The Asian culinary fire keeps spreading, with Korean and Hawaiian influences fanning the flames
By Deanne Moskowitz
The fastest-growing ethnic population in the United States between the years 2010 and 2015 was Asian, according to United States Census data, so it’s not surprising that Asian influences are strong on catering menus. But credit for the evolving manifestations of the trend, and its expression in Westernized and fusion dishes goes to—you guessed it—the millennials, both the first-generation American offspring of immigrants and young people with unrelated ancestry.
Speaking about her son, who began sampling kimchee and other Korean specialties at the home of his best friend when he was only 5 years old, Veronica Medrano, event producer for Summit Event Catering in Los Angeles and Orange County, Calif., brings home the idea. She says she lived in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood and grew up on her mom’s Mexican cooking, while now Los Angeles is more culinarily diverse.
“People are growing up more open to different foods, because it’s so easily accessible to them,” she observes.
The popularity of certain Asian cuisines varies according to demographics, but trendy restaurants, food TV and food trucks continue to ignite interest nationally. Chinese, Japanese and Indian are sizzling, these caterers say; judging from their menus, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Malaysian also are simmering. Meanwhile, Korean is catching fire everywhere, and Hawaiian (in the form of the raw dish poke) is the rage in many places.
Lucas Schoemaker, president of McCalls Catering & Events in San Francisco—who has run Café Asia at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco for 15 years—has observed growing interest in Korean cuisine in his business, which he says was stimulated by the arrival of Korean taco trucks in San Francisco and other major cities.
“At regular parties we use more and more Korean recipes,” he reports.
Justin Hall, executive chef/owner of Fig Catering in Chicago, who has catered authentic dinners for Korean and Filipino clients for some time, has “definitely seen interest” from people who don’t come from those cultures in the last few years.
“The first thing that hit us was a request for Korean tacos,” he recalls. He and his wife went and “checked out three or four of the food trucks” that they believe ignited the trend.
Scott Walsh, president of J. Scott Catering in Philadelphia, says the internationally diverse student population at the University of Pennsylvania has brought in “tons and tons” of requests from millennials for wedding menus featuring global cuisine. At their request, he’s put some Korean items on his wedding menu, and the response has been “fantastic,” he observes.
Loren Michelle, CEO and chef/founder of Naturally Delicious Caterers & Event Planners in Brooklyn, N.Y.—who calls Korean one of the biggest food trends in New York—applauds the role of such revolutionary restaurants as Momofuku, Mission Chinese Food and PokPok. She says she’s doing a “dialed down” version of the elevated street food that they introduced, because her clients want to feature the foods from those restaurants at their own events. A steamed pork bun like the one that Momofuku’s David Chang made famous is a draw on her menu, too.
Whether or not they are catering full-blown Asian meals for immigrant events, chefs are finding a place for new Asian influences on their catering menus. They’re getting creative with K-Town classics, having their way with traditional poke, and augmenting their everyday pantries with sweet and spicy new Asian flavors.
Apps on Fire
Caterers still play it safe when feeding large groups, so often they feature Asian flavors in hors d’oeuvres, appetizers, stations and late-night snacks. The strategy works for adventurous millennials, as well as for first-generation Asian-Americans whose parents want their heritage represented. Take-offs on Korean classics, such as bulgogi and kalbi, are popular, and so are fusion bites reflecting mixed-culture couples or locations.
Since Los Angeles is such a cultural melting pot, Asian fusion has become central to Summit’s menu. The company became familiar with Korean cuisine during the four years that it catered weddings weekly at a historical venue owned by a Korean family, where the fare evolved from such staples as the rice dish bibimbap, the noodle dish japchae and the barbecued rib-eye dish bulgogi to include such fusion creations as kimchee tacos and bulgogi tacos, according to Greg Welburn, Summit’s founder and president.
The venue was sold to a hotel chain, but the Asian fusion appetizers keep coming. Additions include Thai peanut quesadillas made with chicken or pork; ahi tuna on a wonton crisp or stuffed with avocado into a walk-away seaweed cone; and hot dogs with Korean toppings, which work as appetizers, entrees and late-night post-reception snacks.
Schoemaker has to be completely authentic on his museum menu, so as not to offend ethnicities within the Asian community. But in his catering operation he plays to millennials, who “want something a little more innovative…something all-new,” he says. There is plenty to please them on his multi-paged Asian menu, which includes separate categories for Japanese Salads and Tapas, Chinese Buffet, House-Made Dim Sum, Asian-Style Salads, Southeast Asian Menu and Indian Buffet.
Particularly popular with “tech clients” are such menu items as mini Korean short ribs with daikon and cucumber spring roll and Korean BBQ dipping sauce; Korean beef mandoo dumpling with Chinkiang vinegar and ginger; and barbecued Korean skirt steaks in hoagie rolls, served from a station and accompanied by glass udon noodle salad in to-go containers. Taking fusion to the extreme, one of McCalls’ stations offers a choice of Korean, Japanese and Italian meatballs paired with appropriate starches, including soba noodles and penne pasta.
For those seeking “twists on cultural favorites” (versus the “food their mother would make” or a blending of their family traditions), Hall may suggest kalbi beef sliders (Korean-style marinated grilled beef in lettuce wraps), transforming them by substituting a bean paste aioli for traditional bean paste. Other favorites include kimchee fritters and Korean chicken wings, a Chicago restaurant invention that’s gone viral. Made from the drumstick portion of the wing, cleaned from the bone and deep-fried, at Fig they are tossed in a house-made mixture of Sriracha-style hot sauce, garlic, ginger, cane sugar and lime juice.
Like the restaurateurs she admires, Michelle is careful to moderate the searing spices of Asian foods to suit her audience. She thinks it’s smart to serve sauces on the side or to set up a condiment station, letting guests fine-tune flavors. The “beautiful little kimchee relish” that accompanies her Korean chicken skewer adds just a bit of acidity and freshness, without too much pickle punch, to enhance the poultry marinade of ginger, garlic, soy, rice wine vinegar, scallions and cilantro. Her interpretation of the lettuce wrap trend is an interactive station that lets guests have it their way. It’s stocked with rice noodles, wraps, Korean vegetables and house-made hot sauces, with all the condiments typically displayed on a Korean barbecue table. Meat is missing, however, since the station is designed to be gluten-free and vegan.
With dietary requests at an all-time high, Asian cuisine is also valued for the abundance of tasty vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options it offers.
Michelle says that gluten-free and vegan “come up in every conversation” with clients now, and she’s convinced that Asian food is so appealing because it satisfies the demand for vegetarian dishes. Vietnamese summer rolls; Szechuan sautéed string beans with ginger, garlic and sesame; and various noodle dishes, including Korean stir-fry noodles with bean sprouts and Sriracha, are some of the meat- and dairy-free choices.
Vegetarian and vegan are the fastest-growing segments of J. Scott’s business, and all of the recent Korean additions to the menu are vegetarian, Walsh admits. Among developments are deep-fried cauliflower, made with karaage batter flavored with gochugaru, tossed in soy/chili sauce and rolled in toasted sesame. Another is buffalo fried tofu with crisp celery root and gochujang dip; bok choy with soybean paste, garlic and lotus root garnish; and glass noodles with vegetables, cilantro and sesame seeds.
The rise in vegetarian and vegan demand has also made Indian food a big seller this year, notes Hall, not only for clients of Indian descent but for millennial couples who “want vegetarian food with some kick.” He makes a meat-free version of tikka masala, combining seasonal vegetables, roasted tomatoes, cream and Indian spices, serving it with house-made paneer cheese; stuffs samosas with seasonal fillings, such as sweet potato/spinach in the fall, topping them with house-made Fig chutney (honoring the company name); and circulates rolling carts, piled with chaats (snacks sold by Indian street vendors), including an adaptation of bhel puri, with Rice Krispies (replacing puffed rice and nuts) mixed with onions, cilantro, and jalapeño and/or serrano peppers, and tossed in spicy green chutney.
Gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options are clearly marked on McCalls’ Asian menus, and there are many. Korean braised boneless rolled beef short ribs is one of numerous gluten-free possibilities, while glazed Japanese eggplant, sweet peppers and cucumbers; smoked tofu, bok choy, Asian pears and shiitake mushrooms; and yard-long beans, carrots, fresh ginger, sesame seeds and sesame oil are only some of the selections meeting all three requirements.
Not that the passion for sushi has dissipated (McCalls employs 12 sushi chefs), but the latest flame of raw fish lovers is the Hawaiian version, poke. Poke restaurants are “popping up all over,” Medrano points out, while Michelle, who saw poke everywhere on a recent foodie travel trip to Hawaii, notes that many sushi restaurants in New York City are promoting poke bowls now.
Recently, Medrano submitted a bid for an interactive poke bar to be part of a graduation celebration luau, along with sushi and various meats. Guests will choose from spicy tuna, tofu, shrimp and salmon, and a variety of toppings and sauces, which chefs will scoop onto white or brown rice. Another taste of the trend there is poke on a wonton crisp, made with ground shrimp, sesame oil, chili paste, fresh ginger, soy and toasted sesame seeds.
Not intending to limit herself to traditional tuna and salmon, Michelle is planning to enclose poke in a nori wrap like a hand roll. The item may be a passed hors d’oeuvre or be dispensed in small cups from a station.
Hall insists on using solely sustainable fish, revising recipes accordingly. Rushing Waters trout poke with ginger, lime and sweetened soy, and Wisconsin Arctic char with house-made Sriracha, sesame and crispy noodles are served as buffet hors d’oeuvres or at cocktail hour.
Interestingly, poke hasn’t arrived yet at J. Scott, says Walsh; and Schoemaker calls it “passé” and has moved on to ceviche.
Kimchee has become commonplace, and Sriracha is so popular that McDonald’s introduced a Sriracha/Big Mac sauce in some locations last year, and Heinz is said to be working on a Sriracha ketchup. Now more Asian ingredients, especially from the Korean pantry, are finding a place in the catering kitchen.
J. Scott’s executive chef specifies Sempio, a Korean soy sauce, and Korean soybean paste and chili flakes. Fig’s Hall makes his own gochujang (the fiery, fermented crimson chili paste made with brown rice powder), calling it his “brown rice pepper sauce.”
Hall has a soft spot for doenjang, a fermented soybean paste. He appreciates its “awesome flavor” and fibrous consistency, adding it to American soups and stews as well as Korean dishes.
Soju, a Korean wine, is a lesser-known item that is gaining admirers. Michelle produces K-Town old-fashioneds by combining it with bourbon and topping with a maraschino cherry.
Hall, who learned to appreciate soju as a culinary student out with Korean friends, has “taken to using it all over the place.” He prefers its lightness for poaching fish and steaming, especially the brand called Chamisul, made from sweet potatoes instead of rice. He poaches shrimp in soju to give the classic cocktail a special touch and adds it to sauces and vinaigrettes.
Predicted to be the next big Asian success story for several years, Filipino cuisine seems finally to have infiltrated the fine dining scene and to be poised for acceptance. Among upscale Filipino spots opening nationwide, Washington, D.C.’s Bad Saint claimed the number-two spot on Bon Appetit’s best new restaurant list last year. And, at the American Egg Board—which sees Asian influences moving onto mainstream breakfast menus—John Howeth, senior vice president, foodservice and egg product marketing, calls the current popularity of Filipino cuisine “indicative of millennials’ growing interest in Southeast Asian cuisines.”
Filipino demand among caterers contacted for this article remains limited, however, although interest may be simmering just under the surface. The Filipino egg roll known as lumpia is becoming ubiquitous, and other specialties are starting to make cameo appearances.
Hall is doing an adobo chicken taco, which is made from vinegar-marinated roasted chicken and topped with scallions, onions, cilantro and green salsa. Medrano says that pancit, a Filipino noodle dish, is “very highly requested.” And she substituted lechon (Filipino roasted suckling pig) for the typical teriyaki chicken on her luau menu to appeal to more sophisticated clients.
Asian cuisines appear poised for continuing growth. But is it possible that current unrest on the continent, in places like the Philippines, or the hostility between the United States and North Korea could put a damper on the popularity of those cuisines? Caterers say the opposite is more likely, stressing that food is one area where it’s easy to find common ground.
“People take politics out of their food,” believes Michelle.
Medrano agrees. “People can separate the two,” she says. “Food is something that brings people together.”