Asia's Many Identities

Oct. 15, 2003
History, heritage and more are vital to authentic Asian creations

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.


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.

Ingredient Companions
  • Japanese Shichimi Togarashi , chile powder (togarashi), sesame seeds, hemp seeds, sansho (similar to Szechwan peppercorn), tangerine peel, nori, black sesame seeds
  • Chinese Five Spice Powder , Star anise, Szechwan peppercorns, cinnamon, fennel, cloves
  • Thai Curry Pastes , Lemongrass, galangal, shallots, garlic, peppercorns, kaffir lime rind, and fermented shrimp paste, salt
  • Red Curry Paste, dried red chilies
  • Green Curry Paste, green chilies, coriander roots
  • Yellow Curry Paste , turmeric
  • Massaman Curry Paste , cinnamon, cloves, cardamom
  • Indian Garam Masala , cinnamon, coriander, cumin, cardamom, peppercorns, mace, cloves, bay leaves
  • Moroccan Ras el Hanout , ash berries, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, rose petals, nigella, black pepper, lavender, galangal, ginger
  • Turkish Zahtar , sumac, sesame seeds, thyme
  • French Quatre-spices , black pepper, nutmeg, cloves, ginger

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.

Differences in Asian food are likewise shaped by ingredients that don't travel as frequently. For instance, northern China relies on wheat, corn and millet for the majority of its starch, while southern China utilizes rice. Hence fried rice noodles and steamed rice are indigenous to the south just as steamed buns and flat bread are to the north.


In many instances, however, regional differences are blurring, with modernization having all but eliminated the rigid regional boundaries separating most developed countries. What's interesting is that many independent restaurants, the places where many food trends begin, are focusing on one region while the regions themselves are adopting characteristics from across the globe. This latter practice is fusion, which works well if the tenets of a culture are maintained. Most food is fusion, in fact.

Although most consider the manner in which tempura is prepared as purely Japanese, the technique is actually an adaptation of a Portuguese method of preparing battered fried foods. The Portuguese introduced the concept of battered fried foods to Japan in the 16th century, though Japanese chefs modified the recipes and technique to suit their taste for delicate, textured foods. They also developed a dipping sauce made with grated daikon to help with digestion of the oil.

In Malaysia, the Malays, Chinese, and Indians each have distinctive cooking characteristics. However, exchange between these cultures is evident in their cuisine. The ingredients, cooking techniques, and culture all combine to produce something uniquely Malaysian.

Chinese and Indian cultures provide yet another example of this fusion with a dish known as mee rebus. Chinese egg noodles are used in combination with an Indian-inspired curry powder and coconut milk to create this truly unique Malaysian dish. Po piah, Malaysian spring rolls, also highlight the ways Chinese and Malay cultures have melded a precious culinary experience. Chinese-style spring roll wrappers created from a thin batter are stuffed with a cooked jicama and garlic mixture enriched by a Malaysian fermented soybean paste.

Ethnic diversity

A region's food culture develops over thousands of years in some cases, and just hundreds or less in others. Later influences often result from cultural shifts such as colonization, one example being the presence of the French in Vietnam during the mid-20th century.

Commerce brings outsiders to different regions, often in the form of laborers or traders. Multi-ethnic foods from Malaysia and Singapore are some of the best examples of such influences. Considering that a majority of their population is Malay, Chinese, and Indian respectively, these ethnic cuisines are at times very distinct and occasionally fuse together in dishes. For example, nyonya popiah is a Chinese spring roll wrapper, often prepared in the method of a crepe. It contains a jicama filling unique to Malaysia.

New ingredients often emerge from the convergence of two ethnic groups. Malaysia has created a thick soy sauce that unites the bitter Chinese dark soy sauce with Indonesian sweet soy sauce, kecap manis, to create a thick, gooey, rich sauce that is only slightly sweet and has just a trace of bitterness. The sauce is not only used to flavor the five spice scented pork stews, but also to create the dark brown thick egg noodles on hokkien fried mee, wok-charred noodles with pork cracklings.

Culinary etiquette

The implements a culture brings to the table also help define its cuisine. Traditional Korean service uses communal bowls, and each diner has his own long-handled spoon to partake of the simmering broth.

Westerners often incorrectly assume that Asians eat all their food with chopsticks. In Thailand, chopsticks are primarily reserved for noodle dishes. Those unfamiliar with Southeast Asian culture are also surprised by the way the spoon and fork are used together to scoop up the region's multifaceted cuisine.

To this day, hands are used with grace to scoop up sticky rice in northern Thailand. Hands are also the traditional implements for eating nigiri sushi, "fingers" of rice topped with myriad delicacies. Often flavor is enhanced or managed by use of the hands.

Prevailing flavors

Prevailing flavors are recurring ones developed by combining groups of ingredients into different recipes with similar flavors. Flavor is the culmination of all the senses: sight, sound, taste, and smell. Each region of Asia has developed unique ingredient combinations to create distinct sensory effects that identify their cuisine. Anyone who has wandered down the crooked alleys of Chinatown will spot the glistening soy- and honey-lacquered edges of cha shao, Chinese roasted pork.

The combination of lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, garlic, and shallots comes to the forefront in many Malaysian dishes such as Beef Rendang, Chicken Satay and otak otak. Yet in each dish the ingredients are manipulated differently. In the dry curry of Beef Rendang, the ingredients are pounded or blended into the rempah , spice paste, and simmered with beef and coconut milk until a majority of the moisture has evaporated and the flavors have been softened while also becoming more concentrated. In Chicken Satay, a pounded mixture is made to form the marinade for the chicken pieces; some of this same paste can include chilies to be fried as the base for the peanut sauce. Otak otak , banana leaf wrapped fish paste , is speckled with these ingredients as they are mixed with the fish paste before being folded up and grilled.

The R&D kitchen

Any recipe can be deconstructed into its essential elements, but attention must be paid to the factors outlined above. The same ingredients can be found in many recipes; yet final flavors are defined by the way they are manipulated. In order to present the dish authentically, the chef must present the food according to the region's guidelines and expectations, an especially difficult task since there is no guidebook that lists the rules.

Combining soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and scallions together for a sauce can lay the foundation for many Chinese recipes , yet it can also do the same for Korean or Japanese dishes.

Presentation and authenticity

Developing products for foodservice or the retail market require different approaches. Foodservice clients have much more control over the ways products are utilized and presented. Unfortunately, the retail market is much more challenging , we have less control over the end use of the foodstuffs.

In the retail arena, it's necessary to engineer the product in order to minimize the effects of varying heating and serving abilities among consumers. Detailed and flexible heating and serving directions that guarantee success are critical. Serving suggestions can help the consumer get a step closer to the intended presentation. But don't count on it; the product will be abused every way imaginable. Developing products that can meet the demands and expectations of today's consumer is a tall order.

There are no absolutes when defining a regions cuisine. Authentic food creations in a kitchen or R&D lab are complex puzzles that require ingenuity to create. Just as in the ancient Chinese concept of Yin and Yang, , when two cuisines from a similar area of the world are compared, small dots of each can be found within the other. Despite these common threads, other features set each apart from its counterpart. The is no one way to make a dish , each cook, home, town, region or country will have developed their own interpretation that is authentically their own.

Robert Danhi is executive chef, Two Chefs on a Roll, in Carson, Calif. An 18-year veteran of the foodservice business, he graduated with honors from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New Jersey and has cooked professionally in Los Angeles, Hawaii and New York. Danhi was executive chef of the Southern California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena and was a chef instructor at CIA. He travels across the globe researching, teaching and making presentations for the CIA in locations such as Japan, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. His specialty is Asian Cuisine, especially that of Southeast Asia. where he has traveled and studied extensively with his Malaysian born wife Estrellita.

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