Anna Maria Russell, 7th Duchess of Woburn
A whistle-stop journey of the tastes, textures and territories that make Asia one of the worlds culinary gems.
When talking about cuisines from around the world, there is none that encompasses such a vast area, with so many influences, flavours and nationalities as Asian cuisine.
Asia is the largest continent in the world, and is made up of hundreds of different regions, countries, and subcultures. Therefore the term Asian food is often considered to be too broad by most culinary experts and is often broken down into the following regions: East Asian, Western Asia, South East and finally, Southern Asia.
We will take a look at each of these areas, the countries who make up these regions and the ingredients, flavours and influences that help shape it.
The Royal Crescent Afternoon Tea
Eastern Asia: (Chinese, Japanese and Korean)
As you would expect from a country as large as China, there are huge differences in the types of ingredients used in their cuisine. In the North, the cuisine relies primarily on hearty dishes of meaty and starchy foods. Most of the ingredients in this region are influenced by agricultural. Whether these are meat dishes, based on mutton, pork, beef, chicken, duck, and fish and served with root vegetables, or Inner Mongolian inspired dairy dishes.
Central China sees the three regions of Sichuan, Chongqing and Hunan, each with their own unique taste and influence. Sichuan Province, is famous for its particularly numbing and spicy taste resulting from liberal use of garlic and chilli peppers. Hunan cuisine is similar to Sichuan cuisine, but generally even spicier.
Western China is influenced by the bordering Muslim and Tibetan nations. The region of Xinjiang is inhabited by many ethnic groups, with the food predominantly halal, due to most Xinjiang people being Muslims. Tibetan cuisine is a blend of flavours of Nepalese, Indian, and Sichuan cuisines due to Tibet's position neighbouring India, Nepal and Sichuan Province.
Eastern China includes five of the famous eight cuisines of China. Cantonese tends to be mild. It focuses less on spices, but more on absolute freshness and flavour of ingredients. Most of its dishes use sweet sauces. Cantonese is the most widely served style of Chinese cuisine in the world.
Fujian cuisine is famous for its abundant ingredients from the sea and mountains. Ingredients of Jiangsu Cuisine mainly come from rivers, lakes, and the sea. Zhejiang cuisine is known for its elaborate preparation and varying techniques of cooking, such as sautéing, stewing, steaming, and deep-frying. Finally, Anhui cuisine features wild ingredients from local mountain areas, leading to greater freshness and tenderness.
Finally, Southern Chinese cuisine is characterised by lots of preserved foods, particularly pickled vegetables and tofu, which give it its sour flavour. The mountainous areas are populated with poor farmers who need to prevent wastage.
Sushi and sashimi are two of the most popular food types offered in Japanese cuisine. Each uses a lot of fresh fish and rice, the most abundant ingredients in Japan. As with China, Japanese cuisine is divided into distinct geographic regions, each of which has developed its own unique culinary traditions.
For example, the political centre of Tokyo has been one of the major influences in Japanese cooking. You will find nigiri-sushi, the most popular sushi today, originated as a fast-food dish in Tokyo. Tempura, deep frying seafood and vegetables is prominent, as is Soba noodles (buckwheat noodles) with it's thick dipping sauce.
Popular cooking styles in Japan include,Teriyaki - in which foods are broiled or grilled while being basted in a sauce made out of soy sauce, mirin and sugar.
Korean foods are typified by their use of rice, vegetable and meats cooked in a wide variety of sauces, sides and spices. Some of Korea's most popular dishes include; Kimchi, a fermented and spiced vegetable dish is served with virtually every meal.
Seolleongtang, a traditional hot Korean soup made from ox bones, ox meat and briskets, this is a is a local dish of Seoul, often seasoned with salt, ground black pepper, chopped green onions, or minced garlic.
Tteokbokki, steamed and sliced rice cakes cooked with fish cakes. Also popular is the Korean barbecue "pulgoki", which is meat marinated in a sauce made with soy sauce, garlic, sugar ,sesame oil ,and other seasonings, and cooked over a fire.
Iranian cuisine has recently become extremely popular in multicultural cities such as London, Los Angeles, Toronto etc. Influenced by neighbouring regions such Caucasian cuisine, Turkish, Levantine, Greek, Central Asian, and Russian cuisine, you will see combinations of rice dishes with meat (such as lamb, chicken, or fish), vegetables (such as onions and various herbs), and nuts. In fact, there are many varieties of rice in Iranian cuisine including gerde, domsia, champa, doodi (smoked rice), Lenjan (from Lenjan County), Tarom (from Tarom County), anbarbu, and others.
As with its neighbouring countries, Iranian cuisine relies heavily on spices such as saffron, dried lime, cinnamon, turmeric, and parsleyand are mixed and used in some special dishes.
Largely based around the Ottoman cuisine, Turkish food can be described as a fusion and refinement of Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Balkan cuisines. As with other national cuisines, the ingredients used in Turkish dishes depend on the region in which you are in. The Black Sea Region uses fish extensively, especially the Black Sea anchovy (hamsi) and includes maize dishes. Kebabs, mezes and dough-based desserts are typically found in the South East, while in the West, the abundance of olive trees sees a more mediterranean feel, with vegetables, herbs and fish being the staple diet. In the capital of Istanbul, the influence of Ottoman court cuisine is still popular today. A much lighter use of spices, a preference for rice over bulgur, and a wider availability of vegetable stews (türlü), eggplant, stuffed dolmas and fish are the order of the day.
Western Asia: (Iranian/Persian, Israeli,Turkish, Arabian Peninsular)
Situated North East of Africa and on the Arabian plate, the Arabian Peninsular is the largest in the world and consists of Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, plus parts of Jordan and Iraq. As you can imagine, the cuisine is rich and varied. Seafood plays a significant part in the diet of this vast region, usually eaten with rice. Historically, the area would have originally relied on a diet of dates, wheat, barley, rice and meat, with little variety, and with a heavy emphasis on yogurt products. The influence of the Romans, Persians, and later on with the Ottomans brought the Arabs a more varied diet and as with most Asian countries, the culinary heritage can find its root in either Persian, Indian, or Chinese cuisine.
It will come as no surprise, therefore, that the cuisine today incorporates Persian, Indian, Lebanese and Chinese cooking styles. Dishes are heavily dosed with spices, from hot sauces to every variety of pepper, to tea.
Israeli cuisine is a true melting pot of influences. Falafel (deep-fried chickpea balls in pita) is still considered to be one of, if not the, most popular dish in Israel, although it is believed to originate from the Middle-East. The “Israeli salad” of cucumbers and tomatoes cut into small small pieces has undoubtedly come from the Mediterranean. No conversation with regards to Israeli cuisine would be complete without hummus. This chickpea paste is a staple in almost every Israeli home.
Southeast Asian cuisine: (Thai, Vietnamese and Malaysian)
Southeast Asia, or Indochina, includes the popular cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia. Famous for its use of fresh herbs, vegetables, citrus fruits, fish sauce and rice, dishes are characteristically lighter than those from the neighbouring regions, with an emphasis on contrasting yet complementing flavours.
The secret to Thai food is a balance of five flavours: sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and spicy. As well as the inclusion of many herbs and spices, fish sauce is often used in a similar way to how we use salt.
It might be hard to believe, but Thai food used to be a lot more spicy than it is now, but over the years it was toned down, and fewer and less spices were used in Thai curries, while the use of fresh herbs, such as lemon grass and galangal, increased.
Thai food, like many others, relies on its climate and geography for its influences. In the North, the cooler mountainous climate means there is a lager variety of vegetables than in other regional Thai cuisines, and roots and herbs have a strong presence. There are many sour and bitter flavours, especially apparent in soups. People of the North prefer glutinous rice to white rice, rolling it into balls with their hands, and dipping into dishes and sauces. Also, the influence of neighbouring Myanmar and Laos is strong, with curried broths with egg noodles and chicken pork or beef being popular.
Central Thailand is a vast checkerboard of paddy fields, orchards and vegetable gardens, fed by the rivers and streams that make up this delta-like landscape. The best rice in the country is grown in the Central region, with Jasmine rice being a major Thai export. Three main curries are also cooked in the region, including the famous Green Thai Curry. As famous, Tom Yam, a hot and sour soup comes from the region and you will also wee many dishes containing coconut milk, egg and seafood. It is impossible to ignore the Chinese influence in the Central region, with noodle dishes, soups and ground pork at the fore.
The area of the North East lies on the other side of the Mekong River and is therefore detached from the influence of Bangkok. Here, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnamese cuisine plays a dominant part. Glutinous rice dishes, pickles and herbs, plus an abundance of grilling and roasting make this regions cuisine unique. In order to liven up a dish, the North Eastern region isn't shy of adding in a few chillis!
Finally, the South - Influenced by Malaysia and India. The warm seas produce an abundance of fish, big lobsters, crabs, mussels squid, prawns and scallops. Simply steamed of fried with noodles or rice, the Southern region will add Cashew nuts and pineapples to their dishes as they grow in great volume. Oh, and don't forget the very hot chillis.
South Asia: (India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepalese)
With over 5000 years of history, India has welcomed settlers from across the world creating a population that reaches over 1.3 billion. Each region and religion make up a cuisine as diverse as its people.
Located with China to its North, Laos and Cambodia to the West and the South China Sea to the East, its 3000 km coastline runs from the Hanoi to the North, through its rugged central highlands down to Ho Chi Min City in the South.
The cuisine relies on a balance of salty, sweet, sour and hot flavours – similar to Thai and especially with its use of fish sauce and cane sugar. The North is heavily influenced by China, with many stir-fry’s and noodle-based soups. The further South you go, the sweeter Vietnamese cuisine becomes as influences from Thailand and Cambodia take hold.
One of the more interesting influences on Vietnamese food is French cuisine. Having witnessed French missionaries coming to Vietnam in the 18th century, their presence up-to the early 1950's had a profound effect on the cuisine. Banh Mi is a crusty baguette filled with grilled pork, fish patties, sardines, chilli and pickled vegetables. The French also left their mark with a number of meat broths, called Pho.
Once described as 'sunshine on a plate', Malaysian cuisine, like most Asian countries, has been influenced by Thai, Chinese, Indonesian and Indian cuisine.
Although chilli based, Malaysian food is not overly hot. Malay dishes combine the traditional Southeast Asian herbs and spices with those from Indian, the Middle East and China, leading to fragrant combinations of coriander and cumin, Add in lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, cardamom, star anise and fenugreek and you have the basis of a Malay curry.
Nasi lemak, a steamed rice dish with coconut milk and served with dried anchovies, peanuts, hardboiled eggs, dried shrimp, cucumber and sambal, is considered Malaysia’s national dish. Adding a choice of curries or meat stew it can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner and is known as rendang.
Hindu and Muslim are the two dominate religions of India and their cooking styles and diversity of ingredients have helped shape Indian cuisine. The Hindu vegetarian culture is widely practiced, while the Muslim tradition is the most dominate in the cooking of meats. Rich Kormas (curry), and nargisi kaftas (meatballs), the biryani (a layered rice and meat dish), rogan josh, and tandoori (prepared in a clay oven) are massively popular contributions made by Muslim settlers.
Largely rice based, the Southern region sees rice pancakes, rice cakes and fermented rice as popular dishes. Coconut is also a staple of the Southern region and is the culinary mascot of Kerala. In the North, the Moguls who ruled for three centuries, have heavily influenced the regions cuisine.
Rich gravies, saffron, pureed nuts and creams were all influenced by the Moghuls. The Western states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa all have unique food experiences. Gujarats are predominately vegetarian and is celebrated for being one of the best places to eat vegetarian food. Maharashtra is home to the city of Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay). With its five-star hotels and restaurants this city is the home of modern cuisine. Finally, the Eastern states of West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, and Jharkhand. The more familiar Bengali cuisine can be described as delicate and subtle, with fish and rice at the centre of their diet.
It is highly likely that, without knowing it, you have already eaten Bangladeshi food. Boarding the Indian state of West Bengal, Bangladesh shares many cultural ties with its neighbour. Some of the most common are language, history and of course, food.
Bangladeshi cuisine is South Asian in nature. However, the abundance of fish and its employment of a variety of often fiery pastes made from ground roots, spices and chilies make it unique. It is rumoured that some Bangladeshi dishes are so hot that even visiting Indian's can't handle the heat.
It is not surprising, that a country full of rivers should rely heavily on fish as part of their diet, in fact that is not uncommon in any country that shares a similar geology. However, the additional use of pastes that include ginger, garlic, red chilli peppers, turmeric, onion, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, or mustard seed give it a unique taste. Add into the equation mixed vegetables such as carrots, potatoes and cauliflower and you have a typical Maach Bhuna (Fish Bhuna).
Sri Lankan food offers a vivid array of flavour combinations. Many people, on first encounter, will make the connection with India, as Sri Lanka is located southeast of its southern tip. But unlike Indian cuisine, dishes on this island nation have their own spin. Curries, although varied and many, tend to be thinner and more heavily spiced than many Indian versions, and the cuisine is more inclusive of non-native ingredients, brought by international trade moving through the island. Traditional Sri Lankan curries pack a real punch and therefore rice is an ever-present antidote to these big flavours.
Staple ingredients in Sri Lankan cuisine are rice, coconut, native tropical fruits and vegetables. The island grows some 15 varieties of rice (down from 280 just 50 years ago, and 400 in times before that), some of which are used for various types of rice flour pancakes (called hoppers) and rice noodles (called string hoppers).
The final stop on our tour of Asia, sees us arrive in Nepal. Like many other Asian countries, Nepalese cuisine relies heavily on the influence of its neighbours, while proud of its own gastronomic history.
Whilst Nepal does take heavy influences from its closest geographical companions such as India and China, the Nepalese diet is far healthier, relying less on using fats and more on chunky vegetables, lean meats, pickled ingredients and salads. Common ingredients found across Nepalese cuisine include lentils, potatoes, tomatoes, cumin, coriander, chilies, peppers, garlic and mustard oil.
Rice is the obvious staple for many Nepalese dishes, just like many other Asian countries. The fried rice dish of Pulao (also know as Pilaf and Pilau) can be eaten on its own or with added vegetables and accompany with yoghurt (Dahl) and papadums, you get a dish that's popular with locals and visitors alike.
Another popular dish that takes its influence from China is Thukpa. This hot noodle soup, containing pieces of meat and vegetables is a delicacy in the mountainous regions of Nepal. With its mountainous geography, don't be surprised to see a fair quota of Lamb dishes. Gorkhali lamb is an intense and filling curry dish. The curry is chunky and involves slow cooking the lamb, adding chunky potatoes and roughly chopped onions.
For more on Nepalese cuisine, clink on the link below to read Sarah Gurung's excellent piece and try some of her amazing recipes.