With more Asian cities added to the Michelin Guide editions, the stature of Asian restaurants on the world stage is also rising. And the culinary might is unstoppable, says Priyanka Elhence.
The evolution of Asian cuisine, from street eats to fine dining fare
Think of Asian food and street eats like Indonesian satay ayam, Singaporeʼs chicken rice, Taiwanʼs liu sha fritters or Vietnamʼs banh tam bi come to mind. These countries have steadily evolved from street food desintations to gastronomic hubs. And chefs from around the world are taking notice, setting up their restaurants in the region at a dizzying speed.
The recent announcement of Gaggan’s fourth consecutive win of first place on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 list goes to show that there’s lasting appeal to Asia’s multifarious, Asianchef fronted restaurants. Chef-owner Gaggan Anand attributes the continent’s culinary transformation to its amassing wealth, a well-travelled population and more refined palates, resulting in the well-heeled demanding the same culinary standards as the Western world. Peruvian-japanese, mod-sin and Peranakan offerings are the current culinary trends. “Asian cuisines are the next big thing and everyone wants to find out more about their flavours, spices and ingredients – we’re finally getting the recognition we deserve,” says Malcolm Lee of one Michelin-starred Candlenut in Singapore. At Candlenut, diners enjoy an omakase tasting menu of Peranakan-inspired creations, through which he showcases the Indonesian buah keluak as both a dessert and a savoury sauce.
Asian techniques and flavours were also in the spotlight at last year’s Madrid Fusion, where kombucha, curry leaves, turmeric and curry pastes made using Indonesian-style pestle and mortars were commonly used throughout the event. At the October 2015 San Sebastian Gastronomika, Eneko Atxo from three Michelinstarred Azurmendi invited André Chiang for a collaborative Six Hands, 10-course dinner. It was also during this Gastronomika that Chiang expressed his desire to revive the long forgotten history of fermentation and show the world how far Asia could take the traditional preserving technique. It was after this that Chiang introduced ‘jus des idees’ at (the now defunct) Restaurant André, where he offered fermented juices as an alternative to wine pairings.
“Asian elements play a big role in my kitchen. We cook with miso and kimchi, and make our own tempeh but with local beans rather than soya,” shared Juan Roca of the legendary El Celler de Can Roca after a visit to Indonesia in 2016. Xavier Agulló, one of Spain’s leading food critics, also admitted that Asian flavours are very appealing to Western cultures because of the nuanced combination of the five notes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami.
Unsurprisingly, the number of Michelin-starred restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau has tripled over 10 years, and a CNN report last year shone the spotlight on Tokyo being a global culinary centre of excellence and the world’s greatest food city, surpassing Paris. The city boasted a staggering 226 Michelinstarred restaurants, compared to its nearest rival Paris, which only clocked in 94. Julien Royer of two Michelin-starred Odette echoed the sentiment, saying that it was not only the quality and variety of the produce resulting from Japan’s geography and the country’s four distinct seasons, but the pride that the people took in their regional produce and cooking styles. “The Japanese bring the same dedication, consistency and attention to detail, whether it’s a small neighbourhood kaiseki or sushi joint with only counter seats, or a big fine dining restaurant,” he says. I agree – it’s impossible to eat badly in Japan.
Whatever route this exciting new age of Asian cuisine takes, one thing is for certain – it’s going to stay close to its roots and traditions. Mingoo Kang, chef-owner of Mingles restaurant in
Seoul finds that the Korean dining scene has progressively become more vibrant, with chefs retaining their Korean heritage but adding an international flair to the cuisine. “People are inquisitive about this new cuisine and prefer to try Korean eateries rather than European fine dining restaurants. At Mingles, the last main course we serve is a traditional Korean table tray with rice, soup and many side dishes. This is what we are known for. It’s important to have national identity.”
Unafraid and unreservedly proud of their distinct and varied culinary cultures, and even of the cuisine’s percieved peculiarities, chefs in Asia are now stepping up to the plate to showcase local techniques and ingredients. Finally, the flag for Asian cuisine is flying high, and there’s no stopping its global upswing.