LET’S TALK TO MAI PHAM ABOUT...
southeast asian cuisine
Describe the cuisine.
Southeast Asian is similar to Chinese and
Indian, yet distinctively different. Much
of the cuisine is deeply rooted in Chinese,
with techniques such as stir-frying,
stewing and steaming. But our palate is
very different, and what distinguishes
Southeast Asian from others is the use of
small amounts of fish sauce as the main
seasoning. We love vibrant flavors that
come from chilies, lime, lemon grass,
tamarind, ginger, galangal and fresh herbs.
Talk about herbs and spices.
We use herbs in great quantities, not as
chiffonade but as whole sprigs. (Did you
know that the stems are more flavorful than
the leaves?) As for spices, we typically
roast them, then grind them fine and blend
them with aromatic roots and leaves such as
ginger, lemon grass and basil.
How about ingredients and
In Southeast Asian cuisine, most dishes
are stir-fried with a little oil, simmered
(like a curry), steamed or cooked in clay
pots. There’s really very little deep-frying,
which is usually a method favored in
restaurant kitchens. Because nothing is
cooked for a long time, the flavors of
spices and herbs are more “layered” and
discerning, opposed to being “rounded”
because of a long cooking process.
How about local/seasonal?
At our restaurants, we have a local grower
who supplies all our herbs year-round, and
we try to buy from local farmers whenever
possible. But Southeast Asian cuisine in
general relies heavily on produce, so if a
chef wants to showcase more vegetable
offerings, then our cuisine would be a
natural one to consider.
How does it measure up
I’d say Southeast Asian food as a general
category is among the most flavorful
in the world. It has the freshness that
customers want and demand. It’s a
treasure house of dishes that are lively
and boldly flavored—think luscious Thai
curries laced with chilies and coconut
milk, Vietnamese grilled pork with chili/
lime sauce, limey green papaya salad
with smoky, grilled prawns and peanuts,
wok-fried fresh rice noodles with roast
pork, etc. Also, a wonderful characteristic
about the cuisine is the way food looks.
On the plate, the ingredients tend to look
fresh and natural and not overly processed.
In my kitchen, we always ask our cooks
to not “touch” the food too much. I like
ingredients to look natural and the natural
flavors to come through along with all the
great spices and herbs.
What makes the cuisine
attractive to younger
I think young people today are much more
food savvy, and in many instances, quite
international, having grown up with these
foods at home. The new generation didn’t
necessarily grow up with mac ‘n’ cheese
or pizza. It could well be that they grew
up with pad thai, dhal with naan or salad
rolls. I definitely see that today’s young
people want more than Orange Chicken
and sushi. And so I think our Star Ginger
concept—which we like to refer to as
“next generation Asian”—is appealing to
campus dining as well as other venues.
MAI PHAM IS CHEF/O WNER OF LEMON GRASS RES TAURAN T, LEMON
GRASS ASIAN GRILL & NOODLE BAR AND S TAR GINGER, SACRAMEN TO,
CALIF. SHE IS A JAMES BEARD AWARD- WINNING COOKBOOK AU THOR.
Salmon with Green Curry and Asian Noodle Salad