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Trend Watch: Popular Asian cuisine offers growth vehicle for seafood

Menu trend meets consumer demand for fresh, light fare with bold flavors

By Lauren Kramer
December 01, 2006

Asian cuisine is proliferating in the United States and moving far beyond the boundaries of traditional Asian-style restaurants. Today, Asian-influenced menus can be found everywhere, from white-tablecloth restaurants to casual eateries. Seafood is often a main ingredient in this cuisine, a familiar protein that's given an Asian twist by incorporating flavors like wasabi, miso, Thai curry and rice wine vinegar.

More Asian-influenced seafood items are appearing on American restaurant menus these days, says Bernadette McGuane, product manager at Technomic Informa-tion Services in Chicago.

"Asian-influenced fish and shellfish entrées at the 475 restaurants we polled between January and June 2006 went up 24 percent from the same time last year," she says. "In general, Asian-inspired items have increased over the past year, and so has the popularity of seafood, so those two combined would explain the 24 percent 

"The flavor profiles we would characterize as Asian have gone up about 5 percent over the last three years," says Linda Smithson, editor of the online magazine FoodWatch Trends, which examines restaurant menu trends. "There's a big push on Asian flavors across many segments, driven by peoples' perception of its freshness, intense flavor and light, healthful fare."

The influx of Asian flavors on American menus is due in part to diners' growing familiarity with Asian cuisine as a whole, says chef Robert Danhi, a consultant in El Segundo, Calif., who works with educational institutes, manufacturers and restaurant chains.

"Chinese and Japanese cuisine laid the foundation for American diners' taste of Asian flavors," he says. "With exposure to the Food Network and more travel between America and Asia, consumers are becoming more accepting of an increased variety of Asian flavors."

"The availability of ahi tuna has spurred the proliferation of Asian-style seafood dishes," says Danhi. 
"A seared tuna is 
naturally going to be Asian-influenced, and ahi tuna is more accessible these days than it has been in the past."

Given the important role seafood plays in Asian culture and cuisine, this protein sees the most influence in preparations in American restaurants.

"From mainstream A-merica to the upscale, the flavors of Asia are comforting to a lot of people because there's 
that perception of healthfulness associated with it," says Roy Yamaguchi, owner of Roy's Restaurant in Honolulu.

"When you think of Asia, you think of seafood first, because it goes well with a lot of different flavors that tend toward the Asian culture of cooking, from rich sauces to spicy and sweet and sour. These types of flavors adhere well to seafood."

Raised in Japan, Yamaguchi says he's always added Asian flavors to his cuisine, but lately he's been adding an increased assortment of Asian flavors and bolder Asian ingredients. "I believe we have a hard core of guests who understand Asian flavors in our restaurants and come specifically for it," he says.

Yamaguchi's style is to incorporate subtle Asian influences in his Hawaiian Fusion cuisine, using French or Italian cooking philosophies. "If you're in an Asian restaurant, you can't be too Asian. But if you're coming to Roy's, you're getting Hawaiian Fusion cuisine, not a traditional Asian dinner."

Roy's Hibachi Salmon, which is marinated in teriyaki and then grilled, has been on the menu for 18 years, while his misoyaki butterfish is another dish that has enjoyed tremendous popularity. Among his bolder Asian offerings are a shellfish stew with kisser leaf and curry broth, and a Vietnamese-style lemon grass marinated fillet mignon with papaya salad.

For Brendan Cox, chef at Circle Bistro in Washington, D.C., it's all about knowing how to subtly incorporate Asian influences into his fusion cuisine. "If you take an Asian ingredient and put it together correctly, you can insert it into an American dish without making it overtly Asian," he says. "In my world, it's important to not cross that line, because if you don't know how to use the Asian ingredients, you can end up ruining a lot of good food."

Circle Bistro offers caramelized Maine diver scallops served with braised leaks, lemon grass cream and a Maiitake mushroom extract tempura. In the Pacific Northwest, Glowbal Restaurant & Satay Bar in Vancouver offers seven-spice ahi tuna with a wasabi potato spring roll. "It's our top-selling item across the board," says restaurant owner Emad Yacoub.

Phillips' flagship restaurant in Baltimore is serving Steamed Thai-style Mussels in a broth of red curry, lemon grass, ginger and coconut milk, while R.J. Gator's Florida Steam Bar & Grill is offering a seven-pepper seared ahi tuna with Asian slaw and wasabi plum sauce.

Distinctive Asian sauces like the wasabi plum are a good way for restaurant operators to meet the consumer demand for bold flavors, says Eric Giandelone, editorial manager at Technomic Information Services.

"The Asian accent of these flavors gives them exotic appeal, and pairing them with seafood is a good choice because it is able to incorporate different flavors more easily than other proteins, like beef, chicken and pork," says Giandelone.

The rise of the Asian flavors is being spurred on by interest 
in boldly and uniquely flavored foods. I think that seafood is 
able to pick up these flavors 
fairly well and distinctly, giving consumers a more interesting 
dining experience from a taste 

 Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia


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