be added to the university’s dining facilities that are currently being updated, Martindale adds. “It’s just recently that we started to get into particular flavors of Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia.”

Corporate gig: Corporate Image Dining Services’ corporate chef, Salvatore Cantalupo, also has found success with banh mi prepared to order at his company’s dining facilities in the Stamford, Conn., area. He offers three versions: shrimp, sliced pork loin and—the most popular—lemon grass chicken thighs. The sandwich layers fresh whole coriander leaves, pickled carrot and daikon, soy-flavored mayo, ham, sliced cucumber and a touch of chili peppers on French bread.

“But the key is the layering process, so you get the whole flavor profile” in every bite, Cantalupo says. “The cherry on top is, we press it in a panini press.”

Malaysian stir-fry is another popular Asian dish that is prepared to order at Corporate Image accounts, according to Cantalupo. He combines cooked rice noodles, lapsang Chinese sausage, clams, calamari, shrimp and shrimp paste.

Besides the sausage and paste, of which he uses little, he says he easily acquires unusual ingredients from his distributor. He purchases the more exotic ingredients in bulk at area Asian markets.

Most recently Cantalupo introduced street-style tacos featuring Korean flavors with Venezuelan and Mexican accents. For the tacos, he teams cumin-flavored chicken and shredded pork butt with housemade cucumber kimchee and Venezuelan creamy guacamole sauce. The components are served on warmed corn tortillas. Combining cuisines and discovering lesser-known foods “fascinates me, and my customers are like, ‘right on,’” Cantalupo says.

Christopher Simeone, executive chef at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., says he also found success with an Asian-inspired dish that was created by Morrison Management Services as part of one of its regular healthful food promotions. Salmon was flavored with green tea and orange sauce that had been infused with green onions, ginger, garlic and lemon zest. Keeping it healthful, the fish was grilled using hardly any fat, and just a small amount of cornstarch thickened the green tea sauce.

Breaking out: “Asian cuisine is ready to explode,” predicts Mai Pham. “I think you will continue to see more regional cuisines. You’ll see Korean, Malaysian and Singaporean, which has become like the Spain of Asia because there is a crop of new emerging chefs who are very educated.”

Kids Gleeful for Sushi

High schools roll out fish and rice dish.

Just a couple of decades ago, few would have predicted that high school cafeterias would someday serve sushi, and even fewer would have guessed that this Japanese dish would be popular among young people.

But that’s exactly what happened after a recent roll out of three types of sushi in Miami Dade County Public Schools, the country’s fourth largest school system, according to Carol Chong, director of food and menu management. Sushi sold so well in 10 of the 13 schools where it was tested that Chong is in the process of expanding the test to five more schools. A neighboring school district also plans to offer sushi, according to Chong.

Timing is everything: A few years ago Chong offered frozen sushi, but “interest wasn’t sustained,” she says. So this year she worked with a local sushi vendor, which runs small outlets and provides sushi to colleges and universities, to provide three fresh varieties: Cali-Ocho Roll, Veggie Roll and Sweet ‘N Salmon Roll. All are available with white rice or a mix of brown and white rice.

The Cali-Ocho is named after a local street and is a rendition of a California roll, replacing avocado with baked plantain. The vegetarian features carrots, cucumbers, nori and baked plantain. And the salmon rendition teams the fish with plantains and cream cheese.

“Plantain is used because we’re highly Hispanic in Dade County,” Chong says. None of the sushi has raw fish. “Even though the perception of sushi is with raw fish, I don’t want to take chances. Children are part of the high-risk population.”

While the sushi is new to Miami Dade County Schools, Asian food is not. One of the most popular items Chong offers is Asian glazed chicken breast, she says. It’s baked whole-muscle chicken pieces with a light coating of flour and cornstarch.

“We don’t fry anything in this district,” she says. And she uses so little honey and brown sugar glaze, “you don’t see it. You just taste it.”

The chicken comes with rice “fried” with soy sauce and bell peppers. Instead of frying, the brown and white rice is steamed in a chicken base.

Because the area is a hotbed for trend-setting restaurants, Chong says, she works with local chefs who adopt schools and work to prepare healthful recipes that will “entice the kids” and that she also can sell in vending machines.


Asian Chicken Salad Wraps

Frank Jeannetti, consulting/executive chef at Vita Báoli in Miami Beach, Fla., “adopted” Miami High School as part of a program where local chefs develop dishes, test them with kids and cook with on-site chefs in an effort to elevate the quality of food in school cafeterias.

“Working with the kids has been a blast. I’ve had so much fun doing this. I was blown away by how many of these kids are sort of foodies, vegetarians, vegans and they appreciate healthy food. They’re very sophisticated. So it is great to get the feedback from them. A lot of them wanted to see changes in the lunch system.

I try to spend a day once a month there to go by and see the chef in the cafeteria, to see what’s new and how I can help and make changes to the recipes. It blows me away how hard that they work there.

I wanted to make the salad something that is healthy and also I was trying to reel the kids into this dish. I thought it would be cool using Bibb lettuce as opposed to tortilla wraps. That would give it something more unique. I have a long background in Asian fusion. I traveled all over Thailand, Vietnam and China. I love those flavors. They’re very strong and intense.

The dish is something that I’ve kind of perfected over the years. It was a salad. But when I got involved with the school and started doing organic, sustainable and local foods, I wanted to transcend the dish into something that not only represented what I do at the restaurant but also to be enjoyable for the kids.

I hope to work more with the school and offer less processed, more clean, healthy and whole foods. Last year we were able to wow the kids. This year I think we will wow them more. We were doing little steps, but hopefully we will be able to sprint.”

Asian Chicken Salad Wraps

4 servings

2 oz. miso (fermented soybean paste)
2 oz. mirin
2 oz. toasted sesame oil
4 oz. boneless, skinless
chicken breast
1 oz. fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 oz. light soy sauce
4 oz. sesame oil
1 cup light mayonnaise
1 small head Napa cabbage,
shaved about 1/2-in. thick (green part only)
1 bunch watercress, chopped
4 oz. crispy wonton noodle strips
12 leaves Bibb lettuce
1 carrot, shredded
1 cucumber, seedless, julienned
1 red pepper, shredded
White and black sesame seeds, (optional)
Fried rice noodles, (optional)

  1. Combine miso, mirin and toasted sesame oil. Add chicken and marinate for 30 mins.
  2. For ginger-soy-sesame vinaigrette, blend ginger, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil until smooth, then add light mayonnaise. Set aside.
  3. Over open flame, grill chicken until done, about 3 mins. per side. Slice into thin strips, toss with cabbage and watercress. Next, add wonton strips and mix with ginger-soy-sesame vinaigrette.
  4. Place three Bibb lettuce leaves on round plate or in container for each serving. Top each with 3 oz. of chicken salad, pinch of carrot, cucumber, red pepper and sprinkle of sesame seeds. Garnish with fried rice noodles, if using.