Despite All The Latin Flare, Asian Food Thrives In Miami

Nov 14, 2013

Hakkasan chefs served grilled chicken dumplings and mini truffles with chicken buns at last year's Lucky Rice festival.
Credit David Samayoa

Although less than 2 percent of Miami-Dade County's population is Asian-American, Danielle Chang, founder of the Lucky Rice Festival, decided her party had enough appeal last year to come back to Miami Beach for a second round.

The festival, happening Friday, Nov. 15., celebrates Asian food and culture in a few major cities across the country, including New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. All three of those places have more Asian flavor in their culture than Miami or Miami Beach.

"But for us, it fits," Chang says. "We look for interesting cities with dynamic food cultures."

Although Lucky Rice celebrations vary in local flavor, the premise is the same in each city: Chefs from local restaurants serve Asian-inspired dishes, local bartenders serve cocktails to match the theme and one or two food personalities -- the likes of "Iron Chef" Masaharu Morimoto -- are flown in as guests.

Chang doesn't just go by numbers when deciding what city her festival will visit -- she says she sees an openness in Miami's residents that also makes this place a good choice.

"People from Argentina are different from Colombians, who are different from the Cubans or Mexicans," she says. "Even though it doesn't have a huge Asian population, that doesn't mean Miami is not an international, cosmopolitan city. "

Chang points to Houston, where the U.S. Census measured the growing Asian population at 6 percent in 2010.

"For example, Houston is a very diverse city -- number-wise," she says. "But I don't consider it an international city in the same way that Miami is. "

Bartender Cricket Nelson (rear) served cocktails with ingredients like jasmine tea reduction, Thai basil and Madras curry powder at the 2012 Lucky Rice Miami festival.
Credit David Samayoa

This year's event is hosted by chefs Michael Schwartz, James Beard Foundation Award winner and chef-owner of four Miami restaurants, and Masaharu Morimoto, Iron Chef and owner of Morimoto restaurants throughout the country. Morimoto plans to open a restaurant at the Shelborne in Miami Beach soon.   

The pantheon of restaurants serving food at Friday's festival includes Khong River House, The Setai and Phuc Yea! The Bazaar by Jose Andres will serve a regular menu item -- kueh pah ti, a Singaporean street snack made up of small wonton cups filled with shrimp and peanuts.  

Chang points out that a growing number of U.S. restaurants that do not brand themselves as Asian have added Asian-inspired foods to menus, due to a mushrooming culinary influence.

The Bombay Blossoms cocktail by bartender Cricket Nelson: Bombay Sapphire East gin, spiced plum wine reduction, sweet jasmine tea syrup, fresh lemon juice, orange blossom honey air, orange flower water and garnished with Thai basil
Credit David Samayoa

Chang wants the Miami celebration to acknowledge the intersections between Asian and Latin American cultures.

"The theme for the night is chili-pepper red," Chang says, "in a nod to the overlaps between Asian and Latin American food. There are really so many -- papaya, coconut milk, cilantro, chilies."

In a playful homage to Thailand and Cuba, Calle Ocho's Azucar Ice Cream Company will serve sticky rice topped with sweet black beans and mango ice cream. "Arroz con mango" or "rice with mango," is a Cuban saying used to describe a situation that has unraveled or become complicated.  It's not actually a dish eaten in Cuba, although in Thailand sticky rice with mango is a popular dessert.

There will also be a pig roast in a caja china, the wooden box most commonly seen in Miami at Cuban food celebrations. The chefs will add their own rubs and spices, such as Chinese five-spice, to the traditional Latin-Caribbean pork dish.

Lucky Rice's Danielle Chang doesn't have a problem with "fusion" or "pan-Asian" cuisine, approaches viewed as passé in some culinary circles. 

I think in Miami, more so than in cities like L.A. and San Francisco, restaurants tend to be more pan-Asian. So we want to reflect that. 'Fusion' makes sense when it refers to tradition. I think a Cuban-style fried rice is authentic -- there were Chinese immigrants who came to Cuba to work and they brought their food. 

Or, for example, Peruvian traditional cuisine has influences from indigenous, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese cultures. It ia fusion but it's part of the tradition.

It's not chefs putting together mashed potatoes and wasabi and trying to make something fun -- this kind of food is more from decades of trade and immigration.

Chang thinks the culture meld might be why her Lucky Rice Festival is well received in Miami.

"The festival has been successful and people want to come out despite the fact this food is not what they grew up with," she says. "I think it's an open-minded attitude toward diversity. That makes Miami an international city."

Lucky Rice Miami will go on from 7:30 to 11 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15, at the Raleigh Hotel, 1775 Collins Ave., Miami Beach.

This is a guest post from WLRN contributor Trina Sargalski's food and drink blog, Miami Dish. She is also the Miami editor for Tasting Table. You can  follow her at @MiamiDish on Twitter.