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Asian Bites A Feast of Flavors from Turkey to India to Japan - Introduction

DK PublishingDK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks
© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

Introduction

It is often said that Asian people are always eating. There seem to be so many opportunities to eat at any time of the day or night. For a chef and a writer that makes Asia an ideal place to travel and sample the wares. Ever present throughout the vastly different countries and cuisines of Asia, with its many hundreds of ethnic groups, is a healthy obsession with food. The constant grazing on freshly cooked ingredients allows visitors to experience a vast wealth of flavors, textures, and taste combinations. These in turn create layers of flavor and three-dimensional tastes that result in food with subtleties, contrasts, and nuances, so that no one ingredient stands out, overpowering the meal.

This same description can be applied to the cultures of Asian countries. Asia is full of blends of people, beliefs, and religion, with layers of migration, conquest, and history that work to highlight, complement, and contrast, forming countries with a wealth and depth of heritage. This layering becomes even more interesting because, across the vast continent of Asia, it is impossible to separate the connection of food and society. The styles of food differ enormously from region to region, and the ingredients and recipes change, but the significance of the food remains constant. The food of Asia is an integral part of life. I refer to this as the “anthropology of food,” and it makes the connection between food and travel in regions of Asia so enjoyable.

“Asia is full of blends of people, beliefs, and religion, with layers of migration, conquest, and history that work to highlight, complement, and contrast, forming countries with a wealth and depth of heritage.”

For example, the significance of rice throughout Asia goes much further than as a food staple. How it is cooked is paramount to the success of an Asian meal. Rice is a cultural cornerstone in many ancient heritages that have formed over millennia across a land that covers thousands of miles. The importance of rice lies not only in the food and eating etiquette, but also in the society as a whole: the art, literature, music, religion, spiritual superstitions, economics, and politics of this vast continent. In many Asian cultures, the food that is eaten becomes a meal when eaten alongside rice; without it, the same food would just be a snack. In China, the phrase chi fan (“to eat rice”) also translates as “to eat.” In Thailand and Vietnam, there are scores of phrases that use rice to describe aspects of society, such as generosity, love, and waiting a long time for something to happen—referring to the cultivation of rice. In Thailand, the word for rice is khao; a common term of greeting is “Kin khao laew reu yang?” (“Have you eaten rice yet?”). Another common greeting in Asia translates roughly as, “Hi, there. You must be hungry.” When greeted in this manner, I cannot help but accept the generous offer of more food, even if I have just eaten.

The use of chiles is now synonymous with many Asian cuisines, and it would be hard to imagine the foods of Thailand, India, and Malaysia without this fiery condiment. Yet it was only after the Portuguese and Spanish had been to South America in the 16th century that Asia embraced chiles in its cuisine. Before the arrival of this heated fruit, however, many of these cuisines were already hot and spicy. Pastes of ginger, garlic, and pepper were used, along with other spices. White pepper was favored in Thai cooking to provide a serious kick. Thai dishes that use white pepper are quite likely to be ancient Siamese recipes predating the Spanish arrival with their hot chiles from South America.

“It was only after the Portuguese and Spanish had been to South America in the 16th century that Asia adopted the chile into its cuisine. Before the arrival of this heated fruit, many of these cuisines were already hot and spicy. Pastes of ginger, garlic, and pepper were used, along with other spices.”

Images of Asia and its varied cuisines are steeped in mystique and intrigue that go back millennia. The sensual delights and aromas of the cuisines of Asia and the Orient evoke ancient trade routes, exotic spice markets, and centuries of secrets that have transfixed everyone who has come into contact with them—including the Romans, who have been documented as using spice blends of cumin and ginger. In Roman cuisine, salty anchovy pastes were used to season dishes in a similar fashion to the way Asian fish sauce and dried and fermented shrimp have been used in Southeast and East Asia for thousands of years.

I am fascinated by the use of spices in Asian cooking, and these extraordinary aromatic seeds and pods from far-distant Asian lands have held outsiders in a spell over many different eras. In England in the 16th and 17th centuries, nutmeg was widely used for both medicinal and culinary reasons because of its taste and strong antibacterial and preservative qualities, but most importantly because it was said to ward off the plague. The Arabs controlled the spice trade, and the spice islands of Indonesia were so valuable that individual sultans amassed great wealth. By the early 1500s, Maluku (or the Moluccas, famous for cloves and nutmeg) was known as Jazirat-al-Muluk, or “Land of Many Kings.” Later these islands were crucial in shaping Western history. In the 18th century, at the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch gained control of Run Island in Indonesia’s Moluccan archipelago, and exchanged it for British control of New Amsterdam (Manhattan, New York).

In Asian cooking, the goal is a perfect balance of hot, sweet, salty, and sour tastes. In Thailand, this is called rot chart, or “correct taste.” This harmony of flavors is achieved through the use of spices, pepper, chiles, fresh herbs, citrus, and salty elements made from fermented and dried soy and seafood products. The wide use of fresh herbs across Asia distinctly marks its cuisines with an aromatic freshness. All these fresh herbs are one of the reasons that Vietnamese food, for instance, is described lovingly as “perfumed” or “fragrant.”

In Thailand, they do not restrict themselves to the leaves of fresh coriander (cilantro), but use the roots as well. An analogy is made between a tree with its roots and a bunch of fresh coriander. A tree gains nutrients through its roots; if you translate nutrients into flavor, the roots are where most of the intense flavor is, and the leaves have the least because they are farthest away. Fresh coriander (cilantro) roots are a vital element in the making and flavoring of Thai curry pastes, marinades, and spicy dressings.

This balance of Asian flavors is achieved in all dishes, from the simplest dipping sauce all the way up to those served at royal banquets. What is unique is that this blend is achieved with strong, pungent, and sharp-tasting ingredients that are overpowering, and even unpleasant, if eaten on their own. Only when paired and blended with other ingredients are these flavors not only tamed, but also perfumed with exotic aromas. The intense fiery heat of spices, pepper, and chiles can be countered with something sweet or neutral such as yogurt or coconut cream, fruits, sugars, honey, roasted root vegetables, or young baby greens, to name but a few. Strong-tasting salty elements such as fish sauce, soy sauce, and other fermented pastes are reined by using sour citrus, lemongrass, lime leaves, or tamarind. Together the elements of hot, sweet, salty, and sour become much more than the sum of their parts. This rule of thumb ensures all the food is harmonious and vibrant. Whenever I travel in Asia, I sample so many different dishes or enormous variety, yet I can always trace this simple balance of taste and flavor running through the food.

“Whenever I travel in Asia, I sample so many different dishes of enormous variety, yet I can always trace this simple balance of taste and flavor running through the food.”

The Vietnamese dipping sauce nuoc cham, for example, is made by first crushing garlic and salt using a stone mortar and pestle, then adding chopped hot fresh red chiles and pounding them together to make a paste. Fresh lime juice, fish sauce, and a bit of sugar are mixed with the paste. The result is very simple and effective, yet mind-blowingly good. In Thailand, nam pla prik is the simplest condiment present on every table—it is nothing more than fish sauce and chopped hot red chiles. When these hot, sour, and salty dressings are served alongside something sweet such as grilled shrimp or beef, fresh crab, or some roasted chicken or pork, the result is astounding because all of your taste buds are stimulated at once. You taste all the elements separately, then together.

Whether preparing a simple sauce or a complex meal, the Asian cook weaves a magic web of taste combinations. These can be hearty and comforting in the first mouthful; delicate and exotic in the next. The food of Asia stimulates all the senses.

The recipes that I have researched in my travels and experiences in Asia are to be enjoyed together. In an authentic Asian meal, numerous courses come to the table in a continual stream, and any number of dishes are eaten together. Unlike Western meals, there is no real separation of dishes or courses. A soup may be eaten alongside a curry or relish, and used to moisten the rice accompanying the meal. The recipes that follow work very well when served in combination with one another. The guide’s title, Asian Bites, signifies bite-sized pieces that can be enjoyed on their own or as part of a larger selection. However you choose to serve them—as snacks, as canapés, as light meals, or as part of sumptuous feasts—it’s a great way to bring an evocative taste of the Asian table to yours.

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