Finding star fruit, cilantro, coconut milk and hoisin sauce right there in the aisles of your neighborhood supermarket should be the tip-off: As they did with Italian food in the '70s and '80s, and Mexican food in the '80s and '90s, Americans are embracing a new ethnic cuisine with enthusiasm.
The latest countries to make their presence felt on the culinary map are those of the western edge of the Pacific Ocean: Japan, China, Vietnam, Thailand.
While consumers have happily dined on such Eastern staples as ketchup, noodles, iced tea and ginger ale for decades, a wider array of produce, and packaged, prepared and convenience foods from those four Asian countries is beginning to be common on grocery shelves.
It means carambola (star fruit), the parsley-like cilantro and even lemon grass on produce counters, and curry pastes, jasmine rice and teriyaki sauce with vegetables in packaged food aisles. It means Wesson Stir-Fry Oil, seasoned with sesame, garlic and ginger, and A Taste of Thai, from Andre Prost Inc., with a whole line of Thai foods and ingredients from curry bases to fish sauce to coconut milk to jasmine rice. It means Szechuan Hot & Spicy Vegetables and Sauce from House of Tsang, a division of Hormel.
"Thai [cuisine] is the newest example of fascination with the Far East that's always been part of our culture," said Joshua Isenberg, associate editor of the Food Channel, a Chicago-based publication that tracks food trends and their origins.
Asian food has "an amazing balance of flavors," he said. "Generally speaking, it's not spicy [hot], it's not scary, and the ingredients may be strange, but they're not ugly."
In addition, Americans are traveling more, and encountering new flavors; and successive waves of immigration from China, Japan and Vietnam have exposed Americans to flavors from those countries.
"Everybody likes Asian food," said Jerry Edwards, owner, with his wife Judi, of Chef's Expressions catering in Timonium.
"What you're seeing is the further definition of 'Asian' foods -- into Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese cuisines. It's the same style of cooking, but different flavors."
Asian tastes are more popular in the catering field, as well, he said. "Oriental food used to be one station in a buffet, but now we do a complete Oriental party. Five years ago we wouldn't have been able to sell that to save our souls."
Among Asian items showing up on Chef's Expressions' menus are pork loin on wild rice cakes with hoisin sauce (Chinese), tempura (Japanese), and fried won ton topped with shredded marinated turkey in a soy-peanut sauce (Thai).
Mr. Edwards attributed some of the current popularity of Asian food to its ease of preparation. "These days, people only have 30 to 40 minutes to prepare dinner. Asian food is very easy -- there's no oven, not a lot of pans -- you just stir-fry right on top of the stove."
"Asian influence has been here since the Chinese came over during the Gold Rush to help build the railroads," said Mr. Isenberg, tracing the growing popularity of Asian food in U.S. history. Those early Chinese workers didn't have a lot of belongings, he said, "but they always had their wok, and they always had a handful of garlic and maybe some black bean paste."
Early "Chinese" foods were not especially authentic, he said, but reflected the immigrants' attempts to create familiar dishes with ingredients from the new land. When work on the railroads was complete, Chinese established some of the earliest ethnic restaurants in the New World.
"Every new ethnic trend begins at the restaurant level," said Charles Landrey, co-owner of A Taste of Thai, a Connecticut food distributor. He and his father discovered Thai food at a restaurant in Washington, a few years ago and launched A Taste of Thai when they couldn't re-create the restaurant meals at home.
"We went to Thailand and started knocking on doors, saying, we want to sell Thai food to Americans in groceries."
Today A Taste of Thai includes about three dozen products that are in supermarkets across the country.
A few years ago Hormel, the Minnesota-based meat-products distributor, bought a company called House of Tsang, which had a line of flavored cooking oils and sauces, and has just come out with four vegetable-and-sauce combinations in jars. Consumers add meat or seafood to the contents of the jar in a skillet and come up with a meal for six in about five minutes. (Baltimore is one of six areas where the sauce products are being test marketed.)
Wesson sees its new Stir-Fry Oil as part of an even larger trend. "People are becoming more experimental," said Kay Carpenter, a spokesman for Wesson. "They're looking to more ethnic foods for variety, for a new way of preparing foods that's healthy. It's the whole idea of stir-frying. People don't think of it as Oriental food, but as a quick and easy way to cook."
Here are some recipes that use Asian ingredients. Most of the ingredients should be available in supermarkets; if you can't find something, try gourmet and specialty ethnic food shops. A Taste of Thai also sells by mail order; call (800) 243-0897.
The first recipe is from Mr. Edwards, and is a popular appetizer for catered Oriental meals.
Pan-Pacific Canapes With Peanut Sauce
24 won ton skins
vegetable oil for frying
4 ounces smoked turkey
1/4 cup peanut sauce (recipe follows)
1/4 cup combined julienne carrots, zucchini, and cucumber
Cut the won ton skins on the diagonal into triangle-shaped quarters. Fry the skins in the vegetable oil over medium heat until crisp. Remove and drain on paper towels.
Place a small amount of peanut sauce on the won ton triangles. Top with a slice of smoked turkey cut to fit the triangle, and top with a little more sauce. Garnish the tops with the julienne mixture in a criss-cross pattern. Serve at room temperature.
Makes about 1 cup
1/4 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup tahini
1 1/2 ounces soy sauce
pinch of red pepper flakes
1 ounce hoisin sauce
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan. Heat, stirring, over medium heat until sauce is smooth.
The next recipe was developed by noted Thai chef and restaurateur Tommy Tang for Wesson.
Crazy Nuts Chicken
2 tablespoons stir-fry oil
1/2 cup or 7 ounces diced chicken breast
1/2 cup unsalted macadamia nuts
1/2 cup unsalted cashew nuts
6 whole, small dried chilies
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
1/2 cup diced green bell pepper
1/2 cup diced brown onion
1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce seasoning
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon Thai roasted chili paste
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 cup diced scallion
Heat stir-fry oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add chicken, cook and stir for one minute.
Add macadamias, cashews and dried chilies, stirring constantly for 1 minute.
Add all remaining ingredients and cook, stirring constantly 2 minutes.
Transfer to a platter and serve. Serve this dish with a side of jasmine rice, brown rice or pasta.
The next recipe is from "Fusion Food Cookbook," by Hugh Carpenter and Teri Sandison (Artisan, 1994, $35).
Pasta Salad With Asian Peanut Dressing
Serves 4 to 6 as side dish
1/2 pound dried, tricolor spiral pasta
1 tablespoon safflower oil
1/2 bunch pencil-thin asparagus
1 medium carrot
1 small red bell pepper
1 cup matchstick-cut fennel root
1/2 cup matchstick-cut Japanese or hothouse cucumber
1/4 cup raw hazelnuts
6 tablespoons chunky peanut butter
1/4 cup boiling water
1/2 cup coconut milk
finely grated or minced zest from 1 lime, plus 3 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons heavy soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
1 teaspoon Asian chili sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons very finely minced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, very finely minced
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Drop pasta into 6 quarts lightly salted, rapidly boiling water. Over highest heat, cook according to manufacturer's instructions, about 8 minutes, until firm but no longer raw-tasting. Tip pasta into a colander and rinse under cold water and drain thoroughly. Stir oil into the pasta to prevent sticking.
Snap off and discard asparagus ends. Bring 2 quarts water to a boil, stir in asparagus, and cook until they brighten; immediately transfer to a bowl filled with cold water and ice. Leave the boiling water in the pot. When the asparagus is cool, cut into 2-inch lengths.
Peel carrot and cut on a sharp diagonal into 1/8 -inch thin slices; overlap the carrot slices and cut into 1/8 -inch thin matchsticks. Place the carrots in a sieve and pour the hot asparagus water over them; immediately transfer carrots to a bowl of ice water.
When they are chilled, pat carrots dry with paper towels and set aside. Stem, seed and cut bell pepper into 1/8 -inch thin matchsticks. Set aside fennel root and cucumber. Place hazelnuts on a baking sheet and put in the heated oven for about 15 minutes, until golden. Cool and set aside.
For the dressing: In a bowl, combine the peanut butter with the boiling water and stir until evenly mixed. add all of the remaining ingredients, stir well, then taste and adjust seasonings. The recipe to this point can be completed up to 8 hours in advance of serving.
To serve, bring all the ingredients and the dressing to room temperature. Combine pasta, vegetables, and nuts so they are evenly mixed. Add the dressing and stir again. Serve at room temperature.