Asia is the largest continent on Earth, extending from the eastern Mediterranean Sea to the western Pacific Ocean, spilling into the northern hemisphere and across the eastern hemisphere, and covering 30% of the total land mass of the planet. It is the most populous continent, where 60% of the world’s population lives. It is safe to say its rich cultural landscape is mighty, from which is born some of the world’s most iconic, revered, and flavoursome food. The diversity of Asian cuisine is endless and stunning to unravel. It is another language spoken in spices, colours, aroma, and flavours.
As the birthplace of the world’s earliest civilisations, some of its food has millennia of history. Some has been influenced by visitors to the continent, through collaboration, conflict, cosmopolitanism, and globalisation. The singularity of some of the Asian dishes, culinary traditions, and food cultures is now part of world heritage. Japanese traditional cuisine or “washoku,” Korean “kimjang,” the making and sharing of kimchi, and Singaporean Hawker Culture are listed by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage.
Asian cuisine from different regions of Asia
The flavours of the continent, from Central Asia to South Asia to the Far East, are steeped in history; religion, rituals, traditions, experience, the land, and the ocean — every region of Asia is a culinary dominion on its own and adds to the rainbow of Asian flavours.
East Asia – Think of sushi, dumplings, noodles, rice cake, bao buns, tofu, and miso soup. You are in East Asia, where some of the most iconic dishes held in high esteem by the world hail from. Foods from Japan, Hong Kong, China, the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, Mongolia, and Macau are collectively called East Asian cuisine. Japanese, Chinese, and Korean food are the most famous of all East Asian cuisine.
Japan being an archipelago on the eastern edge of Asia, has a close culinary relationship with the ocean and vegan ingredients inspired by Shinto Buddhism. Sashimi and sushi combine the two mainstay ingredients of Japanese cuisine: fresh fish and rice. While sashimi is the purest form of fish, consumed without any cooking, sushi incorporates slices of raw fish with vinegared rice. Japanese food is mostly fresh, steamed, pickled, and fermented. Traditional Japanese cuisine uses very little oil and dairy. The food has almost a Zen-like quality, with slow-paced cooking to keep freshness and natural flavours & textures intact. Elegant simplicity best describes Japanese cuisine.
Soybeans, tofu, miso, seaweed, green tea, grains, and vegetables are a big part of the Japanese diet. Japanese cuisine is highly nutritional and linked to longevity. Soy sauce and teriyaki accompany most dishes. Gyoza and ramen are ubiquitous in Japan. Japanese curry is the singular most famous curry from the region, and Katsu curry — which is chicken cutlets served on top of Japanese curry — is the most popular version of it.
As opposed to Japanese cuisine, Chinese cuisine is fiery, hot, and fast. Stir-frying was developed in China to cook fast on really hot stoves. Chinese cuisine incorporates unique tastes from its diverse regions. It is mostly influenced by Cantonese, Shandong, Huaiyang, and Sichuan cuisine. Chinese food is usually flavoured with garlic, ginger, scallion, soy sauce, chilli oil, sesame oil, black vinegar, hoisin, plum, black bean, dried onion, and oyster sauce. Traditional dishes include hoisin duck, sweet and sour pork, char siu, chow fun, chow mein, lo mein, salt & pepper shrimp, soy sauce chicken, and dim sum — the Cantonese-style dumplings. The Chinese are often credited with introducing rice, noodles, soy, and chopsticks to other Asian nations.
Korean cuisine has bold, intense flavours that give it layers upon layers of distinctive savoury taste. A Korean meal consists of rice, vegetables, and meat with various side dishes (banchan) like fermented vegetables (kimchi), pan-fried or pancake-like dishes, or lightly seasoned, steamed, stir-fried, or marinated vegetables. It is not unusual to have 15 different kinds of banchan at one meal. Meals are often eaten with individual bowls of rice for each person and a spread of sharing dishes. Food is usually seasoned with toasted & untoasted sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, fermented bean paste (mostly doenjang made from soybeans), and gochujang, a fermented red chili paste. Classic Korean dishes include beef bulgogi, bibimbap, kimchi, Korean BBQ, and Korean fried chicken popularised recently.
Central Asia – Central Asian cuisine encompasses the culinary traditions of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. They are influenced by Persian, Indian, Arab, Turkish, Chinese, Mongol, African, and Russian nomadic & pastoral cultures. The most distinguishable food to come out of Central Asia is perhaps the Samarkand bread of Usbekistan that can last up to three years. This button-shaped large bread is dense and chewy. It has an airy crumb and sesame-sprinkled, golden, glazed crust.
The region’s harsh and arid climate has contributed to a diet featuring a lot of meat, cultured dairy products, and hardy root crops. Flatbreads and pilafs are also a big part of Central Asian cuisine. The nomadic peoples who lived in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan for centuries herded sheep, camels, and horses. As they were continuously moving around with the herd, it left no time for agriculture or complex cooking. The people relied heavily on the meat and milk provided by their herds. However, the peoples of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan were more settled and cultivated crops. They developed various cooking methods thanks to the opportunity of more time at the hearth and availability of crops.
Lamb is the most consumed meat in the region, while mountain goat or kid is popular among Turkmens. Horsemeat sausage is a delicacy in Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan is famous for its kebab. Central Asian soups are stew-like and enriched with fat from meat and thickened with potatoes, chickpeas, or mung beans. Pulled noodles are eaten in soups. Pheasant and quail are preferred to chicken. Fish is more commonly consumed in regions like western Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, which border the Caspian Sea. Numerous cultured dairy products are made from the milk of sheep and camels, and to a lesser extent, goats and cows.
The region is also well known for its extensive variety of rice pilafs (palov). Uzbekistan alone claims to have one hundred different varieties. Sometimes, chickpeas (nut) and mung beans (mash) are mixed with the rice for extra protein. Pilafs are also made from millet, barley, and sorgo. Central Asian cuisine also features dumplings. Baked or fried pies are encountered throughout the region, such as belyashi from Kazakhstan — an open-faced pie fried in a skillet. Central Asian flatbreads are baked in a tandyr, a clay oven similar to the Indian tandoor. Large, round flatbreads pricked with decorative patterns are eaten alone or used as a plate to hold stews. Green tea served with milk or cream and slightly salted is enjoyed by the Kyrgyz.
Southeast Asia – Bordered by Southern China to the west and the Indian Subcontinent to the east, Southeast Asia includes the countries of Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Influenced by Chinese cuisine and Indian spices, Southeast Asian cuisine has a complex flavour profile that can be sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and bitter at the same time. Thai food is often characterised as sweet and spicy, while Vietnamese food is considered light and refreshing, and Filipino cuisine bold and heavy, however flavours vary regionally.
The typical Southeast Asian meal consists of rice, vegetables, protein, and broth. Vinegar, shrimp pastes, fish sauces, chilli, and fresh herbs are prominently prevalent in dishes. Pork is the most widely eaten meat among other regular meats like beef, duck, and chicken. Fish and seafood dishes are also widely prevalent.
Thai food has garnered popularity across the world due to its aromatic harmony of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and spicy. Spicy dishes are mingled with a calmer salty bite of fish sauce and a fragrant scattering of fresh herbs. Dishes like Tom Yum soup, Tom Kha Gai, Pad Thai, green papaya salad, Thai green curry, summer rolls, and Larb have won the world over with their fresh flavours. Ingredients such as garlic, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, shrimp paste, fish sauce, chilli, and sticky rice or rice noodles are always featured in the dishes.
Vietnamese cuisine also relies heavily on fresh flavours and combines a range of different colours and textures. Lemongrass, ginger, fish sauce, fresh Thai basil, mint, and lime are often used as base ingredients. Vietnamese dishes use very little oil and dairy. Instead, they rely heavily on herbs, vegetables, and proteins, as well as rice and rice noodles. Cơm tấm (broken rice topped with grilled pork, a sweet and sour fish sauce, pickled vegetables or greens, and an egg), pho (a rich, brothy soup served with various meats, soy sprouts, fresh herbs, and chilli), and bánh mì (a baguette sandwich filled with pate, cold cuts, pickled vegetables, cucumber, and jalapeños), and spring rolls are some of the most famous Vietnamese dishes.
South Asia – South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) is predominantly influenced by Indian cuisine. The British Raj and previous occupation by the Portuguese and Dutch also played a role in the cuisine found on the subcontinent.
Curries are a big part of South Asian cuisine which is often paired with rice, flatbreads, and savoury pancakes (dosas) made with rice flour batter. South Asian dishes use heaps of spices that span an extensive gamut. Turmeric, black pepper, chilli powder, chilli flakes, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, mustard seeds, asafoetida, bay leaves, curry leaves, and saffron are used in differing combinations in almost every dish. Garam masala, a blend of several spices (typically 10 or more), is also used with countless regional variations in India.
In Northern India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, wheat is a principal crop, and flatbreads like naan, roti, paratha, kulcha, puri, and pappadam are common base staples. Rice paired with curries is a staple in Southern India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka, where rice is the main crop. Beef and pork are uncommon proteins due to religious influences, making chicken, lamb, goat, and fish the most common meats consumed across the region. Plant-based proteins like lentils, chickpeas, and mung beans are incorporated into meals to a great extent. Raita, chutneys, fried lentils, and chips made from gram flour are common accompaniments to a rice dish. Food is traditionally eaten with fingers, although cutlery is used as well, especially when dining out.
Indian cuisine has had the most global exposure from the South Asian region. Biriyanis, masalas, naan, paratha, butter chicken, tandoori chicken, samosa, onion bhaji, papadam, and korma are popular worldwide. Chicken tikka masala, which is perhaps the most well-known Indian chicken dish in the UK, is actually a British creation. Roghan Josh, an aromatic lamb or beef curry made with chilli peppers has a Persian origin and is one of the best-known Kashmiri dishes. Vindaloo, a dish made with diced chicken or lamb, garlic, hot chilli, and vinegar, originated from a Portuguese dish. Rice is served on banana leaves as well as plates.
Impact of culture on Asian dishes
Asian food is closely related to culture and religion. India has the lowest per capita meat consumption in the world, which has a lot to do with religious influence. Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism discourage eating meat. Shōjin ryōri of Japan is vegan spiritual cuisine created by Buddhist monks through the centuries.
The Taoist traditions of China encourage food to be eaten based on its medicinal or healing properties. Yin-Yang is another traditional Chinese belief that influences food choices to maintain a healthy equilibrium in the body. Some foods are primarily yin or cooling, and others are primarily yang or warming. There are also foods that have a harmonious balance of yin and yang. Similarly, the Ayurveda practice of India classifies foods as kapha (cold and phlegmy), vaata (flowing and agitated), or pitta (hot and liverish).
Symbolism also plays a role in Asian food cultures. For instance, the long soba noodles called ‘toshikoshi’ soba eaten on New Year’s Eve in Japan symbolises breaking off the old year and achieving a long and healthy life in the New Year.
Spices and ingredients
East Asia – One of the ingredients that stands out in the region is soy, whether in the form of soy sauce, tofu, miso, tempeh, natto, soybean sprouts, or edamame. Soy is also used to achieve the umami flavour.
Seaweed in various forms also plays an important role in East Asian cooking. Coastal areas in the region have been using seaweed fresh, jellified, dried, or roasted for centuries. Kelp (konbu) is a staple ingredient in Japanese dashi broth. Laver, in its dried and roasted forms (nori), is rolled around Japanese maki, onigiri, and Korean gimbap. Wakame is popularly used in Japanese cuisine, especially in soups. Bonito flakes (katsuobushi) are simmered, smoked, fermented, and sun-dried skipjack tuna. They are used in Japan for making stock or as a topping, garnish, or seasoning. Seaweed extractions like agar are served in salads, stews, and even sweets.
Chinese five-spice powder and star anise are used in Chinese cuisine. Rice vinegar, rice wine, chilli oil, chilli paste, and sesame oil are Chinese condiments frequently used for flavouring, while mirin rice wine is specifically used in Japan. Sesame seeds are also sprinkled atop many savoury dishes in all East Asian dishes.
Southeast Asia – Southeast Asian cooking involves both Chinese and Indian condiments and spices, along with local ingredients. Fish sauce, oyster sauce, fish paste, tamarind paste, galangal, lemongrass, pandang leaves, Torch ginger flower, kaffir lime leaves, lime, coriander, Thai basil, palm sugar, mung bean sprouts, and mint are commonly used ingredients. Rice paper is used for fresh summer rolls and fried spring rolls in Vietnamese cuisine. Rice noodles are also widely used. Sriracha sauce, sweet soy sauce, and hoisin sauce are also favourite condiments. Coconut milk is used in broths, curries, and desserts.
Central Asia – Tail fat from sheep, onion, hot peppers, black pepper, cumin, sesame seed, nigella, basil, coriander leaves, parsley, mint, and dill are widely used in Central Asian cooking. Quince jam is also popular in the region.
South Asia – Turmeric, black pepper, chilli powder, chilli flakes, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, mustard seeds, asafoetida, bay leaves, curry leaves, and saffron are used in varying combinations. The non-melting Indian cottage cheese, paneer, is cooked in curries, fried, and grilled. It is a common source of protein in vegetarian dishes.
Sauces are rare in South Asian cuisine. The saucy/brothy consistency of curries is used to carry flavour across dishes. Pickles and chutneys are used as side dishes. Salads are rare, too. Fresh vegetables such as cucumber, tomato, onion, and chilli are used for freshness in dishes. Cardamom, fennel, and saffron are used in desserts. Jaggery (unrefined palm or cane sugar) is used in puddings and sweet dishes. Vermicelli rice noodles are used in Meethi Seviyan, an Indian dessert.