Expanding the Asian Empire

Asian cuisine can no longer be described in general terms, as customers seek more exotic fare.

Asian food has reached such a level of popularity that, as Yale University Dining Services Director Rafi Taherian puts it: “Asian is no longer a category by itself. It has reached a level where one needs to be a bit more specific such as east, south, north...? Years ago when you said Asian cooking, everyone thought Chinese or something that has ginger, soy sauce, etc. Today, Asian could be Thai or Vietnamese with lemongrass and fish sauce.”

This year, Taherian is reaching out to three Asian celebrity chefs to work with and train staff in making East Asian/Indian, Vietnamese and Chi-nese dishes. “Continuing training is always good, and we will leverage the celebrity of these chefs,” he says.

Similarly, at Baptist Health South Florida’s Baptist Hospital of Miami, Executive Chef and Dining Services Manager Stan Hodes added a Pho broth to his oriental noodle bar because “Asian flavors are currently a trend and are healthier due to the lower fat and perceived fresh approach. They are on target with our cultural diversity initiative and add a nice touch of variety. This is a hit, with sales growing since the day it was launched last fall.”

Satisfying customers’ desire for popular Asian flavors can range from hiring culinary staffers with Asian culinary backgrounds to teaming up with local businesses.

For Cecil Junearick, executive chef at Huntsville (Ala.) Hospital, a partnership with local Sakura Japanese Steakhouse fits the bill.

When the hospital went self-op, he recalls, he had a space in the hospital’s food court to fill and began networking with local businesses. Sakura was selected, and it pays a percentage of sales in lieu of rent.

“They pay for their own supplies and they also have a grill they cook off of and a work area in our kitchen,” says Junearick. “They serve sesame chicken, Hong Kong chicken and hibachi chicken, beef lo mein, chicken lo mein, sushi, California rolls, fried rice, lo mein noodles, spicy tuna and salmon. Their first month’s sales were $14,000. Now, they do $19,000 to $20,000.”

East meets Midwest: Asian has become popular in the Midwest as well. At Ohio University in Athens, Director of Residential Dining Rich Neumann serves a rotating lunch menu at the Zen Asian concept in Nelson Hall. At Jefferson Hall, there’s a lunch and dinner wok bar set up Sunday through Thursday. At Boyd Hall, the concept alternates between lunch and dinner.

“In our retail area at the Student Union, we have Jade, where we alternate between Indian and Asian food and do stir-fries,” Neumann notes.

At Chicago Lakes Area Schools in Lindstrom, Minn., Foodservice Director Kathy Burrill offers a zesty orange chicken. The high schools also do orange chicken and chicken lo mein with egg rolls, an Asian salad and stir-fried vegetables.

The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City created a special Thai dish for a weeklong celebration of Human Rights Day last fall. Executive Chef Hilbert Stoelk Jr., made a Thai Coconut Milk and Red Curry Chicken with Kefir Lime Leaf and Galangal to serve in the cafeteria.

“I put my own twist on it by adding tomatoes and star anise to the sauce,” Stoelk says. The challenge was finding all the right spices and ingredients,
but the area, he notes “is very diverse with several Asian markets. We do some Asian flavors in our catering, and in another outlet we do a stir-fry station with rice bowls to which customers can add their choice of ingredients.”

Beyond Chinese: Cuisine from areas such as Malaysia, Korea and Vietnam is becoming much more mainstream across America, he adds, thanks to TV channels like the Food Network. “Ten years ago it was just Chinese. Now people are asking for Cambodian or Indonesian.”

Myriad Asian foods are offered at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in Princeton, N.J., says Chef Van Beutell. At this Whitson’s Culinary Group account, Beutell offers Pan Asian, Thai, Indian and Indonesian foods as well as Mongolian barbecue.

“We basically set up an American-style Chinese takeout on our serving line with General Tso’s chicken, spring rolls, chopsticks, duck sauce and soy sauce. We also do traditional Indian food—tikka masala, curried beef strips, even our own naan.”

This winter, he notes, “we’ll be doing a Korean market. It begins and ends with kimchi in a tilt skillet with wine, sesame oil, cabbage and fresh ginger. We’ll do it with a julienne of beef on skewers and rub them with sesame oil and a dry Korean rub, clove, coriander, red pepper, sea salt and star anise. Then we’ll sear them and finish them in the oven. Or we’ll do them with chicken and mushrooms, broccoli and baby corn.”

The challenge, he says, is giving traditional flair to Korean items “so people who’ve never tried them will not  be isolated.”

Wowing ’em with Ginger 

Self-brand caters to employees and, soon, to patients.

UNC Hospitals, a not-for-profit teaching hospital system with 800 beds, focuses on building strong foodservice brands, says Director of Food and Nutrition Services Angelo Mojica, who always seeks what he calls a “wow” factor.

With Red Ginger, Mojica’s desire was to create a Pan-Asian concept offering both street foods and favorites that would deliver excitement to customers. Reaching that goal, however, took some effort.

Initially, his chefs created a lo mein made with soy sauce and spaghetti noodles, he recalls.

“It was sad,” Mojica says. “I pulled out recipes and explained that I wanted them to build the sauces from scratch. I went out and bought woks. The wok makes all the difference in the food.”

The brand was developed with wok-fired specials made fresh to order such as Singapore street noodles, Penang chicken or miso-glazed cod.
“Every day we do General Tso’s chicken—our No. 1 seller—cashew chicken and a beef stir-fry,” Mojica adds. “We also have brown and white rice, lo mein, and fried and steamed pot stickers.

“Our beef curry is fabulous and we also do tandoori chicken and Korean short ribs. For our General Tso’s chicken, we switched to all all-white meat chicken.”
Red Ginger has recorded triple the sales figures of the deli that previously occupied the space, Mojica says. “We do $30,000 a day in retail sales and we’ll serve around 5,000 visitors. Because of the strength of our concepts, we were able to go from $4 million in retail food sales to $9 million.”

Mojica is working to change the room service program to serve the same food prepared for the retail brands. “We’d like to serve the food from Red Ginger and some other concepts,” he explains. “It would be like takeout food, but from us, and we’d serve it in little square takeout containers.”

If approved, the retail brands will be integrated into patient menus starting this summer.

Fatherly Guidance

Jason Henderson, managing chef for Chartwells at Brough Commons, on the campus of the University of Arkansas, grew up loving all things Southern, including food. But his stepfather, Dang Hu Pahm, was Vietnamese. Pahm taught his stepson some exotic things about food that have resonated throughout Henderson’s adult life.

“I’m making Pho for a group of about 300 international exchange students from Vietnam who are visiting our campus this week, and it makes me think about my stepfather. I’m actually making Pho with leftover egg roll, something we used to have over noodles when I was growing up.

When my mother started dating my stepfather, I’d grown up on soul food—fatback and grits. But Pho has been a mainstay since I was very young. It influenced how I began to feel about food. It’s a composite of a rich, wonderful broth with vegetables mixed in and fresh herbs and spices and chili peppers. It was an introduction to Vietnamese culture that influenced how I looked at food and flavors. It’s very healthy and, for me, it translates to how we try to teach the students here about healthy choices in food and learning about new flavors like star anise and ginger. For me, that experience was wonderful and eye-opening.

Today, my goal is to educate our customers about what makes a balanced diet. I want to create healthy, balanced options that have the feel of restaurant foods.We have a lot of international students here—not just Vietnamese but Japanese, Korean and Malaysian. I like to do dishes for them. They expand our menus and offer the comfort of home to students who came here from far away, and they introduce new ideas and flavors to others. We have student employees in our kitchen who will bring us recipes from their homelands, and I like to research recipes. We offer a wide variety of international cuisines.

We’ll do Indian dishes once a week and have a sushi chef every day. We also like to do Mongolian stir-fries and Asian noodle bowls. The students choose their broth and the vegetables and the toppings.”

Vietnamese Pho Rice Noodle Soup with Beef 

Six servings

5 lbs. beef marrow or knuckle bones
2 lbs. beef chuck, cut into two pieces
2 3-in. pieces of ginger, cut in half lengthwise, lightly bruised with flat side of knife and lightly
2 yellow onions, peeled and charred
1/4 cup fish sauce
3 oz. rock sugar, or 3 tbsp. sugar
10 whole star anise, lightly toasted in dry pan
6 whole cloves, lightly toasted in dry pan
1 tbsp. sea salt
1 lb. dried, 1/16-in. rice sticks, soaked, cooked and drained
1/3 lb. beef sirloin, slightly frozen then sliced paper-thin across grain
1/2 yellow onion, sliced paper-thin
3 scallions, cut into thin rings
1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
1 lb. bean sprouts
10 sprigs Asian basil
1 doz. saw-leaf herb leaves
6 Thai bird chilies or 1 serrano chili, cut into thin rings
1 lime, cut into 6 thin wedges
Freshly ground black pepper

  1. In large stockpot, bring 6 qts. water to a boil. In second pot, place bones and beef chuck and add water to cover. Bring to a boil and boil vigorously for 5 mins. (This cleans bones and meat and reduces impurities that can cloud broth.)
  2. Using tongs, carefully transfer bones and beef to first pot of boiling water. When water has returned to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer. Add charred ginger, onions, fish sauce and sugar. Simmer until beef is tender, about 40 mins. (Skim surface often to remove any foam and fat.)
  3. Remove one of piece of meat and submerge in cool water for 10 mins to prevent meat from darkening and drying out. (Let other piece continue to cook in simmering broth.) Drain, then cut into thin slices and set aside.
  4. When broth has been simmering for 1 ½ hrs., wrap star anise and cloves in spice bag or piece of cheesecloth and add to broth. Infuse until broth is fragrant, about 30 mins.
  5. Remove spice bag and onions and discard. Add salt and continue to simmer, skimming as necessary, until you’re ready to assemble dish. (Broth should simmer for at least 2 hours. Broth will taste salty but will be balanced once the noodles and accompaniments are added.)
  6. Cook rice noodles as directed, then place in preheated bowls. (If noodles are prepared ahead, reheat in microwave oven or dip them briefly in boiling water to prevent them from cooling down broth.)
  7. Place a few slices of beef chuck and raw sirloin on noodles. Bring broth to a rolling boil, then ladle 2 cups into each bowl. (The broth will cook raw beef instantly.)
  8. Garnish with yellow onions, scallions and cilantro. Invite guests to complete their meal with any of the other garnishes listed.

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