The taste for newer, spicier cuisine seems to be increasing each year--not just “spicy hot,” but full-flavored ethnic blends from these far-off shores. The phenomenon of how quickly these two cuisines have risen in popularity is due partly to the saturation of media given to chefs, restaurants and the culinary arts. It seems one cannot turn a channel on the TV or go by a newsstand, without seeing a plethora of beautiful and decadent food shots. One could think of this as “food porn”--a fantastic thing for anyone in the food business, of course.
This article’s author notes that through the variety of positions he has held, he has been fortunate to have traveled extensively in the U.S. and abroad--and, as such, has sought out new food adventures and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Not so long ago, it was really difficult to find a good Thai/Vietnamese or Indian restaurant outside of some of the larger cities. Slowly but surely, this is starting to change. It is all about authenticity, and authenticity requires authentic products.
Taste-stimulating Seasonings to Sauces
Manufacturers are producing some taste-stimulating creations for a variety of venues, from grocery store spice blends for the home chef to RTE meals. The increased demand for these ethnic foods has also helped proliferate the demand for new (to Americans) fruits and vegetables and has opened new channels for specialty food shops and grocery stores. Grocery stores are getting even more ethnic-specific, by dedicating whole sections to different cuisines, from Chinese and Japanese to Korean, Filipino, Indonesian and Indian, with aisles of spices, noodles and rice, as well as dried and preserved ingredients. Then, there are the sauces and vinegars...fish sauces, sweet chili sauce, oyster sauce, all colors of curry and so many soy sauces.
The specific elements of Asian and Asian-Indian cuisine and the influences or nuances of its regions are being replicated in restaurants and in prepared food. Obviously, every cuisine throughout the world is based in what can be grown and produced in a small, specific area. Weather patterns, topography and religion also play a huge part in what a native cuisine draws upon. There are many similarities that can be drawn from region to region throughout Asia and India: usage of noodles, the focus on the balance of flavors, the use of grains and rice, and, most of all, proteins--either from the sea or land. The commonality is surprising.
As people become more educated about these cuisines, it is possible to distinguish some of the specific taste differences from within the regions themselves. The People’s Republic of China has 23 provinces which are grouped into six regions. In the northern region, there are two main cuisines: Peking, and Shantung and Inner Mongolia. Peking-style is more elaborate, with heavy influences of garlic and leeks. In contrast, the Shantung/Inner Mongolia regions use lamb and mutton, often prepared in a barbecue-style or “firepot,” with local veggies all simmered together.
In the eastern region, seafood--used much more heavily--is combined with deep, rich flavors that include flavored oils, sugar, sweet bean paste and rice vinegar. Southern-style cuisine, or Cantonese, is not as heavily seasoned, and stir-fries are a common cooking method. Hot and spicy generally sums up central China, with lots of chilies, garlic and ham being a huge part of this cuisine. On one of this author’s projects for a well-known, Asian-style national restaurant, he encountered Yunan-style cuisine. The ham of this region was very much like the country ham found in the Southern/Central coastal states of the U.S.
Yunan-style ham has a very distinct flavor and is used generously throughout the central region of China. As one moves towards the western region, which is largely desert, the influences of a different cooking method are introduced, including dishes cooked in a tandoori-style oven, such as flat breads and kabobs. Lastly, the Macau/Macao regions on the southern coast are heavily influenced by Portuguese, African and many multicultural flavors--as it has been visited and occupied by many nations over hundreds of years. Two Macanese dishes from this region are galinha Portugesa--a simple preparation of chicken, potatoes, onions, egg and saffron, in which the flavors uniquely meld together. Another “must-experience” dish is linguado Macau--fried sole with a simple green salad that adds to the freshness of the delicate dish.
West, to Indian Cuisine and Dairy Desserts
Moving on to India, there has been an explosion of selections being offered in the prepared foods categories, probably more so than seen in any other category in recent years. For anyone having visited in London and sampled Indian cuisine, the impression could well be that the national dish of England was chicken tikka masala. A friend of this author would call every Friday and request to go out for a “ruby” (slang for Indian food). London enjoys an abundance of great Indian restaurants, and some classic entrees found there can now be found in local grocery stores in the U.S. Butter chicken, channa masala, lamb vindaloo(in the frozen entree section)--even packages of pre-cooked naanbread are a few family favorites from Trader Joe’s, for example.
Tandoorifood is a northern India specialty and refers to the clay oven in which the food is cooked, after being marinated in a mixture of yogurts and spices. Tandoori chicken is a favorite in many places. While not particularly hot--certainly not as hot as many curries--the food is terrific. Tandooribakers are now available to the home cook, through many cooking supply web sites and stores.
Another great dish is birani, a Mughai dish in which the meat is mixed with orange rice, deliciously spiced with nuts and dried fruits. Indians are said to have a sweet tooth, which they satisfy with an amazing collection of sweets and dairy items. To many Westerners, Indian desserts appear strange, esoteric and a little too sweet. But, that is beginning to change.
None of the usual Western ingredients are used in Indian desserts--except in traditional ice creams, which are popular all around India--no eggs, butter, cream or chocolate. Instead, an almost bewildering array of lentils, nuts, vegetables, chick pea flour and lots of milk form the basis of Indian desserts.
Milk dishes are usually boiled, until the liquid has been removed into a semi-solid state known as khoyaor mava, which is the main component of many fudge-like treats known as burfi. Various ingredients, like coconut, almonds and pistachios, can also be added.
In the southern regions of India, milk-based desserts are not as concentrated as in the north; they are, therefore, lighter. Their southern versions of milk-based puddings, known as paysam, are soupier, and the milk sugars are not as caramelized. Paysamcan be made with rice, vermicelli or lentils and is traditionally served for special occasions.
Kulfiis a popular Indian representation of ice cream. Other desserts and sweets include rasgullas, consisting of sweet, little balls of rose-flavored cream cheese, and gulab jamuns, round balls made of flour, yogurt and ground almonds.
In the north and western regions of India, buffalo milk is preferred over cow’s milk, because the former contains 12% milk fat. In the east, the Bengal region is famous for its sweets based on chenna, a soft Indian cheese panir. The famous Bengal sweet yogurt, mishit doi, also deserves mention. A cross between dessert and yogurt, it has a distinctive, smoky flavor and intense sweetness.
Influencing U.S. Foods
Foods like these make their way from abroad into the restaurant scene or onto grocery shelves through many paths. Whether from a white-table-cloth-style, high-end restaurant or a more humble, mobile food truck or street vendor, all of these influences help shape what is eaten daily and what is considered “hot” at the moment. If one follows today’s trend path, four distinct phases of new foods and flavor profiles begin to emerge. “Inception” is the birth of a trend. “Proliferation” refers to food on the move, through fast-casual or mobile venues, then passing through QSR chains into the next phase, which is “Ubiquity”--the penetration of a food through the country, from coast to coast--eventually landing in groceries’ shelves and freezer sections.
If one fancies a bowl of Vietnamese phoor Korean bulgogi-style beef, or even spicy, pan-fried kimchiwith slices of pork and tofu, almost any of these can be found, and almost all are as common as macaroni and cheese (with an emphasis on the word “almost.”)
The mushrooming effects of the “food porn” explosion and the ever-shifting demographic coming to the U.S. continue to change what is considered normal. And, manufacturers continue to scramble for “what’s next,” “what’s hot,” and “what’s coming down the pike” from any source they can--to get a competitive edge in the market. If the aim is to take hold of the newest trends in food, get out there into the new ethnic neighborhoods. Scour their markets. Stop at a sidewalk stand and see what can be found. Chances are, it may just be the next exciting new trend. pf