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. And that's not to mention sushi rolling stations, special authentic curry events and many other Asian-inspired dishes for the menu.
The freshness and the bold flavors seem to attract many fans when concepts like these are introduced.
This trend has affected the pantries of foodservice 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 at all. Many bottle sauces are available that provide authentic essential flavors and in some cases they have crossed over into everyday condiments. Here's a quick look at some of the most common items to look for:
A soybean-based sauce that is both sweet and spicy, also has flavor notes of garlic, vinegar and (much like 5-spice powder) star anise.
Oyster sauce. A Cantonese staple. 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 to true gourmet fare.
An all-purpose flavoring, used as an ingredient, a dipping sauce, a condiment and as a component in marinades. Extracted from fermented soybeans, both light and dark versions are available. Purists often prefer Japanese-style versions. There is a new spin-off of soy sauce called “umami sauces,” neutral sauces that simply boost that “umami” flavor we have come to know as the “fifth flavor,” often described as “savory.”
A clear, salty liquid whose strong aroma and taste requires a little getting used to for some American palates. However, this is what makes certain Southeast Asian dishes really sing. As soy sauce is to China and Japan, fish sauce is to the rest of Southeast Asia.
A Japanese rice wine that's popping up more and more often in recipes.
A type of Thai hot sauce named for the coastal city of Si Racha in central Thailand where it was first produced. It's a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt and has a “sweet heat.” Today, it has a bit of a cult following and it's showing up at many restaurants (Asian or not) next to the regular hot sauce.
Thai red curry paste
A paste of aromatic herbs such as lemongrass, galangal (Thai ginger) and fresh red chilis. Used as a stir-fry seasoning, a soup base or with coconut milk in Thai curries.
There are many to choose from, and many more becoming available. 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).
Many to choose from, ranging from white rice vinegar to Chinese black vinegar.
Both everyday and unusual, including bias-cut carrots, broccoli buds, cauliflower florets, chopped bok choy, baby bok choy, Napa or other cabbage, pea pods, lemongrass, mushrooms, water chestnuts and peanuts.
Thin, dried seaweed sheets, used in sushi dishes, for rice balls and as a topping or condiment for various noodle and other dishes. Sometimes used as a utensil to pick up rice balls, for example.
Commonly used in Chinese cuisine, but also in the cooking of Japan, Korea and the Philippines. The starch is extracted to make “cellophane noodles.” Used in many soups and even crepes.