Almost everything you ever want to know about Asian food but were afraid to ask.
What’s the deal with eating food with sticks, weren’t hands and cutlery good enough? Is it really polite to slurp loudly when eating Japanese noodles? What is a tea ritual and does it actually change the flavour of the tea? What’s with the raw fish? Why is Thai food so impossibly spicy? Is Chinese food in China the same as Chinese food around the world? Is MSG bad for you? Do Japanese people live longer? Why do Koreans ferment cabbage?
When it comes to East and Southeast Asian food, the questions know no end. All the familiarity of pan-European, African, Northern and Southern American cuisines goes out the window and is replaced with endless lists of exotic, colourful and sometimes downright suspicious foodstuffs and customs. Yet if Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Korean restaurants are so incredibly popular in cities and towns across the world, surely they must have something that keeps the people coming back again and again.
To help our readers make some sense of it all, we have devised a short fact file on each of the above mentioned cuisines which should hopefully help you as you navigate through a restaurant menu or could point you in the right direction if you actually decided you wanted to try your hand at cooking some of these oriental delicacies.
At a Glance:
There could not be more of a difference between the popular Chinese food consumed in cheap and cheerful restaurants across the world and the actual stuff people eat in China. The truth is that recipes and food styles vary enormously from region to region with the main focus remaining always on fresh and seasonal ingredients. A standardised version of Cantonese food is the one that can most often be found abroad and its flavours are pretty mild when compared to the aromatic, spicy flavours of central China, or the bold and strongly scented cuisine of the Western part of the country. Chinese people tend to believe that when abroad, all Chinese food tastes exactly the same. When eating in China remember not to stick your chopsticks vertically in the food as this gesture is closely associated to death and funerals.
International Chinese food tends to follow a strict pattern: take beef, chicken, pork, shrimp or tofu, pair it with a selection of well-known sauces and top it off with noodles, rice or a soup. In reality Chinese foodstuffs are made up of a variety of different ingredients that go from fungi, to sea vegetables, sea cucumbers, jelly fish, beans, sprouts, bitter melon, bok/pak choi, lotus pods, insects, turtles, snakes and frogs. The consumption of dogs is illegal but it remains a popular dish in certain pockets of the country.
Common sauces include soy sauce, oyster sauce, black bean paste, shrimp paste and rice vinegar.
In China all food is served hot as refrigerators were only popularised late into the XXth century. Most food is either boiled, steamed, braised or baked. Stir frying is very popular but deep frying is not common at all, so do not expect to see spring rolls on a typical Chinese menu.
Ingredients are first cut into bite size pieces which are then stir fried or steamed using large chopsticks to move them around. This makes it possible to pick up everything with chopsticks and saves the need to use a knife and fork during meal time. Dim Sum is the Chinese equivalent of tapas and comes in the form of bite-sized portions that are served in small bamboo or metal steamer baskets.
Thousand year old eggs—this popular snack tastes much better than it looks. A preserved egg which turns black after having been soaked for a couple weeks in a saline solution made up of clay, salt and ash. The yolk takes on a creamy cheese-like texture and the whites are transformed into a dark jelly. Often served with pickled ginger root they can also accompany congee, or rice porridge.
HotPot— Also known as Chinese fondue, this dish is incredibly popular for large feasts. Although the recipe varies from region to region it basically consists of a simmering metal pot filled with broth placed at the centre of the table so people can add whatever ingredients they like to the pot and then spoon them out into their own bowl.
“Everyone knows that fortune cookies were brought to America by Japanese immigrants and then sold as Chinese in Chinese restaurants”
At a Glance:
Thai food is vivacious and colourful, managing to be surprising and comforting at the same time. A famous Thai chef once wrote: “Thai cooking is flavour and style, not dogma”. With an emphasis on bringing out the hot, the sour, the sweet and the spicy—sometimes all in one dish, Thai food is always aromatic, balanced, light and fresh. When dining in Thailand, people tend to order one dish a head and then proceed to share and enjoy them together. Food is eaten with a spoon in your right hand and a fork in your left; the fork is used to push food into your spoon and from there to your mouth. While it is considered bad luck to eat alone, street food and snacks are plenty and you could easily just graze on different fun foodstuffs all day long. Remember that contrary to some other Asian cultures, it is bad manners NOT to finish the food on your plate as this shows you did not fully enjoy the meal.
The holy grail of Thai cuisine consists in varying combinations of galangal root, coriander, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, chillies, fish sauce and shrimp paste. These intensely aromatic flavours are then combined with spices like cumin, turmeric and cardamon which, when added to coconut milk and rich broths, create sumptuous dishes that enchant the palate. Given their Buddhist background, large pieces of meat have never been a staple element of the Thai table with rice, seafood, aquatic animals and vegetables acting as cornerstones of the everyday diet.
Stir frying was made popular by the Chinese but much of traditional Thai food still relies on stewing, baking and grilling. Few Thai meals are complete without a steaming bowl of aromatic soup. Salads are sprinkled liberally with chillies, while desserts are sweet and often spicy. Street food is generally grilled on sticks, cooked in palm leaves or made into bite size balls and fried on a large open wok.
Som Tam – This devilishly hot green papaya, green bean, dried shrimp and peanut salad is not for the faint hearted. Doused in lashings of lime juice and fish sauce this truly is a riot of flavour. Once you mouth has calmed down and your taste buds have gotten over the shock, you will discover that this might well be one of the most delicious salads in the world.
Mango Sticky Rice – Is it a dessert? A snack? A meal? We don’t know but what we do know is never has rice tasted so darn delicious! The thick, coconut flavoured sweet rice is eaten by tearing off a piece from the rice mound, rolling it into a ball with the tip of your fingers while cutting off chunks of the mango with a spoon.
“Of course Thai people don’t use chopsticks!”
At a Glance:
The culinary traditions of the Japanese are essentially based around eating rice with fermented miso soup and a series of side dishes which consist in fish and pickled vegetables. Sushi and sashimi were popularised over a thousand years ago when the rise of Buddhist culture resulted in a ban on eating meat. It was around this time that the first noodles from China began to make an appearance. Sushi and sashimi are often confused by foreigners but the two dishes are different. Sushi contains vinegared rice and does not have to be made of raw fish. Until this day, Japanese foods are prepared by dividing them into five colour groups (green, red, yellow white and black-purple) and into five tastes (bitter, sour, hot, salty and umami). It is believed that a monk brought tea to Japan from China in the ninth century and it immediately became popular with the religious classes. Today Japanese tea ceremonies are performed according to the changing seasons and they are choreographed rituals which are more about aesthetics than about the actual drinking of the tea.
The list of Japanese essential ingredients is by no means short. Rice is of course a staple food but noodles are also cheap and very popular. In the dry goods department it is important to always have a good supply of glutinous rice and noodles, adzuki beans, shiitake mushrooms, nori and wakame seaweeds and panko breadcrumbs (for Tempura). Sauces and condiments have pride of place on the Japanese table so make sure you are never out of: chile oil, dashi (a type of soup stock), mirin (a sweet cooking wine), miso, rice vinegar, sake, soy sauce and sesame oil. Finally in the herb and spices department bonito (dried tuna) flakes are essential as is wasabi, karashi (mustard) and pickled ginger.
Common knowledge has it that there are four different types of cuisines in Japan. These are Washoku (traditional Japanese) yohshoku (Western), Chuuka (Chinese) and everything else. These foods are then prepared according to four principle methods: Agemono (fried), Mushimono (steamed), Nimono (boiled) and Yakimono (broiled)
Unagi – Sweetwater eel grilled over charcoal and coated in barbecue sauce. It is crisp and charred on the outside and succulent and tender on the inside. This traditional dish is cheap and widely available and is believed to have stamina-giving properties. It is traditionally eaten on hot summer days
Mochi – This Japanese rice cake is made by pounding glutinous rice into a thick paste and then moulding it into a ball. This is a traditional food commonly eaten at New Year but increasingly popular around the world for any season. While it can be both savoury or sweet, the sweet version (daifuku) is more popular internationally and is made by filling the rice balls with ingredients such as red or white bean paste
“Darling, stop going on about how bad MSG is, scientific studies show how it is perfectly safe and that it has no real side effects”
At a Glance:
The bold, loud and multi textured food of South Korea really sets itself apart from its neighbours with its strong focus on heat and spice. On the Korean table, side dishes tend to take centre stage and anything from five to twenty different options can be served over the course of a meal. Rice is of course the backbone of the cuisine and every person has their own bowl. The Korean obsession with Kimchi (fermented Napa cabbage) has now been enshrined by its addition to the UN intangible cultural heritage list. There are hundreds of different varieties of Kimchi in Korea and approximately 1.5 tons of it are consumed every year. A recent article on the npr website reads that “Kimjang, the tradition of making kimchi, [once] brought together entire villages and neighbourhoods to turn hundreds of heads of cabbages into a source of food and nutrition for people who have historically borne long eras of deprivation and starvation. The kimchi was fermented and aged in underground pots or modern refrigerators.”
Not known to be picky eaters, Koreans have traditionally sourced food widely from the seas, the fields and the country’s three mountain ranges. Their foods are the combined with a variety of seasonings that can include hot red pepper flakes (gochugaru), roasted sesame seeds, soy sauce, anchovy sauce, malt/corn/rice syrup, bean paste, garlic, ginger, vinegar and rice wines. Other ingredients of note are sweet potato noodles, perilla leaves, daikon root and sea kelp. Eating live octopus is actually a thing as is slurping pig’s trotters broth and chewing on spicy chicken feet.
Bulgogi, that would be Korean Barbecue to you and me, is an extremely popular cooking method which involves marinating slices of beef in soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil and sugar and then grilling it. Korea is generally very famous for its barbecue methods. Pickling and fermenting is not only for cabbage and carrots, radishes, cucumbers and some types of fish are also often served this way. Consuming raw meat and seafood is common as is raw eggs. Beyond that stewing, pan frying and deep frying are as popular as elsewhere in the region.
Bibimpap – Usually prepared in a stone pot the national rice dish is topped with an assortment of vegetables and meat and a sunny side up egg. The gochuiang chile sauce adds complexity to its flavour and the bottom layer is often crunchy. Tastes much more interesting than it sounds.
Pajeon – Best known as a Korean savoury pancake this mouth watering dish is made from eggs, flour (wheat and rice), scallions and either fish or meat. Served with a spicy soy and vinegar sauce this snack is ideal for parties and pairs wonderfully with Korean beer.
“I find that homemade kimchi tastes so much better than the store bought stuff”