It's hard to argue with the popularity of Asian menu concepts in the noncommercial environment. They offer fresh prepared meals, exhibition-style interest, healthful nutritional profiles, and meal customization—all things demanded by today's onsite customers. In new dining halls, retail operations and renovations, wok stations and Mongolian grills have become almost as ubiquitous as the traditional grill.
According to the Chicago-based Foodservice Research Institute, 37 percent of noncommercial operators' menus contain some form of Asian cuisine. Of these, the most popular are Chinese items at 65%, followed by Japanese (15%), Thai (at 6%) and Indian (4%).
This trend has had its effect on the pantries of those same operators, who now find themselves stocking a variety of grocery items that would have been available only from specialty distributors in decades past. Today they are mainstream, even if not always familiar. Also worth noting: “ authentic Asian cooking” and “prepared sauces” aren't mutually-exclusive terms. Many bottled sauces are available that provide authentic essential flavors, and in some cases their use has crossed over into everyday use. Here's a quick look at the most common items in both categories
Hoisin, a soybean-based sauce that is both sweet and spicy, also has flavor notes of garlic, vinegar and (much like five-spice powder) star anise.
Top Asian Items on noncommercial menus
Source: Foodservice Research Institute
Oyster sauce, a Cantonese staple, is a rich brown sauce (thanks to caramel coloring) derived from a ground oyster base. It's an all-purpose seasoning for everything from simple chow mein on up to true gourmet fare.
Soy sauce is all-purpose, used as an ingredient, dipping sauce, condiment and as a component of some marinades. Extracted from fermented soybeans, both light and dark versions (darker is sweeter, saltier and has a stronger flavor) are available. Purists often prefer Japanese-style soy sauce; Chinese and Americanstyle versions are also available.
Fish sauce (salted and fermented fish is the base ingredient) is a clear, salty liquid whose strong aroma and taste requires a little getting used to for some American palates. Nonetheless, its use is on the rise, especially in many authentic recipes. As soy sauce is to China and Japan, fish sauce is to the rest of Southeast Asia: it's in, or served with, almost every kind of food.
There are also a number of commonly used, pre-blended sauces that are tailored for the U.S. market. Among them: various barbecue sauces, hot pepper sauces, sweet-and-sour sauces and teriyaki sauce.
Many unusual ingredients are called for in Asian recipes and these are becoming standard items stocked in onsite kitchens. The list includes but is not limited to:
Flavored oil for seasonings, including amber-colored sesame oil and fiery red chili oil.
Herbs and spices, particularly five-spice powder or its constituent parts: star anise, fennel, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.
Vegetables, both everyday and unusual, including bias-sliced carrots, broccoli buds, cauliflower florets, chopped bok choy, Napa or other cabbage, pea pods and mushrooms, water chestnuts and peanuts.
Chili paste, an ingredient in Chinese and Korean cooking but a condiment in other Southeast Asian cuisines.
Pepper of all sorts, including white, black and Szechwan peppercorns, dried red pepper flakes and hot red peppers, fresh or dried.
Asian noodles of all sorts, often made from ingredients other than wheat, such as rice flour, potato flour, bean, yam or soybeans. Some common types include Chinese maifun (thin rice noodles), Japanese harusame (made of soy, rice or potato flour) and soba (made of buckwheat flour).
Assorted vinegars, ranging from white rice vinegar to Chinese black vinegar.