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Asia 101

A look at the sense of balance Asian cuisine strives for. Plus the sources of the five big flavors in Asian foods and the impact of religion on the region's dishes.

Asia's sense of balance is deeply rooted in tradition 

Most Asian cuisine places a great deal of emphasis on balance. Not just the balance of flavors in a particular dish, but balance across the table in the array of dishes that are served. In his book Thai Cooking, David Thompson notes that the elements of this concept of balance are the taste and texture of the ingredients and the seasonings themselves, otherwise known as the “Thai Paradox.” This idea is not confined to Thai cooking but is represented in all the Asian philosophies regarding maintaining a balance in diet as well as good living.

Asian concepts of meal preparation and presentation differ greatly from those in the West. In Western cooking the idea is to blend flavors and allow them to harmonize. For example, stews and braises are often made ahead of time so that their flavors will marry. In Asian cuisines, balance and harmony are achieved by the use of contrasting flavors, textures, temperatures and colors—often within a single dish. 

A classic example of this is the popular Vietnamese dish of “Warm Vegetables on Cool Noodles.” In Southeast Asia one will also find a variety of finishing touches to stews, curries and noodle dishes such as crunchy fried shallots and crispy garlic, which provide an added note of contrasting textures.

In Chinese cuisine the familiar concept of yin-yang is often brought to bear, the mixing of opposites to achieve balance. The concept is probably best demonstrated by mixing of “Fan,” or grain, and “Tsai,” protein. Dim Sum would be a good example of this concept. Also in Chinese cooking there are six different tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, hot/pungent. (The concept of umami is always a given in Asian cuisines.) There are also textures to consider: crispy, crunchy, soft, slippery and firm are but a few examples. The mixing and combining of these various tastes and textures (although not necessarily in one dish but across the table), achieves the fulfillment of the yin-yang concept. Other examples of yin-yang in Chinese cooking would be sweet and sour, ginger and scallions, sugar and chilies, soy sauce and rice wine and salt and peppercorns.

A similar concept in India is “ayurveda,” which focuses on the balance between body, mind and soul and teaches that the body thrives on foods based on six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent. As discussed in an earlier 20-Minute University course in February, the complex combination and manipulation of “masalas,” or spice mixtures, results in heady aromas and in-depth flavors. In the north the diet is composed of many types of breads (roti, parathas or griddle-fried breads), dals (lentil stews) and Moghul-style curries. In the south one finds many coconut-based curries, rice in many forms (e.g., idilis, which are steamed rice breads, and dosas or pancakes).

The focus of an Asian meal is centered on staple foods that are either wheat or rice-based (breads, noodles or rice). In China each individual is given his own bowl of rice. Then, all the other dishes are placed on the table at the same time and one is expected to “nibble” from all of the different dishes. Some of the dishes will be “hot and sour,” some “sweet and sour” and some might contain a bitter component. The rice is the main part of the meal and the other dishes are meant to flavor the rice. In addition, the wide variety of dishes and tastes on the table make it possible for each person to eat a balanced meal in terms of taste and nutrition (therefore maintaining the balance of the body through balance across the table).

Over time traditional regional diets have emerged throughout Asia, based primarily on local agricultural practice, climate and religious philosophies. Despite many centuries of cultural invasions, traditional diets have remained unchanged and foreign cultural influences and foods have been absorbed in such a way as to become a natural part of the diet. But one characteristic that remains unchanged is that balance of flavor and texture in individual foods is also the rule of the table.

Sources of the five big flavors

Saltiness

  • Thai/Vietnamese fish sauce
  • Shrimp paste (Gkapi)
  • Oyster sauce
  • Salted soy products  (soy sauce, miso,  salted black beans)
  • Aji no moto (or MSG, the umami factor)
  • Dried shrimp

Sweetness

  • Coconut sugar
  • Black soy sauce
  • Sweet pickles
  • Honey or brown rice syrup
  • Sweet vinegars and wines (e.g. mirin)

Sour

  • Fresh lime juice
  • Tamarind
  • Rice vinegar
  • Pickled vegetables and herbs
  • Buttermilk/yogurt

Pungent / Hot

  • Peppercorns
  • Chilies, fresh or dried
  • Ginger/galangal
  • Garlic
  • Onions

Bitter

  • Dark leafy vegetables
  • Certain squashes  (e.g. bitter melon)
  • Herbs

Religion and the Asian diet 

The chosen foods selected by a particular culture in Asia are closely related to the religion or philosophy practiced there. For example, in India, amongst the Hindus, the cow is sacred and so the eating of beef is forbidden. In many cases some Hindus avoid meat altogether (the strictest orders also prohibit the use of garlic and onions, because of their strong association with the cooking of meat) and even avoid blood-colored vegetables.

In China the influence of Taoism is strongly rooted in the diet. In fact, here food is synonymous with medicine. For example, eggplant is said to “cool the blood” and is therefore recommended for those who suffer from high blood pressure. In traditional Chinese medicine the objective of maintaining good health is associated with keeping the body in balance. The first thing a Chinese herbalist will ask is, “What are you eating?” Usually the prescription involves a soup or tea in which various herbs are employed to alleviate the problem.

In Japan, the influence of Buddhism and its proscription on killing meant meat was not commonly eaten until the latter part of the 19th century.

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