Asian High Five
Ginger, kaffir lime, lemongrass, miso and wasabi have made a culinary journey from East to West
A kaffir lime leaf tops Zao Noodle Bar’s Chicken in Lemongrass-Coconut Broth entrée (above).
Tuyen Chung believes that the name on the outside of a restaurant should say something about the food inside. That’s why the Gilroy, Calif., chef calls his year-old Asian-fusion restaurant Ginger Cafe.
“Ginger is a main ingredient in all kinds of Asian cuisines,” says Chung, a native of Vietnam. “They use it in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan and Korea. It represents our cuisine.”
Chung had other options. He could have picked lemongrass, wasabi, kaffir lime or miso. Each ingredient’s distinctive flavor applies an identifying Asian stamp to many foods. Chefs call on these ingredients for both traditional and creative uses, all with the goal of taking their guests on delicious culinary excursions.
“The aroma of ginger is unmistakable. As soon as people smell it, they think of Asian food,” says Alan Woods, vice president of operations for Atlanta-based Mama Fu’s Asian House. Mama Fu’s cooks glazed chicken with ginger and soy sauce (“the ginger piques the soy flavor,” says Woods), and adds chopped ginger to pot stickers for extra bite. Its biggest success, though, is with traditional ginger-broccoli stir-fry.
“We love that dish,” says Woods. “There are customers who order it two or three times a week.”
Ginger is sprinkled throughout the menu at the five Zao Noodle Bars. Diners dip chicken dumplings into sesame-ginger sauce for an appetizer and tuck into main courses of ginger-garlic chicken and prawns.
“It’s in all our food categories,” says Giancarlo Maranghi, director of quality control for the San Francisco-based fast-casual chain. “We use ginger as a flavoring agent in almost all of our dressings. It’s also great for high-heat cooking, because its texture holds up much better than garlic or chiles.”
Ginger, along with garlic, its frequent aromatic sidekick, is the most frequently used spice at China Grill Chicago, part of New York City-based China Grill Management Co. The kitchen adds ginger to half of its dishes and goes through up to 60 pounds a week, according to Executive Chef Gerald Drummond.
A properly stocked Asian pantry includes (clockwise from top l.) kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, ginger, miso and wasabi (here in powdered form).
At China Grill, an Asian mirepoix of minced ginger, garlic, red chiles, shallots and green onions forms the flavorful base for many of its sauces while ginger juice enhances ginger-scented dumplings, and chopped ginger adds kick to marinade for lamb spareribs. Caesar salad arrives dressed with ginger aioli, made with ginger-infused oil, and Asian slaw is spiked with shaved pickled ginger, prepared in house. “If you use it correctly, ginger can add flavor and aroma,” says Drummond.
Ginger adds to customer comfort at The Bamboo Club Asian Bistro of Phoenix-based multiconcept operator Main Street Restaurant Group. “Its taste is well-known to almost all of our guests,” says Ben McCarter, corporate executive chef for the 13-unit chain. “When they eat a dish that contains ginger, they have some recollection of having had that ingredient before. It’s essential to us that people are familiar with our flavors.”
Bamboo Club kitchens serve steamed halibut with ginger-garlic sauce and menu crispy whole red snapper in ginger-and-green-onion-infused oil. “When we want to add spice without a lot of lip-burning sensation, we add ginger,” says McCarter. “And if we prepare a French-influenced sauce, we put in some ginger to give it an Asian profile.”
Splendor in the Lemongrass
Lemongrass is a key ingredient in Asian dishes, its citrusy freshness adding complexity and depth to a range of preparations, both savory and sweet. “You don’t actually taste lemongrass,” says Ginger Cafe’s Chung. “But it makes dishes such as curries more complex.”
“I love lemongrass with curry,” says Roy Yamaguchi, founding chef-owner of the Honolulu-based Roy’s restaurant chain. “It’s a natural combination.”
Paper-thin slices of ginger, lemon juice and spices flavor salmon, hamachi and tuna in Chef Gene Kato’s Gingered Rainbow Carpaccio at Chicago’s Japonais.
Zao’s Maranghi takes lemongrass beyond curries. “It’s a phenomenal ingredient,” he says. “It stands out in high-heat cooking. Like ginger, it holds up well and adds a lot. And as a flavoring, it is very versatile. If something is garlicky, it’s garlicky. Lemongrass has much more range. It can be light or pronounced.”
Lemongrass goes into Zao’s sauté of five vegetables and tofu and is mixed with chiles to give kick to ginger-garlic chicken with prawn sauce. Bowls of lemongrass-coconut soup arrive garnished with a stalk of the herb.
At The Bamboo Club, lemongrass scallops with asparagus is one of the chain’s most popular dishes. “Lemongrass imparts the essence of citrus without the pungent, tart taste of lemon juice, which can overwhelm a dish,” says McCarter. “It works very well with shellfish because the faint citrus taste enhances the flavor of mollusks.”
Cooks at the eight Thai restaurants in the Minneapolis-based Sawatdee Restaurant chain toss thinly sliced lemongrass with lime juice and fish sauce to dress beef salad, chop stalks for stir-fries, and use the herb in a popular version of traditional tom yum soup along with kaffir lime leaves, chiles, lime juice, vegetables and seafood or meat.
“If you eat a lot of lemongrass, you will stay healthy,” promises Sawatdee founder Supenn Harrison. “It doesn’t just taste good, some say it helps cleanse the body.”
Ways With Wasabi
Japanese wasabi is a natural partner of sushi and sashimi, but the fiery condiment—sold in fresh, frozen, powder or paste versions—puts an Asian spin on other dishes as well.
The Bamboo Club stirs powdered wasabi into Asian-fusion risotto and dissolves wasabi paste in vinegar for pleasantly pungent vinaigrette that tops shellfish salad. At China Grill, wasabi adds spunk to sauce on barbecued salmon and marinade for lamb spareribs.
“It’s an upfront flavor,” says Drummond. “It opens up your nasal passages. It gives you a sense of false heat.”
Fresh wasabi, the most costly form, can be difficult to obtain. Frozen wasabi, while less expensive, still can dent a budget. Yamaguchi has the luxury of picking and choosing. “It depends on what I am using it for,” he explains. “Fresh is definitely the most intriguing, but it is not as spicy as other forms.”
Ginger-flavored broth surrounds beef, broccoli and udon noodles in a dish from fast-casual chain Chin’s Asia Fresh.
Fresh wasabi is readily available in Hawaii, and Yamaguchi reaches for it when preparing sashimi or sushi. “I want to taste the fish, and fresh wasabi is pretty mild, not hot or spicy,” he explains.
Frozen product is almost as good as fresh, according to Yamaguchi, and powder works well for many dishes. Wasabi paste ranks fourth on his list because he finds that it “has little body and sometimes tastes old.” Some powders and pastes are made from horseradish instead of wasabi.
“When I make a light dressing, with just a little soy and olive or macadamia oil, I use fresh or frozen grated wasabi,” Yamaguchi says. “But it’s a waste of money to use fresh wasabi and throw in a lot of soy sauce or other flavors.”
Kaffir Lime Light
Floral, fragrant and citrusy, kaffir lime leaves pair with lemongrass in Thai green-curry chicken at Zao Noodle Bar and season its coconut-lemongrass chicken. The chain buys fresh lime leaves and uses them with caution.
“Whenever you put kaffir lime in a dish, it’s going to be the key ingredient,” Maranghi explains. “We add it to the hot broth for our coconut-lemongrass chicken and it infuses the broth with potent flavor and aroma. It makes the dish.”
“You have to be very careful with kaffir lime,” agrees Yamaguchi, who flavors sauces and soups with kaffir lime leaves and minces them for a dressing to top calamari salad with rice noodles. “It has a very distinctive flavor.”
Chung mixes kaffir lime leaves with fish sauce for Thai chicken salad at Ginger Cafe, and boils them in chicken broth with shrimp and lemongrass for a flavorful soup.
At China Grill, Drummond stores kaffir lime leaves in the freezer and pulls them out as recipes require. “If we prepare pad thai, we use the leaf
to marinate the shrimp,” he says. “But you have to know what you’re doing. Once you add kaffir lime, you can’t take it out.”
To Market With Miso
Miso, a paste made from fermented soybeans, comes in colors from blond to red and brown. The lighter the color, the milder the flavor and less pungent the aroma, explains Drummond.
He uses blond miso in the sauce for the China Grill’s barbecued salmon and stirs it into grilled-vegetable-and-edamame risotto. At Ginger Cafe, Chung selects blond miso for traditional miso soup and mixes brown miso with sake for salmon marinade.
The Bamboo Club uses blond miso “a lot,” according to McCarter. “We make miso dressing for chicken salad and used miso in Chilean sea bass that was the top seller on a monthly menu.” The fish is marinated overnight in a mix of miso, sake, mirin and sugar, then pan-roasted with the same marinade. “We didn’t need to add sauce,” says McCarter. “It was just so good.”
The chain also uses miso in broth served with several noodle dishes and pan-roasted salmon. “It’s almost like anchovies in Caesar dressing,” says McCarter. “You know there is something there; you’re just not sure what it is.”
On the Menu
Asian ingredients find places on menus no matter the concept or industry segment.
The Beach House Restaurant, Poipu, Kauai, Hawaii
Beef sashimi carpaccio with spicy peanut-miso dipping sauce and a salad of figs, Maui onions and Japanese pears
Cafe Del Rey, Los Angeles
Teriyaki chicken with wasabi mashed potatoes
Emerson College, Boston
Asian-inspired red snapper in parchment, with mirin, lemongrass, ginger and Thai basil
Flanders Fish Market & Restaurant, East Lyme, Conn.
Pan-seared duck breast marinated in sake and lemongrass
Highland Lake Inn, Asheville, N.C.
Ginger-miso soup with tofu and shiitake mushrooms
Macalester College (Bon Appétit Management Co.), St. Paul, Minn.
Prince Edward Island mussels in spicy coconut and kaffir lime broth
1789 Restaurant, Washington, D.C.
Virginia Gerst is a Chicago-based freelance writer