Chronicles on Your Plate: Asian Food Through The Ages
One of the mysteries of the orient is indeed its diverse Asian cuisine and the exquisite range of flavors and textures it offers the palette. From dishes that manage to incorporate a cascading myriad of flavours into a single bite, to cooking methods that create culinary brilliance in a matter of minutes, Asian food has everything a foodie desires. In fact, so much of what forms the basis of the culinary world comes from the ancient empires of Asia. China came up with preservation techniques without which so many dishes around the world not be possible and Japan named the fifth flavour itself.
“Live to Eat”
Food, in Asia, has often been intermingled with philosophy and politics. The 400 BC Chinese philosopher, Confucius, emphasized the artistic and social aspects of food and cooking and his ideas influence people all over the world even today. Many of the differentiating characteristics of Chinese cuisine and table etiquette were established by him in ancient times and continue to be in practice in this day and age.
A largely agricultural empire with an ample production of rice, the starchy grain forms the basis of many of China’s dishes as well as that of the rest of Asia’s. That, however, doesn’t make for a bland meal. Chinese cuisine employs the use of different contrasting spices and vegetables in their meals but also contrasting textures with different meats and varying preparations of rice. Sticky rice, a Japanese favourite, was one of the most common preparations of rice in China as well.
“Peace is achieved with rice and salt”
Heavily influenced by China in their use of rice as well as preservation techniques, Japan has had rice as a staple food since the year 300 BC. Practices like Chodo, known more commonly as Tea Ceremony, is the ritualistic process of serving tea in an aesthetic manner. An important part of Japanese hospitality, it is one of the most memorable aspects of Japanese culture, illustrating the importance of food and table etiquette in their country as well. And even though Japanese culture and cuisine borrow heavily from China, its use of spices is something that it leaves out.
The Japanese, having coined the word Umami for the fifth flavor, love minimalism in their food as much as other aspects of life. Their restrained use of spices and muted flavors are, interestingly enough, a result of the proliferation of Buddhism in the archipelago sometime around 300 AD. Between the proscription of meat and poultry in the religion and the ample opportunities for fishing, excessive use of spices just became obsolete.
Nowadays, Japanese cuisine incorporates all kinds of meat and poultry including typically Western ones like turkey. However, fish remains a staple in their country as do their muted flavours and mellow textures.
The Pit Is Lit
Born of cultural interactions and exchanges with China, ancient Korean cuisine was also heavily influenced by Buddhism and Confuiciasm, the ripples of which can still be felt on their plates today. However, those are not the only influences that moulded the techie nation’s tastes. The 13th century Mongolian invasion of Goryeo brought many popular Korean dishes and cooking techniques into existence. Notable amongst others are noodles, mandu and of course, the ever popular Korean barbecue.
Agricultural innovations of the 15th century led to Korea establishing itself as a majorly agricultural economy. This would eventually lead to Japan’s colonization of the country. As food would change the political scenario of Korea, the political scenario would influence the food in turn again. World War II and the liberation of Korea would lead to the livestock industry booming, which resultantly would make Korea one of the few Asian countries the cuisine of which isn’t heavy on rice.
The Route To Spice
Much like Korea, the cooking of Southeast Asian countries is also influenced by millennia of political transition. With its history of European colonization, the region has cuisines that blend the contrasting flavours and carb-heavy content of Asia with the varied cooking styles and utilization of animal protein that is common in Europe. Cuisines of countries like Thailand and Malaysia incorporate various meats and poultry alongside fresh veggies into their curries. Countries like Indonesia have innovative street food like Balut when it comes to animal protein. Malaysia, having influences from not just Europe, but the Middle East and India as well, have meat-heavy curries. Thailand being the only country in this region without a history of European colonization, can be traced back to be the roots of various Southeast Asian cuisines.
How We Lost Our Fire
While free from colonization, Thailand’s history of interaction with Europe still shows in its cuisine. In fact, it’s commonly known that Thai cuisine used to be a lot spicier but nowadays, it’s heavier on herbs like basil and lemongrass. Turns out that the peppery fire that is still seen in certain versions of Thai cuisine, such as Northeastern Thai cuisine, actually comes from Portugal. It was the Portuguese that initially introduced the chilli pepper to Thailand. And while the most popular forms of Thai cooking, such as the ones from Central Thailand, focus on sweet flavours like that of Coconut Milk or milder savory flavors of fresh herbs, spice remains synonymous with Thai cuisine.
Adversity Is The Mother Of Invention
One of the defining characteristics of modern day Asian cuisine remains the innovation in the beat of street food. From implausibly inexpensive treats that are unique to their areas of origin to theatrical displays of food preparation that go beyond what we know in the likes of flair bartending, Asian street food never ceases to amaze whether one has it in their country of origin or in a specialized restaurant at home. Considering this, it should come as no surprise that some of the most cherished gourmet classics of the Asian continent were once peasant food concocted under financial duress or a mishmash of ingredients and techniques innovated in times of turmoil. Whether it be hotpots drawing on the healthy properties of roots and herbs in China and or sushi utilizing fermentation as a food preservation technique in Japan, Asian cuisine has spun gold out of straw throughout millennia and continues to do so today.