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Asian Recipes and Cooking Tips

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Asian Cuisines

The various cuisines of Asia have much in common, particularly where geography and religion – the two main influences on diet – are similar, but there are also unique traits, between and within each country. Below is a brief introduction to some of the food from Asia.

Indian Cuisine

Indian food encompasses the cooking of many different regions and the foods are quite different from state to state. In the north, where the climate is temperate, sheep are reared and the lamb dishes are generally cooked slowly in the oven. Travelling south through Delhi and the Punjab, the diet becomes much richer; here they cook mainly with ghee and eat both goat and chicken. In these northern regions, instead of rice, the preference is for breads. To the east, around the Bay of Bengal, there is an abundance of fish from the many rivers and from the bay itself. Coconut palms grow in the hot and humid climate, so coconut features strongly in many recipes. On the west coast, in Gujarat, the people are mainly vegetarian, eating pulses and vegetables; likewise in Tamil Nadu in the far south east. The humid tropical conditions of the south west, in Goa and Malabar, encourage date and coconut palms and banana plants to flourish and there is also an abundance of fish and shellfish. Southern Indians eat more rice than the northerners and they prefer to steam foods. The dishes are traditionally very hot, much more so than in the north.

But religion influences diet at least as much as geography. There are hundreds of different religions, each with their own customs and taboos: Muslims and Jews don’t eat pork, while Hindus and Sikhs are prohibited from eating beef. Although many Hindus are strict vegetarians, others eat fish and shellfish.

The imaginative use of spices sets Indian cooking apart from other cuisines; it is by far the most aromatic of all types of cooking. The most commonly used spices are cumin, coriander, mustard, black pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves.

Chinese Cuisine

China is a vast country, extending from the sub-tropical regions of Hunan and Kwantung in the south, right up to the dry plains of Mongolia in the north, while the western borders go right into central Asia, reaching almost to the frontier of Afghanistan. Because it is such a vast country, there are dramatic contrasts in geography and climate across China. The great diversity of regional history, customs, life and culture have caused a distinct cuisine to evolve in each of the four major provinces.

The cooking of Beijing and northern China is a fusion of three distinct influences, high-class court and mandarin dishes, rustic Mongolian and Manchurian fare, and the indigenous cooking of the cold, northerly climate. Here rice is less important than wheat and a variety of pancakes, noodles and dumplings are found.

Barbecuing, lacquer roasting, spit-roasting, slow-simmering and deep-frying are the most common cooking techniques in the north. Sauces are richly flavored with dark soy sauce, garlic, spring onions, spices and sesame oil. Lamb, generally disliked elsewhere in China, is common here.

The Szechuan cuisine of the West tends to be hearty rather than delicate and is renowned for highly spiced foods, especially dishes containing chillies. Szechuan cooks have perfected a fascinating range of hot-sour, savory-spiced and sweet-hot-piquant dishes, many of which are characterized by the crunch and bite of pickles. Many dishes are relatively dry and more reminiscent of southern stir-fries than of the sauce-rich dishes of the east.

The cooking of the east is more starchy, and richer, not only in the amount of oil used in cooking, but also in the range of ingredients, the amount of soy sauce, and the number and combinations of spices. Rice is used a lot, not only plain as an accompaniment, but also combined with vegetables, and as a stuffing. With a long coastline, and well-watered lands, there is a fine selection of seafood and plenty of freshwater fish and a great range of vegetables is also available. The people of Shanghai are sweet-toothed and make savory dishes that are generally sweeter than elsewhere.

Southern cooking is probably the most inventive, rich and colorful in China. It has been influenced by a steady stream of foreign traders and travelers, and is richly endowed with year-round produce from land and sea. Fruits flourish and are combined in meat and savory dishes more here than elsewhere. Vegetables are used in quantity, but meat sparsely. Stir-frying is the most popular cooking method, but steaming and roasting are also common and the use of oil in cooking is kept to a minimum. Every meal includes rice and dishes often contain thick but delicate sauces. The area produces some of the best soy sauce in the country and, because of this, specializes in ‘red cooking’ — slowing baking or braising in soy sauce.

Malaysian Cuisine

Malaysian cuisine is a fusion of the different cooking styles and dishes of three nationalities – Indian, Chinese and indigenous Malay. These have merge to make a unique, harmonious blend that is an identifying characteristic of the cuisine of this tropical peninsula.

The Indian contributed spices such as cumin, turmeric and chilies, and their art of blending spices is reflected in the many Malaysian curries. Indian-style flat-breads, chutneys and relishes frequently accompany meals. The Chinese-influence is evident in the use of soy sauce, hoisin sauce, spring rolls and stir-fries and is particularly strong in the Nyonya cooking of Singapore, which combines the Chinese emphasis on texture and balance of taste with the Malaysian predilection for curries a chili dishes. A definite Thai flavor can e detected in the use of lemon grass, cilantro and galangal. The many years of Portuguese, Dutch and British occupation have also left their mark on Malaysian cooking.

Malaysian cuisine is a very healthy one. Chicken is the most widely eaten meat. With a large Muslim population and significant number of Hindus, pork and beef are not used to any great extent. Fish and seafood are plentiful and widely eaten. Rice is the staple food while noodles are also used to bulk out meat dishes, to thicken soups and generally add substance to the diet. Both rice and noodles are also popular as snacks.

Desserts are light and refreshing. A Malaysian meal does not usually include a dessert beyond, perhaps, some of the tropical fruits, such as mangoes, lychees, pineapples, rambutans and star-fruit, that grow in profusion. Coconut palms thrive, so coconut is a predominant ingredient. Coconut milk provides the liquid in many of the country’s curries. It is also the basis of desserts such as coconut custard.

Japanese Cuisine

Japan was an agricultural nation for thousands of years until after the war. Houses were traditionally constructed mostly of wood, so wood was, and still is, a very valuable resource. With few other fuel resources, the Japanese had to find various ways of appreciating both their agricultural produce and the plentiful supply of fish caught in the surrounding seas without burning lots of wood and charcoal. Consequently, the Japanese developed ways of eating raw or near raw food.

In Japan, eating raw fish is considered the best, if not the only, way to appreciate the real flavor of fish, and sashimi (prepared raw fish) has pride of place in a Japanese meal. Fish for sashimi must be really fresh, refrigerated until ready to use and handled as little as possible. Another Japanese specialty is sushi, based on boiled rice, flavored with a rice vinegar mixture while warm, then fanned to cool it quickly and give it a glossy sheen. There is wide variety of sushi, such as sushi rolls made with vegetables or fish enclosed in sushi rice, wrapped in nori seaweed, then rolled up and sliced.

Due to Shintoism, the ancient mythological religion, and later Buddhism, which was introduced from China, the Japanese remained a non-carnivorous nation until the opening up of the country to western influences towards the end of the nineteenth century. Today, despite Japan’s economic growth and the pressure from overseas governments to open up the domestic market, Japan is still largely a nation of fish and vegetable eaters. When meat is used, it is sliced thickly and normally cooked with vegetables. As a result, Japanese cooking is naturally healthy without even trying to be so.