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Has Asia's local produce become a new age luxury?

Has Asia's local produce become a new age luxury?

Rarely known local produce has been trending in the most creative kitchens of Asia, and diners are also increasingly in the hunt to pay for them.

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In this era of globalized food culture, the seemingly best ingredients – A5 Japanese wagyu beef, albino sturgeon caviar, and ethically cultivated foie gras – can aptly make their ways onto dining tables at any corner of the world. This, however, is no longer considered the most sought after by luxury diners in Asia. The term "endemic produce" has brusquely entered the marketing glossary of fine dining establishments. To make an example out of this, a recent Instagram post of Inua – a brand new restaurant in Tokyo by Noma alumnus Thomas Frebel – intrigues its enthusiastic likers with a lithium grey, alien-looking octopus that is a result of a katsuobushi-like experiment on drying, smoking, and fermentation. In such case as this, experimentation on ‘endemic produce’ is taken to the most imaginative extreme, characterizing diners’ pursuit for the never-before-seen as new luxury food items.

What is "endemic produce"?

Endemism is the ecological state of a species being unique to a geographic location. In restaurant reality, where meanings are becoming proliferative, use of endemic produce refers broadly to a sourcing phenomenon where rare and local produce are fast-tracked to paying diners. This phenomenon, however, will not be entirely faddish or a result of clever marketing exercises. Conversation with Asia’s leading chefs, many of whom have pioneered research and cook with endemic produce available in the farther corners of the continent, reveals a shared ethos that helps transform these unique and unknown ingredients for fine dining lovers.

The whole point of using endemic produce is to introduce something different to diners in a meaningful way,” says Werawat ‘Num’ Triyasenawat, whose obscurely located restaurant Samuay & Sons in Thailand, has made a debut on the "long list" nomination for the inaugural World Restaurant Awards. “My restaurant is outside Bangkok, in the Northeast of Thailand. I benefit a lot from this ecology. We not only select our ingredients at wet markets but also forage from the woods nearby. These are ingredients that diners cannot find outside this region,” Num explains.

“Folks in the Northeast are more familiar with bitter and astringent taste than those living in other parts of Thailand. When the produce we cook has inherent bitterness, I will not try to make them become universal taste”, says Num. There, it is also believed that bitter and astringent taste helps restore bodily balance. As Num was born in Thailand’s Northeast, he is committed to keeping this tradition of taste alive: “To use endemic produce, we do it according to our local wisdom. Without one or the other, the food won’t make sense and you are destroying a tradition that has been laid down by nature and by the people who come before you”.

First of all: respect

Chele Gonzalez, who pioneers aboriginal food research in the Philippines, also believes chefs should use endemic produce respectfully. “Preserving traditional and old recipes is a strong part of sustainability. It is not just about endemic ingredients,” argues Chele. “When I make a dish, I don’t start thinking up flavor combinations or playing around with ingredients”. In Filipino cooking, sourness is one of the most apparent tastes. Chele continues, “When I met the Aetas, one of the aboriginal communities, during my first visit to Pampanga, they taught me to cook using bamboo and showed me various leaves they would use to add different notes of sourness. For fish, they use pingol bato (begonia). For pork, they use alibangbang (bauhinia)”. At Gallery by Chele, the kitchen serves up a dish called Binulo – suckling pig paired with essence of alibangbanginnovating from tribal knowledge.

At the core of endemic-cum-luxury phenomenon is innovation vis-à-vis tradition. “We use endemic produce and the wisdom that comes with it as a way to reclaim our tradition but we keep the style of fine dining,” says Mingoo Kang of Mingles, recently awarded its second Michelin star. However, shifting from euro-centric cooking to using endemic produce and local techniques has not been so simple to Kang. Local diners first challenged his re-launched menu that was entirely dairy-free. “At Mingles, we look for the balance of Korean and west. I was trained as a western chef but I also studied hansik cuisine (traditional Korean fine dining) as well as temple food. When I stopped using butter and cream, diners felt uneasy”. The balance of East and West can be seen in Kang’s delicate dishes, such as abalone and cabbage. The dish is served with miniature "bread" prepared using leftover fermented rice and fashioned into a form of tteok (Korean rice cake).

At L’ Effervescence in Tokyo, crowned with the Sustainable Restaurant Award at Asia's 50 Best Restaurant 2018, chef Shinobu Namae sees an opportunity to re-orient his cosmopolitan diners with a local tradition that otherwise would disappear in the fast-changing world. “I do not cook Japanese food but I think it is important to understand the origin of Japanese produce and use them imaginatively in western-centric cooking,” argues Namae. Heritage food products, such as daitokuji natto – made for centuries at a particular temple in Kyoto and from mixing, fermenting and sun-drying soybean with toasted barley powder – have become the stable in Namae’s larder. “From my experience, daitokuji natto has strong amino acid – savoury, salty and with a bit of sourness from fermentation,” Namae explains, “All it needs is sweetness from mirin to balance out the flavours as a sauce. This sauce ends up tasting like Marmite. I pair it with fatty bonito. Since daitokuji natto is made in the middle of summer and finished in autumn. It signals the arrival of autumn and winter”.

The pursuit for sustainability

According to Will Goldfarb, the rise of endemic produce in fine dining intertwines with the pursuit for sustainability. “First and foremost, we want to make sure that we are using everything around us to the best of our ability”, as Goldfarb makes references to rustling coconut trees that surround Room4Dessert. In Ubud, Goldfarb forsakes granulated "western" sugar in favor of palm sugar. “We have an obsession with our environment here. At the same time, we want to make sure that we are making people happy. And, to make people happy, it helps to have references to memory – I am also old, and I like old-fashioned things like meringue and whipped cream”. This put Goldfarb into a path to innovate ingredient-based techniques, which has also led to his creation of low-sugar Balinese meringue, using palm sugar.

More radical approaches are being taken at GAA. Mumbai-born Garima Arora makes a bold statement not only with her choice of obscurely known local produce but also by fusing her Indian root with an ethos akin to Noma, where she has previously worked as sous chef. Arora bakes unripe jackfruit – an ingredient alien to Bangkokian taste buds but regularly featured in northern Thai cooking – and serves with roti and pickles. On another occasion, she flavors it with brown butter and scallop caramel. “Produce like this are not used to make headlines,” argues Arora, “I moved to Thailand only a few years ago. Most of the time I am cooking these ingredients without a point of reference. A phenomenon like this is a reminder that these products exist, that we have these completely new flavors to communicate with diners”.

This connection is necessary at many levels. In fact, innovative chefs have been playing a big part in connecting luxury diners with hunters, gatherers, and new age farmers. “I opened my own restaurant in Taiwan because it is an island of great diversity,” says Richie Lin of MUME, “I am also fascinated by Taiwan’s aboriginal culture. The aboriginal is here in this land long before the Chinese arrived in the 17th century, and they lived with the land. Many ingredients they use were never commercially known”. At an aboriginal restaurant in Hualian, Lin tasted magao, which is wild pepper widely used by the Atayal tribe. “Ever since, we have been experimenting with magao – drying, making oil, infusing them in broth, and making ice cream. There are more and more farmers trying to cultivate wild vegetable that are parts of the aboriginal culture”.

“Chefs should use endemic produce with common sense, not to hype them. It is not about who can Instagram the rarest produce they have in their kitchen and move on to the next,” argue Duangporn "Bo" Songvisava and Dylan Jones of Bo.Lan and co-founders of {Re} Food Forum. “The more these products enter the cooking repertory, the more chance it can become part of sustainable agriculture. We not only maintain our roots and tradition but promote stability in agricultural communities”.


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