Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Flavors of Asia and Australasia

Asia and Australasia contain virtually half the world’s population and examples of most of the Earth’s geography, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that very few culinary opportunities are left unexplored among this melange of interconnected cultures and climates. Spices dominate the foods of Asia, but are used to flavor a huge range of cuisines with distinctive styles. Australasia has combined these with its European heritage to concoct a unique range of Pan-Asian dishes.

Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia share a southern Indian love of spice pastes, coconut milk, and grilled foods.
In the north of Asia, the arid Himalayan plateau descends to a vast swath of treeless steppes, where wheat is the staple and cooking is kept simple by the limited ingredients. Lower down, humid hills and river plains form the heartland of those two great Asian core crops – tea and rice – that pattern the upland slopes in terracing, color the landscape a rich green, and nourish half of humanity. Rice in particular holds the regional cuisines together, infinitely flexible in its uses: it’s eaten steamed, fried, roasted, and boiled; made into noodles, cakes, and wine; ground into flour and used in desserts. The rice belt extends south into the tropics, where heat, rain, and rich soils create an extraordinary fertility in which all manner of spices, fruits, and vegetables flourish. Add to this the multitudes of farmed pigs and chickens and an abundance of marine life, and the menu becomes infinite.

Chefs preparing sushi in Tokyo, Japan – as much an art form as a dish
A Rich Mixture of Cuisines
The story of Asian cuisine is one of cross-fertilization. In terms of variety and influence, India and China completely dominate the region. Migration, trade, and conquest spread the philosophies and cuisines of these two behemoths across Asia, though isolation and distance have preserved local variations: a cuisine might be identifiably “Asian,” but there’s a world of difference between a Cambodian amok fish curry and West Lake fish from China’s Hangzhou. However, there are definite cooking “families”: Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia share a southern Indian love of spice pastes, coconut milk, and grilled foods; the cooking of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam has clearer, cleaner flavors built around well-defined ingredients, perhaps closer to the studied simplicity and restrained palette of Japanese and Korean cuisine. India has no qualms about adapting foreign dishes – Mumbai’s cosmopolitan chaat snacks, for example, embrace even Portuguese influences. Even that inwardlooking cultural monolith, China, where alien ideas are absorbed so effectively that they eventually become Chinese, still shows evidence of contact with the outside world – in Peking duck, for instance, which probably owes a debt to Mongol cuisine.
Nothing demonstrates the extent of this trade in ideas more than the history of Asian spices, especially ginger, pepper, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom, which are all used extensively in Southeast Asian cooking. Many reached Europe via India in Roman times, and by the Middle Ages had become so valuable (due partly to assumed medicinal properties) that they fired the 16thcentury European voyages of global exploration to discover their source, Indonesia’s fabled “Spice Islands.” Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and British explorers (or invaders and colonists) dominated the regional economies of Asia for the next four centuries, and they made one massive contribution to their cuisine by importing chili peppers from South America. So ubiquitous is the chili today in Asian cooking – it’s used in dishes as varied as Sichuanese gong bao chicken, Thai green curry, Vietnamese pho (noodle soup), and countless relishes and spice pastes – that it’s impossible to imagine how local cooks once managed without it.
Food is such an expression of culture in Asia that people’s lives seem to revolve around it for much of the time. Eating here is always more than simply topping off the body’s calories; it is, rather, something to be indulged in or lavished upon others at every opportunity, with special dishes and feasting marking secular and religious festivals. Even the humblest meals can become social events; quiet, romantic restaurants are noticeably rare across much of Asia, where brightly lit, lively venues – the best of which are described in Chinese as being renao, or “hot and noisy” – are favored. That’s not to say that there aren’t rules; should someone inadvertently touch food with their left hand in Indonesia, onlookers would recoil in disgust at this breach of etiquette. But when wolfing down satay or nasi goreng at a street stand, or rubbing elbows with fellow diners in a south Indian thali house, the sheer enjoyment of eating seems to overwhelm the need to prescribe exactly how this should be done.
Food is such an expression of culture in Asia that people’s lives seem to revolve around it for much of the time.
Pan-Asian Cooking
The cuisine of Australia and New Zealand is very much that of the mostly European peoples who have colonized these islands in the last 200 years. Not that indigenous methods haven’t had an impact: the famous Australian barbecue is only a step away from Aboriginal campfire cooking, illustrating a dominant “keep it simple” attitude to food. But the cuisine often self-consciously references European heritage or, in the case of Melbourne’s Pan-Asian cuisine, fuses a whole region under one umbrella. Perhaps here, the setting is at least as important to the eating experience as the food; you can’t really separate Balmain bugs from their coastal, Sydneyside spot.

Federation Square in Melbourne, Australia, is a major meeting and eating point

Street food can be bought from stands and wandering vendors in Hoi An, Vietnam 

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