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Thursday, April 8, 2010

South East Asian Cuisine- Cousins all

China, Thailand and India share more than just a geographical clustering, they are the next door neighbors, together taking up a huge part of the Asian continent, its history and its cuisine system too.China and India have one of the world’s oldest civilizations and their culture, society and of course, cuisine speaks for that.

In all these countries, food is no merely sustenance. It is a way of life. No Indian, Chinese or Thai person eats without ceremony, not a physical but a sociological one. In each of these cultures, days have been identified for eating or not eating certain things, food items have been identified as having different properties. Clearly food is not only meant to grace tables and fill stomachs, it is both an offering to the Gods as well as a thanksgiving.

Most Indians, traditionally start their meals with a short prayer, sprinkling of water around their food and folding their hands. Food cooked for any meal is first offered to the Gods, then to the cow, the Mother. Only after food grains have been thrown to birds (believed to be spirits of ancestors returned to safeguard their descendents), do the householders sit down for a meal. The belief that animals have spirits of benevolence and malevolence is shared by almost all Asian cultures.

A vast majority of Indians, Chinese and Thai are rice eaters. If not in the cereal form, it is made into noodles and then used as a staple diet. So the accompaniments, in many cases are similar. In China and Thailand, the staple food is rice, but India differs in that the staple food of the northern plains is wheat and the coarser grains like millets, hence the accompaniments differ too. Most wheat eaters are not fish people, they stick to vegetables, some meats and other dairy products. But the entire coast and the Eastern regions, as the northern hilly areas are staple rice eaters, so the similarity between coastal Indian foods and Chinese is very great, except for seasonings.

All foods start with a strong soup, in South India, there is a spicy tamarind soup called rasam, while the Thai have their soups flavored with kafir lime and galangal, the purpose being to cleanse the tongue and activate the salivary glands. In coastal areas of India, rice is eaten in courses, with a fiery or bitter dish to begin with, vegetables paired with legumes and finally the meats or fish dishes. The same system is followed in Thailand, and in China.

Rice is almost always an accompaniment.

In rice eating areas of India, a rice soup is the staple food, called by different names in different areas. In the South, in the East, rice is cooked in its starch and eaten. In China, there is Conjee, which is basically the same thing, but served with meat or fish dumplings, and even vegetables.

The wide range of soups available in Chinese cuisine takes care of all the nutritional requirements. In India, these soups are popular in rice eating areas. The Bengalis have their Jhol, which is essentially a vegetable and fish soup and the South Indians have similar dishes. For instance, the traditional steamer of dumplings that is indispensable for Thai and Chinese food is also a staple cooking implement in South India were steamed rice and lentil dumplings (idlis) make up a large part of daily refreshments.

Thai food, essentially, is a combination of Indian and Chinese, and derives from both. However, the end result is a completely different taste, tangy and spicy by South China and Canton standards, but still mild by South Indian standards. The generous use of galangal (the Thai cousin of ginger used in India) and Kafir lime leaves (Thai cousins of lemongrass used in China and lemon used in India), gives it a distinctly strong flavor. It is difficult to come across mildly flavored Thai food, which is the reason why most Asians enjoy Thai food, but it is catching up with western tastes only now.

There are greater similarities Thai has with Indian food, than Chinese, probably because of the geographical similarities, similar climate and terrain, and of course, a large amount of cross-migration in the region.

Indian and Chinese food has managed to find its hinges in western markets but Thai is still somewhat of a rarity. It is, however, a cuisine that takes the best from both Indian and Chinese, more often the staple rice and noodles from Chinese and the curries from Indian cuisine.

One of the most important things that Thai curry shares with Indian curries is the generous use of spices, natural flours. It may be with or without coconut milk but never without a range of spices. Across India too, spices play the most important role in flavoring curries, whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian.

Among the other common dishes, the Kaeng ka ri which is closest to Indian cooking is a mildly flavored chicken and potato curry in gravy. Sometimes other meats are also used, but in most cases, it is chicken. The chicken curry made almost across the Indian subcontinent is almost the same. Except perhaps the Indian curry has more of ginger-garlic and onion gravy while the Thai curry is characteristically thin gravy. Similar in taste is the Kaeng kai which does not always have potatoes. This could be compared to any of the Indian chicken curries available across the world. The Kaeng som is another curry with traces of Indian tastes, a fish curry with vegetables. Though the vegetables differ, the concept is very common in East of India, which is largely rice and fish eating.

Noodles and rice, as mentioned earlier, are almost the same for Chinese as in Thai food. So there is a very great brotherhood of staples here.

We can see that the three major cuisine of South East Asia have a lot in common as far as their food and cooking systems are concerned.
By Kanika Goswami

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