© Kate HazellIn this essay, writer Josh Ozersky tells why US restaurant-goers are trying the real flavors of this region. Read More >
The Path to Southeast Asia

© Kate Hazell

Inside the August issue: Writer Josh Ozersky explains why US restaurant-goers are trying the real flavors of this region.

Two generations ago, American chefs looked to France for technique; a subsequent generation headed to Italy to absorb its aesthetic of seasonal, rustic simplicity. Today, Asia—especially its southeast corner—is inspiring young chefs, many of whom have no Asian heritage to speak of. Harold Dieterle, for instance, always loved Thai food and included hints of Asian ingredients (some fried watercress here, a little Thai basil there) in otherwise American dishes at his first New York City restaurant, Perilla, launched in 2007. But when he opened Kin Shop two years ago, he delved more deeply into the complex flavors of Thailand: a rare duck breast anointed with a fiery red curry, a fried-pork-and-oyster salad redolent with mint, chiles and lime juice. In Portland, Oregon, and a new outpost in Brooklyn, New York, Andy Ricker’s boozy, rambunctious Pok Poks are creating a frenzy for the intensely sour, spicy and funky flavors of northern Thailand; his papaya salad, for instance, is tossed with insane amounts of chiles and salted black crab.

American restaurant-goers, who not long ago were wary of anything wilder than pad thai (which neither Dieterle nor Ricker serve), are ready to follow the chefs as they amp up their dishes with volcanic heat, punches of fish sauce and a freakish, wondrous range of novel ingredients, from anise-scented shiso leaves to tangy, savory tamarind paste. Chefs don’t have to tone down the spices, trim the fat or take out the bone; they are working at full force, as aggressive as the flavors that still haunt them from their travels through southeast Asia. This food is not for people who worship three-ingredient pastas with tomato sauce, but these days, where a bold chef goes, adventurous eaters will follow. And if the path leads to pungent fermented crabs, dried shrimp, fiery chiles and roast pigs glazed with coconut milk, so much the better.

Josh Ozersky writes the “Taste of America” column for Time.