Sushi is not Chinese food and orange chicken is not Japanese food. Even though many Sakkio franchises are owned and operated by Chinese people, Teriyaki chicken is a Japanese dish. In the United States, there are so many types of Asian food that it is actually easy to confuse the different types. The fact that some fusion restaurants offer more than one type of cuisine (i.e. Korean and Japanese, Japanese and Chinese, etc.), makes things even more confusing. In addition, by narrowing the focus to only Japanese, Korean, and Chinese food, we are actually missing many types of Asian cuisine. So let’s try to unravel this diverse range of cuisines.
By the way, as Canadian comedian Russell Peters reminds us in his routine, India is technically part of Asia. And yet, how many people think that Indian food is Asian food? Well, it is. If you think of curry as their main culinary contribution, you’ll see the influence of Indian food on many other Asian cuisines. Thai curry is just as spicy but not as thick. Japanese curry is thick but not as spicy. The Malays and Indonesians each have their own versions of curry as well. In India, each household will have their own blend of spices, which make up their curries. It’s not as specific a recipe as it tends to be in other countries.
Besides curry, Indians eat samosas, which are deep fried dumplings with potato, peas, and other ingredients and spices. There are other yummy carbs to fill you up like chapati and naan bread. For dessert, rice pudding flavored with cardamon is nice.
Each region in China has its own special way of cooking. With over a billion people and a huge land mass, you didn’t think they all ate the same food, did you? However, in western countries, there are only a few main Chinese styles represented in the Chinese restaurants. I’ll try to cover the main ones.
Most of the food you’ll find in China-towns in North America will have Cantonese style food because most of the people who came here during the railroad building times of Canada and the U.S. were from Guangdong (Canton) province. Later on, chefs who immigrated to North America were probably trained in Hong-Kong, which is very near Guangdong. For brunch, dim sum is the cuisine of choice if you have a bunch of friends eating with you. In the larger restaurants, servers push carts of small steamers or plates of dumplings around and call out what they have. If you want something they’re calling, give them a nod and tell them what you would like. They will give you whatever you want and stamp your card. At the end of your meal, someone will come over to tally up your bill by counting the stamps. It’s a great way to sample many dishes at one sitting if you have never had authentic Chinese food.
Szechuan is the spicy south, where they like their food hot! However, not all of their dishes are spicy. Some of the more common Szechuan dishes are: ma poh tofu and kung-pao chicken (both spicy). Tea-smoked duck is another representative dish but not so common in North America.
Taiwanese cuisine has similarities with Japanese and Chinese cooking. At one Taiwanese restaurant in Boston, the crispy chicken leg quarter on rice plate includes a hard boiled egg, ground beef sauce, and Japanese -style pickles. They tend to use sauces in their dishes to give a little extra juiciness to each bite. That’s probably the distinguishing feature of Taiwanese food.
Then there are a whole bunch of other Chinese cuisines that you might want to explore but the restaurants are not plentiful unless you’re in a Chinatown. Tea houses, which are quiet alternatives to the usual coffee houses, are cropping up in some places. Some vegetarian orientated places have cropped up in college towns like Boston. Those usually have names with “Bhudda” in them. Then there are the bubble tea kiosks where you can get all kinds of tea with large black tapioca balls that you suck through a fat straw.
The thing about Japanese food is that it’s pretty similar all over Japan. It’s more like a variation on a theme when you go from Tokyo to Kyoto to Osaka. Noodles, sushi, curry, and fried meat are the main themes.
Sushi is probably the first thing you think about when someone mentions Japanese food. The style of sushi that we get in western countries is Tokyo style, meaning that they do not use a wooden box to shape it. In Osaka, they use a rectangular wooden box with a removable lid to press rice and fish into a brick before cutting it up into pieces. “Maki” means roll. “Te” means hand, so “Temaki” means hand roll. Nigiri sushi is the type where the chef makes an oval shaped rice ball and places a slice of fish on top. If you don’t want rice, sashimi is just raw fish.
For those of you who prefer your food cooked, Japanese cuisine has plenty of that too. A bowl of ramen or udon noodles served in a tasty broth will warm you right down to your toes on a cold winter day. In the summer time, noodles can be eaten cold with a dipping sauce for a refreshing meal. Some of the additions that you can get with your noodles are: seaweed (nori or wakame), bamboo shoots, fried pork (aka tonkatsu), roast pork, fried chicken, or curry.
Yes, curry is a regular part of the Japanese diet. Of course, as with many of their Chinese influenced dishes like ramen noodles, Japanese curry is not exactly the same as curry in India. The main thing you will notice is that Japanese curry is not nearly as spicy as other curries. It’s usually served with rice but it is also common to put curry on udon noodles. If you go to a Japanese bakery, don’t be surprised to find a curry donut!
Southeast Asian Food:
I hate to lump a whole bunch of cuisines into just one category but if I didn’t, this article could be a book! Southeast Asian food seems to be a fusion of various cuisines. Thai food includes various curries but it also includes noodle soups, fried noodles dishes like Pad Thai, and distinct soups like Tom Yum. The spices and the ingredients distinguish Southeast Asian food from other Asian foods. Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian foods are probably some of the most flavorful foods one can eat.
For example, Thai basil is used in many dishes. Thai basil is actually a little stronger than Italian basil. When it’s used in combination with hot peppers, the aroma is heavenly. Dishes like crispy chicken basil use this combination. Most restaurants are very accommodating if you ask them to make it not so spicy.
The range of curries is very diverse. Panang, Choo-Chee, yellow, red, and green curries are usually made with coconut milk. Thai basil and lime leaves are sometimes thrown in for extra flavor. If you are a fan of curry, this is an interesting cuisine to explore.