When it comes to America’s quest for new flavors, it really is a small world, after all.
The National Restaurant Association surveyed 1,800 members of the American Culinary Federation to identify the hottest food trends. It turns out Peruvian, Korean and Southeast Asian cuisines are generating excitement in kitchens all over America.
Let’s look at the international culinary traditions making mouths water everywhere from food trucks to fine dining.
America’s growing Hispanic population is bringing a demand for ingredients and flavors with native and Spanish origins. Chances are you’ve had Mexican, but how about Tex-Mex with a Peruvian twist?
Of course, the cuisine of Peru isn’t a “trend” at all. It started with the Incas, the indigenous people of the region, and was molded by the Spanish and even the Africans and Japanese over the centuries. Sweet Peruvian corn, potatoes and peppers are staple ingredients.
What you’ll taste: Some of the distinctive flavors of Peruvian cuisine include aji amarillo (a yellow pepper used in meat stews), aji panca (red pepper used in seafood and rice dishes) and huacatay (pronounced whack-a-tay), a strong herb used in a potato dish called ocopa.
Where to find it: In Houston, a hybrid Peruvian-Mexican chain called Pollo Bravo brings the southern hemisphere to the Lone Star State via four locations. Houstonians rave about the fried plantains, smoked chicken and flavorful salsas, and two can eat like kings for under $15.
Vietnam. Thailand. Cambodia. Malaysia. The Philippians. Each of these countries has its own cuisine, but modern chefs weave the common threads of Southeast Asia to create exciting new flavors.
Rice and noodles are standard. The rest ranges from spicy and strange to tropical and traditional. The French legacy in Indochina contributes bread (Vietnamese banh mi); coastal regions put the spotlight on seafood. Centuries of cross-cultural culinary mingling gives the food of Southeast Asia curries from India and cooking techniques from China (steaming and stir-frying, for example).
What you’ll taste: Coconut and coconut milk are prominent; so are onion, ginger and citrus flavorings. Malaysian sate (skewered meat) and gado-gado (steamed vegetables) are served up with peanut sauce. Thailand is the land of spicy soups and creamy green curries; Laos is famous for a spicy green papaya salad. Much of the region makes use of fermented seafood, fish sauce and shrimp paste.
Where to find it: The Spice Island Tea House in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is a hole-in-the-wall tea house in a neighborhood full of students, but don’t be fooled. This place has a charming atmosphere, friendly service and an extensive menu. Try the pad Thai or the Burmese lat toke (noodle said with garlic, cilantro, fried tofu, carrot and Asian cabbage in a tamarind-fish sauce).
Year after year Korean cuisine is heralded as the “next big thing.” And year after year it just never catches on. We have to admit, some of the strong flavors of Korean fare are a jolt to the unaccustomed American palette. You’ll hear them described as “punchy” or even “pungent.”
Though nothing new on the West Coast and in New York City, Korean cuisine is finally invading mealtimes across the rest of the country. It started with Korean taco trucks (Kogi BBQ in Los Angeles was the trendsetter). Now, even in the Midwest it isn’t hard to find bulgogi (a marinated, grilled beef dish) and kimchee (fermented vegetables).
What you’ll taste: There are Americanized and fusion version of Korean that will let you take baby steps before diving in. The side dishes (banchan) are usually pickled vegetables that accompany your main dishes such as bibimbap (a signature Korean dish of rice, sautéed veggies, chili pepper paste, and egg or sliced beef).
Where to find it: Not far from Seattle, Washington, Stone Korean Restaurant in Redmond rewards intrepid diners with an adventure in dining. Ask your server to pour some boricha (barley tea) into your nooroongji (crispy rice); the nutty porridge that results is a classic Korean comfort food. Popular items include yook-gae-jang (spicy soup with green onions and braised flank steak). The beef/ox bone soup has a rich, milky white broth base that mixes perfectly with Stone’s rice. The Korean fried chicken and barbecue short ribs are especially popular. If you need your server’s attention, ring the bell—that’s the traditional way. Otherwise the servers in Korean restaurants tend to remain hands-off.