Our polyglot nation calls for more Asian variety, and operators are finding ways to satisfy that demand.A funny thing happens to ethnic food on the way to the American marketplace: enterprising foodservice operators adapt it to the local population with different ingredients and a mix-and-match approach to menuing. That doesn’t make the food less authentic, necessarily—most global cuisines represent a polyglot of influences as they are absorbed into the culture—but it does create a new way of looking at ethnic food.
With Chinese food a fact of life in the United States for several decades now, standards have been Americanized and other Asian influences are creeping in. You’d never see Korean bulgogi or Japanese sushi mixed in with kung pao chicken in a Chinese restaurant in China, but here such a menuing strategy is a legitimate response to demands for variety. And as long as the individual recipes stick to their respective traditions, it also satisfies customer requests for more authenticity.
“With people becoming so educated about different kinds of Asian food, there’s demand for different flavors and experiences,” says Brenan Connolly, general manager of resident dining at the University of California at Davis (a Sodexho account), describing the thinking behind the school’s popular Pacific Fusion platform. Then, too, with about 30% of the student population being Asian of some description, says Connolly, “we needed to meet a number of different needs, and didn’t want to be locked into a concept that was strictly Chinese.”
“Ten years ago, you would have seen an Americanized version of Chinese food here,” adds Kyle Peiper, director of operations at Segundo, the resident dining facility that houses Pacific Fusion and eight other flexibly formatted venues. “An Asian/Pacific Rim menu selection is a lot more current, and a lot more versatile.”
More than a wok in the park: Positioned as Mongolian barbecue wok cuisine with a freestanding wok-in-the-round unit, Pacific Fusion features design-your-own stir-fries at lunch, and a single plated entrée at dinner that runs the gamut from teriyaki items and sesame pork to Korean beef and cashew chicken. Many of the entrées are served over rice.
“The concept has been very well accepted,” notes Connolly. “Students like the fact that they can pick whatever combination of vegetables, meat or tofu, and sauces that they want at lunch, and there are a lot of different possible combinations to add variety. Pacific Fusion is also very popular with vegetarians and vegans, whose needs can be difficult to meet.”
As for the dinner specials, many have become destination favorites. “Teriyaki chicken and noodles: for a lot of people, that’s become a new comfort food,” laughs Peiper. “And kung pao chicken is always popular, with all that spiciness.”
This fall, a pho bar will be added at Pacific Fusion—a worthy use for the many of the same prep items used to stock the Mongolian barbecue. “We’ve served pho as a special in the past and it’s been very popular, so we want to make it more of a regular offering,” explains Peiper.
Custom-driven menu: A menu mixture, to be sure, but authenticity of individual items is also important. Although a Sodexho location, UC Davis customizes many of its recipes, particularly those used at Pacific Fusion, in part because the campus’s location near San Francisco means that students have had lots of exposure to the real thing.
“We give our executive chef and chef teams a lot of latitude to be creative with flavors and ingredients,” explains Connolly. “That helps us satisfy our customers and keeps our employees more challenged.”
There’s also an on-campus Culinary Support Center, a cook-chill facility that produces all the sauces, soups, cooked meats, pastas and other items for the various dining platforms around the 30,000-plus student complex. That not only helps ensure authenticity of sauces—all-important to many ethnic cuisines—but it also allows the various venues to turn out great food in a limited timeframe and in a small footprint. “Our goal with recipe development is to use as many products as possible from the support center,” says Connolly. “At the platform, we’re basically doing component cooking, retherming and combining products. We don’t have a lot of holding equipment, so we’re putting out the food fresh, on an as-needed basis.”
Playing with customers’ tastes: Flexibil-ity was also key for Mah Jong, a new Vietnamese and Pan Asian station at Waterside Court, a showplace public dining facility at the John P. McGovern Texas Medical Center Commons, in Houston.
Opened earlier this year, Mah Jong replaces Kim Son, which offered “standard food court Chinese and just wasn’t enough,” says John Watt, a veteran local chef and restaurateur who operates foodservice at Waterside Court with partner Tracy Vaught.
Using noodles and more: Even the name Mah Jong hints at variety, since the ancient tile game is played all over Asia, according to Watt. As for the menu, it’s limited yet diverse, featuring a number of noodle bowls, combo plates and “Big Bowls” that dig fairly deep into the pan-Asian repertoire. Mix-and-match combo plates allow customers to select choices from three different columns that include such items as Catfish in Sweet Chili Sauce, Orange Sesame Chicken, Broccoli with Ginger Sauce, Garlic Green Beans, Vegetable Fried Rice, and plain and brown rice. Sides and vegetable- and shrimp-filled egg rolls and summer rolls round out the bill of fare.
“The food is also simple, fresh and light,” notes Watt. “Sauces are made in-house and are quite authentic, but the menu crosses over different cultures: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese. Customers love it.”
SINGAPORE: ULTIMATE FUSION
This Southeast Asian cuisine draws elements from all over the Pacific Rim.
Imagine a culture that is the sum of all parts Asian: Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian—and the delicious foods that go with it. That’s Singapore.
This small Southeast Asian island at the southern tip of Malaysia is considered a paradise for recreational eaters, especially when it comes to street food. Calvin Trillin, writing for The New Yorker’s recent Food Issue, describes a “relentlessly modern” urban culture where locals and tourists alike engage in the nearly full-time quest for the best examples of any number of street food specialties.
From Hainanese chicken rice to Singaporean chili crab, these specialties are served not in restaurants but at “hawker centers”—Singapore’s answer to food courts, where individual hawkers, or vendors (each specializing in a different food specialty, such as curry puffs or fried prawn noodles) sell their wares in clean, well-lit facilities under the infamously watchful eye of the Singapore government. Food lovers gladly travel from one corner of Singapore to another in search of what they consider the “Die, Die Must Try” version of each specialty—what an American might describe as “to die for.”
Singapore’s cuisine is fresh, flavorful and frequently spicy, but usually quite simple. Common ingredients include Chinese condiments, Indian spices and Malay herbs such as lemongrass, chilis, coconut and galangal. Singaporean cuisine is also closely associated with the food of Malaysia, itself a “fusion nation” of various Southeast Asian ethnic groups. Many specialties are noodle- or rice-based, spelling comfort and value.
Here are a few of the more approachable examples to consider:
Banana Leaf Rice | South Indian specialty of rice served on a banana leaf with vegetables, curried meat or fish, pickles, and pappadum (a flatbread made of chickpea flour)
Char Kway Teow | a.k.a. “hawker noodles,” a sweet-salty specialty of thick, flat rice noodles noodles stir-fried in dark soy sauce with shrimp, eggs, bean sprouts, fish cake, green leafy vegetables, Chinese sausage and other ingredients
Char Siew Noodles | noodles served with Cantonese-style BBQ pork (which can also be served with rice)
Chili Crab | considered one of Singapore’s national dishes, consisting of whole crabs cooked with garlic, chilis, lemongrass and other assertive seasonings
Clay Pot Rice | rice cooked in a clay pot with chicken, Chinese sausage, sesame oil, ginger and scallions, served with lime and chilis
Curry Puff | an adaptation of the Indian samosa, consisting of a flaky pastry filled with seasoned chicken, potatoes and sliced hard-boiled egg
Hainanese Chicken Rice | transplanted from the Hainan province of China, a bowl of chicken and rice cooked in chicken stock, served with soy sauce, ginger sauce and chili; considered one of the national dishes of Singapore
Laksa | curry noodles with shrimp in soup, served with chili sauce and chopped laksa leaves (also known as Vietnamese coriander)
Mee Goreng | an Indian-style dish of stir-fried yellow noodles with meat, eggs, bean sprouts, fried tofu, scallions, chilis and other seasonings
Nasi Lamek | rice cooked in coconut milk, served as a breakfast
Nasi Padang | Indonesian steamed rice served with a wide variety of meat and vegetable dishes, such as fried chicken and curried vegetables, and sambal condiments; similar to Indonesian rijsttafel (“rice table”)
Roti Canai/Roti Prata | a thin yet flaky-crusted flat bread, made from a twice-risen dough of egg, ghee, flour and water, fried in a skillet and served with condiments
Sambal | a condiment or side dish made from chilis and other peppers, which accompanies many other Singaporean and Malaysian specialties
Wanton Mee | noodle soup with shrimp or pork dumplings, similar to wonton noodle soup. —JL
EAST MEETS MEX
El Fire Dragon at Ball State “woks” a versatile line between Asia and Mexico.
Jon Lewis may joke that he has butchered not one but two languages, but the director of campus dining services at Ball State University, in Muncie, Ind., doesn’t care: El Fire Dragon at the school’s newly renovated Woodworth Commons “food emporium” has been a resounding success with students, serving Asian cuisine three nights a week, and Mexican food the other two.
“I was at Iowa State University before this, and learned a couple of valuable lessons. We had a Mongolian barbecue concept called Wok This Way, which the students loved, but it would get really backed up when we were busy and we had to start doing a specialty of the day so people didn’t have to wait in line so long. We also realized that the Asian grill set-up would be just as useful for creating quesadillas, fajitas and other Mexican items.
Since we didn’t have a Mexican concept on campus when we planned the new Commons—which also features a grill, pizza and Italian station, deli, patisserie and Comfort Zone for down-home cooking—we decided to create a walk-around grill station that could do both. And if the Mexican concept doesn’t work, we can always go back to Asian.
Having a circular grill rather than a rectangular one is more versatile—four or five people can work there at a time. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, it’s a traditional Mongolian grill: students help themselves from the line and then hand the bowl of ingredients to a cook. The selection of ingredients is quite extensive: four proteins, different kinds of rice, and lots of different veggies, as well as a daily soup, sushi, Asian-style salads and wraps, and fruit.
The beauty of this is that a lot of the same prep works just as well for the Mexican concept, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when we feature fajitas and quesadillas to order.
The concept works really well for us. Woodworth Commons, which reopened in August after about a $5 million renovation, is a very contemporary, retail-oriented facility, replacing an early-’80s display platform. The dining areas seat 550 people (including a 24-hour atrium where people can gather even after the dining hall closes), and we expect to serve at least 3,000 meals a day, including 1,200 at lunch alone, so we need to have a lot of speed and versatility. So far, the students are loving it.”