As a nation our palates are maturing, not only with the demand for fresh seasonal food to be included in dishes by our top chefs, but also by expanding them through indulging in the cuisines of far reaching continents that make-up our celebrated ethnic culture.  The Chinese are credited for the introduction of ethnic food into Canada but now different Asian cuisines are making in-roads in Chinatowns and other areas of the city.  That little hole-in-the-wall, stripmall hideaway is no longer mysterious but now inviting because we know within it amazing cuisine is being prepared.  Leave the pretension and any expectations of ambience at the door because when you walk through the threshold with only your tastebuds to satisfy, you won’t be disappointed.   

Among the mosaic that is Asia the boundaries that define its cuisine can appear blurred.  Any impression that all of it is just the same is well, wrong.  Identifying and understanding the nuances that make them different are exactly what makes the taste experience that much better.  So this quick culinary roadmap of Asian cuisine will be like your ticket on the first leg of the Orient Express.  Sure it is vast, it is varied, it can be downright confusing but one thing is for certain – food here plays a key role in everyday life, is central to many traditional celebrations, and is undeniably prepared and consumed with great passion.  China alone has a cuisine for each region and then there is Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese to get familiar with.  Geographically that is just the tip of it, because the term Asian also encompasses Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Burma, and Sri Lanka.

We’ll start by exploring the five cuisines that seem to be gaining in acceptance and popularity across Canada.

China

Since this is one of the world’s most ancient cuisines, much can be written about its history, influence, culture, philosophy, regional fare, and cooking techniques.  This is meant to be a quick guide, so we’ll have to be concise and informative.  It important to note that this is a country whose borders range from the Himalayas to the tropics, so the varying climates and geography define the diversity of the cuisine.

Sophisticated imperial cuisine from the capital, Beijing (Peking) includes bird’s nest soup and the famous Peking duck.  With the harsh climates of the North wonderfully warming hotpots and dumplings are often served.  What to order off a menu (besides authentic Peking duck): Moo shu pork

The food of the South, commonly known as Cantonese, is refined and considered the most innovative of cuisines in China.  They make use of the abundant natural ingredients available, such as vegetables and fruits, fish and shellfish, employing steaming and stir-frying techniques, flavoring with simple and light sauces using soy sauce, ginger and spring onion.  What to order off a menu: Dim Sum because it originated in this region and menu items like crisp skin chicken and scallops with black bean sauce

Shanghai in the East favors meat and fish dishes that are braised slowly.  This includes a technique known as red cooking in which meat is braised in a mixture of soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, and salt resulting in a red coating.  The other repertoire of dishes is called “drunken”, usually made with chicken or shrimp it is served chilled as an appetizer. Two approaches to creating this dish - the meat is partially cooked and then left to sit in the liquid (which contains alcohol) to finish cooking and subsequently cooling, or the meat is fully cooked, cooled, and then marinated in alcohol (like Chinese wine or Sherry) overnight in the refrigerator.  What to order off the menu: red-cooked chicken, pot stickers

The region of spicy food is the Sichuan, Hunan, and Yunnan in the West.  Sichuan and Hunan are the most famous two cuisines of the three, known for their intense heat because of the liberal use of chiles, chile paste, and Sichuan pepper.  The cuisine of Sichuan is so acclaimed that it inspired the saying “China is the place for food, but Sichuan is the place for flavor”.  What to order from a Hunan menu: orange beef, and from a Sichuan menu: Kung Pao anything – usually chicken or shrimp, Ma Po’s tofu, green onion pancakes, and hot and sour soup

Thailand

Overwhelmingly a favorite with Canadians, the food of Thailand can be experienced with varying degrees of quality and authenticity in most any of our cities.  Based on balancing, blending and incorporating the five principal tastes of sweet, hot, sour, salty and bitter, there is a play of sensations on the palate.  Tastes within a dish may be balanced with all or a combination of these tastes, however there is usually one flavor that is predominant.  Fish sauce is the primary source of saltiness; palm, cane, or coconut sugar the sweet; tamarind, lime, and kaffir lime the sour; and bitterness usually comes from herbs like cilantro and Thai basil. 

The Thai meal centers around steamed rice and should include a clear soup, a steamed dish, a fried or stir-fried dish, a salad and a curry which is served all at once and not in courses.  There are three types of curry – red, yellow, and green – most of which contain coconut cream, and are combined with poultry, meat, fish, seafood, or vegetables.  Noodle dishes are also popular, though not to the same extent as rice.  Pad Thai noodles, deemed the national dish, is the most well known Thai dish outside of Thailand and is a favorite in Thai restaurants.  What to order off the menu: Tom yum kung (lemon shrimp soup), Yum wun sen (glass noodle salad), Gai phad baay krapao (basil chicken stir-fry), Gaeng ped gai (red curry of chicken), and pad thai (hopefully a version that is not the bright red, ketchup drenched, goopy version)

Vietnam

Its two colonizing powers, China and France, have had the most influence on Vietnamese cooking evident in the use of woks, chopsticks and stir-frying to baked breads, desserts, vegetables, and coffee.  As with the surrounding countries, their cuisine aims to achieve a balance between sweet, sour, hot, and salty, but also between contrast and texture like hot and cold and crispy and soft.  Vietnamese food also imparts a do-it-yourself philosophy, enabling the diner to season the food the way they like it.  For example, a deep-fried spring roll is served with a large lettuce leaf and a sprig of mint, with the intent that the diner wraps the spring roll in the lettuce leaf with the mint and then dips the entire package into the sauce to achieve a hot/cold, crispy/soft, sweet/spicy sensation.    

The five main flavors used in cooking are fish sauce, sugar, lime or lemon juice, lemongrass, and garlic. Often characterized for the emphasis on freshness, fragrance, and lightness, a fresh herb and salad plate accompanies most meals – even the pho (a soup that is eaten for breakfast).  What to order off a menu: a Vietnamese sandwich (served on a baguette), pho (it doesn’t have to be for breakfast), grilled lemongrass pork or beef served with rice vermicelli and salad, sizzling rice pancake, Vietnamese coffee

Korea

Korea may sit between China and Japan but it is not an amalgamation of the two cuisines, it has its own distinct taste and history.  There are common elements such as rice, noodles and soy sauce, but the strong, pungent, and fiery flavors of dishes like kimchi, a staple side of spicy cabbage (although more than 100 different varieties exist), make it unique.  Surrounded by water, fish and seafood (both fresh and dried) are prominent, but generous amounts of meat, mostly pork in the North and beef in the south are also consumed. Food is flavored with various combinations of garlic, ginger, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, dried anchovies and one of the many delicious spice pastes (changs or jangs) that Koreans build from a base of fermented soy beans, like gochu Jang, a hot, fermented chile paste (similar to Japanese miso)

As with the other Asian cuisines, the balance of the five flavors is important but chefs here also strive to achieve a balance of color - green, red, yellow, white, and black, evident in such dishes a bibim bob, a bowl of rice topped with sautéed beef, a medley of colorful vegetables, and a spicy sauce.  Meals are eaten family-style with all dishes served at once – several small, tempting dishes (banchan) would be served with a steaming hotpot, casserole, or stew as the centerpiece.  What to order off a menu: banchan, such as kimchi, seasoned spinach leaves, sauteed zucchini, and smoky sweet potato are usually served without having to order them from the menu (and are often at no extra charge, refilled regularly), seafood pancake, dolsot bibimbap – a hot stone bowl containing rice, bulgogi beef, vegetables and a raw egg when mixed together creates a wonderful crust on the rice, the Korean BBQ (a fun cook-at-your-table dish perfect for sharing)

Japan

The food of Japan is perhaps the most intricate and beautiful, to both the eye and the palate.  The Japanese literally translate “seasonality” to every aspect of a meal, not only with the ingredients and the food, but also to the environment it is served in from the serving dishes, the fabric of the placemats, to the flowers on the table, ensuring everything is truly in harmony with the distinct seasons.  The rituals of the cuisine are derived from those of the tea ceremony and its characteristic spirit as suggested by the four Zen principles of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility befits Japanese cuisine today.

A small, mountainous country made up of four main islands and several thousand smaller islands, the large amount of coastal terrain explains the prevalence of seafood in its cuisine.  Variety and interest are achieved by serving an array of several different dishes, keeping the flavors completely separate and independent.  The bento box (a lacquered wooden box containing several compartments usually eaten at lunch) is an example of this intention.  Each compartment contains a unique food item, masterfully presented, ranging from raw, such as sushi or sashimi, to cooked using varying techniques like blanched vegetables, grilled teriyaki, steamed dumplings, and crispy tempura.  Another lunch favorite is noodles, typically soba made from buckwheat, or udon made from wheat.  At dinner, a first course may consist of a clear soup, followed by sashimi or even a small portion of meat.  The courses that follow can consist of a symphony of grilled, steamed, or deep-fried dishes, served with simple sauces.

Japanese food contains very little spice; rather the chefs concentrate on bringing out the natural taste of the individual ingredients (of which only the freshest are used) in a dish using very delicate and refined seasoning.  There are a handful of key flavor enhancers that characterize Japanese cuisine – dashi, a stock made from dried fish and dried kelp, mirin and sake – wines made from rice, and miso, tofu, and Japanese soy sauce, all products of soy beans.  Rice has been a staple for centuries, widely consumed as flour, wines, vinegar, and in whole-grain form.  What to order off a menu: a bento box for a good introduction and variety, a selection of sushi and sashimi, miso-glazed cod, vegetable tempura

Restaurants to put your new culinary Asian knowledge to use:

Vancouver

Thai – Simply Thai

Japanese – Tojo’s, Octopus’s Garden

Vietnamese – Phnom Penh

Edmonton

Chinese Regional Variety - OPM

Thai – the King and I

Korean – Bul-Go-Gi House

Japanese – Kobe

Ottawa

Chinese Regional Variety – Mekong

Thai – Coriander Thai Cuisine

Japanese - Kinki

Toronto

Thai – Mai Thai

Korean – Se Jong

Japanese – Sushi Kaji, Takesushi, Zen

Vietnamese – Mi Mi Vietnamese

Montreal

Sichuan – Niu Kee

Thai – Thai Grill, Red Thai, Thailande, Chao Phraya

Korean – Maison de Seoul

Japanese – Miso, Bishouku, Mikado, Jun-i

Vietnamese – Hoai Huong, Au Cyclo