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Travel 4 minutes 03 June 2017

Spotlight: Why Asian American Food Is Having Its Moment

Forget overcooked orange chicken or the ambiguous Singapore noodles sprinkled with curry powder. Asian American cuisine has evolved significantly beyond these cliches to come into its delectable own.

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A mound of sturgeon caviar perches atop a dollop of chewy winter melon porridge, garnished with flecks of gold foil. Oyster and pork belly is wrapped in a translucent kimchi-flavoured wrapper, like shu mai. And here comes faux sharks fin with custard and truffle, served in a bowl with a lid shaped like a fin.

A tasting menu at San Francisco’s three-Michelin-starred Benu starts with the intriguingly named “small delicacies”. Essentially a series of exquisitely plated single-bite seasonal morsels brought out in rapid fire sequence, each delicacy offers a different taste and texture profile that ranges from subtly umami to bold and crunchy, leaving diners excitedly anticipating the next surprise to be unveiled.

There is a method to this madness though. By the time the sequence of about ten dishes have been devoured, one realises that all five taste sensations - salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami – have been awakened, all the better to enjoy the rest of the banquet.

SEE ALSO: Dried Seafood and Mandarin Peels
Lobster coral xiao long bao at Benu
Lobster coral xiao long bao at Benu
Chef Corey Lee, who is originally from South Korea, is the brains behind one of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants, thanks to his inventive take on Asian-inspired nouveau American cuisine. He does not call his small delicacies dim sum, but the references, whether by taste or by presentation, are clear enough that anyone even vaguely acquainted with Cantonese food would make the connection.

His mastery of Asian ingredients and flavours is apparent with subsequent plates - the pungent thousand-year-old quail egg over potage is a surprising crowd favourite while frog’s leg velvet with shiga rice porridge inspires memories of mum’s comfort cooking. The final course is beef rib steak accompanied with Korean condiments like pickled ginger and miso paste and melds Asian and American influences so flawlessly that all that matters is putting together the perfect blend of flavours with every bite.

“We use products from all over the world—that's not in fashion—but San Francisco is one-third Asian and we reflect that," Lee says of his approach at Benu. "I don't think our restaurant could exist in Korea, China or Japan, though. The intermingling makes us very American."

SEE ALSO: 5 Lesser Known Southeast Asian Herbs Demystified
View of Benu from the street Image Credit: Eric Wolfinger
View of Benu from the street Image Credit: Eric Wolfinger
With chefs like Lee elevating Asian American cuisine to an art form and many others like David Chang, Danny Bowien, Mei Lin and Eddie Huang adding their own flair to what was once regarded as substandard late night takeout, now is the time to throw out all preconceived notions about Asian dining in the United States. Gone are the days of cloying orange chicken, questionable Singapore noodles or poorly sliced raw fish that used to pass for sushi. A new generation of chefs born of the Asian diaspora are drawing inspiration from their cultures and heritage to enrich the dining scene in the United States, turning the country into an unexpected culinary destination for gourmands curious about the next chapter in Asian cuisine.

Hit the streets
While chefs in the echelons of fine dining are the ones that often make the headlines, the street food scene, which is an essential element of Asian culinary culture, is buzzing too. There is no need to wait for Anthony Bourdain’s highly anticipated food hall (read: hawker centre) in New York City to open in 2019. Simply take a trip to Portland, Oregon, ground zero of the food truck phenomenon, to find out how Asian street food is evolving in the United States.

At any given food truck park (in Portland, food trucks often converge at parking lots or open spaces), it is almost par for the course to spot at least one offering Asian food among the myriad trucks peddling Instagram-friendly mini donuts, artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches and the ubiquitous tacos and burritos. This is where food adventurers will discover funky fusion mash-ups like bacon cheeseburger dumplings or bulgogi tacos, which are fun to sample, provide excellent conversation fodder and might just become the next hipster food trend.

SEE ALSO: Korean Soups: What's The Difference Between Guk, Tang, Jjigae and Jeongol?
But with some luck and patience, timeless gems can be uncovered. Much ado has been made recently about American versions of Singapore-style Hainanese chicken rice, with many disparaging this as cultural appropriation but stateside, the locals truly love their Asian rice and chicken. Case in point: Nong’s Khao Man Gai, a food truck started by Thai native Nong Poonsukwattana, offers this classic chicken rice, which she learnt from her mother in Bangkok.
Like Singapore’s chicken rice, Thai chicken rice also originated from Hainanese immigrants and features similar cooking techniques.

Poonsukwattana’s dish comprises succulent poached free range chicken, jasmine rice cooked in chicken stock and chicken broth, all pulled together nicely with a Thai-style sauce of fermented soy beans, chilli, vinegar, ginger and garlic. Just like an exceptional plate of chicken rice found in any part of the world would, her rendition offers not just a multi-layered study of the aromatic flavours of the fowl but also that elusive sense of comfort and satiety that a familiar favourite brings.

Today, Nong’s Khao Man Gai is a Portland institution and the business has expanded from a lone food cart in 2009 to two food trucks and a permanent eatery and its bottled sauces are even sold in supermarkets for those who can’t get enough of it.

SEE ALSO: 4 Singapore Wet Markets For A Gourmet Experience
Poonsukwattana’s dish comprises succulent poached free range chicken, jasmine rice cooked in chicken stock and chicken broth.
Poonsukwattana’s dish comprises succulent poached free range chicken, jasmine rice cooked in chicken stock and chicken broth.
Visit the pioneers
No tasting tour of Asian food in the United States is complete without a meal at either Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City or Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco. As two of the pioneers of mod Asian American cuisine, the evolving menus here offer insight into how this cuisine has changed over the past 15 years.

Momofuku Noodle Bar, the first of David Chang’s now international empire, opened in 2004 and made a splash with his version of the Japanese staple, ramen, which incorporated influences from his Virginia childhood. Bowls of springy noodles doused in flavourful bone broth were served with a surfeit of toppings both traditional and unconventional, including eggs with liquid yolks, bamboo shoots and pulled pork shoulder. The upsized portions were distinctly American, although they seem to have shrunk in recent years. Perhaps better to encourage orders of small sharing plates like barbecued pork belly ssam or steamed Chinese buns. Today, the Noodle Bar also has fried chicken cooked two ways for groups of four and up - Southern-style with buttermilk and Korean triple fried with a spicy glaze.

Over at Mission Chinese Food, which proudly declares that it serves “Americanised Oriental Food”, the restaurant which began as a pop-up within an actual Chinese restaurant is now a full-blown restaurant with outlets in both San Francisco and New York City. When it launched as a pop-up within San Francisco’s Lung Shan restaurant in 2001, word-of-mouth had curious diners queueing up for hours for chef Danny Bowien’s unconventional take on Chinese food.
"It [was] audacious, but at the same time, the whole feeling behind what we were doing just felt very organic, and for me there was no risk,” says the South Korean born Bowien, who in fact taught himself how to cook Sichuan food when no Chinese chef would hire him. His takes on classics like mapo tofu and tongue-numbing Chongqing chicken wings are spot on, with the latter so fiery and piquant that even the most seasoned spice lover might break into a sweat.
But do make space for creative dishes that showcase his versatility, like the Kung Pao pastrami and General Tso’s veal rib. The intense flavours of these Asian seasonings, all too familiar to anyone who has eaten at an American Chinese restaurant, enhance and elevate the smokey flavours of the meats, which are smoked and barbecued the good old fashioned American way.

Finally, just in case there are any leftovers, be sure to partake in an American dining tradition and pack them in a doggy bag, because they will taste incredible over a bowl of piping hot rice the next day. Now that’s East meets West at its best.

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