This is an excerpt from a piece about Asian dining trends, published in the April 2000 edition of Wine & Dine Magazine; it was subsequently awarded the Best Food and Beverage Article trophy by a jury of F & B professionals at the World Gourmet Summit Awards of Excellence 2001.

With a view to getting a verbal snapshot of then-current developments in the local and regional food scene, six of us on the editorial team collected observations and conducted interviews with key personalities of the food world, and I wrote the entire final text based on all of these.

All text © Christopher Tan. Reproduction without permission is forbidden.

the state of the plate: Asian dining trends


the elementary school

The return to simplicity is a theme we find increasingly discernible from menus, cooking styles, and popular dishes across the region, arid one on which there are many variations. Perhaps the degree of enforced austerity resulting from the economic downturn has made us eschew the fancy for the plain; but then again, simple food seems to be making a comeback all over the world.

“I think we are still on a back to basics road, with the emphasis on great products prepared simply and true to their nature," says Rainer Zinngrebe, executive chef of the Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur. "What great cuisine is about," emphasises Vincent Bourdin, Valrhona Far East's regional pastry consultant, "is to use the best product that you can…the most important thing is definitely the ingredients. I think Brillat Savarin once said, 'Ingredients are the kings, chefs are the servants. It’s like with a piece of jewellery, if you have a magnificent stone, you're going to put it in the middle, and that's it. It's enough by itself."

Chef de cuisine of Sydney's Forty-One restaurant and culinary consultant to Singapore's Shrooms, Dietmar Sawyere reports: “In Sydney here has been a swing back to French cuisine and back to the simplicity of foods. Exotic combinations are in decline and technique and quality of ingredients are making a big comeback.” In Shanghai, the Xian Chiang Fong chain of restaurants is proving that homestyle dishes like claypot turtle stew can and do pull in the crowds, and "in Hong Kong, people are going back to traditional Cantonese cooking with clear, simple flavours, " says Hoi Wing Ki, masterchef of Li Bai at the Sheraton Towers Singapore. "They place high emphasis on wok aroma and expertise in long stewing and braising," adds Tse Wai Shing, masterchef of Singapore's Club Chinois.

"It's food which everybody understands!" reasons Otto Weibel, president of the Singapore Chef's Association. "It's simple food. Normally, you like what your mother cooks, right?" Even in the professional realm, says frequent culinary competition judge Weibel, "We want to get away from 'chi-chi' food, playful food. We want simple food that's colourful, clean and has the right nutritional factors. We don't want food which has been handled ten times."

There might be a current craze in chefs' circles to import laboratory equipment into the kitchen – thanks largely to Barcelona's El Bulli restaurant, whose executive chef Ferran Adria's avant-garde tapas creations include agar-agar 'noodles' and ravioli of paper-thin squid filled with hot coconut milk – with which they can titrate soups and jellify stocks and foam up just about anything; but while textures run amok, flavours stay very much grounded. "Ferran inspired me towards a new direction, that food need not always be just like this or this, you can turn it upside down and your guests will be fascinated," says Justin Quek, chef de cuisine at Singapore's Les Amis and Au Jardin Les Amis. "But the tastes are still traditional."

the other bits

One element of the back-to-basics movement that we heartily cheer is the growing appreciation of formerly neglected animal parts. Steaks aren't all, y'know; “I seem to have seen lamb shank on a lot of menus recently!" says Teng Wee Jeh, Malaysian wine distributor and restaurateur, and Alan Palmer, managing director of Palm Tec and food consultant confirms: "There is nowadays an emphasis on trying to develop recipes with what we used to call "cheaper cuts" in the past, for example lamb shank, beef knuckles, pork knuckles." These longtime staples of rustic and homestyle cuisine in both East and West are being jazzed up for slightly posher surroundings; here at Wine & Dine we could cite you half-a-dozen examples that we came across during a recent fortnight's worth of restaurant meals. "Thank God we have not managed to produce cattle which only have tenderloins and sirloins, they still come with shoulders and legs and tails and bellies!" enthuses Georg Raudaschl, chef and owner of Chef G's in Singapore. "So many more textures and different tastes.”

the world is not enough

We reported last year that "Hard on the heels of the hybrid-food wave is one with ethnic purity and diversity as its focus." It's official; the authentic ethnic tide is in.

The traditional cuisines of more and more countries are invading the Asian region. A corollary of the falling of travel and communication boundaries is the thirst for knowledge and discovery, and this includes the gastronomical kind. "Education is getting better, there is an urge to study more in detail, to preserve authentic flavours, " says Jan Gundlach, executive chef of the Raffles Singapore. "It always has happened ... but we have better resources today, faster information.'

"There will be a lot more ethnic cuisine, people will train themselves to tell the difference between a Cambodian dish and a Vietnamese dish, teach themselves to pronounce the names right. People will dine much more globally, for every ethnic group there will be a market., " forecasts Raudaschl. "There was fear that fusion cuisine would take over ethnic traditional cooking," he says, "which of course is not the case and never will be the case. For fusion cooking there is only so big a market, and for traditional cooking the market is 80 – 100 times bigger. Ethnic cooking will always be there because it is very good food...People will pay more attention to this in the future."

Discernibly trendy cuisines and cooking styles in this corner of the world right now include Mediterranean, which is everywhere: Middle Eastern, a slow and steady invader; modern Australian, whose bright, fresh. intense flavours, lightness on the stomach, and frequent inclusion of Asian ingredients make it particularly popular in Hong Kong and Singapore; Indochinese, which is taking advantage of palates already too familiar with Thai food (Vietnamese eateries are sprouting on corners in Sydney and Singapore): and authentic regional Chinese food, which has always had its audience, but which now "people are definitely more appreciative of," confirms Daniel Koh, director of culinary development of Singapore's Intermezzo.

small is big

The lines between appetiser and main course are being blurred these days, with more and more restaurants composing - or allowing diners to compose for themselves multi-course degustation menus of small tastes. After his visit to El Bulli, where "I saw the way they integrate food... rather than an a la carte, they did a 18-course set lunch, tiny bites well presented," Quek worked a similar magic on his menus for Au Jardin Les Amis.

The idea in itself is nothing new. "Asians like to graze, it's a natural reflex!" says ex-restaurant public relations manager and "full-time leisure foodie" Sharon Tan, as anyone who's had dim sum or a classical Japanese kaiseki will understand. The latter in particular may be considered the ultimate in a tasting menu, with a succession of many courses each exquisitely presented and distinctly flavoured, yet all fitting harmoniously together into the singular flow of the meal. It's not hard to see the benefits of such an approach, from both sides of the kitchen counter: it allows chefs full exercise of their creativity; the numerous dishes lets them show off their range; and diners get variety without having to plough their way through full-size portions.


Pro(fusion)s and con(fusion)s

Apologies if the sight of the F-word causes you offence, but it is clear that fusion, a niche market but a thriving one, is here to stay. Although these days, it checks in under different names; most restaurants and chefs seem to be avoiding overt use of the word at all nowadays, preferring to speak of 'Asia-Pacific' or 'trans-ethnic' or 'contemporary Asian' cuisine, or other words spliced together as imaginatively as the flavours they refer to are.

Though perhaps splice is the wrong word. Most chefs and restaurateurs concur that proper fusion does not simply graft bits of cuisines together willy-nilly, but must be rooted in something.

Insists president of Singapore's Tung Lok Group Andrew Tjioe, "Just like a story, fusion must have a main theme, a base. You cannot leave it hanging in the end. You cannot be telling people different things and confusing them!" Georg Raudaschl. who is particularly vocal about this, states that fusion is the techniques of one cuisine applied to the ingredients of another. For instance. "if you are a Western chef in India, you can cook Indian fusion: cook what you want to cook, use their spices and vegetables but entirely with your own techniques that you would use to cook Western food. This is something ethnically right, because you're a foreigner cooking in a different market, so to speak." (Does this mean that the ersatz Mediterranean food unfortunately all over Asia at the moment is actually, to use a rather unfortunate American fusion buzzword, 'Mediterasian'?)

Much like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when fusion is good, it's very, very good, but when it "goes wrong it goes very, very wrong, everything, taste, texture, presentation,” sighs Raudaschl. "I've seen some very ugly dishes, I can tell you.” We second that. Because of the whiz-bang excitement generates the media and the seemingly limitless creative opportunities affords, fusion is often eagerly embraced by young chefs lacking the experience to carry it off. The problem is, says Raudaschl, "There's no one to teach them the things you have to know before you can do fusion. For example, you have to know Indian, Malay Chinese cooking in order to use their ingredients in the right way so that the outcome is something which makes sense. On a broad scale, this knowledge is not available.'

The food professionals we spoke to agreed to a man that fusion is difficult to get right. "It requires exceptional skill to find the right balance; too often it ends up as too tricksy and gimmicky,’ says Teng Wee Jan. "Doing fusion is like prescribing Chinese herbs. You need to know the types of herbs, combinations and quantities to achieve the right 'cure'," affirms Tse Wai Shing, who goes on, "I'm proud that I'm doing fusion cooking and not embarrassed to declare that I'll persevere with the kind fusion I'm doing - and that is fine Chinese cooking with a twist.

Raudaschl: "People have to practise it and be responsible make sure that it doesn't go in the wrong direction." The right direction, according to Mark Freeland and Ken Hoh, general manager and chef respectively of Cilantro in KL, is "refined, simple balanced and wine-friendly." Can we all say amen to that?