“Ramen is Dead” David Chang (January 2015)
Wait, what? Dead? How could it be? A very bold declaration from the owner of New York City restaurant Momofuku; the guy who started the noodle soup phenomenon in North America. In his publication Lucky Peach, Chang states that what once was “hip” is now “dead.” Ramen, he argues, has gone so mainstream that it has lost its innovative edge.
Dead or not, ramen’s popularity continues to simmer throughout our country. You can find a bowl of the rich and creamy pork bone broth, tonkotsu ramen, everywhere from Vancouver to Vaughan. Canadians are slurping bowlfuls of the Japanese snack food staple and touting (along with tweeting and Instagramming) it as their favourite food ever … at least for right now. Just like shoulder pads and other fashion trends are a thing of the past, food trends come and go too (I’m talking to you, Kale!).
In a market oversaturated with pad thai, banh-mi, pork belly, and all the latest and greatest (not to mention tastiest) nibbles, it is no longer hip to serve up the usual suspects. Trendsetters around the country are searching for the newest Asian food obsessions. Chefs are pushing the envelope and introducing diners to new dishes, from unusual cuts of meat to international dishes prepared traditionally.
It’s time to inject new Asian flavours into your taste buds. With ramen being dead, and garlicky kimchi being 2014’s sleeper sensation, it’s time to hunt down new palate pleasers. However, before doing that, I want you to stop obsessing over goji berries, Sriracha, and anything served in between a pillowy steamed bao. While you are at it, wipe away those tears because there is no need to mourn over the death of ramen and its ilk. Canada is a melting pot that has plenty of global offerings that we are just starting to discover. Here are three less common, yet equally delicious, Asian dishes that I predict will be the next big food trends.
Who doesn’t love dumplings? If you are anything like me, whether they’re gyozas, pierogies, or potstickers, these little nuggets of deliciousness are the perfect comfort food on a cold winter night, or any night for that matter. Tibetan momos are no different.
These crescent-shaped dumplings are ubiquitous in Tibet, Nepal and the Himalayan regions of Northern India. The variations are endless; they can be steamed (the most popular), fried and cooked in soup and be veggie or meat. Yes, you read that right. Meat. To some, meat eating doesn’t correspond with Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and ethics. To others, it’s just fine. Heck, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is a meat eater.
“Geographically, Tibet is in a cold high altitude region. We are nomads and live in tents, that’s why we need to eat meat to stay warm. It is essential to survival,” explains Garab D. Lama, owner of the bustling eatery Tibet Kitchen in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood (aka “Little Tibet”). “Our main sources of protein are sheep and yak, or mountainous cattle. Due to religious beliefs, we don’t kill small animals like chickens, because they can only feed small crowds.”
I’d recommend trying the steamed sha momos, or the beef dumplings (seasoned with garlic, onion, ginger, soy sauce, Szechuan peppercorn and Chinese celery). I figure they’d be the closest thing to the yak-filled momos that a family would be making together at home in Tibet. Garab also notes that “momos are excellent for your social life. There is a communal aspect to them. Every member of the household would be involved in making momos. Dedicating hours to making these dumplings gives us a chance to pause, catch up and just connect with each other.”
Every Tibetan family has a different momo recipe with various techniques on how to make them the juiciest, or how to keep the dough to the desired delicate thinness. The perfect momo has a shell that is delicate, yet firm enough to hold in all juices.
Speaking of juices, there’s a specific routine for making sure you don’t end up covered in the stuff when eating a momo. To wit:
Step 1: Nibble the corner off on one end of the dumpling.
Step 2: Suck in the all the wonderful juices but leave just a little bit of the dumpling nectar to make the rest of the filling extra succulent.
Step 3: Spoon the homemade tomato, sesame and Szechuan pepper sauce inside the dumpling.
Step 4: Pop the whole momo into your mouth.
Step 5: Swallow. Savour and repeat.
If you follow these steps carefully, the delectably clever combination of meat and dough will envelope your taste buds to a warm and comforting Zen-like moment of enlightenment. Om.
While Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese restaurants are a dime a dozen around the country, Filipino dining establishments are a bit harder to come by. In 2012, TV chef and personality Andrew Zimmern proclaimed Filipino food to be the “the next big thing.” So why hasn’t the cuisine taken off yet?
Daniel Cancino, the head chef of Lamesa Filipino Kitchen in downtown Toronto, is trying to ensure it does. He explains that many people don’t know what Filipino food is. According to Lamesa’s website, the best way to describe Filipino food is to “imagine a native Malay cook with a Chinese roommate being taught by a Spanish Chef with a love affair for everything American, and you will begin to understand what Filipino food is all about.”
With a description like that, how could you not want to experience one of the most unique flavour profiles out there? Maybe it’s because Filipino dishes haven’t expanded much beyond their no-frills, suburban, steam-table cafeteria-style eateries that almost solely serve Filipino audiences. Whatever. The sweet, salty and sour tang of Filipino fare is finally moving to the forefront, thanks to young chefs like Cancino. In addition to cooking a clever mash-up of traditional cuisine, Cancino has been putting a fresh twist on the nation’s signature dish: Chicken adobo, the “unofficial” national dish of the Philippines.
Adobo comes from the Spanish word abodar or “to marinate.” Before there were any fridges in the Philippines, locals would preserve their proteins by marinating them in a briny mixture of vinegar and salt. Adobo is not limited to chicken. Pork, beef, fish and squid can also be marinated in rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, bay leaves, garlic and black peppercorns.
Following the motto, “If once is good, twice is better,” Cancino’s twice-cooked chicken adobo has a more intense and satisfying flavour than most others. Poaching thighs in the marinade first allows the flavours to seep into the flesh liberally, as the adobo is left to sit for hours before the meat is seared to seal in the deliciousness. The result is a juicy chicken that has the perfect balance of sweet, sour and salty. The meat stays moist and tender from the marinade, while the soy and vinegar flavours are heightened during the searing process.
Served alongside a perfectly poached egg and a bowl of garlic fried rice, Cancino’s twice-cooked chicken is ridiculously satisfying (especially when eaten Filipino style … with only a spoon). It’s cooking like this that will ensure Filipino food will soon be more widely discovered.
Pancakes dotted with butter and drenched in syrup are fine and dandy. But, pancakes filled with ribbons of cabbage, morsels of shrimp, noodles and whatever else is on hand are amazing! Japan’s soul food, okonomiyaki, is described in many ways as a Japanese pizza or pancake, all valid descriptors … to an extent.
This pancake doesn’t have the same sweetness or fluffiness as its American cousin. Okonomiyaki is prepared using flour and grated nagaimo (a type of yam) mixture that is cooked on a griddle. Similar to a pizza, the ingredients you want depend largely on your preferences. In fact, okonomiyaki literally means “grill as you like.” (see Maverick Chef Kazuo Akutsu’s version from the October 2015 Mav Chefs issue.)
In most versions of okonomiyaki, shredded cabbage and batter are the main ingredients. From there, it’s anyone’s game. Some prefer a slew of fillings (shrimp, enoki mushrooms, green onions, beansprouts, corn, bacon, oysters, kimchi, and even ramen noodles — the options are endless) with the batter merely binding the ingredients together. Others use fewer ingredients to achieve a soft, custardy interior. There are no hard and fast rules for the fillings. Hence, no two okonomiyakis are alike. You can let your creativity shine and be adventurous!
Though it originated in Osaka (known for its cheap and cheerful eats), okonomiyaki has become a popular snack in cafes and from street carts throughout Japan. During a recent trip to Osaka I noticed many streetside food stands selling these delicious pancakes exclusively. I wanted the full “grill as you like” experience and opted to go to an okonomiyaki-ya restaurant to cook my own flapjacks on a tabletop griddle.
Two spatulas (a large one for turning, a small one for patting), along with the batter and the requested ingredients were brought to my griddle station. Mix, pour, sizzle, squish and flip. Sounds easy, right? Well, not so much! The consistency of the batter and all the add-on ingredients made it challenging to know when to pat and flip the pancake. By the way, don’t forget that you should be using the LARGE spatula to turn, if you don’t want your okonomiyaki to fall or break apart on the flip. Here’s a tip: Less is more! The smaller the size of the pancake, the easier you will be able to flip it and prevent breakage.
How do you know if you have succeeded in the art of okonomiyaki making? If you cut into the pancake and liquid oozes out, you have failed … miserably. To avoid disaster, you can go to a restaurant where they cook the okonomiyaki for you, but where’s the fun in that? Here’s a trick: keep the griddle at a moderate temperature and put a lid over the pancake to maintain equal cooking on the sides, top and middle. Keep on flipping and patting until your masterpiece is cooked.
The finished flapjack is then generously doused with okonomi sauce (think ketchup and Worcestershire sauce combined) and creamy Japanese kewpie mayonnaise (tastes like Miracle Whip). A final addition of powdered aonori, or dried seaweed, and shavings of bonito flakes (dried fermented tuna) laces the pancake with umami notes. Salty, squishy and satisfying, the okonomiyaki is incredibly complex in both flavour and texture. The sweet, tangy, creaminess of the sauces with the crispy golden brown edges of the pancake offers an astonishingly addictive combination. Best washed down with an Asahi beer. Kanpai!
Once upon a time, food was only an energy source or an afterthought. Today, food is a fashion statement. The rise of Instagram has got people obsessively photographing meals more than designer outfits. So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to get in on this season’s must-eats!