MARTIN YAN tossing it up!
For some colorful menu promotions, turn the page for a few delicious ideas!
Asia, geographically, is huge! As the central and eastern part of Eurasia, it comprises about 50 countries from most of Russia in the north, to Indonesia to the south, and most of Turkey to the west.
For the purposes of this column, we'll narrow that down to culinary trends in the Asia-Pacific region defined as the East and Southeast states (China, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, for example) near the Pacific Ocean, plus south and Central Asia.
According to the latest census, 65% of the world's population lives in this region, making it an amazing launching pad of classic and contemporary culinary delights ranging from hot and spicy dishes of the South and Southeast to the delicately flavored dishes of Japan.
For some first-hand knowledge regarding Asian trends, FM spoke with Martin Yan, the celebrated host of over 2,000 cooking shows broadcast world-wide, a certified Master Chef, a food consultant for Lee Kum Kee, a cooking instructor and a prolific author.
What are the primary culinary trends that have emerged in the past five years?
In every cooking environment, from the grocery store to the restaurant scene, we see wholesome, organic, and environmentallyfriendly products and cooking techniques being implemented.
Along that vein, people are finally realizing and embracing the benefits of a daily, sound dietary practice and eschewing crash diets. This inclination to healthful eating has always been second nature to the peoples of Asia.
Additionally, customers today want a diversity of cuisines. We see more sushi, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese. And really, whatever is good and healthy, that's the trend. Asian styles of cooking just happen to fit nicely into that category!
How are young chefs' careers different today than in the past?
In the past, aspiring cooks apprenticed in a local restaurant and learned from just one or two chefs. Today, with the proliferation of culinary schools and their diverse faculty, young chefs are more exposed to the world at large and are learning about, understanding and appreciating a much wider variety of flavor profiles. I think that's why younger chefs today are more creative, even more adventurous than they were in the past.
Also, you can see in any major city and in many local grocery stores, more specialty food areas, unique fish and ethnic fresh produce, and even regional dish presentations. For example, a grocery in Miami, might have Cuban, Hawaiian, and even Japanese-influenced dishes sharing space in the traditional deli case.
In your opinion, what has been the largest change in the way chefs interpret Asian cuisine today?
Where I see the greatest change is in the way chefs are embracing and successfully implementing the application of flavor. By that I mean they are creating dishes with multiple layers of flavor, something intrinsic to many Asian-inspired recipes.
A typical American dish usually focuses on one protein with one sauce, which can be rather one-dimensional. And yet, if you dissect classic dishes, say a New Orleans style gumbo or a Chinese hot and sour soup, you can taste different layers of flavors, sometimes subtle and sometimes explosive. It is this application of flavor that makes dishes truly distinct and delicious. In many Asian recipes, for example, different proteins, different spices, and different produce are all commingled together, giving different flavor dimensions and textures within the same dish.
Every cuisine, regardless of its ethnic roots, has a distinctive character and personality. A good chef knows and honors this character but also keeps an open mind and is willing to tweak an ingredient or two to produce an even better product. Some very successful French and Italian chefs operating in California are fusing Asian cooking with their ethnic concepts.
Do you have any tips on preparation methods or ingredients that are particularly suited to large volume cooking?
What differentiates one cuisine from another? It's the flavor profile and sauces and seasonings dictate that outcome of the dish. Part of the fun of cooking is to explore and experiment. Ultimately everybody uses the same protein—it's how you prepare it and what technique you use to make it distinctive that will set you apart from your competition.
In general, everybody knows that the sauce is made ahead of time, cooked in batches. As chefs, we know that classic sauces take hours to prepare from scratch—base stock to final seasoning.
Now, there are extremely high quality base sauces available which can save an enormous amount of time, particularly for high-volume operations. Remember that one key for success is to offer consistent product with creativity. So it is essential to identify the best ingredients,whether its one recipe ingredient or a compound, finished sauce.
To save time and money, particularly in terms of labor cost, buy the best sauce you can source. It's a very small portion of food cost but it can give you a big payoff—wonderful, flavorful and consistent dishes. I can't stress it enough: don't buy the cheapest ingredients or you'll ruin your reputation.
What would be your advice to operators interested in incorporating more Asian dishes on their menus?
Of course, I think it's smart to incorporate more Asian because it's naturally healthful and diverse. And, with a little research, chefs can feature unique regional Asian specials each week, all year long.
Keep the integrity of the classic recipe but make it bolder, more adventurous. Just don't ever shortchange your customers, they will be able to tell.
(Yan is currently producing "Martin Yan's China" for public television stations, scheduled to be broadcast late this fall or in the spring of 2008.)
In an Asian Kitchen
Traditional to trendy, these are just a few cookbooks that will whet the appetite and elevate the creative genius for chefs of all skill levels.
Asia Flavors, by Wendy Sweeter, 2005, Kundasha Publishers, $18.95 available at www.asiastore.com
China Moon, by Barbara Tropp, 1992, Workman Publishing, $24.95
Green Mangoes and Lemon grass: Southeast Asia's best recipes from Bangkok to Bali, by Wendy Hutton, 2003, Tuttle Publishing, $35.
New Asian Cuisine, Fabulous Recipes from Great Chefs, by Wendy Chan and Grace Niwa, $14.95, 2006
Susanna Foo Fresh Inspiration, new Approaches to Chinese Cuisine, by Susanna Foo, 2006, Houghton Mifflin, $35.
The Breath of a Wok, by Grace Young and Alan Richardson, 2004, Simon & Schuster, $35.
The Key to Chinese Cooking, by Irene Kuo, Random Houser, 2nd ed. 1996, $25.
In addition to the usual spices in a well-stocked dry pantry, add the items below for Asian inspiration at your fingertips!