Engineering MENU Authenticity

Engineering MENU Authenticity – Asian cuisine

Exploring the cuisines of Asia is just the beginning of an exciting adventure that can expand your awareness and your menu.

Asian flavors and ingredients are definitely “what’s next” in menus.

Just as Americans became curious about Italian food and wine 20 years ago, they’re now exploring the vast Asian continent, from Japan to India, and want to experience the cuisines of each region and country.

Operators who aim for consistent flavor from one unit to another, or from one day to another, often rely on brand manufacturers for sauces and other products that can be poured on for authentic flavor. Uncle Ben’s recently introduced Oriental Stir Fry Sauce and Sweet & Sour Sauce that it says delivers both authenticity and consistency.

To support menu sales, Uncle Ben’s offers operators in every segment recipes and brochures to inspire a wide range of ethnic items that appeal to virtually any audience, from schoolchildren to business executives.

Americans have gotten a taste for Asian cuisines, a taste fed by travel and, for armchair travelers, glossy food magazine articles which highlight culinary experiences that American consumers hope to have when they go out for dinner.

As a result, many chefs look for ways they can introduce authentic Asian items to their menus.

“I’m often asked by chefs how they can learn about the authentic techniques, flavors and ingredients that go into the various cuisines of Asia,” says Sandy Hu, Ketchum senior vice president and director of the Ketchum Food Center in San Francisco.

“The best and most luxurious way to do it, of course, is to travel throughout Asia and chase the food,” she says. “But there are other ways. In fact, one San Francisco chef who is very well known for his Asian cuisine has never been to Asia. He’s learned by exploring.”

Do Some Research Hu has several recommendations for chefs who can’t spend months at a time in Asia but who want to learn about the food and “engineer authenticity”:

* Go to Asian markets, buy exotic ingredients and cook with them. “I believe that every region of the country has Asian populations with their specialty grocery stores and farmers’ markets. When you go, find somebody to ask about how these ingredients are used and how to cook them,” Hu says.

* Information — and ingredients — can be found and purchased on the Internet.

* Read reliable cookbooks, such as “The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking: Favorite Recipes from the Lemon Grass Restaurant and Cafe” by Mai Pham and “Asian Ingredients: Buying and Cooking the Staple Foods of China, Japan and Southeast Asia” by Bruce Cost.

* Go to good Asian restaurants. “Some of the best are the mom-and-pop restaurants where authentic dishes are served — and are usually a value,” Hu says.

* Talk to food writers and educators who understand Asian food. Operators’ curiosity can be exciting to people who have the information, and many will be happy to share what they know.

* “Taste it, try it, and think about it,” says Hu. “Joyce Goldstein says she gets frustrated with chefs who use ingredients without understanding them — and I agree. Various ingredients have different functions in cooking and flavoring, and you need to understand that function, whether an ingredient is a salting agent or adds zing, for example. But don’t throw ingredients together without that knowledge and sensitivity.”

Once you are confident with the ingredients and techniques of Asia, you can introduce specials to your menu. Be sure the waitstaff have sampled the new dishes, know the ingredients and are ready to describe the dish accurately and enthusiastically.

Hu points out that American chefs are now very familiar with once-exotic Asian imports, including shiitake mushrooms and garlic-chili paste. “We are very ] now with fresh ginger and lemon grass and chilis. There has been a huge increase in the sale of spices, including cayenne pepper, in America in the last decade or so, proving that Americans want sharper, hotter flavors in food. Soy sauce, especially a naturally brewed soy sauce like Kikkoman, will continue to play an important role. Soon, fish sauce will be a pantry staple. As you get to know the ingredients, they become more friendly.”

Sometimes, quite common ingredients used in new ways or spiced with Asian flavors can make an otherwise ordinary dish a memorable experience. The North American Radish Council, for example, offers operators recipes for cooking with radishes. One colorful, crunchy option combines chicken, radishes and snow peas in a stir-fly with a soy sauce-based sauce.

Suppliers Have Recipes

Ocean Garden Products, a brand well known to foodservice for quality shrimp, goes directly to chefs with on-trend recipes for items, including Pacific Island shrimp and an Asian dumpling-style shrimp ravioli with ginger sauce.

“We have recipes and materials that chefs can use every day,” says Dixie Blake, marketing manager. “Fact sheets and product literature give them safe-handling instructions, cooking times and so forth. We also have the shrimp sizing poster, considered ‘the Bible’ of the shrimp industry.”

But, the engineering of menu authenticity depends on more than the use of authentic ingredients. It also takes research, experience, consideration and planning.

There can be no doubt that, at long last, Asian cuisines are “happening” in American restaurants and will continue to blossom until, like Italian, many dishes and ingredients will have become mainstream. At this early point in their Asian awareness, American chefs can explore, plan and then introduce customers to the exciting variations of authentic pan-Asian flavors.

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