The foods of a continent
Large parts of Asia, such as China, India, Japan and Southeast Asia, have based their diets on cereal grains like wheat, millet and rice, on soybeans, vegetables, fruits, some fish and very little meat, for virtually thousands of years. Rice, the par excellence staple ofAsia, comes in 25 species, but hundreds of thousands of varieties, earlier thought to be separate species. This is because Oryza sativa is a polymorphic plant (a plant of many forms), responding to changing environmental conditions with changes in structure. Changes in the endosperm starch and its replacement by soluble starch and dextrin (a gluey equivalent of starch), renders rice glutinous, sticky, in proportion to these changes.
The native root vegetables are yams of the Dioscorea species, demanding boiling or roasting to remove the contained alkaloids and other toxins. Other roots are the Colocasia species, usually known as taro, which contain crystals of calcium oxalate that must be leached out before cooking. Maize, manioc (cassava) and the potato were imported from S America. Soybeans are the local legumes of choice, some species used to produce an oil not too dissimilar to olive oil. The eggplant is native to the region and cooked in many ways as are many varieties of mushrooms.
The local fruits are banana and plantain, mango, citrus fruits and jackfruit, a relative of breadfruit. Papaya, pineapple and passion fruit are late introductions from the Americas. The native spices are mainly pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric and citronella. Caraway, coriander and cumin were introduced during the Christian era.
Fish that includes fat varieties like mackerel, anchovies and sardines may be considered a staple. By contrast meat, such as water buffalo, goat and pig, was reserved for feasts and special occasions as in so many other parts of the world. A special condiment is coconut milk used in many preparations, and imparting a delicious taste to rice if the cereal is cooked in it.
Within this relatively limited dietary domain, have developed and flourished some of the world's most renowned cuisines, like the Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Indian, Indonesian, and so on. To the question "Why is that?" the most realistic answer seems to be that here too, necessity has been the mother of invention. A couple of the reasons for thinking so, are worth a brief mention.
To make up for the lack of vegetables during the cold winters of northern China, the local people sprouted their dry grains, seeds and beans. This has produced what is now so well known in the West, bean sprouts-and even though the Chinese sprouted a lot more than beans. The germinating process converts some starch into malt sugar. It forms vitamin C and folate and to a smaller extent vitamins A, E and K. It nearly eliminates the binding of minerals by phytic acid, which renders them quite unavailable. It breaks down many of the proteins to their constituent amino acids. While the sprouted seed is by all accounts a lighter more digestible food. Necessity aided by the enzymes in the seed, have brought forth a dietary miracle.
Again, the ancient Chinese and then the Japanese and other peoples of the region have used soy products for a long time. Tofu was first made in China around 200 BC, when it was characteristically known as "meat without bones," and in Japan from at least the eighth century AD. But it is only recently we learned that the protein of soybeans is a nearly complete protein. What is really a rarity in the plant kingdom.
Such and similar inventions and preferences did not by themselves create the now famous cuisines of the region. But the inventiveness portrayed, the preference or may be duress for simple though healthy foods long before this could be scientifically determined, have certainly helped to pave the way.
A variety of other factors
Other factors were the nature of the people, and the environmental conditions prevailing in their countries. Thus the Chinese and the Vietnamese opted for lightness and subtlety in their cuisine, qualities becoming both the people and to a certain extent their environment.
The Indians and the Indonesians went more for powerful spices in their cuisines, only too appropriate for their far more tropical and often sweltering environment. Spices tend to enhance food preservation, mask unpleasant odors linked to food decay, activate the digestive juices, accelerate many body rhythms, and cause profuse sweating which helps cool the body by evaporation.
Sanskrit texts about 3000 years old refer to such spices as black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, mustard, saffron and turmeric. These and other spices properly mixed with water, coconut milk and lime juice are used to make the virtually scores of massalas or sauces, that give perpetual variety to what otherwise might have been rather ordinary dishes.
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Variety and eating habits
But variety within the boundaries of Asia may be observed in even such everyday items as rice. The amount of starch or amylose in the rice kernel and its replacement by soluble starch and dextrin, largely determine the appearance and texture of rice. Remnant low-starch (2-5%) rice is the preference of Laos and Cambodia, where the rice is sticky to the extent of becoming gluey. Higher starch content (10-18%) is the selection of China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, where the rice is soft and a little sticky. Still higher starch content (18-25%) is preferred by Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and incidentally North America and to an extent Europe. Finally, the highest content of starch (25-30%) is the accepted standard of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and to a large extent Europe, where the rice remains hard, fluffy, in distinct and solitary grains.
This of course may be partly the result of different kinds of starches in the enormous varieties of cultivated rice, and partly of different eating habits. Eating utensils such as chopsticks require a rather sticky rice. And chopsticks are known from at least the third century BC, and possibly from as far back as 1750 BC. Where the rice is picked up with a spoon or even with a fork, stickiness is less necessary. And where chapatis are used to pick up the rice and sauce, as in India, Pakistan, etc, stickiness is clearly undesirable as it may hinder rather than assist the process of eating.
Rice in the Far East is always served in bowls, because it stays hot longer this way. The chop sticks have a similar effect. They are non-conductors of heat, at least by comparison to the metallic utensils of the West, and thus keep the heat largely where it belongs-in the food.
A visual aspect of the Asian diet may be obtained from the following pyramid, but with the understanding that enormous differences may be observed from one region to another.