Street Cred: Practical Translations of Asian Street Food

Street Cred: Practical Translations of Asian Street Food

The route from the street to the onsite café has some delicious roadside meal attractions along the way.

When Ida Shen was a college student, she studied in China and some of her warmest, strongest memories are of the street food there.

“There was a guy who made Five Spice noodle soup in the winter,” says Shen, assistant director/executive chef at Cal Dining at UC Berkeley.

“He would drive up in a tricycle and build a fire on the roadside.” Shen's travels throughout Southeast Asia have brought her such experiences as eating Pad Thai on a river, purchased from a woman on a passing boat…savoring sweet potatoes hot off an oil drum…and seeing bananas roasted over a makeshift cinder block grill in Cambodia.

Translating food impressions like that to an onsite kitchen takes some skill and attention. Authenticity is important, not so much because someone will know the dish isn't quite right (although with today's more widely traveled customer base, that's easily possible), but because “the real deal is probably delicious; why would you mess with it?” says Brad Barnes, CMC, senior director of culinary education at the Culinary Institute of America.

“Fresh, exciting foods and action stations (key components for preparing Asian street food) are the direction noncommercial foodservice is headed,” Barnes believes.

Bringing the flavor of roadside stands and markets from the other side of the world to the onsite environment doesn't mean stressing out over authenticity, just making necessary adjustments and giving the cuisine the attention to detail it deserves. Do this, and share a delicious part of the world with customers who are hungry for it.

Bringing Authentic Asian Street Food to Campus Dining

Mai Pham is a chef, California restauranteur and Asian street food expert with a special understanding of the college market.

Pham recently inked a deal with Sodexo, Inc., to bring the fresh flavors she's famous for to a wider audience than ever before. Pham's concept, Star Ginger Asian Grill & Noodle Bar, features many of the on-the-go-yet-soul-satisfying street foods that Pham grew up with in Vietnam and Thailand.

Star Ginger “represents the way we want to eat today — more healthfully, with a focus on quality ingredients and a good measure of culinary adventure,” Pham says. The concept is set to debut this fall at Sodexo-managed accounts in both the college and corporate markets.

Pham has worked with several other colleges and universities in the past few years, and she says her experience with chefs there, who cook high-volume, gave her insight into which Asian street food favorites would work in that environment.

“In selecting dishes for the concept, I focused on what we can duplicate in an onsite setting that captures the essence of the cuisine,” Pham says. She adds that not every dish translates well to foodservice (a Vietnamese crepe, one of Pham's favorite dishes, requires too much time to prepare, so it didn't make the list).

Back at Berkeley, Shen says there were similar issues with skewered food (too time-consuming and cumbersome), so satay-style strips of meat are incorporated into stir fry instead.

But other dishes — pho, banh mi, Pad Thai and rice bowls — lose nothing in the translation.

Something Pho Everyone

Pho (pronounced ‘fuh’) is a heady, delicately spiced Vietnamese beef and rice-noodle soup that's very close to the hearts of millions of people on their way to work in Vietnam. The steamy staple is gaining many more devotees here in America, many of them customers at onsite dining facilities.

Pham developed just one type of pho at UMass-Amherst, one of her self-op clients, and although the UMass campus is “not very urban,” Pham says, “they sell about 300 bowls a day.”

“If I was a college student, I would love to get a bowl of pho: a hot bowl of noodles with basil and wonderful aromatics,” Pham says, adding that around 1 a.m. at Stanford University, another college client, students crave pho as a snack that's comforting and easy to digest.

“People eat street food as a snack, after work, just to meet a friend and have a bowl of something,” Pham says. “It's very amenable to a casual campus dining environment.”

Banh Mi and Pad Thai: Versatile and Vibrant

Shen cites both banh mi sandwiches and Pad Thai noodle bowls as great items to import to onsite foodservice. Both of these items tend to gain loyal followers very quickly, she says.

Banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich on baguette bread (if you can find a Vietnamese bakery, they use a rice flour that makes the baguettes more delicate). Then the toppings (pork or grilled chicken or pate or scrambled egg as the protein; pickled vegetables, jalapenos, red onions, cucumber, cilantro, and/or mayonnaise in endless combinations) are a textural and flavorful adventure.

“Banh mi are more about the vegetables than the meat,” Shen says, adding that her favorite website chronicaling the growing banh mi craze is [4]. Check it out for variations and a list of locations to try banh mi across the country.

Pad Thai is just as versatile as banh mi, and chefs can do many variations on the traditional dish of stir-fried rice noodles, eggs, chili pepper, bean sprouts, lime juice and fish sauce (or nuoc mam, the condiment of Vietnam: this is what gives Vietnamese cuisine its distinct flavor). The noodles can then be topped with any protein your customers would like: chicken, shrimp, tofu — and then finished off with crunchy peanuts and fresh cilantro.

Why People Love Asian Street Food Now

Alexander Ong, chef and owner of Betelnut Pejiu Wu in San Francisco and presenter at the 2010 Chef Culinary Conference at UMass also puts himself in the shoes of a college student to explain the adventurous experience of authentic Asian street food on campus.

“When students get away from mom and dad, they are very adventurous,” Ong says. “They say, ‘I've never been to Cambodia…so this is what this dish is like.’”

A More Healthful Cuisine

Asian street food is received well in other segments, too. K-12 students are loving the flavor profile — and eating more vegetables cooked in less fat at the same time.

“Stir fry, orange chicken, chicken teriyaki and sweet-and-sour pork rice bowls, spring rolls: that's some of our most popular stuff,” says Ben Guggenmos, district chef, Hillsborough County (FL) Schools.

While there are no woks in the schools' kitchens, Guggenmos points out that tilt skillets are a great substitute, and “when you stir fry, it's easier to incorporate more vegetables and more fresh ingredients.”

To children, “stir-fried vegetables” sounds much more exciting than “steamed broccoli,” Guggenmos says. “They think, ‘This is something I would see at a restaurant,’ so they look at our Asian street food dishes as a treat.”