Newly ubiquitous Asian foods make veritable melting wok WEST EATS EAST

April 19, 1995|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

Finding star fruit, cilantro, coconut milk and hoisin sauce right there in the aisles of your neighborhood supermarket should be the tip-off: As they did with Italian food in the '70s and '80s, and Mexican food in the '80s and '90s, Americans are embracing a new ethnic cuisine with enthusiasm.

The latest countries to make their presence felt on the culinary map are those of the western edge of the Pacific Ocean: Japan, China, Vietnam, Thailand.

While consumers have happily dined on such Eastern staples as ketchup, noodles, iced tea and ginger ale for decades, a wider array of produce, and packaged, prepared and convenience foods from those four Asian countries is beginning to be common on grocery shelves.

It means carambola (star fruit), the parsley-like cilantro and even lemon grass on produce counters, and curry pastes, jasmine rice and teriyaki sauce with vegetables in packaged food aisles. It means Wesson Stir-Fry Oil, seasoned with sesame, garlic and ginger, and A Taste of Thai, from Andre Prost Inc., with a whole line of Thai foods and ingredients from curry bases to fish sauce to coconut milk to jasmine rice. It means Szechuan Hot & Spicy Vegetables and Sauce from House of Tsang, a division of Hormel.

"Thai [cuisine] is the newest example of fascination with the Far East that's always been part of our culture," said Joshua Isenberg, associate editor of the Food Channel, a Chicago-based publication that tracks food trends and their origins.

Asian food has "an amazing balance of flavors," he said. "Generally speaking, it's not spicy [hot], it's not scary, and the ingredients may be strange, but they're not ugly."

In addition, Americans are traveling more, and encountering new flavors; and successive waves of immigration from China, Japan and Vietnam have exposed Americans to flavors from those countries.

"Everybody likes Asian food," said Jerry Edwards, owner, with his wife Judi, of Chef's Expressions catering in Timonium.

"What you're seeing is the further definition of 'Asian' foods -- into Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese cuisines. It's the same style of cooking, but different flavors."

Asian tastes are more popular in the catering field, as well, he said. "Oriental food used to be one station in a buffet, but now we do a complete Oriental party. Five years ago we wouldn't have been able to sell that to save our souls."

Among Asian items showing up on Chef's Expressions' menus are pork loin on wild rice cakes with hoisin sauce (Chinese), tempura (Japanese), and fried won ton topped with shredded marinated turkey in a soy-peanut sauce (Thai).

Mr. Edwards attributed some of the current popularity of Asian food to its ease of preparation. "These days, people only have 30 to 40 minutes to prepare dinner. Asian food is very easy -- there's no oven, not a lot of pans -- you just stir-fry right on top of the stove."

"Asian influence has been here since the Chinese came over during the Gold Rush to help build the railroads," said Mr. Isenberg, tracing the growing popularity of Asian food in U.S. history. Those early Chinese workers didn't have a lot of belongings, he said, "but they always had their wok, and they always had a handful of garlic and maybe some black bean paste."

Early "Chinese" foods were not especially authentic, he said, but reflected the immigrants' attempts to create familiar dishes with ingredients from the new land. When work on the railroads was complete, Chinese established some of the earliest ethnic restaurants in the New World.

"Every new ethnic trend begins at the restaurant level," said Charles Landrey, co-owner of A Taste of Thai, a Connecticut food distributor. He and his father discovered Thai food at a restaurant in Washington, a few years ago and launched A Taste of Thai when they couldn't re-create the restaurant meals at home.

"We went to Thailand and started knocking on doors, saying, we want to sell Thai food to Americans in groceries."

Today A Taste of Thai includes about three dozen products that are in supermarkets across the country.

A few years ago Hormel, the Minnesota-based meat-products distributor, bought a company called House of Tsang, which had a line of flavored cooking oils and sauces, and has just come out with four vegetable-and-sauce combinations in jars. Consumers add meat or seafood to the contents of the jar in a skillet and come up with a meal for six in about five minutes. (Baltimore is one of six areas where the sauce products are being test marketed.)

Wesson sees its new Stir-Fry Oil as part of an even larger trend. "People are becoming more experimental," said Kay Carpenter, a spokesman for Wesson. "They're looking to more ethnic foods for variety, for a new way of preparing foods that's healthy. It's the whole idea of stir-frying. People don't think of it as Oriental food, but as a quick and easy way to cook."

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