Asian Spices and Seasonings
With Americans increased demand for healthier foods there is a spiked interest in Asian flavors and cooking techniques. The wide variety and sheer amount of Asian Spices and spice blends provide both intense flavors and well balanced meals that are hard to match in many other worldwide cuisines.
Asian foods have a well deserved culinary reputation for their distinct aromas and tastes that are proving to be very satisfying to the ever increasing sophistication of the American palate. While most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the Asian flavors of ginger, hoisin, sesame and terryaki sauce, the more adventurous foodies are becoming more comfortable with curry powders, kimchis and sambals. Asian seasoning blends in addition to having well balanced textures and flavors are also visually appealing.
Asian Seasonings are known for providing perfect balance of aromatic, hot, savory, sour and sweet sensations to each meal. The spices that are typically used in Asian cuisine are basil, cassia (cinnamon), cilantro, coriander, chiles, cloves, cumin, galangal, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, spearmint, star anise and turmeric. Fresh leafy spices also play an important role in garnishing plates and include basil, cilantro, lemongrass, mint and scallions.
Understanding Asian Regions
It is wrong to lump all Asian cuisines together, as there is much to learn about the subtle differences across the region. Some ingredients have a wider appeal such as curry, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, star anise and soy sauce. But to fully appreciate the region you will need to understand the various flavor preferences that are drawn from the diverse ethnic backgrounds of the Chinese, Indians, Koreans, Japanese, Thais and Vietnamese.
This is further complicated by the role that religion plays throughout the region as some specific ingredients are preferred and others prohibited across the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim faiths. Because of this there are numerous varieties of spice blends used in preparing beef, chicken, fish and vegetable dishes.
Chinese cuisine includes the increasingly popular Sichuan Cuisine which is influenced greatly by chile peppers, red chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns. Indian cuisine uses far more spice and seasoning ingredients than Western chefs including some exotic spices and seasonings such as Asafetida, saffron and garam masala. Korean cuisine greatly revolves around the preparation of steamed rice, vegetables and meat. The use of Kimchi, or fermented vegetables, is very popular in Korean cuisine and is served with most meals. Japanese cuisine incorporates a large amount of rice and some ingredients that are not as popular in Western cooking such as bamboo shoots, seaweed and lotus root. Food preparation in Thailand pays a great deal of attention to detail. It is also unique in that the base of many meals is a fish sauce that is fragrant and salty (and is made from fermented fish). Instead of rice, Vietnamese cuisine features rice noodles in many of their dishes as well as seafood.
Meal Preparation and Presentation
Meal preparation and presentation from this region also differs greatly from the US. In this country we tend to separate the food groups on our plates. There's a designated place for the grains, meat, potatoes, pasta and vegetables while sweet flavors are relegated to after meal desserts. In Asian cuisine, balance and harmony play a central role and the result is a blending of tastes and textures within a meal including combining savory and sweet flavors. Chinese cooking strives to blend six tastes into each meal –bitter, salty, sour, spicy, sweet and umami (a long lasting meaty or brothy taste). In Indian cooking, they also prefer balancing six tastes – astringent (creates a puckering sensation), bitter, salty, sour, spicy and sweet. The sophistication of these cuisines certainly doesn't end with mastering tastes and textures. Great attention is also spent on balancing sensations to promote ideal digestion. This means foods for many meals are served cold, hot, dry, moist, light or heavy.
While "main entrees" are typical in Western cuisines, in Southeastern Asian cuisine the tendency is to focus more on one pot meals that blend some variety of rice, sauced noodles, chiles, vegetables and leftover meat. More contrasts between US and Asian meals exist in the presentation and portions of meals served. In our country, meat takes on a starring role in most meals. Typically this is a larger piece of dry, lightly seasoned protein. In Asia, meat plays a secondary role while rice takes center stage. Smaller portions of fish, beef or chicken tend to be sliced thinner and are more sauced or seasoned. Asians view rice as a comfort food.
Vegetables are common to both Asian and American cuisines, but how they are prepared and seasoned vary greatly. In the US, we've traditionally boiled them and served them soft and under seasoned. In Asian cuisine, where texture is a goal, vegetables play a leading role and are generally served more crispy and crunchy. The stir-frying techniques of the Cantonese pairs light seasoning that maximizes the various vegetable's colors, flavors and textures.
Asian Condiments and Spice Blends
Not to be left out is the Asian fondness of condiments such as chutneys, dals and sambals. The Thai and Vietnamese cuisines have a preference in preparing their condiments from chiles, fish sauce, garlic, tamarind and leafy spices. Asians view hot sauce the way we do ketchup or salsa. Each region has a preferred hot sauce and some of the most common are Sriracha, chili garlic and sambal trassi.
Spice blends are used to bring out intense flavors and the base is frequently some combination of sesame seeds, coriander seeds and chiles which may be pickled, smoked or toasted. Spice blends are used differently depending on the region and the meal to bring spicy balance to aromatic, hot, savory, sour and sweet flavors. While some spice blends have wide spread use throughout Asia, such as curries and five spices, specific regions go into more subtle flavor combinations.
In Eastern Asia, the popular spice blends include Fermented Bean Seasonings, Chinese Five Spice, Hoisin Sauce Blend, Japanese Seven Spice and Teriyaki Blend.
In Southern Asia, curries are big but these vary depending on the region. In South India, they tend to be hot, pungent, spicy with coconut undertones. In Northern India and in Pakistan, they're usually called masalas and they tend to be more aromatic, fruity, mild, nutty, rich and sweet. In Sri Lanka, these pungent curries are chile based and pack a serious kick.
In Southeastern Asia, they enjoy Sambal blends which are made into hot sauces. These tend to be very fragrant, hot and sweet. Curries are also popular here. Thai curries are aromatic hot, pungent, sour and sweet. While in Vietnam their curries are not as intense as Indian curries and are milder than Thai curries.
Now I love spicy food and while I tend to gravitate more towards Latin influences we do find ourselves experimenting more and more with Asian flavors and seasonings. Not only is this a great change of pace for our taste buds but it's fun to experiment as well!