Dining

South by Southeast Asia

How Southern chefs are creating new classics with an Asian influence

The crab fat caramel-glazed chicken wings are a best seller at Hot Joy in San Antonio, and for good reason: Each bite is impossibly crunchy and addictively seasoned with fish sauce and crab paste, the Platonic ideal of fusion cuisine as contained within a bar snack.

Hot Joy chef Quealy Watson was introduced to Asian flavors through one of his first jobs, which happened to be at a Japanese restaurant. "Learning about different Asian cuisines is almost an intellectual pursuit," he explains. "I'm always discovering new flavors that challenge the palate." The Louisiana-born chef considers familiar dishes the natural starting point for experimenting with Asian techniques and ingredients. His dirty fried rice, for instance, consists of crispy fried rice cooked in a fragrant paste of browned chicken livers, jalapeño, shrimp, oyster sauce, ginger and beer.

Watson isn't the only chef tinkering at the nexus of two traditions. Southern cuisine is largely a combination of Native American, African and European influences as interpreted through locally available ingredients, so it's no surprise that new immigrant groups are leaving their mark. The South is currently home to some of the fastest-growing Asian-American populations in the country, resulting in a new kind of cross-cultural exchange. Whether incorporating ingredients, techniques or even cooking philosophies, many local chefs are turning to the vibrant culture of Asian cuisine for inspiration.

Kimchi deviled eggs | Photos: Courtesy of Sobban

At MoPho in New Orleans, the entire menu is based on the foods of Louisiana and Vietnam. The Gulf Coast is dotted with large Vietnamese-American communities, and chef Michael Gulotta considers the two cuisines natural partners. Both locales were once French colonies, have similar climates and plentiful access to fresh seafood.

Opening MoPho has inspired Gulotta, who worked for years as the chef de cuisine at John Besh's restaurant August, to create a series of new fusion-style dishes. "It's opened me up to a whole new world of flavors," he explains. The best example might be his po'boys, which come filled with things like "sloppy" roast duck or marinated tofu with black bean mayo and dressed with pickled vegetables and fresh herbs. Gulotta collaborated with a local bakery to design special rolls with the crackly crust of a bahn mi and the fluffy interior of po'boy bread to perfect the sandwiches.

The same holds true in Georgia, which has one of the fastest growing Korean-American populations in the country. At Heirloom Market in Atlanta, chef Cody Taylor combines the cuisines of two places with seemingly little in common: Texas and Korea. When Taylor and his wife, Jiyeon Lee, visited her Korean homeland, he did notice some similarities, though. "We went to all these little villages and saw them making gochujang (Korean red chili paste). It reminded me of a barbecue rub," he recalls. He decided to open a barbecue spot that incorporates Korean pantry items into the sauces and sides.

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Lee is the chef at the couple's other restaurant, Sobban, which relies on local Georgia ingredients to make Korean food with a Southern twist. Fortunately, the Southern proclivity for preserving corresponds perfectly with Korea's pickle-heavy cuisine. Kimchi is the most important ingredient in the restaurant's deviled eggs, and Lee also makes a Korean version of shrimp and "rice grits" using sushi-grade rice cooked with gochujang andouille.

Chefs Ek Timrerk and Bonnie Wright also make a version of this iconic Southern dish at Kin & Comfort, a counter-service joint tucked inside the food court of an Asian grocery store in Austin. For their tom kha shrimp and grits, Timrerk (of the now-shuttered Spin Modern Thai) relies on his Thai cooking expertise to create an extra-creamy coconut milk soup to act almost as a sauce for the grits. Wright, a Virginia native, adds country ham to impart an unmistakably Southern flavor that can stand up to other potent ingredients like lemongrass and galangal.

According to Timrerk, the secret to successfully combining two cuisines is understanding how different flavors balance and counteract one another. It's a challenge, but one that's worthwhile: "The result can lead you to a whole new world of delicious flavors," he says.

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