As Americans increasingly become educated about Asian cuisines beyond Chinese and Japanese foods, they are exploring a greater variety of Asian foods and ingredients. Due to factors such as widespread Asian immigration to the U.S., an increased number of Americans traveling to Asia, and a significant number of new Asian restaurants opening, the demand for Asian food is growing rapidly. These distinctive cuisines are defined by diverse cooking methods and the use of exotic spices and sauces.
It can be difficult to get the American mindset off of Chinese food to realize there are other Asian cuisines to explore, says Brian Thomson, marketing director for Texas Food Research, Inc., Austin, Texas. TFRI markets authentic Thai and Indonesian foods to U.S. consumers, which includes sauces, curries, soups and ingredients.
Last month, TFRI introduced a new line of instant Thai noodle packs in the Satay line, in which a wet seasoning packet is added to noodles with boiling water. The wet packet provides a “lively, fresh and traditional flavor” to the noodles, according to Thomson.
“There needs to be an educational push behind Thai and other Southeast Asian cuisines,” he says. “You can't show Pad Thai noodles to American consumers and expect them to grasp the concept. We want consumers to taste the quality of our authentic products, and then to show them how easy they are to prepare at home.”
Producing Asian foods is challenging. But the key lies in understanding the philosophy of combining ingredients.
Cruising CuisinesWhile Americans are most familiar with Chinese food, they are increasingly knowledgeable about Japanese and Thai foods. Asian cuisines are derived from a long history of explorers and ruling regimes and have evolved over time to blend native and foreign influences within each country.
While the Asian countries maintain distinct identities, they also have a great deal in common, and their cuisines share history, as well as many staple ingredients and methods of cooking.
Thailand. The cuisines of the Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, are emerging as important cuisines, as immigrants from those countries settle in the U.S. It is interesting to note that despite the absence of a large Thai immigrant population, American's interest in Thai food has soared over the last decade, evidenced by numerous Thai restaurants across the country.
“Americans finally have accepted Thai as an important cuisine because of its light and fresh appeal,” says Thomson. The cuisine's healthy attributes are inherent in traditional cooking methods that use less fat and oil, and, generally, no MSG. Its fresh fish, fruits and vegetables fit right in with modern health guidelines.
Thai food is a fusion of largely Chinese and Indian cuisines, with influences from the Middle East and southern Europe to produce a distinctive, native cuisine.
Thai dishes are cooked quickly—techniques include stir-frying, grilling, quick simmering, deep-frying and steaming. Thai cuisine is a careful balance of five sensations: sour, sweet, creamy, salty, with heat sitting on top of the first four. Fish (plaa) finds its way into almost every meal, even if it is only in the form of náam plaa (a thin, clear amber sauce made from fermented anchovies), which is used instead of salt in Thai dishes.
Shrimp paste and Thai-style soy sauces are important flavoring elements. Light, as well as dark, thick soy sauce and sweet soy sauce lend their flavors. Sour and citrus flavors from ingredients such as kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass and tamarind pulp provide distinctive flavor notes. Key spices include dried chilies, cumin, curry spices, white peppercorn, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander seeds, nutmeg, and star anise. Coconut milk provides a cooling effect in Southeast Asian dishes.
Indonesia. Many European and Asian influences are reflected in Indonesian cuisine. Sambal is the singular condiment that characterizes Indonesian cuisine and is served at most meals. Ingredients such as chilies, onion, garlic, galangal, shrimp paste, tamarind, nuts, peanut oil and seasonings are sautéed together. “Satay” is an Indonesian dish, consisting of marinated beef, chicken or pork barbecued on a skewer and served with a spicy peanut sauce and cucumber salad.
Seasonings include black and white peppercorns, garlic, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and coriander, as well as tamarind, cumin and turmeric. Indonesians use their own dark, thick sweet soy sauce, ketjap manis. Green onion, coconut, lemon grass, dried chili peppers and shrimp paste are common flavorings. Stir-frying and grilling are popular cooking methods.
Vietnam. Food from Vietnam derives its influence from the Chinese and French. Typical flavors include garlic, shallots, lemon grass, turmeric, tamarind, lime juice, shrimp paste and fish sauce (nuoc mam). Nuoc cham is a popular dipping sauce made with nuoc mam, garlic, chilies, sugar and lime juice. This light, delicate cuisine is accompanied by fresh herbs such as cilantro, mint, basil, dill and green onion.
Philippines. Spanish rule for more than 300 years has influenced Filipino cooking, which also has been shaped by Islamic and other Asian cuisines. Frying is a popular method of cooking. Some foods are first simmered until tender, and then fried.
Coconut milk, garlic, turmeric, red chili pepper and ginger are prevalent flavors, as is the Filipino form of soy sauce. Vinegar adds tartness to some dishes. Potent fermented shrimp paste (bagoong) and shrimp and anchovies characterize this cuisine.
Filipino food has made inroads to the U.S. recently. In the last several years, Jollibee Food Corp., the Philippines leading fast food chain, has opened several restaurants in a few California cities with large Filipino populations, with plans for expansion into the Northeast. Dishes include Philippine-style spaghetti with sweet tomato sauce topped with chopped ham and cheese, the nation's most popular meal. Also, the chain offers the traditional Philippine breakfast dish of sausage, sweet pork and beef, served with garlic fried rice, topped with eggs and tomatoes.
Flavorful Asian IngredientsAsian food is generally a blend of several tastes together—sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter and astringent. While we tend to segregate tastes in this country, Asians prefer a combination of flavors and textures, often within a single dish. Blends of rice or noodles with vegetables and/or a protein source may also include something crunchy, such as nuts, or something softer, such as raisins.
In regards to spices and flavoring components, freshness abounds in Asian cooking. Asians prefer to buy fresh herbs, roots and whole spices, rather than purchase ground ingredients.
While Americans dislike large chunks of spices or inedible ingredients in food, Asians are used to food with particulates that are used for flavoring that is both fresh and intense.
Rather than adding a ground powder to a dish (as is common in the U.S.), Asian cooks, especially in the Southeast regions, prepare spice blends though various techniques including blending whole spices and freshly grinding them, and preparing curry blends. Each region has a variety of curries.
While Americans may think curry is either a single spice or a blend of a few ground spices, nothing could be further from the truth. “Curry” is derived from the Tamil word karhi, meaning “sauce,” and curries are dishes with a fairly liquid consistency. There are both mild and spicy curries.
A popular format for preparing curries involves grinding up spices in seed or pod form and frying them in a pan with a little oil for consistency. This makes a curry paste which can be refrigerated. American consumers can find a few brands of curry pastes available in this country.
Other unique ingredients provide flavor, texture and color to define various Asian cuisine.
For example, many types of mushrooms are used in Asian cooking such as shiitake, oyster, enoki, paddy straw and others.
Dried wood ear mushrooms are most often used in Asian recipes. They are thin and curled, with one side being black while the other side is a velvety cream color. A few of these mild, nutty-tasting mushrooms are grown in the Pacific Northwest. Once they are soaked in hot water and cooked, they are slightly crunchy but still tender. These ear-like mushrooms are used mainly in soups, salads and stir fries for texture and visual appeal.
Galangal, also known as Thai ginger, and a member of the ginger family, has a lemon pepper aroma and gingery vinegar-like taste. It is used in Thai and Indian curries and other dishes. Galangal is a rhizome similar to ginger in appearance, but tougher and denser in texture. Galangal is sold sliced and bottled in brine in Asia. It also is available sliced and dried; however, it must be soaked in hot water first. Galangal is mainly used in Indonesian, Malaysian, and Cambodian soups and stir fries.
The fresh, fragrant leaves and dark green rind of kaffir limes are used in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. The leaves are used whole for simmering in soups or curries. Fresh leaves are added to salads and sprinkled over curries for a burst of flavor. Frozen or dried leaves also can be used.
Future GrowthWhile it has been a gradual process, American consumers are finding some exotic Asian ingredients on their grocery store shelves and trying them. One such vegetable is ginger, which is gaining popularity here with its widespread use in sauces, salad dressings and beverages. Additionally, one can find imported Indonesian spicy ginger apple chews and peanut-ginger chews.
“As more people focus on health and well-being, I think the heavy flavors of the past are becoming less popular,” says Moore. “Clean flavors, such as ginger, are increasing in use. Your mouth feels refreshed after you eat it.”
According to the 2000 U.S. spice import list from the American Spice Trade Association, Washington, D.C., ginger has made the list of the top 12 spices for the first time. As growth of the Asian foods sector continues, perhaps other Asian ingredients also will gain top spots on the list.