Having recently visited the far other end of the Pacific Ocean for the first time, I feel energized to muse on the theme of eating in other countries (as I did similarly about Europe after traveling there last spring). Of course, Asia is a huge continent, and my experiences this time were focused on just two cities – but Tokyo and Hong Kong are two amazing, taste-making, trendsetting loci that deserve closer inspection, from the eyes and taste buds of a food marketer. Here are five intriguing ideas I brought back.
Subtlety: As a Zinfandel-loving Californian, I’ll admit I’m often guilty of expecting foods and drinks to pack a big wallop of flavor. What I was reminded of in Japan and China is that subtlety can be full of delight, just as well. There are countless preparations of soy-based dishes on local menus, yet each boasts its own delicate personality worth paying attention to. Same thing for tea. For those of us who aren’t connoisseurs, the brew can sometimes taste similarly beige, but when encouraged to close our eyes and engage our olfactory senses over a relaxed Kowloon meal, small but smile-inducing differences make themselves known. On this side of the ocean, we can learn a thing or two from mindful eaters.
Beauty: Not only are Asian dishes known to be aesthetically pleasing on the plate, but they sometimes also contain ingredients that supposedly benefit the eater’s own physical beauty. That selling point even became kind of a running joke during my travels: unfamiliar dishes were reassuringly described to me as “good for your skin.” The concept seems to have been just recently taking more hold in American culture, and I’d expect to see it increase. Outer beauty starts from within by eating the right foods.
Texture: We in the culinary communications industry often see “flavor trend forecasts” published in the media around this time of year, prognosticating what the nation’s tongues will be savoring as we turn the page on the calendar. Has anyone ever published a texture trend forecast? If not, I’ll tentatively put a stake in the ground and suggest that gummy and jelly-like food textures may become stylish, if slowly, in the United States if we follow cues from the East. When I find myself enjoying warm coconut soup filled with globules of bird nest and fat from frogs’ fallopian tubes (a real thing!), then the next step from our current delight over boba milk teas seems not so unrealistic.
Contradictions/contrasts: Hong Kong struck me as a sharp contrast of high end and low end cultures, slapped side by side onto a small piece of real estate. Tiffany jewelers on every corner? Check. Snack carts serving cheap fruit and animal parts on the same street corner? Check. The city has more than 200 Michelin-starred restaurants garnering a total of 60 stars, and even the brunch occasion of dim sum can be a posh experience if you want it to be. In a way, this reminds me of the high/low contrasts exploding today in American dining: humble ingredients elevated to star status with gourmet preparations. If this continues, an occasional taste of elegance can be within reach for nearly everyone.
Non-meat stars: While animal parts, especially seafood, seemed to rule the menus in Tokyo and Hong Kong, there were some standout vegetarian dishes that shine a light on “what could be” in the States. The simple pleasures of the stir-fried semiaquatic plant known there as “morning glory” (not to be confused with the purple vining flower we know here by that name) were an exciting discovery. There was also the “fake goose” Cantonese dumpling made with enoki mushrooms that wowed. Omnivorous Westerners, let’s continue accepting the delicious fact that plants can and do make wonderful centers of the plate!
Food for thought as we Connect with Purpose.
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