Evolution of Asian Cuisine

Cooking is one of the oldest of human activities; indeed it may be the oldest above basic animal survival. At the wandering hunter-gatherer level of society, cooking is very simple – kill something, throw it on the fire along with whatever vegetables and fruits were found that day, eat . No one specialized in cooking, since every able body was needed to find the food in the first place. Cooking equipment consists of a few sticks for skewering meat and vegetables, leaves for wrapping and baking, maybe a hot flat rock.

At the next level of society, subsistence farming, cooking is a little more complex. Agriculture increases the selection of food stuffs available and also increases the probability that any given foodstuff will be available when wanted. Subsistence farmers rely on grain for their calories where hunters rely on meat, but grain requires considerable effort to convert to an edible form. As a matter of fact, it has beencalculated that a farmer has to work harder for his calories than a hunter. The relative abundance of food in a subsistence farming society compared to a hunter-gatherer society is at least partly offset by the amount of effort required to prepare the food. A settled existence allows the development of arts such as pottery and metal working, which in turn allows new cooking techniques such as baking and boiling. It is in subsistence farming societies that the regionalcuisine begins to take shape, usually referred to as a “peasant” cuisine. These peasant cuisines usually consist of a limited number of relatively simple dishes, since a wide variety of ingredients is not available, nor is the time to spend on fancy preparation.

At the next stage of development of a society, central authority and trade begin to emerge. Central authority implies castles and palaces, a ruling class who like to indulge their whims and show off for their neighbors and subjects. The rulers need professional cooks, not only because they are too important to do their own cooking, but to provide them with the delicacies that only skill and experience can produce. Trade implies towns and cities, specialization of labour ,exotic foodstuffs from far away, and processed food products. Taverns appear in the market place, and food is served, creating the first restaurant. The up-scale restaurants serving the lesser nobility and rich merchant classes often mimic the cooking of the palace. It is in the kitchens of the palaces and restaurants that sophisticated combinations of exotic ingredients are prepared with complicated techniques. It is in these kitchens that recipes are codified and written down.

The Three Cuisine Areas of Asia

  • The South West – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma
  • The North East – China, Korea, Japan
  • The South East – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia ,Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei

Curries are very important to the cuisines of the South East and SouthWest, less so in the cuisine of the North East. South Western curries are generally based on yogurt, whereas the curries of the South Eastand North East are generally based on coconut milk.

Rice is a staple starch in all three cuisines areas. In addition to rice, South Western cuisines include a variety of leavened and unleavend breads and South East and North East cuisines include rice and eggnoodles.

In the South West, the major oil used in frying is ghee, or clarified butter. In the South East and North East, the major oils are vegetable oils.

Garlic and ginger are used in all three cuisine areas, as are chilipeppers, although chilies are much more common in the South Westand South East. The North Eastern cuisines use soy sauce in nearly everything; the South East substitutes fish sauce; there is no equivalent in South Western cooking. In the South East, there are two additional flavorings that are not used in the other cuisines – galangal and lemon grass.

Cuisines of the South East

The original cuisine of the South East is probably the peasant cuisine of Thailand. Archaeology has recently discovered that the metal workingcultures of the central plain of Thailand date back to at least 3000 BC,easily in the same class as the ancient cultures of China and India. The peasant cuisine associated with these early metal workers spread east across the mountains into Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and south down the Malayan peninsula and the island arc of Indonesia.

This cuisine did not develop in isolation, of course. As it spread, it was influenced by ideas coming from the North East and South West, and influenced them in return. Most recently, of course, the cuisines of Europe have influenced the native ones. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were French colonies, Malaysia was a British Colony, Indonesia was a Dutch colony. Thailand was a rarity in that it successfully resisted European colonisation.

Rice is the staple grain of the North East and South East and is only slightly less important in the South West. It is the original crop that caused the conversion from hunter-gatherer to subsistence farmer inthis area; as such it spread across the region before regional cuisines began to evolve. Some Italians may object if you claim that Marco Polo brought spaghetti back from China, but there is little doubt tha tnoodles came to this region from China.

Curries are a very common across the region, but less common in Vietnam where the Chinese influence is strong. The concept probably came from India and spread east, but the people of the South East modified the original by substituting coconut milk for yogurt as the basis for the sauce.

The cooking utensil called the wok, and the stir fry technique using vegetable oils came to the area from the China.

Garlic and ginger are common all across Eurasia and probably arrived in the area at almost the same time as rice.

The arrival of chili peppers in the area can be placed with relative accuracy. Chili peppers, indeed all peppers, are native to the Americas and arrived in the region with European explorers/exploiters. This means they could not have arrived before about 1520, and were widespread by 1600.

Fish sauce is probably a local invention, but the Romans had a similar concoction (liquamen), so it is possible the idea was imported. (Maybe that’s where the lost legion ended up)

There are many spices used in the region; cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka, cardamom and cumin from India, coriander and star anise from China, cloves, nutmeg and mace are native.

Several herbs are common in the region, Thai basil, sweet basil and mint being the commonest. These herbs grow almost everywhere across tropical and subtropical Eurasia, so, while the idea of using them in cooking may have been imported, the actual herbs used are native varieties. This is especially true of Thai basil, with its purple stems and licorice flavor.

Citrus flavors are important to the region’s cuisines, especially lime, which is native to the islands of Indonesia and Malaysia. Not just the juice and pulp are used, but also the zest and leaves.

Last, but certainly not least, are lemon grass and galangal. These two flavors are the flavors which make the cuisines of the region unique. They are undoubtedly of local origin, for they are used nowhere else in the world. They are the two flavors which I have chosen to define the scope of this page.

Notes on Recipes

Equipment

The Wok

The wok is the most important piece of cooking equipment in SouthEast Asia and China. If you plan to do much of this region’s cooking you should invest in a good wok. A cast iron fry pan will serve in a pinch, but the rounded bottom of the wok provides a range of cooking temperatures in one pan, which can be important in stir frying.

There are many type of woks available – round- bottomed and flat-bottomed, on- handled and two-handled, mild steel, stainless steel, aluminum, and teflon coated. The most traditional is hand beaten of mild steel with a round bottom and two handles. Mild steel is preferred for its heat transfer properties; thin stamped stainless steel or aluminum just don’t hold enough heat, and cast aluminum takes to long to heat upand cool down. The traditional round bottom is designed to sit in theround hole of a charcoal burner. In a modern kitchen equipped with agas stove, the round bottomed wok might fit the burners, depending onthe design of the stove. If the wok does not fit the burners, it may be placed on a wok ring. In an electic kitchen, a flat bottomed wok is best, both for stability and for heat transfer. A properly conditioned iron wok is at least as non-stick as any teflon coating ever made.

A new wok must be seasoned before use. Scrub it well with soap and water to remove any coating applied to protect it during shipping, rinse well, and dry. Place the wok over low heat, wipe lightly with vegetable oil and let stand on the heat for 10 minutes. Cool and wipe with paper towels to remove the dark film. Repeat the oiling, heating, cooling and wiping procedure until the paper towels come away clean. Once a wok has been seasoned, it should be cleaned with plain water only using a wok brush, never with soap or abrasive cleaners, then dried and oiled before storing. If the metal ever rusts, clean with steel wool or fine sand paper and re-season.

Wok Tools

The most important wok tool is the long handled shovel-shaved scoop used to stir fry. Other wok tools include; a ladle, used to transfer liquids to and from the wok; a strainer with a brass or steel basket to remove foods from hot oil; a strainer with a bamboo basket fo rremoving foods from boiling water or stock; a bamboo whisk brush for cleaning; a rack which sits on the side of the wok for draining fried foods.

Steamers

Large dedicated steamers with multiple stacking are available instainless steel or aluminum, but more common are the stackable bamboo steamers. These are designed to be used in a wok over boiling water, and are often used as serving dishes.

Clay Pot

Clay pots – “hot pots”, glazed on the inside but unglazed on the outside are used for baking or stewing. They are available in a range of sizes,and like woks, with either one handle or two.

Cleavers

The oriental cleaver is a very verstile instrument – it performs all the functions of the various knives of western kitchens. Light cleavers are used for general chopping, slicing and carving; heavier, thicker cleavers are used for chopping bones. A good set of kitchen knives can be substituted.

Rice Cooker

If you are cooking rice often, a rice cooker is worth the investment . Place rice and water in the cooker, plug it in and press the button. Perfect rice very time.

Hand Held Blender or Small Food Processor

Most South East Asian dishes require considerable fine chopping – a hand held blender with a mincer/chopper attachment or a small food processor will cut your preparation time in half.

 

Ingredients
Curry Pastes and Powders

Southeast Asian curries are normally based on curry pastes which are made from a variety of fresh and dried ingredients ground together in a mortar and pestle. This is the recommended process if you are cooking curries daily, but the pastes have a limited shelf life. If you are only cooking them from time to time it is more convenient to make up curry powders in advance and add the fresh ingredients at cooking time.

All the recipes given here are based on curry powders, recipes for which are given in the section on Sauces, Relishes and Spices for the appropriate country. I would recommend that you buy fresh whole spices and grind them yourself in a spice or coffee grinder rather than buy pre-ground spices. Stored in an air-tight container in a dry place, curry powders will keep for a couple of months before their flavors start to decline.

If you would prefer to make pastes, refer to a recipe for the appropriate curry in my Thai sauce pages – for instance, to make Thai red curry paste, refer to a recipe for a red curry of pork or chicken in the Thai recipe section. Use the proportions given in the recipe of onion, shallots, garlic,ginger, galangal, lemon grass, chili paste, coriander leaves and curry powder to make your paste. Pastes, of course, should be refrigerated after preparation. They will keep for a week or two.

 

Chili Paste

The chili paste referred to in the recipes can be made at home by grinding fresh chilies in a mortar and pestle or food processor. A little salt and vinegar may be added to thin the mixture slightly. Alternately, you may buy a prepared chili paste, but be sure it contains only chilies (with a little salt and vinegar as above).

Obviously the color of the paste will depend on the color of the chilies used to make it. Use red chili paste in a red curry and green chili paste in a green curry if you can. If you can’t, don’t worry, the color of the finished product may not live up to the name of the recipe, but the taste will be pretty much the same.

Coconut Milk

When coconut milk is specified in the recipe, use canned coconut milk with no dilution. When making curry, the first part of most recipes calls for you to put about 1/2 cup of coconut milk in a pan and heat it up. It is VERY important that you not shake the can first. Open the can and skim the top cream off and heat it until you see the oils starting to separate. Then add the curry paste/powder.

Tamarind Liquid

The Tamarind Liquid referred to in the recipes can be made as follows. Take 3 tablespoons of tamarind pulp, and soak in 1/2 cupwarm water for 10 minutes. Knead and rub with your fingers until the pulp dissolves. Strain the liquid to remove the seeds and fibers.

Tamarind liquid may also be made from concentrate by soaking 1tablespoon of concentrate in 1/2 cup warm water, but the concentrate tends to be very dark in color, which can adversely affect the color ofthe dish.

There are a few types of Tamarind available. Some recipes call for sweet tamarind and others call for the bitter types. If your recipe doesn’t specify, use the sweet type. If the recipe is too sweet, you can cut it with a little salt or fish sauce. If you have access to fresh, sweet tamarind, it can be eated by breaking open the shell and eating the soft flesh. Some prefer the bitter type, taking the seed covered with the flesh and covering it with a mixture of sugar and dried red pepper.