With forty-seven countries, innumerable tribes, and thousands of distinct languages, Asia is home to more ethnic groups than any other part of the world. In addition, the geography and climate of Asia are as diverse as its nations and peoples. From the lush rice paddies of the Philippines to the crowded Tokyo metropolis to the rainforests of Indonesia, there is a staggering variety of fruit, food, and spices in this extraordinary part of the world. Asia can be divided into three regions: East Asia (including China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea); Southeast Asia (including Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines); and South Asia (including India and Sri Lanka).
The Thread that Binds Asia: Rice
Though each Asian country and region has its distinct flavors and cooking styles, almost all share one food in common—rice. But rice is not eaten in the same manner in each country. As a staple food central to survival, especially during times of famine, rice has acquired an almost sacred status in Asian society, and it is served in many ways. It is cooked as a significant part of each meal of the day, incorporated as a main ingredient in confections such as candy and cakes, fermented to make wine (Japanese sake) or beer, or sometimes given as an offering to the gods to ensure a good harvest. Rice is a potent culinary and spiritual staple in Asia.
The fruits of Asia are unlike those of any other part of the world. The tropical climate of South and Southeast Asia, and the mild climate of East Asia, create a hospitable environment for many different fruits to grow. Fruit is a significant part of the Asian diet and is usually eaten as a dessert with lunch or dinner. In East Asia, oranges, quince, dates, pears, strawberries, cherries, watermelon, peaches, and grapefruit are eaten widely. In South and Southeast Asia, there are unique fruits such as sweet mangoes (originally from India), which are eaten individually or made into ice cream or other confections, and green mangoes, which are used widely in Vietnam, the Philippines, and India, where they are made into chutneys or curries (which are used as a broth, stew, or dry seasoning).
Coconuts are popular in Southeast Asian cuisine. Coconut milk is used for curries in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, South India, Myanmar, and the Philippines. It is also a delicious beverage, and is often drunk straight from the coconut with a straw. Coconut meat is added to desserts and salads. Other tropical fruits found in Asia include guava, papaya, pawpaw, starfruit (carambola), mangosteen, sour sop, jackfruit, longan, rambutan, durian, pineapple, and lychee.
Other Common Ingredients Used across Asia
Nuts are popular in Asia, eaten plain as snacks or mashed into porridge and sauces. In Malaysia and Indonesia, satays (peanut-based sauces) flavor chicken and beef dishes. The Chinese bake almond cookies and make rice cream with almonds or hazelnuts. Steamed cakes with almonds or macadamias are also common, and rice puddings with fruit, raisins, almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts are popular desserts in India. Both East and Southeast Asia boast stir-fry dishes with peanuts, while India flavors its rice with lemon and peanuts.
East Asian Food
China. Different regions of China have distinct tastes in food. Shanghainese cooking is known for its spicy chili flavoring and trademark redcolored meats. The Cantonese and Chaozhao regions are known for cooked meats and vegetables; and in the Beijing, Mandarin, and Shandong regions steamed bread and noodles are used as staples instead of rice. The most prized food staples in China are rice and wheat, though yams, taros, and potatoes are eaten when rice and wheat are not available. Chinese vegetables are mostly imported from Central Asia, including cucumbers, coriander, peas, sesame, onions, grapes and pomegranates, tomatoes, maize, sweet potatoes, peanuts, mushrooms, and daikon (radish). Preserved foods are popular, including pickled foods, fermented vegetables, and smoked and salted meats. Other well-known seasonings that are used include salted black beans (douchi), sweet and salty sauce, garlic, oyster sauce, soy sauce, black fungus, chilies, hoisin sauce, ginger, sesame seeds, and sesame oil.
The Chinese cook most of their food by mincing the ingredients and sautéing them in a deep pan called a wok. Little fat is used to season the meals, but plenty of fresh flavorings are added, such as ginger, chilies, soy sauces, scallions, oyster sauce, and fagara (Szechuan pepper). In the cities, most people cook over a gas stovetop, while in the country they use a brick stove to cook several dishes at once, including the rice. Tea is the most common beverage, though sodas are also popular.
Sushi (slices of raw fish on rice), teriyaki meats, and tempura (batter-fried vegetables or shrimp) are not the only foods in the Japanese diet. Salted vegetables are part of everyday diets, as are soybean products such as tofu, soy sauce, miso (a soybean paste), and dashi (a stock whose base is dried fish and kelp). Meat and seafood are popular in Japanese cooking, and broths are also common. Ingredients for stock include dried sea tangle, dried bonito (a type of tuna), and brown mushrooms. Spices like pepper, wasabi (horseradish), cloves, ginger, sesame, and garlic give special flavor to the food.
Japan centers its dishes on rice, with all other dishes thought of as side dishes. When rice stocks are low, millet or sweet potatoes are used. Different types of noodles are found in Japanese cuisine: soba (a buckwheat noodle) is popular in the west, and udon (a flour noodle) is popular in the east. Japanese rice wine (mirin or sake) is served both cold and warm. Green tea is especially popular.
Korea’s cuisine is a blend of Chinese and Japanese, though with its own distinctive flavor. The Korean national dish is bulgogi, or “fire beef”—beef strips marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, and chili. The mainstay of Korean food is kimchi (or gimchi), a side dish of pickled grated vegetables infused with ginger, garlic, and chili. Seafood is a major staple in Korea, in addition to pork, hens, deer, and wild boar. Popular vegetables include turnips, lotus roots, taro, leeks, lettuce, bamboo shoots, ferns, and mushrooms. Popular spices and nuts include pine nuts, hazelnuts, and ginseng, and chili peppers are used liberally.
Noodles are usually made of wheat, buckwheat, soya, rice, or beans. Rice-cake soup, dumpling soup, five-grain rice, rice gruel, and sweet rice beverages are all popular. Green tea, scorched rice tea, herbal teas, and coffee are popular drinks. Other well-liked drinks are made from barley, corn rice, sesame seeds, ginseng, ginger, cinnamon, and citron.
Southeast Asia is located in the monsoon belt, where heavy rains fall for several months a year. Most Southeast Asian countries use plenty of spice and coconut in their dishes, except for Vietnam.
Vietnamese cuisine does not include large amounts of meat and fish; instead, rice is supplemented with vegetables and eggs. Similar to Chinese cooking, Vietnamese cooking uses little fat or oil for frying. Instead of using soy sauce for seasoning, nuocmam (fish sauce) is used as the main flavoring in almost every dish. Pho is a type of soup in which noodles, beef, chicken, or pork are added, and the soup is then garnished with basil, bean sprouts, and other seasonings. Fruits are an integral part of each meal—bananas, mangoes, papayas, oranges, coconuts, and pineapple are all popular. Vietnamese coffee is made with condensed milk to make the drink extra sweet and delicious. Hot green tea is very popular as well.
Philippine culture is a fusion of Malay origin and Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Islamic, and American influence. In the Philippines, four meals a day are served: breakfast, lunch, merienda (snack), and dinner. Pancit, or noodles, is considered a merienda dish and is served with a spongecake called puto and a glutinous ricecake called cuchinta. Lunch is the heaviest meal and consists of rice, a vegetable, a meat, and sometimes fish as well. Vegetables include kangkung (a local spinach), broccoli, Chinese broccoli, bitter melon, mung bean, beansprouts, eggplant, and okra. However, vegetables are not considered as important to the diet as in East Asia. Meat is a major part of the diet, with pork being one of the more popular meats.
Beef and chicken are eaten often, and water buffalo are eaten in the provinces. The primary foods in the Philippines are rice, corn, coconuts, sugarcane, bananas, coffee, mangoes, and pineapples.
Malaysia and Singapore.
These two countries have Indian, Muslim, and Chinese heritages that are reflected in their spicy cuisines. Authentic Malay food is difficult to find, though a wide selection of Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, and occasionally Western food is almost always available. Nonya is a Malaysian dish that has Chinese ingredients with local spices. Satays (meat kebabs in spicy peanut sauce) are a Malaysian creation, and fiery curries, Chinese noodles, fried tofu in peanut sauce, tamarind fish curry, curry prawns, and curried meat in coconut marinade are typical dishes. Laksa is a creamy curry with either seafood or chicken simmered in coconut milk. Popular desserts include endol (sugar syrup, coconut milk, and green noodles) and is kacang (beans and jellies topped with shaved ice, syrups, and condensed milk).
India’s influence can be seen in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and even Bali (Indonesia). Sri Lankan cuisine is a snapshot of Indian food. Its fiery curry dishes with rice, and hoppers (fried pancake) served with yogurt and honey, are reminiscent of India. Meat and seafood are popular staples, as is tea.
India is the only country in this region that uses milk and dairy products in its diet, mostly in the form of yogurt and cheese. Indian seasonings include turmeric, tamarind, saffron, cumin, coriander, cardamom, mustard, ginger, celery seed, aniseed, fenugreek, curry leaf, and coconut milk. Cashews, pistachios, and almonds are also often found in meat dishes, as well as in the variety of breads that are baked, fried, or roasted to accompany the meals. Indian meals are served with chutney, a spicy relish, or raita, a chilled yogurt to soothe the spiciness of the dish.
In the north of India, meat dishes are more common and are usually made with goat, sheep, or chicken. The meals emphasize breads, grain, and spices. Southern meals focus on rice, vegetables, and chilies. Vegetables include onions, yams, potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkin, banana flowers, cucumbers, radishes, and lotus roots. The sacred status of the cow in the agrarian society has disallowed beef to be eaten by those who practice Hinduism. The protein in these diets comes primarily from legumes or dairy products.
Food Security in Asia
Food is not always readily available across Asia because of a complex web of social and political factors. Weather also plays a heavy role in food security, which is the idea that everyone has access to food at a reasonable cost. If a typhoon causes devastating flooding or severe droughts destroy crops, people suffer because there will be no food to harvest. Droughts can also destroy food supplies and deplete drinking water supplies.
Micronutrients are essential vitamins and minerals that the body does not naturally produce. A certain amount of these vitamins and minerals are required for human development, but in areas of famine or insufficient food, populations are at high risk of micronutrient deficiencies. In areas of famine, or where insufficient varieties of foods are available, certain populations (such as pregnant women, infants, and growing children) are often at high risk for nutritional deficiencies.
Vitamin A is necessary to develop a strong immune system and proper eyesight. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) not only causes blindness and visual impairment (e.g., cataract), but also growth retardation and susceptibility to infections. When VAD is not detected early, it may make a child more prone to illness and even death. In Asia alone, it is estimated that 125 million children under five years of age are currently at risk, and 1.3 million are reported to be vitamin A deficient.
Iodine Deficiency Disorder (IDD).
Iodine is essential for pregnant women, infants, and young children because it regulates the production of hormones necessary for children’s development. Providing the recommended daily amount of iodine to mothers and children helps prevent brain damage, stunted growth, and goiters (ball-shaped tumors on the neck) in children. Some children with IDD are unable to move normally, speak, or hear. Asia has an estimated 200 million people at risk of IDDs.
Iron Deficiency and Anemia.
Iron deficiency is the most common micronutrient deficiency in the world. The consequences of iron deficiency include impaired cognitive development. Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia (low levels of red blood cells or hemoglobin) in Asia, with over 600 million people affected. Young children, adolescent girls, and women are the most severely affected. Southeast Asia has the largest proportion of anemia—about 600 million are at risk for iron deficiency in this region.
Historically, milk and dairy products have not been used in East and Southeast Asia. As a result, the hereditary ability to digest lactose is most common in Asia and parts of Africa. Milk and dairy products are a major source of calcium, and people who avoid them because of lactose intolerance may compromise their nutritional status and bone strength. Low-lactose milk products have been developed to reduce the symptoms of lactose intolerance (diarrhea, abdominal bloating and gas, and stomach cramps).
The Nutritional Transition and Its Health Effects
With people living longer, and with low birth weight at an all-time low, Asian health should be improving. But with increased Westernization of the Asian diet, elevated tobacco use (generally among Asian men), and lifestyle changes (such as decreased physical activity), there has been a marked rise in cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes mellitus, hypertension (high blood pressure), and certain cancers. Obesity is also a growing health problem in Asia, and is strongly associated with hypertension (along with body mass index and age). Despite the low obesity levels in the Asia Pacific region, rates of obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and CVD are on the rise. High blood pressure is also a growing problem in Asia. In India, Indonesia, and Thailand alone, nearly 10 to 15 percent of adults have high The plant-based Asian diet, with its heavy reliance on rice, is reflected in the Asian food pyramid. The Asian diet does not include much meat or dairy and is low in total fat. [2000 Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust. Reproduced by permission.] The plant-based Asian diet, with its heavy reliance on rice, is reflected in the Asian food pyramid. The Asian diet does not include much meat or dairy and is low in total fat. [2000 Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust. Reproduced by permission.] blood pressure. Hypertension is dangerous because it increases a person’s risk of developing CVD or having a stroke.
Changes in the dietary intake patterns of Asian countries have been called the nutritional transition, meaning a shift away from the traditional Asian diets to a more varied diet higher in sugars, fats, and processed foods. This new eating trend includes fewer carbohydrates and fiber and is higher in fat and meat. Together with a shift towards physical inactivity, obesity among the Asian population has risen. The nutritional and health effects of these new foods contribute to higher mortality rates due to CVD in many Asian countries.
Asian food and the diets of Asians are often believed to be the model of healthful eating. Rice and fruit figure prominently in each country’s typical meal. However, as diets have diversified, chronic diseases, such as heart disease, have begun to affect Asians in a new and different way. Further, as weather patterns change over time and natural disasters occur, Asia, a largely agricultural society, is not always guaranteed a good crop. Asian food and nutrition is deeply rooted in the availability of food in each country. International organizations such as the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and Oxfam International continue to work on programs that ensure that continents like Asia will not suffer food shortages in the future.