New Flavors in the Melting Pot
In an invigorating East-West fusion, the piquant cuisines of the Pacific Rim (Thai, Korean, Vietnamese...) renew nouvelle and put fresh barb in barbecue

Just when we've learned to distinguish Hunan from Szechuan, and even as we were growing a teensy bit tired of tempura, Oriental food has leaped ahead of our groping chopsticks. Now, driven partly by the quintupling of the Asian population within our borders in the last two decades, the pungent, fragrant cuisines of the Pacific Rim—Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Korea—will be pulling up a chair at the American table.

Though some Pacific Rim chefs are purists, most practice East-West, or fusion, cooking. Think of Mexican tortillas with Chinese hoisin sauce or wontons filled with guacamole. "We're using the flavor ideas of the Far East with ingredients that Americans are used to cooking," says HUGH CARPENTER, 42, executive chef at Southern California's four Chopstix eateries and an apostle of the Pacific fusion movement. "It's as simple as taking an ear of corn and infusing the butter with ginger to give it a slightly Asian taste."

In the afterglow of blackened redfish and sushi, Carpenter believes that Americans "are becoming more eclectic and less set in our eating habits." So his Chopstix cookbook, co-written with wife Teri Sandison and due out in April, will include recipes for Thai tacos and Thai shrimp pizzas.

Born in England and raised in Santa Barbara, where his parents ran a private school, Carpenter was educated in the Southern soul food whipped up by the school's black cook, Lena Head. He took Chinese and Far Eastern studies at Dartmouth and Michigan and became obsessed by the Asian cooking he shared with Chinese fellow students. Plans to teach were discarded in order to start a Chinese catering firm, now expanded into Chopstix.

But it's not just the melting pot of vernacular cooking that the Pacific Rim will enliven in the '90s. At Washington's Le Pavilion, French chef Yannick Cam features a spring roll served with curry sauce. At Claire's in Manhattan, Thai cook Dhanit Choladda fries American catfish with jalapeños and Thai fish sauce. Seattle's Wild Ginger adds fish and vegetables to classic Thai satays—skewers of broiled beef—serving them with peanut, coconut-milk and sweet-hot dips.

At least one chef, however, looks askance at these mixed marriages. At San Francisco's acclaimed new Monsoon restaurant, BRUCE COST, 44, is showing why experts consider him one of the most important cooks of Asian food in America, even though he is a Connecticut Yankee by birth. Celebrating the panoply of tastes and techniques in the Pacific Rim, he is educating as well as delighting his clientele by researching and reviving Chinese recipes up to 2,000 years old. "Asian is the most varied, oldest and interesting set of cuisines," he maintains. "People here have only scratched the surface." Though a traditionalist, Cost recognizes, however, that simple Asian desserts just don't tempt the jaded American sweet tooth, and his pastry chef, David Lebovitz (raided from Chez Panisse, Alice Waters's temple of California cuisine), has won huzzahs for such fusions as chocolate ice cream with Chinese cassia bark and bitter almonds.

One glorious plus about Pacific Rim is that it eliminates all that esoteric fuss about which wine goes with what. "You're looking at a lot of vinegars and lime juices, and the acid doesn't go well with wine," says Cost. "Beer tastes best."