Today’s food scene treats adventurous eaters to a wide variety of ethnic dishes. Foodies can now find Indian, Mexican, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Greek and a host of other popular international cuisines in their local restaurants and grocery stores.
Asian foods are of particular interest to amateur chef Amir Landsman, who enjoys experimenting with established recipes to create Korean-inspired dishes for friends and family. Understanding the differences that distinguish one Asian culinary tradition from another can help aspiring chefs and foodies to develop an increased appreciation for these diverse cuisines.
Three Basic Schools
Most culinary experts divide Asian cuisine into three categories:
• The Northeast tradition includes Chinese, Japanese and Korean foods.
• The Southwest culinary tradition encompasses Indian, Pakistani and Burmese styles of cooking.
• Southeast cuisines originate from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore.
Each of these schools can be subdivided according to country, region and ethnic origins and include a diverse mix of cooking styles and ingredient mixes. Rice is a staple in most of these cuisines and provides a striking counterpoint to highly spiced or intricate flavor profiles. In fact, combining disparate flavors into an integrated whole is one of the defining characteristics that sets Asian cuisines apart from most other culinary traditions.
Northeast Culinary Traditions
Historians estimate that Chinese cuisine originated in the 15th century B.C. The later development of Japanese and Korean culinary styles is certainly attributable in part to the influences of Chinese chefs. The ready availability of rice and soy products in these countries also accounted for certain similarities in the basic composition of dishes from Japan, China and Korea. However, diverse cultural traditions and economic conditions led to the distinct differences found in modern versions of these three cuisines:
• Chinese food is typically divided into four separate subcategories. Szechuan dishes originate in southwestern China and incorporate bold, spicy flavors with plenty of garlic and native chili peppers. The coastal region of Guangdong gave rise to the Cantonese style of cooking and its reliance on sweet and mildly spicy flavors. Fermented black bean sauce and the popular sweet-and-sour sauce are among the characteristic sauces used in Cantonese cuisine. Seasonal fare and presentation form the key elements of most Jiangsu dishes. The most famous of these is probably the sweet braised spare ribs served in many Mongolian barbecue restaurants. Corn and baby corn are used to create Shandong-style dishes and set this cuisine apart from other Chinese culinary traditions.
• As an island nation, Japan has always been dependent on the largess of the sea to feed its people. Rice, fish and pickled vegetables are staples of the Japanese diet. Soba and udon noodles are popular as side dishes or in soups. Fish and soy were traditionally the primary sources of protein in the Japanese diet. The increasing availability of imported meats, however, has led to greater popularity for beef and pork in the Japanese culture. Long considered the iconic symbols of Japanese cuisine, sashimi and sushi are noted for their exquisite appearance as well as their delicious taste. Seasonal foods and meticulous presentation continue to be important elements in the culinary traditions of Japan.
• Korean cuisine varies from one province to the next, but certain components are found in almost every area of the country. Short-grain rice is generally used as a base for the meal and is accompanied by numerous side dishes consisting of steamed, fried or pickled vegetables and grilled meats. As in other Northeast cuisines, soy products play a large role in adding protein to vegetarian side dishes and in increasing the nutritional value of soups and meats. Kalbi beef is one of the most prestigious food items and is grilled or roasted to bring out the flavor of this expensive indulgence.
Indian culinary traditions have been significantly influenced by religious views prevalent within this region. Cows are considered sacred by members of the Hindu faith, the largest religious sect in India. As a result, beef is almost never used in traditional Indian cooking. The religious and philosophical practice of vegetarianism has also left its mark on Indian cuisine: Many dishes combine grains, bean products and spices to create complete meals without the use of fish, poultry or meat.
Influences from nearby Islamic states and Arab nations led to the increased use of poultry and other meat products in the Indian diet. Curries feature a mix of spices designed to complement the flavors of other ingredients, including chicken, duck and vegetable ensembles. Fish and pork are also popular protein sources for Indian cuisine in more prosperous areas. Pakistani culinary traditions borrow heavily from those practiced in India. However, the Islamic religious beliefs held by the majority of Pakistan’s residents allow for greater use of beef in areas where it is available.
Vietnamese and Thai cuisines are generally regarded as the most important and distinctive culinary styles in the Southeast Asian tradition. Like most other Asian cooking styles, both Vietnamese and Thai dishes rely primarily upon rice as a base for complex sauces and ingredient mixes. However, the two culinary styles vary significantly in a number of ways:
• Vietnamese cuisine is based on the balance between five disparate flavor and color elements. While a given dish may focus on just one of these flavors, the goal is to balance all five in a harmonious and integrated meal. Sour elements correlate to the color green, while bitter spices are matched with the color red. Yellow and sweet are paired, as are the color black and the flavor of salt. White corresponds with the spicy elements within a dish. Fresh herbs and produce are among the hallmarks of traditional Vietnamese cuisine.
• The spicy heat of Thai dishes is combined with sticky rice and fresh vegetables to create the unique flavors present in this culinary tradition. Sweet Thai limes, cilantro, lemongrass and garlic are popular additions to various dishes and are responsible for the characteristic flavor profiles found in many classics of Thai cuisine.
Asian food is not for the weak of palate. Adventurous foodies like Amir Landsman, however, can find much to admire and enjoy in the rich culinary traditions first established in this historic part of the modern world.