Asian Cuisine & Foods

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. At the same time, with increasing mechanization and the rapid growth of other sectors, the proportion of the population working in agriculture (including fishing and forestry) declined steadily from about 37 percent in 1901 to 9.4 percent in 1999.

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.

Traditional Asian diet pyramid Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust 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). Curry 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 sauteing and the use of hot chili spices (i.e., kim chi, etc.).

Art and cuisine, Chinese style Caroline Smith/Getty Images 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.