Another well-known aspect of Asian and Asian American culture is food, or more specifically, the different traditions of Asian cuisine and cooking. Reflecting the broad diversity of histories and experiences within our community, there are also many unique types of cuisine that come from our numerous ethnic cultures. As the modern Asian American population continues to develop and evolve, we are also witnessing a fascinating transformation of Asian ethnic cuisine as it blends traditional and contemporary aspects into a uniquely Asian American creation.
THE THREE DIETARY CULTURES OF ASIA
Cooking is one of the oldest of human activities. When human evolution was at the hunter-gatherer stage, cooking was very simple -- kill something, throw it on the fire along with whatever vegetables and fruits were found that day, and eat. Spices and cooking equipment were rather simple at that time and there probably was not much variety in the average diet back then. Since those very early beginnings, cooking has become almost an art form but still remains a fundamental part of our everyday lives.
Although many Asian cultures share the tradition of gathering the family or clan together to socialize or celebrate over a big meal, the various cultures of Asia each developed their own ethnic cuisine through the interaction of history, environment, and culture. Culinary historians and anthropologists tend to identified three main categories of Asian dietary cultures that have developed through the centuries. As with virtually any classification system, there is some overlap, but they roughly represent to the main groups or types of traditional Asian cooking.
The first is known as the southwest style that includes cuisines from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Burma. Having its roots in Persian-Arabian civilization, the eating of nan (or flat bread) became widespread, along with mutton, kebabs (derived from Turkish cooking), and the use of hot peppers, black pepper, cloves, and other strong spices, along with ghee (a butter oil). also became a staple in this dietary culture. Through the teachings of Hinduism, cows were used only for their milk and not for meat. In addition to rice, chapati made from wheat or barley are also a staple part of the diet, and beans also play an important role in meals.
The second major dietary culture of Asia is the northeast tradition, comprising China, Korea, and Japan. This tradition developed to emphasize using fats, oils, and sauces in cooking. In the northeast dietary culture, the foods, spices, and seasonings go beyond being mere foodstuffs as they are also used as medicines to promote a long and healthy life. In addition, food became associated with many religious traditions as well, as many northeast Asian cultures frequently used food as symbolic offerings to worship their ancestors.
Arguably, Chinese cuisine has become the most prominent of all Asian styles of cooking, with several different styles based on region -- the most basic difference being between northern and southern styles of Chinese cuisine. Southern dishes emphasize freshness and tenderness while due to the colder weather, northern dishes are relatively oily and the use of vinegar and garlic tends to be more popular. In contrast, Japanese cooking came to emphasize the frequent use of deep-frying (i.e., tempura, etc.) using vegetable oil or conversely, raw foods (i.e., sushi and sashimi). In Korea, much of the tradition cuisine is centered on grilling or sautéing and the use of hot chili spices (i.e., kim chi, etc.).
Finally, the third major dietary culture of Asia is the southeast style, which includes Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. The traditional emphasis in this region is on aromatic and lightly-prepared foods, using a delicate balance of quick stir-frying, steaming, and/or boiling, supplemented with discrete spices and seasonings, including citrus juices and herbs such as basil, cilantro, and mint. Also, while northeastern cuisines emphasize using soy sauce in nearly everything, many cultures in the southeast substitute fish sauce, along with galangal, lemon grass, and tamarind for additional flavor.
Comparing the three cuisines with each other, we notice that curries are very important to the cuisines of the southeast and southwest, less so in the northeast. Southwestern curries are generally based on yogurt, whereas the curries of the southeast are generally based on coconut milk. Of course, rice is a staple starch in all three cuisines areas. In addition to rice, southwestern cuisines are supplemented with a variety of leavened and unleavened breads while southeast and northeast cuisines add noodles made from rice, egg, or potatoes (remember, pasta was invented in China). Garlic and ginger are used in all three cuisine areas, while chilies are much more common in the southwest and southeast.
TOOLS USED IN ASIAN CUISINE
In addition to unique cuisines from Asia, western cultures were also introduced to the unique tools used to prepare Asian foods. Perhaps the most important is the wok. The wok is the most important piece of cooking equipment in southeast Asia and China. Because traditional Asian households did not have resources to make or buy several different pans for different types of cooking, the traditional wok was developed with a unique rounded bottom that provides a range of cooking temperatures in one pan, thereby becoming a nearly universal staple of Asian households.
Similarly, the cleaver developed as another versatile cooking instrument as it can be used to perform all the functions of an entire set of cooking knives and utensils common in the average western kitchen -- general chopping, slicing, dicing, carving, crushing, scooping, etc. And of course, we can't forget about the quintessential Asian eating instrument -- the chopstick. Although its true origins are unknown, a Chinese legend notes that the philosopher Confucius, living in China around 500 B.C., influenced the development of chopsticks through his non-violent teachings. The widely-accepted belief was that because knives were associated with war and death, Confucius urged his followers not to use them at the dinner table, which supposedly led to the invention of chopsticks as a substitute.
Asian food is generally a blend of several tastes together -- sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and bitter. While western palates tend to segregate tastes, Asian cuisine emphasizes a combination of flavors and textures, often within a single dish. Blends of rice or noodles with vegetables and/or a protein source may also include something crunchy, such as nuts, or something softer, such as raisins.
Another difference is rather than adding a ground powder to a dish (as is common in the U.S.), Asian cooks, especially in the southeast region, prepare spice blends though various techniques including blending whole spices and freshly grinding them, and preparing curry blends. Other unique ingredients provide flavor, texture, and color to define various Asian cuisine. The popularity of Asian cooking shows such as "The Iron Chef" is just one example of how popular and even trendy Asian cuisine has become.
THE 'FUSION' OF ASIAN AMERICAN CUISINE
As different Asian immigrants have come to the U.S. to begin their lives as Americans throughout history, they have brought their cuisine and cooking traditions with them, along with the centuries-old tradition of bringing together the family or a large group of friends and relatives to socialize over a big meal. As restaurants opened to serve the early Chinese and Japanese immigrant communities in various cities in the U.S., westerners got their first taste of traditional Asian cuisine. But inevitably, assimilation and acculturation took place, not just in terms of the individual, but also as applied to Asian food as well.
Soon, Asian restaurants that wanted to broaden their appeal and customer base beyond their own ethnic patrons had to modify or invent new 'ethnic' food that would appeal more readily to the western palate. This eventually led to the creation of uniquely 'Americanized' Asian dishes such as chop suey, egg rolls, fortune cookies, and recently, 'Asian-inspired' fast food salads.
These days, traditional Asian cuisine is undergoing another transformation but instead of being combined with western tastes, the result comes from combining elements and styles from different Asian cultures into a new fusion style of pan-Asian dishes. Many of these early fusion dishes were synthesized from Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, and Chinese cuisines (along with a few French influences), although other Asian cultures are slowly being 'mixed' into the trend. Many of these fusion restaurants also tend to be aimed at a slightly more upscale clientele and are concentrated mainly in the major metropolitan areas around the U.S.
Along with being seen as new and trendy, these Asian fusion dishes also appeal to many customers because they tend to be lighter and are perceived to be healthier than other types of "ethnic" cuisine. In fact, many westerners are only now understanding the health benefits of many Asian foods. Many nutritionists point out that America's biggest health problems -- heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and many cancers -- are seen far less often in Asian countries. One reason is, not only is physical activity that blends spirituality with fitness (such as tai chi) more common in Asian societies, but experts are finding that Asian diets also play a key role.
Research shows that the average Chinese adult, for example, eats half as much fat and one-third less protein than the average American. The Chinese rely heavily on grains, fruits, and vegetables. Meat is rarely the main ingredient in a meal; instead, small amounts are offered up in dishes composed mainly of vegetables and rice. The popularity of eating fish in many Asian countries is also linked to lower incidences of many of the chronic health problems that are more common in the U.S., as is the drinking of green tea for its antioxidant benefits. Ethnic grocery stores and frozen Asian dinners have enjoyed explosive growth in recent years, further reflecting the rising popularity of Asian food.
However, a healthy diet that took centuries to achieve may be lost in just decades. Many observers are noting that obesity and heart disease is slowly becoming a problem in many Asian urban areas, as more Chinese, Japanese, etc. are copying the unhealthy eating habits of normally associated with Americans and flocking to fast food restaurants that seem to be growing exponentially across Asia. It seems ironic that the blending of eastern and western cuisines can have such different results for each culture involved.
Copyright © 2001-2007 by C.N. Le. All rights reserved.
Le, C.N. 2007. "Asian Cuisine & Foods." Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/asian-food.shtml> (October 2, 2007).