Asia’s big new flavours

A 'back-to-basics' trend has become increasingly prevalent in Asian cuisine, with primal cooking techniques and indigenous cuisines at the fore, reports Maida Pineda

Asia experiences serious bouts of flavour fever. Matcha, popular for centuries in Japan, recently became a global hit – used in green tea ice cream, desserts, snacks and beverages – now available in the US, London and other parts of the world. But these days Japan’s hot new food colour is black. Burger King had the Kuro (Black) Burger, with buns and cheese coloured black by bamboo charcoal, an onion and garlic sauce made with squid ink and beef patties with black pepper; there are black, garlic-flavoured Doritos; even IKEA joined the black craze with its Ninja Hotdogs, black hotdogs with black charcoal buns.

Charcoal was recently declared a superfood by health communities around the world for its ability to cleanse and purify the body of toxins, but the Japanese seem to be fascinated with the colour black, more than its flavour or health benefits. In Singapore, salted egg yolk is all the rage; from croissants to crisps and fish skin snacks, fish and chips, roti prata, chicken wings, waffles, ice cream, cakes – almost anything gets doused with this golden savoury flavour. Even McDonald’s jumped in, offering the limited edition salted egg yolk chicken burger last July.

It is not a new thing, though. For decades, Tze Char (Chinese home-style) restaurants served dishes like salted egg yolk pork ribs and salted egg crab. “To the Chinese community, it is an age-old recipe,” says Vincent Soon FCSI and director of F&B Facilities in Malaysia. “It’s very popular in Malaysia and Singapore, especially the recipe for salted egg crab. It has been around for a number of years now, at least 15 to 20 years.

Migrating flavours

Soon attributes new salted egg innovations to the recent rise in fusion chefs working in Chinese kitchens. Others trace the beginning of this craze to the arrival of Liu Sha Baos – steamed buns filled with a custard made of butter, condensed milk and salted egg yolk – from Hong Kong in 2011. The first

salted egg yolk croissant also hails from a bakery in Hong Kong, with bakeries in Asia following its lead. Because it takes four long hours to make salted egg yolk sauce, Unilever Food Solutions came up with Knorr Golden Salted Egg Powder so you can have it in minutes. It appears that Asians are not yet suffering salted egg fatigue.

Leading market intelligence agency Mintel predicts that salted egg yolk could be the next Sriracha [hot Thai sauce]. With the success of salted egg yolk crisps in Singapore, they see this trend potentially migrating to the US.

Gaggan Anand, owner and chef at Gaggan – number one on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2016 list – thinks salted egg yolk still remains the hottest trend in the region. Singapore Street Food expert K.F. Seetoh agrees. But what is it that makes salted egg yolk products such a hit? It has the umami flavour Asians love. The crisps and bread innovations have also made the flavour more accessible and affordable than expensive salted egg crabs.

Many are already on the lookout for the next big flavour trend in Asia. US media including GQ, Yahoo and Thrillist have hailed the ube, a purple yam from the Philippines, as the new dessert trend, boldly calling it the next Matcha. The demand is immense in Filipino-American food establishments like The Manila Social Club in Brooklyn, where people wait one week for a $20 box of six ube donuts. We have yet to see if mainstream American palates will embrace its flavour. But its vibrant colour has a growing following on Pinterest and Instagram, yielding 140,000+ search results for #ube.

Fermented food

In the rest of Asia, outside the Philippines, the interest in ube is not gaining much ground. K.F. Seetoh doubts the root crop would be a hit, “It has too many calories for affluent Singaporeans!” When pressing chef Gaggan on the next big flavour trend, he says: “Fermentation.” As the world is gaining interest in the importance of bacteria from fermented food for gut health, chefs in Asia are becoming more interested. “Chefs now are trying to replicate what’s been present in the history of Asia, with a modernist approach,” says Gaggan. Kang Min-goo of Seoul’s Mingles restaurant is known for creating rich new flavours with simple ingredients through the fermentation process.

Fermented vegetables like kimchi have long been part of Korean cuisine, but Min-goo now uses fermentation in Western dishes, and creates desserts using fermented ingredients. And André Chiang has been making his own fermented beverages at Restaurant André in Singapore.

Naturally umami flavours

Catherine Feliciano-Chon, managing director of Hong Kong marketing company CatchOn, reports an intensifying trend for using naturally umami flavours: “It means relying less on salt and instead seasoning food using ingredients that have been fermented or cured (i.e., artisanal soy sauces, fish, kimchi, etc). This allows for the main ingredient in a dish to be highlighted so the overall flavour profile is pure and clean.”

She says: “Three-Michelin star La Yeon’s chef Kim Sung II in Seoul uses fermented fish to flavour his dishes. The Chairman in HK is known to ferment their own sauces, which are the highlight of their home-style Cantonese cuisine. NY chef David Chang has been experimenting with his own soy sauce, too.”

According to CatchOn’s latest Future of Food report: “Future is in the past: in a back-to-basics trend,  chefs are honouring primal cooking techniques, returning to fire and water, exploring indigenous cuisines and delving into the past to create a new culinary future.” In Asia, expect age-old fermentation to be hip again.

Maida Pineda

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