The term, Pan-Asian food, offers much more than a burst of flavors and colors to diners. Asian cuisine is a cultural story of Asia that gets told every time you decide to try an exotic spice, oriental sushi, or a Turkish preparation of lamb. To understand Pan-Asian cuisine, it is important to understand the cultural divisions of the largest and the most populous continent on the planet. Asia is divided into 5 distinct regions. Each region is further divided across cultural and religious lines, bringing in further distinctions in the unique food practices of the local people.
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Distinguishing Between Different Asian Cuisines
Before we get down to the business of educating ourselves about the wide variety of regional foods in Asia, get a taste of (pun intended) the regional divisions that influence Asia's food culture. This is a list of the wider variety of Pan Asian dishes, based on the main regions in Asia and the most popular foods from each one.
South Asian Cuisine
India and Pakistan lead the way in south Asian cuisine, with their spicy foods, rice, lamb, vegetables, yogurt-based sauces, and curry dominating the food landscape of the region. Roti (a tortilla-like flatbread) is common in both nations.
East Asian Cuisine
China, Korea, and Japan comprise the most popular regions for East Asian foods. Rice is a staple ingredient for each regional cuisine, with variations in spices, meats, and cooking methods, based on the locales. Traditional Chinese foods include soy, rice, tofu, and noodles. These hold a strong influence over cuisines across Asia. In Korean cooking too, one will find an abundant use of such ingredients as rice, soy, garlic, red pepper flakes, ginger, and legumes. Similarly, Japanese foods include plenty of seafood, rice, tempura, noodles, and the much-loved miso soup.
Southeast Asian Cuisine
Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia comprise the Southeast region of Asia and their foods make up southeast Asian cuisine. Rice and fresh vegetables are the staple ingredients in these countries. Vietnamese food is strongly influenced by an interest in health and in traditional Chinese medicine. The food in Vietnam consists of plenty of rice, fresh fruits and vegetables, lemongrass, and Thai basil. Thai cuisine also contains many Chinese influences, with intense aroma and spice, contrasting flavors and textures, and intermittent servings of rice. Meals in Cambodia usually include multiple dishes with a wide variance of textures and flavors.
Central Asian Cuisine
This region consists of the nations of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Although central Asian cuisine has not earned the popularity of other Asian cuisines like Chinese or Korean, it does have its own distinct cultural originality. Mutton and dairy are the primary staples in Kazakhstan, while in Tajikistan, pilaf and Kabuli Pulao (a flavorful dish made with rice, meat, carrot, turnip, olive oil, and delicious pan drippings) predominate.
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West Asian Cuisine
West Asian cuisine is dominated by dishes from nations like Turkey and Syria. The most common ingredients used in cooking west Asian foods are lamb, yogurt, and rice. The meals have a robust flavor. Turkish staple dishes include rice, meats (especially lamb) fresh vegetables, like eggplant, and olive oil. Typical Syrian meals are created with ingredients like olive oil, fresh lemon, garlic, chickpeas, mint, honey, and lamb.
North Asian Cuisine
The Russian Federation dominates the geographical landscape of north Asia. Hence, north Asian cuisine can be closely related to Russian cuisine, although one will also find unique Siberian cultural influences, such as the Yakuts and yamai cuisine. Peimeni, a dish of permic or Ugric origin, is a popular Russian dish. It is common to preserve meat for the winter. In Siberia, pelmeni is frozen outdoors to preserve meat inside through the long winter. Fish and cowberries are key ingredients in most north Siberian cuisine.
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A typical Chinese meal consists of 2 parts: (1) staple food, normally made of rice, noodles, or steamed buns, and (2) ts'ai, or the vegetable and meat dishes. Chopsticks are the primary eating utensils for solid foods, while ceramic spoons are usually used to consume soups and congees.
While eating a traditional Chinese meal, each individual has their own rice bowl. However, the accompanying dishes are served on communal plates and shared by all people. Normally, the dishes are often eaten together with a mouthful of rice.
Desserts are not considered to be part of the main course in China; instead, Chinese desserts are consumed as snacks, in between 2 meals. If served at the end of the meal, the dessert is normally fresh fruit.
Filipino cooking is greatly influenced by regional flavors, as the Philippines is a geographically divisive country, consisting of dozens of ethnic groups. However, the Filipino palate is informed by certain commonalities, regardless of longitude and latitude.
There is a distinct colonial hangover in Filipino cooking in the form of vinegar, giving Filipino cuisine a unique flavor. Sour notes in Filipino food are also found in the form of calamansi, the versatile citrus fruit, sweet and sour tamarind, stirred into soups like sinigang, and green (unripe) mangos, which is an everyday Filipino snack. The mango snack is often topped with bagoong, or fermented shrimp paste, which, along with patis (fish sauce), adds to the already salty/funky section of the Pinoy flavor wheel.
Thailand presents a unique study in food experimentation with its focus on spiciness. The level of spiciness really depends on the type of Thai food. Thai cuisine has strong regional differences. Thailand can be divided into 4 different food regions.
- Northern Thai Cuisine
- Northeastern Thai Cuisine (Isaan)
- Central Thai Cuisine
- Southern Thai Cuisine
Where most countries focus on the four (actually five) flavours, namely saltiness, sweetness, sourness, bitterness and savoury (also known as umami), the Thai cuisine replaces the bitterness with spiciness.
Each of the 4 regions borders one of the neighboring countries, which has resulted in the adoption of their neighbor's food habits (except for Central Thai Cuisine). For example, Northern Thai Cuisine has similarities with Burmese food, Northeastern Thai Cuisine borrows components of Laotian food, and Southern Thai cuisine has Malaysian influences. As a result of these influences, Thai cuisine offers diversely delicious food with specialties in every region.
Korean cuisine encompasses the traditional foods and food preparation techniques of Korea. There is great variation in Korean ingredients and cooking techniques - from the complex Korean royal court cuisine to regional specialties and modern fusion cuisine, with many Korean dishes being immensely popular across the world.
Rice, noodles, vegetables, meats, and tofu (dubu in Korean) make up the key ingredients in Korean cuisine. Traditional Korean meals consist of an abundance of side dishes (banchan), as accompaniments for steam-cooked short-grain rice, soup, and kimchi (fermented, spicy vegetable banchan, most commonly cabbage, radish, or cucumber). Korean seasonings include sesame oil, doenjang (fermented soybean paste), soy sauce, salt, garlic, ginger, and gochujang (red chili paste).
India offers one of the most diverse cuisines in the world, characterized, as it is, by its sophisticated and subtle use of the many spices, vegetables, grains, and fruits grown across India. India is an ethnically diverse subcontinent. As a result, each of her geographical regions includes a wide assortment of dishes and cooking techniques, characteristic of the varied regional demographics. Moreover, India's religious beliefs and culture play a pivotal role in the shaping of its cuisine. For example, the practice of vegetarianism in many Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain communities.
Historically, India's cultural interactions with neighboring Persia, ancient Greece, the Mongols, and West Asia, have contributed to India’s unique blend of cuisines. New World foods such as chili peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and squash, introduced by Arab and Portuguese traders during the sixteenth century, and European cooking styles introduced during the colonial period have added to the diversity of Indian cuisine. On the other hand, Indian cuisine has also had a telling influence on cuisines across the world, especially those of Southeast Asia. Indian cuisine is enjoyed by not only the Indian diaspora across the globe but also by the general population in North America, Europe, Australia, and parts of Africa.
The Japanese are health-conscious people. Their cuisine, not surprisingly, is also synonymous with healthy food. The ichijyusansai is one of their healthiest staples. It refers to a meal consisting of white rice and soup, a meat or fish side dish, and a vegetable or seaweed side dish, all seasoned lightly to feature the natural flavors of the ingredients. The Fugu or Japanese pufferfish, a favorite Japanese winter delicacy, contains one of the world's most potent toxins, tetrodotoxin. Therefore, Fugu chefs are required to be licensed to remove potentially deadly organs. Despite these risks, around 10,000 tons of fugu are eaten annually in Japan.
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The sashimi is a very thinly sliced raw fish that is served with sushi, is a popular serving in authentic Japanese restaurants. In some cases, the fish is kept alive in the water, and sliced and served only when ordered by a customer. Beef is another popular type of meat sashimi, along with horse and deer meat. Wasabi, one of the most difficult ingredients in the world to cultivate, is also one of the most expensive plants. This is why most wasabi in restaurants is actually horseradish mixed with green food coloring.