Asia's Many Identities

History, heritage and more are vital to authentic Asian creations

By Robert Danhi

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Another customer is looking for that next big hit, an innovative approach to an authentic ethnic appetizer. After sifting through recent trend data, it appears that Vietnamese is hot. The Southeast Asian books come off the shelf, hundreds of Internet pages are consulted and a pilgrimage to several Vietnamese restaurants ensues. How do you decipher all of the gathered data? Getting one's hands around Vietnam's culinary identity is a daunting task.

The same is true of any Asian country. To truly understand a region's culinary identity, one must consider all the factors shaping its cuisine: geography, history, heritage, climate and agriculture, among them. Asia is no different, though it happens to be a region of many culinary identities.

Traditional vs. authentic

To many chefs, traditional and authentic have two entirely different meanings. Traditional cuisine refers to the way meals have been prepared through history , the way a region's natives cooked and presented food. Authentic cuisine is also steeped in history , respectful of traditional cuisine but incorporating modern ingredients and cooking techniques.

Cuisines evolve over time. What once was absent may now be included. Who would have guessed contemporary Japanese cuisine would come to include mayonnaise? Yet almost every Japanese supermarket carries Kewpie brand mayonnaise in plastic squeezable bottles, and cooks and chefs are squeezing away from one end of their native Japan to the other. Ingredients, cooking technique or style of presentation must be absorbed into a food culture to be considered authentic. But simply because a Western-style fast food outlet is selling a Grande Burrito in downtown Tokyo doesn't mean a burrito is now authentic Japanese food. Exactly when an ingredient, specific dish or cooking technique becomes assimilated into a culture is extremely subjective.

Geography

Food culture is a living force that is constantly evolving. A region's geography helps form the definitive pantry of its indigenous products, the true foundation for its traditional cuisine. Topography dictates the agricultural landscape and, by extension, the types of animals that are native to the region. Streams, rivers and lakes likewise promote the availability of fresh fish , sometimes on a grand scale in places such as Thailand. Climate also influences the availability of raw ingredients, as well as the seasonality of the resulting cuisine.

Vietnam's expansive coastline supplies a steady stream of seafood , so much of it that one would be hard pressed to create an entire product line of Vietnamese items without the omnipresent fish sauce , a staple in Vietnamese cooking due to the ample supply of anchovies used to produce it.

Cooking implements shared among neighbors are as important as ingredient availability. China's wok has infiltrated almost every country in Asia. Although the wok has morphed in size, material and use, depending on the region's cuisine, the basic culinary principle remains the same. China's fuel-poor and labor-rich society spawned this versatile cookware used to stir-fry, deep fry, steam, smoke, poach, simmer, boil and even roast. "Wok hay" or "breath of the wok" is what the Chinese call the familiar flavor achieved in the intensity of a wok.

The wok has also found a place in the kitchen of other Eastern cultures. India uses small woks to create appam, a coconut pancake. Malaysian cooks turn out char kway teow, wok-charred rice noodles with thick soy sauce, while the Burmese may simmer a chicken curry fragrant with cinnamon, curry leaves and allspice. Each culture puts its unique stamp on this single cooking implement, creating food that is unique.

Adjacent cultures such as China, Korea and Japan share a sisterhood of sorts. Think of China as the older sibling exerting her influence on the younger Korea and Japan. Sai fun, Chinese cellophane noodles made from mung bean starch for use in soups, are simulated in Korea, but with sweet potato starch to make chap chae. Japan, in turn, employs the devil's tongue plant (amorphophallus konjac) to create shirataki, used in the traditional Japanese sukiyaki. Similar comparisons can be made with most neighboring countries , Malaysia and Singapore, Myanmar and Thailand, or even Pakistan and North Indian cuisines.

A particular ingredient is often common to many cuisines, but in different ways, depending on the area. From the coriander plant we get both the dried coriander seeds and the fresh cilantro plant. Each form has its uses. Coriander seeds can be found everywhere , in the spicy broths of Malaysia, as a curry paste of Thailand, or a curry powder in India. Brilliant green leaves are tucked into a fresh rice paper wrap in Vietnam, or chopped and tossed with fried catfish for a salad in Thailand, or suspended in a gingered chicken broth in China. Lemongrass is used in most of Southeast Asia's cuisines. In Vietnam, it is minced to marinate a strip of pork or to top a pile of cool rice noodles. Thais may bruise its fragrant stalk to infuse a hot and sour soup, but Malaysian cooks grind thin slices of the fibrous plant into a rempah, spice paste to form the base of a beef curry.

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