Inspirations from Southeast Asia
From banh mi sandwiches to pho and other noodle-based eats, Southeast Asian food has gained steam as a trend over the past couple years, led by renewed interest in Thai, Malaysian, and Vietnamese cuisines. Last year, Pei Wei Asian Diner launched its quick-serve Asian Market and this year, introduced a full, Southeast Asian menu at its diner locations. Sriracha has become a common household condiment and a go-to among chefs. And ingredients like galangal, shrimp paste, and Vietnamese herbs are becoming easier and easier to source.
“Thai cuisine is definitely a trend as consumers generally become more aware of global cuisines and the world becomes a smaller place,” says Mary Chapman, director of research for Chicago-based foodservice research firm Technomic.. “People are discovering a lot more about Southeast Asian cuisine in general. Back in 2000, restaurants and foodservice companies had a tendency to group Asian cuisine into one big bucket, but now we are seeing a lot of micro-trends and a stronger focus on regionality. Just as more consumers understand the difference between Szechwan versus Mandarin Chinese cuisine, they understand the flavor differences and subtle nuances between Thai and Vietnamese dishes.”
At the full-service level, chefs have taken note. According to Euromonitor International, Asian foods have become so popular among single-location restaurants that among those offering specialty menus, Asian cuisine—at 19.7 percent—beat out other popular foods like traditional “American” barbecue and pizza (12.1 percent), European (9.7 percent), Latin American (7.6 percent), and Middle Eastern (1.3 percent).
Chapman notes the tendency for many restaurants to introduce Southeast Asian foods and flavors as part of a broader, pan-Asian focus that also includes Chinese and Japanese-inspired dishes. “Southeast Asian cuisine is part of an overall appreciation of and desire for new global flavors and ethnic twists on familiar items,” she says. “I’m also not surprised to see Southeast Asian cuisines gaining traction because they suit other trends like healthy and flexitarian eating.” The idea is that those who like Thai have discovered a new appreciation for Vietnamese cuisine, and vice versa.
Thai: Street Smart and Savory
For Dale Talde, chef/partner of Talde in Brooklyn, New York, Thai food is all about street food.
“For me, Southeast Asian food is like the hip hop of the food world,” he says. “It started in the streets; it’s the best in the streets; it’s loud, in your face, and not for everybody.”
Talde reminisces about his experiences eating through the streets of Thailand, noshing on fried chicken or sauté from a family with a cart and “that’s all they do.”
They call these food makers “hawkers,” and Hawker fare, according to Talde, means anything eaten on a stick, off a charcoal grill, or with noodles in a broth-filled bowl.
At the restaurant, he recreates a typical tom kha, a galangal and coconut soup made from a shrimp broth that begins with roasted, dried shells and aromatics like kaffir lime and lemongrass.
For an American twist, he adds lobster meat and shells, along with noodles, not typically eaten in this soup overseas. “The coconut milk and Maine lobster give it an almost bisque-like quality,” he says.
At the recently opened Crossroads in Washington, Chef Ravi Narayanan makes a similar broth—a tom yum—commonly eaten in Thailand and Malaysia with shrimp shells, galangal, lemongrass, Thai basil, extra garlic, and ginger. The broth becomes the simmer stock for a seasonal vegetable ragout, served alongside cod or 72-hour marinated chicken wrapped in banana leaf with coconut rice, another common Malaysian dish.
Talde says he also has fun with perilla leaf, which in Thailand is chewed like gum or tobacco rather than eaten whole. In a one-bite salad, he wraps dried shrimp, lime, chili peanuts, and coconut in the leaf for a casual bar snack.
Sticky rice is another flagship food of Thailand. While certainly eaten on the street from a stand, full-service restaurants also serve the rice alongside meat or seafood dishes, and as a dessert.
Talde refers to this sit-down style of service as more “Imperial” or “royal” Thai food.
In a sense, this is what “Americanized” Thai food has become—from sticky rice to the ubiquitous pad Thai to creamy-caramelized pad see ew, with thick noodles and endless curries.
Patty Sriskiew of Natalee Thai, with two locations in Beverly Hills and Culver City, California, regularly uses cilantro and other fresh herbs, ginger root, and galangal, a root similar to ginger but hotter, for her red, yellow, green, and massaman curries.
To make the base for these classic Thai curries, Sriskiew starts with curry powder or paste, blends in chili, basil, bamboo, and a touch of mint or other herb, and then simmers the mixture in coconut milk until infused.
“In California, Thai food has always been one of the top favorite cuisines,” she says. “I think it’s become even more popular as people become more health conscious. We now also offer more vegetarian options.”
Vietnam: Fresh and Flavorful
Vietnamese food also fits into the healthy food seeker’s repertoire, says Talde. “To me, Vietnamese food starts with a ton of fresh herbs, bright flavors, a touch of chili, and fish sauce.”
Vietnamese-born Thai Dang, executive chef at Embeya in Chicago, agrees. “Vietnam is very influenced by Chinese and French cooking, but mainly we use less heat and spice, and our style is very clean and direct,” he says. “Fish sauce is the base for many dishes, but I find them very balanced and heavier in the use of fresh herbs.”
At Embeya, Dang sources plenty of cilantro and Thai basil, as well as fish mint—a “funky,” almost fishy-tasting herb from the Vietnamese community on the north side of the city.
Growing up in Vietnam, Dang was surrounded by gardens overflowing with these herbs as well as fresh greens and different varieties of lettuces, like tia to (red perilla), which is an aromatic lettuce used in seafood and shrimp cooking that’s green on the top and purple-red on the bottom.
Vietnamese cuisine also has its own street and comfort-food dishes. Talde points out Saigon crepes—made from a batter of rice flour, turmeric, coconut milk, and fish sauce—as a common “base” for fillers like sautéed mung beans, chilies, onion, shrimp, and other proteins and vegetables commonly eaten street-side.
For Dang, street food in Vietnam means grilled meats marinated in soy, ginger, and lemongrass, and cooked over makeshift charcoal grills. Another favorite is fresh clams on the grill, with scallions, toasted peanuts, and a squeeze of lime.
And, of course, there’s the ever-popular pho.
Like Italians have their tomato sauce, pho is the chicken soup of Vietnam.
“Everyone’s mother makes a form of pho, and makes it differently,” says Dang. “To me, truly traditional pho is one of two flavors—beef or chicken. Period.”
Some places, however, use fat noodles versus thin, others add a fried egg. Here in the U.S., you might see pork or pork belly added, along with other herbs and vegetables.
Trending Southeast Asian-inspired signature dishes have few boundaries and widespread appeal.