In Search of the Asian Flavor-What Defines It?
A Distinctive Taste
Asian flavor is distinct in itself. It clearly differentiates itself from other flavors like American, European, or African variants. It does not merely represent a single country in Asia but a summation of individual and unique flavors found in the region.
Countries of Asia
Asia is the largest continent in the world. Due to its size, the continent is divided into different regions namely Eastern Asia, South-Central Asia, South-East Asia, Northern Asia, and Western Asia. The groupings of countries according to region are as follows:
China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan
Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, East Timor, Vietnam
Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Georgia, Iraq, Israel, Jordan Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestinian Territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Yemen
Cuisines of Asia
The recognized cuisines all over the world are divided into five main groups namely African, Asian, European, Oceania, and the Americas. In Asian cuisine, there are also five sub-categories according to their geographical groupings as shown above. Strictly speaking, Northern Asia which is comprised solely of the Russian Confederation is more associated with European cuisine. It just so happens that Russia is so vast that part of it is found in Europe and part is found in Asia. For purposes of this article, we shall not include Northern Asia when referring to Asian flavors.
Another important point to consider is that Western Asia is equivalent to the Middle East and therefore may not necessarily fall into the usual Asian cuisine category in the perception of many. There are actually three sub-categories of Western Asian cuisine namely the Middle Eastern cuisine, the Arab cuisine, and the Levantine cuisine. To most westerners, Asian flavor is equivalent to the more popular cuisines of Asia which includes Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Indian. There are however so much more about Asian flavor than these four cuisines.
Beyond the Popular Asian Cuisines
The Chinese cuisine is best characterized by its so-called "Four Great Traditions" - Cantonese, Sichuan, Shandong, and Huaiyang cuisines. Food staples include rice, noodles, soybeans, wheat, vegetables, and herbs. Japanese food usually consists of steamed white rice combined with one or more main and side dishes. It is known for its minimal use of animal meat as well as its sushi. Japanese noodles act as substitute for rice-based meals. Thai cuisine is especially known for its spiciness and seeks to achieve the complexity of flavors through the balance of fundamental taste senses. Thai food is usually prepared as a single dish or rice with many complementary dishes. Indian cuisine is generally guided by existing religious and cultural principles thus the popularity of vegetarianism. Staples include pearl millet, rice, whole wheat flour, and pulses.
Aside from these four popular cuisines, other cuisines of special note are Korean which is noted for having a number of side dishes, Filipino which is known for its unusual combination of flavors, Cambodian which is considered one of the healthiest and most balanced, Burmese (Myanmar) which is characterized by extensive use of fish products, and Singaporean which is the epitome of multiculturalism which it seeks to highlight as a tourist attraction.
Many of the Asian countries have cuisines that were highly influenced by their neighbors such as Brunei, Laos, Malaysia, East Timor, and Vietnam. Some had additional inputs from its previous associations such as the Philippines in relation to its Spanish and American influence, and Vietnam in relation to its French influence. Other countries found in South-Central Asia aside from India also have their unique cuisines to offer. The countries of Western Asia are quite distinct from the rest of Asia since they are identified more with what most of us refer to as the Middle Eastern flavor. Most of them also benefited from influences of their neighboring countries and came up with their own recognized cuisine.
Asian Spices and Flavor Enhancers
If there is one thing that can characterize Asian cooking, it would be the use of herbs, spices, and multitude of flavors in its preparation. The end product usually captures the attention of our sense of sight and smell but it is ultimately its effect on our sense of taste that will make the difference. The use of ingredients that produces the complexity of flavors is a requirement for Asian cooking.
There are so many that can be mentioned in this regard. Some of these are sesame oil, fermented bean paste, soy sauce, salt, garlic, ginger, pepper flakes, oyster sauce, rice vinegar, peppercorns, star anise, cinnamon, fennel, cloves, dried mushrooms, chilies, sugar, sake, dashi, edible flowers, nutmeg, galangal, turmeric, lemongrass, shallot, coriander, tamarind, peanut sauce, coconut milk, fish sauce, cilantro, basil, soybeans, kaffir lime, and so on. We can easily see that not all of these are indigenous to Asia but there is no doubt that those which are not have been effectively assimilated in Asian cooking.
A pleasant savory taste that has become known as umami is largely identified with Asian cooking. It is given by a type of amino acid known as glutamate and is naturally occurring in a variety of foods such as meat, fish, vegetable, and dairy products. It imparts a broth-like meaty taste and can be extracted from food items rich in glutamate such as seaweed. The commercial version known as monosodium glutamate is produced through fermentation.
What Then Defines Asian Flavor?
An authentic Asian flavor therefore is that which defines the roots, culture, and the development of each and every country that makes up the continent. It thrives on the likeness as well as the uniqueness between and among the cuisines presented by each country. Asian flavor is not represented by a single country but by a group of countries most of which are still waiting for their food to be discovered by the world.