Looking at National Geographic doesn't cut it anymore: the kitchen is the new substitute for a plane ticket. Our world is constantly growing, business and pleasure are increasingly mobile and cuisine from all around the world is ripe for discovery.
Globally conscious customers are eager to try different styles of cooking, and popular dishes from around the world are increasingly appearing in catering. Luckily, caterers are masters of fusion, able to stir in spices from around the world while still pleasing their customers whose international tastes are not as developed.
We talked to caterers across the U.S. to see which cuisines are tempting their palates this year. Here are a few countries whose cuisine will inspire you, along with localized adaptations.
London is the hottest place in the world to be this summer. After all, it celebrated the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in June and will be host to the 2012 Olympic games later this month. With that, it's time for the world to throw away its preconceived notions of boring British food. The blood sausage and potatoes and curries are still there, but "London's been about the best city in the world to eat in for about the last three years," says Chef Andy Bonner of the University Park Country Club in University Park, FL.
Traditional shepherd's pie, says Bonner, "isn't something that you muck around with." It's ground lamb, peas and root vegetables covered in potatoes--deliciously filling whether you're out in the field tending sheep or creating an hors d'oeuvre for a party of 200.
It may rhyme with "nasty," but a Cornish pasty is a tasty pastry pocket filled with ground meat, potatoes and onions. It's also remarkably easy to adapt: Bonner has been filling pasties with chicken tikka, a creamy tomato classic Indian dish, or shrimp and scallops in a rich velouté sauce. Shrinking it down to mini size keeps it easy to eat and on-trend-- perfect for an Olympic-themed national treat.
Australia's not close to the UK in geography, but it unsurprisingly shares some similar cuisine. Sam Jackson, owner and chef at KO Catering and Pies in Boston, MA, notes that Australia is also increasingly global in flavor, due to its position as a melting-pot for immigrants and refugees. Asian influences are huge in Australian cuisine, particularly Chinese and Southeast Asian. But carefree attitudes still reign down under, and Jackson says, "Australian food is very laid back and easy to accept."
While acknowledging those global influences, KO focuses on one specific Australian tradition: the meat pie. Australian meat pies are meant to be hand-held, so they're only five inches in diameter. Fillings are made one day ahead of time and chilled so that they stay in the pie, then assembled and baked. It's easy to eat and fits in the palm of your hand--definitely casual, and perfect for a corporate lunch or an adventurous wedding party.
Catering chefs agree that in almost all markets, Mediterranean cuisine is still a hit. An area of the world that's lush with fresh ingredients and teeming with centuries of cultural inspiration, the Mediterranean boasts recipes and methods handed down through generations.
While we're still in love with caprese and Greek salads, here are some other directions to take your old world-themed dishes, from opposite ends of the Mediterranean Sea.
Distinctly different from Middle Eastern food--there's no hummus and no baba ghanouj --Moroccan cuisine is all based on stewing, says Alain Bennouna of Zitoune Moroccan Cuisine in Mamaroneck, NY. It's also spicy, in that it combines a wide variety of spices, but "it's not spicy hot," he says.
"We're particularly known for lamb, as well as fish," especially sardines, reports Bennouna. "But we eat almost everything." As in most Mediterranean countries, olive oil is a staple.
Named after the clay pot that it's cooked in, tagine is a general name for a Moroccan stew of vegetables and meat, with spice blends of garlic, saffron, ginger, cumin, paprika and herbs like oregano, among others. It's cooked for a long time so that spices blend together and create a depth of flavor, and the shape of the tagine pot allows steam to circulate without escaping. The longer a tagine pot is used, the more spices it absorbs--just like a well-seasoned cast iron skillet.
Ras el hanout is a Moroccan blend of seasonings used in tagines and other dishes. According to spice expert Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boîte á Epice in New York, NY, its name literally means, "the top of the store, which is the prize and glory of every spice merchant." Every spice merchant puts their own twist on the blend, says Sercarz, but it generally includes spices like cinnamon, clove, cumin and black pepper. In addition to tagines, Sercarz uses his version of ras el hanout in soups, salad dressings, braised meats and even baking.
Israeli and Middle Eastern
Every country's cuisine is firmly rooted in its history, and the relatively new country of Israel is no exception. "Because of its history of immigration from Jews all over the world, Israeli cuisine is Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, North African and Eastern European. It is really a fusion of all these world cuisines," says Vered Guttman, chef and owner of Cardamom and Mint Catering in Washington, DC, which specializes in contemporary and localized versions of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes.
Contemporary Israeli dishes
o Blackened salmon--an American fish--is served with labneh (Lebanese sour yogurt cheese) and pickle sauce.
o Pita chips and feta cheese update fattoush, a traditional Lebanese salad of day-old bread and vegetables that's spiced with sumac.
o Mediterranean classic Medjool dates are stuffed with Bûcheron goat cheese (traditionally French) and drizzled with olive oil.
o Chocolate-coffee mousse is served in espresso cups with cardamom, mimicking the traditional Middle Eastern treat of coffee spiced with cardamom.
o Zaatar is a Palestinian spice blend of dried thyme, oregano and marjoram used to flavor Guttman's chicken and pasta salad.
Traditional South African cuisine historically combines indigenous and colonial influences from Holland, Germany, France and Great Britain, along other flavors from around Africa, says Vicky Crease of Vicky Crease Catering and Events. "But by far, the most popular way of entertaining in our country is the casual braai, or barbeque, inspired by the great South African weather and the availability of fantastic quality cuts of meat." Crease marinates chicken and lamb cutlets before braai barbecues, and she always serves them with fresh salads.
South African terminology from Vicky Crease
o Pap: A maize porridge and a daily staple for much of South Africa
o Bobotie: Taken from Malay influence, a meatloaf with raisins and baked egg served with yellow rice and chutney
o Koeksisters: Very sweet deep fried pastries
o Potjiekos: African stew made in a cast-iron pot over hot coals
o Mashonzha: Mopane worms, for the more adventurous
o Ostrich: Ostrich meat stewed, filleted or grilled
In the past decade, increasing globalization has proved to the Western world that there is no such thing as a universally Asian style of cooking. The largest continent features a huge variety of cooking styles and ingredients, and Thai dishes are distinct from Szechuan cuisine, which is notably different from South Korean food. Each of these cuisines is taking its turn in the sun.
Vietnam's cuisine is becoming increasingly popular stateside, with tasty, fresh ingredients and delicious interpretations of Western classics. Executive Chef Paul Larson of Blue Plate Catering in Chicago notes that the northern part of Vietnam is historically influenced by Chinese cooking, and the southern portion draws from Cambodian and Thai cuisines. French colonization also informed Vietnamese cuisine: crusty bread and Western-style soups make Vietnamese cuisine unique in Asia. "As a whole, it pulls in tons of vegetables, herbs and a lot of aromatic flavors. And it's not necessarily cooked; there are a lot of pickled and raw vegetables." Lemongrass, cilantro, spicy chilies, mint and fish sauce are common ingredients.
Popular Vietnamese dishes:
o Bánh mì: "It's the Vietnamese Big Mac, if you will," jokes Larson. Incorporating the French baguette and pate along with fresh Vietnamese ingredients like cilantro and herbs, the bánh mì sandwich proudly wears its influences on its sleeve.
o Pho: Like bánh mì, there are a million variations, says Larson. Pho is a noodle soup that incorporates fresh herbs and vegetables, and can include a variety of meats.
Oaxaca is a state in Mexico that boasts native spices and chilies found nowhere else in the world, Oaxacan cuisine has distinguished itself in the U.S. Bricia Lopez, owner of Guelaguetza in Los Angeles, CA, says, "Oaxacan cuisine has a lot of tradition. These are ancient recipes, some of them pre-Colombian."
Some common Oaxacan dishes
o Tlayuda: A common street food in Oaxaca, it's a semi-crispy corn tortilla that looks like a pizza, covered with a pork rind paste, a black bean paste, cheese and cabbage, and then topped with a variety of toppings like chorizo or queso Oaxaca, a string cheese.
o Molote: These rolls of corn dough are stuffed with potato and chorizo and fried--ideal for catering because they're both tasty and hand-held.
o Moles: Oaxaca is called the Land of the Seven Moles, and these very complex sauces are all chili pepper-based, but that's where their similarities end. The Oaxacan moles all have different characteristics, classified by color: mole negro, colorado, amarillo, verde, chichilo, coloradito and mancha manteles.
o Mezcal: Distilled from the agave plant, mezcal is the smoky Oaxacan liquor whose bottles may possibly contain a worm. Mezcal cocktails are, unsurprisingly, very popular at Guelaguetza's events, says Lopez.
Although it's hard to say no to ceviche, there are many more flavors and dishes to discover in Peru, says Chef Elgin Woodman of A Joy Wallace in Miami, FL. "Each chili has a distinct flavor profile, and it's not just about spice," she notes. The aji amarillo has a full flavor that's used in almost every Peruvian dish, while the rocoto is known for its intense heat. "There are a lot of bold flavors in each dish in Peru," Woodman says.
Peru's cuisine is also influenced by a variety of world cultures. Lomo saltado, a Peruvian stir-fry, incorporates tastes from Chinese immigrants. Sweet squash fritters called picarones, on the other hand, derive from African cuisine--and they're delicious served with molasses. In addition to fresh seafood from Peru's coasts, street food abounds; while in Peru, Woodman tried sandwiches filled with fried pork, sweet potato chips and pickled onions. Italian, Japanese and, of course, Spanish influences also remain prominent throughout Peru's cuisine.
A Whole World to Discover
Learning about global cuisine is no longer about having the finest imported ingredients or expertly knowing how to use produce grown halfway across the world. It's about being aware of what's out there so you can incorporate global ingredients and cooking methods in your own menu items.
Arjan de Boer, world traveler, photographer and managing partner of Shoot My Food, predicts that in food culture worldwide, "National cuisines will be overtaken by regional cuisines. Draw a few circles of 300 km [180 miles] around your hometown and see what comes from there." But even as customers' requests for local ingredients are more common, they're also looking for the global flair they see on TV. The cuisine and ingredients from your own region is as important as that from a foreign country--but learning about global cooking styles and dishes is a good way to spice those local dishes up, literally and figuratively.
Originally published in Catersource magazine