Asia is the largest continent in the world with over 4 billion people. It extends from the Middle Eastern countries to India, China, and Japan.
Japan lies in the Pacific Ocean off the mainland of Asia, east of Russia, China, and Korea. The Japanese Archipelago consists of over 6,800 islands but four main islands, Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku, are the most populous. The country is situated in a volcanic zone making the majority of the islands interiors mountainous and forested, unsuitable for farming, industry, or habitation. The highest concentration of people and agriculture is located along the coastal areas. Japan’s climate is moderate although cold, snowy winters are common in the two northern islands of Hokkaido and Honshu. The Japanese economy, the third largest in the world, is based on automobile production, high tech manufacturing, and banking.
The island of Hokkaido is located on the north end of Japan near Russia. The climate has cool summers and snowy winters, making it ideal for winter sports. Its largest city, Sapporo, a major information technology hub, is home to Sapporo Brewery and the birthplace of instant ramen noodles. The island is considered the fishing center of Japan. It has nearly one fourth of the country’s total arable land producing wheat, soybeans, potatoes, raw milk, and beef.
Honshu, the largest island, is located just south of Hokkaido and is home to 80% of the country’s population. Its climate varies from snowy winters in the north to subtropical weather in the south. The capital city of Tokyo is located here with a metropolitan population of 12 million people. It serves as a center for transportation, electronics, and media communications and is the culinary center for regional foods. Along the northeast coast, the economy is based on fishing and agriculture, including rice, vegetables, and fruits. Kobe beef, produced from Waygu cattle raised in the Hyogo prefecture, is known for its delicate flavor, and tender, well-marbled texture.
Shikoku, the smallest island, is located off the east coast of Honshu and the least populated of the main islands. Fertile soil on the east side of the island produces rice, wheat, and barley. Fruits grown throughout the north end include citrus, persimmons, peaches, and grapes.
Kyushu, the most southerly of the four main islands, lies east of Korea and is the site of Mount Aso, the world’s largest active volcanic crater. The climate is subtropical and known for lush tropical plants and heavy rainfall. The main crops raised on the island include rice, tea, sweet potatoes, and citrus fruit.
For over 200 years until the 19th century, Japan was closed to outside contact, and in keeping with the nations strong Buddhist traditions, eating meat was forbidden. This period of isolation gave Japanese cooking an opportunity to develop its own unique identity. Foods are prepared and eaten in a natural state using seasonal ingredients. The five basic elements of taste, sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and umami (a Japanese term for savory), are considered important for creating balance in food preparation and presentation. The central diet is traditionally based on rice, which is served at every meal. Because of the nations proximity to the ocean, fish is a major part of the diet and includes crab, squid, shrimp, salmon, eel, tuna (skipjack), and clams. Pork is the most popular meat, followed by chicken and beef. Edamame (soybean) is served fresh, or processed as tofu, shōyu (soy sauce), and miso, a fermented paste used in a traditional miso soup.
Seasonings, used minimally, include salt, shoga (ginger), goma (sesame seeds), dried red chilies, wasabi (mountain hollyhock similar to horseradish), and shiso (mint). Shichimi togarashi is a spice blend that often includes dried chili, black pepper, sansho (prickly ash seeds similar to pepper), ground tangerine skin, sesame seeds, and dried seaweed flakes. While Mirin (rice wine) and su (rice vinegar) are used in cooking, sauces including soy sauce, and ponzu (citrus juice, vinegar and seasoning), are usually served as condiments.
Cooking techniques include simmering, grilling, steaming, and frying. Oil is used minimally except in the case of deep-frying. Foods are cut into bite size pieces for ease in eating with chopsticks, and vegetables are lightly cooked to maintain crunchiness. Fish and meats are sliced thin and minimally cooked, often served raw with a light cure of salt and vinegar as sashimi, or paired with rice to produce sushi (vinegared rice). Tempura, a method of deep-frying in a thin batter, lends a light, crunchy texture to vegetables and fish. Noodles in the form of ramen, udon, and soba are served with a hot broth or cold with dipping sauces. Gyoza, is a popular dumpling prepared from pork and cabbage. Dashi, a type of stock made with kombu (dried kelp), katsuobushi (fermented and dried tuna flakes), and shiitake mushrooms, is the basis for miso soup.
Green tea, often served free in restaurants, is consumed regularly in Japan. Sake, a wine prepared from fermented rice served cold or warm, is a traditional drink served at formal Japanese banquets known as kaiseki. Beer, introduced towards the end of the 19th century is the best selling alcoholic beverage in the country. The Japanese whisky industry, started in the 1920’s, creates a Scottish-style that is popular in mixed drinks.
Characteristics of Japanese Cuisine
Rice, fish, tofu, pork, chicken
Soy sauce, salt, seaweed, ginger, sesame seeds, wasabi, shiso, rice vinegar, mirin
Cucumbers, daikon, hakusai (cabbage), lotus root, azuki beans, edamame, yuzu (citrus),
The cuisine of China is based on the traditional medicine philosophy of balancing the four natures (hot, warm, cool, and cold) with the five tastes (pungent, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty). The ruling dynasties of the country, dating back as far as the great philosopher Confucius over 2500 years ago, developed eating as a high art. Staple ingredients found in Chinese cuisine include rice, soy sauce, noodles, soybeans, wheat, and vegetables. Pork, fish and seafood, chicken, duck, beef, and tofu are proteins commonly eaten. Aromatic seasonings include ginger, garlic, scallion, white pepper, sesame oil, rice vinegar, fish sauce, and hoisin (based on fermented soybeans).
China is the largest country in Asia and the most populous. Its geography includes deserts in the northwest, grassland steppes in the northeast next to Mongolia (a semi-autonomous region of China), and wetter forested areas to the south. The country boasts two of the longest rivers in the world (Yangtze and Yellow Rivers) and is separated on the southeast by a series of mountain ranges, including the Himalayas. China has a long coastline on the Pacific Ocean bounded by the South China and Yellow Seas. Its most famous cities are Beijing, the capital of China, Shanghai, the largest city, Guangzhou (Canton), a major transportation hub and manufacturing center, and Hong Kong, an autonomous region and world financial center.
Although China is a diverse land with deserts, mountains, and fertile river basins, much of it is made up of mountainous or arid deserts. Only about 15% of its total land area can be cultivated. Rice is grown in the river valleys towards the south, and corn and wheat is grown in the north and northeast plains. Other crops include soybeans, potatoes, apples, peaches, citrus fruits, tea, sugarcane, and coffee. Pigs and poultry are the most popular livestock, but beef is also prevalent. Fish and shellfish are harvested wild or raised through aquaculture methods along the coast or inland fisheries. Popular fish includes carp, snapper, sea bass, shrimp (prawns), scallops, squid, crab, clams and oysters.
There are eight major cuisines in China based on geographic regions, of which four are considered the most well known. Shandong Province, located on the east coast of China overlooking the Korean and Japanese peninsulas, is home to Lu Cuisine (as Shandong cuisine is also known), and features a wide variety of seafood, pork, and chicken. Seasonings include salt, soy sauce, fermented soybeans, and dark vinegars. Commonly eaten vegetables include tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms, onions, eggplant, seaweed, and especially cabbage. The cuisine is characterized by frying, stir-frying, braising, and deep-frying, and includes shrimp fried with garlic and chili, slow-braised spiced pork with star anise and Szechuan peppers, sweet and sour Yellow River carp, wheat noodles, and steamed buns.
Szechuan (or Sichuan) Province, located in the southwest region of China bordering Tibet, is known for fish, pork, and beef dishes that include twice-cooked pork, Kung Pao chicken with peanuts and hot chilies, and hot and sour soup with vinegar and white pepper. Ingredients include broad beans, sesame, and walnuts, seasoned with garlic, chili peppers, ginger and star anise. Common techniques include stir-frying, steaming, and braising.
Guangdong Province along the South China Sea coast is the home of Cantonese (or Yue Cuisine), the most widely recognized of the Chinese cuisines. Sample dishes include dim sum (dumplings), shrimp with salt and pepper, stir-fried rice, sweet and sour pork, and steamed spareribs with fermented black beans. Ingredients include chicken, duck, fish and shrimp, onions, bell peppers, bean sprouts, and scallions with seasonings of ginger, anise, coriander (cilantro), rice vinegar, hoisin, sugar, and oyster sauce. Cooking techniques incorporate steaming and braising, as well as frying, stir-frying and stewing.
Huaiyang Cuisine, centering around the Huai and Yangtze rivers of the Jiangsu province, is light and fresh incorporating pork, poultry, and freshwater fish with sweet flavors accented by vinegar and mild seasonings prepared by stewing, braising, steaming, and stir-frying. Elegantly carved fruits and vegetables are a trademark of this style of cooking and specialties include soups, congee (rice porridge), and steam buns.
Indian cuisine, much like its culture is rich, colorful, and complex. The terrain and climate range from the snow-covered Himalayas in the north to sub-tropical climates in the south. It has been influenced by many foreign powers including Britain, Arabia, Portugal, and the Dutch. A majority of the country practices Hinduism, but other religions, including Muslim and Buddhism influence the diet. Hindis consider cows as sacred, Muslims are forbidden by the Koran to eat pork, and many Buddhists and Hindis are vegetarians. Classic Indian cuisine centers on Ayurvedic health principles of balancing flavors and seasonings according to body type. The cuisine is based on vegetables, dried legumes including dal or grams (lentils), rice, coconut milk, peppers, and yogurt. Seasoning blends, known as masalas, are classic examples of negative ingredient food pairings that create complex flavors in many of the preparations. Curry, an English corruption of “kari”, refers to soups, gravies, and stews of vegetables, meats, and seafood flavored with masalas.
Northern India, with Persian and Muslim influences, favors lamb, yogurt, ghee (clarified butter). Cooking techniques include roasting, grilling, and braising. Clay Tandoori ovens are used to roast meats and bake flatbreads. Dishes include rice pilaf, biryani (meat-based pilaf), korma (braised meat in creamy sauces), kofta (grilled spicy meatballs), and kebabs. Southern India’s hot climate and Hindu population eat a largely vegetarian diet based on rice, lentils, tropical fruits, paneer cheese, and grains including rice and corn. Grated coconut and coconut milk are used in curries for flavor and thickening. Cooking methods include steaming and stewing. Sambar is a popular lentil stew flavored with tamarind and seasoned with spices including red chilies, fenugreek, coriander, asafoetida, and curry leaves. Dosa (rice pancakes stuffed with potatoes and vegetables) and Idlis (rice dumplings) are other familiar dishes. Eastern Indian cuisine, surrounded by rivers and the ocean includes fish and seafood, rice, and a more subtle use of spices. Frying and steaming are common cooking techniques. Panch phutana, a mix of cumin, mustard, fennel, and fenugreek is used to flavor vegetables and stews. Pakora, a fritter made from chickpea flour with vegetables is a regional specialty. Western India includes the capitol city of Mumbai, which is also the largest in the country. The cuisine ranges from mild to spicy and includes seafood along the coasts and dry arid climate inland. Fish, seafood, and pork are eaten here. Ingredients favored in the region include rice, peanuts, coconuts, lentils, yogurt, gram flour, buttermilk, sugar, and nuts. Vindaloo is a popular dish with Portuguese influence that includes pork, palm vinegar, tamarind, black pepper, cinnamon, and Kashmiri red chili peppers, along with Karhi, a chickpea dumpling served with a yogurt sauce.
Southeast Asia - Thailand and Vietnam
The cuisine of Thailand emphasizes a balance of sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and spicy taste sensations in each dish. The Thai diet is based on rice (jasmine rice is the most common), vegetables and fish. Techniques include stir-frying, steaming, grilling, and roasting. Red, yellow, and green curry pastes, with a base of coconut milk, lemongrass, ginger or galangal, nam pla (fish sauce), garlic, chili peppers, and spices, flavor many dishes. Pork, chicken, and beef are popular meats and poultry that are grilled, roasted, or braised in curry dishes. Nam prik pla, a condiment served with every meal, consists of garlic red pepper flakes, sugar, lime, and fish sauce. Although Thai cuisine is often recognized for it’s spicy heat and lively flavors, meals are traditionally served all at once allowing guests to balance strong seasoned foods with milder dishes.