Asia is known to be the biggest and most populous continent in the world—with almost 60% of the Earth’s population living in Asia alone. Its culture is so diverse that until today, hundreds of languages and dialects are spoken at different regions in some countries like India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Asia’s colorful and rich heritage includes a myriad of delicacies to choose from. So here are a few fun facts about some popular national dishes in Asia.
Peking Duck, Dumplings – China
If you’re going to China, you should have two goals in mind: seeing the Great Wall and eating authentic Peking duck. The process of roasting duck dates back to Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) and since then has been the great nation’s must-try delicacy for tourists. The bird is slow-roasted to perfection and is usually served with thin crepe-like “lotus leaf pancakes” (heye bing), sweet noodle sauce (tianmianjiang) or hoisin sauce (haixianjiang) and finely sliced green onions. One of the many ways of eating Peking duck is to wrap all the ingredients with the heye bing (like a burrito) and savour the fusion of flavors in your mouth.
A man named Zhang Zhongjian is credited for the invention of dumplings during the Han Dyansty. Dumplings were also produced in different European countries, particularly in Rome. According to the Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes dating back to the late fourth century, dumplings were invented as a solution to stretch the amount of meat to feed more people.
Corner Tree Cafe
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Bulgogi, Kimchi – Korea
Bulgogi literally means “fire meat” (“bul” is fire and “gogi” is meat) in Korean. Originally called the “maekjeok,” bulgogi is made of thinly-sliced beef marinated in Korean sauce and garlic then grilled over fire. It is traditionally served at birthday celebrations and other special occasions before it became a staple dish of the modern times. It is believed that the ancient inhabitants of Korea called the “Maeks” are the first people who practiced grilling marinated beef.
Kimchi is pickled vegetables mixed with spices. The long and notorious winters in Korea forced its people to innovate methods of preserving their food in preparation for the cold weather ahead. The high nutritional value of kimchi (low calories, high ascorbic acid and carotene content) makes it an ideal option for health buffs worldwide.
Pad Thai – Thailand
Pad Thai is made of stir-fried rice noodles, eggs, tofu, fish sauce, shrimps and other seasonings. The nutty taste can be attributed to the use of peanut oil and actual peanuts. Some accounts say that Thailand’s national dish is of Chinese origin, due to the stir-frying of the noodles which is essentially Chinese. In fact, just about every ingredient (except for dried chili) used in making Pad Thai isn’t home grown in the country, which only strengthens the claim that Chinese immigrants were the ones responsible for concocting the national dish of Thailand.
Tamarind: Taste of Thai
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Sushi, Ramen – Japan
The origins of sushi in Japan dates back to the 3rd century B.C. process of fermenting fish with rice. Back then, the Japanese would store the barrel-fermented fish (mostly carp) with rice and discard the rice after one year of storage. The next generation of sushi called the “han-nare” is closer to the modern version, with the same process of fish fermentation but with a shorter storage time of 1-4 weeks. People started to consume the rice with the fish, which had a sour taste due to the presence of lactic acid. The production of sushi quickly accelerated to the modern version as early as the 18th century, as people started to add vinegar to emulate the development of lactic acid in the rice after weeks of storage. Fish was cured and pickled to perfection and the process of making sushi was dramatically shortened to about four hours. The modern-day sushi that we know of today is the product of the 20th century, as inside-out rolls (western origin) and conveyor sushi are now considered a luxury experience all over the world.
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Japan’s ramen, like Thailand’s Pad Thai, also has a debatable past. According to some historians, both dishes are Chinese in origin. The early records of the existence of ramen in Japan dates back to the 17th to 20th centuries, at the Rai-Rai Ken in Tokyo where the Chinese cooks popularized these hot bowls then known as “shina soba” or Chinese noodles. The use of “kansui” is the secret to the unique flavors and textures of ramen which is a mixture of baking soda and water that gives ramen noodles their chewy characteristic. Various kinds of meat broth is then added to complete the dish.
Fast forward to today, Japan has two popular museums showcasing the history of ramen, namely the Yokohama’s Ramen Museum and the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum.
Address: CE405 Commerce Ave. Westgate Center, Alabang, Muntinlupa City
Laksa, Hainanese Chicken – Singapore
Chinese immigrants called the “Peranakan” take credit for the invention of the laksa in Malaysia during the 15th century. While the origin of the dish itself is debatable, it has quickly transformed into the different variations of laksa spread throughout Asia today—the most popular one in Singapore is called the “Katong” laksa: thick vermicelli noodles with spicy soup stock, coconut milk, etc. Other popular kinds of laksa like the curry laksa, Asam laksa, and the Sarawak laksa, are differentiated by the kind of paste used in making the dish.
Riviera Cafe – The Heritage Hotel
Address: The Heritage Hotel, Roxas Boulevard Corner EDSA, Baclaran, Pasay City
The Hainanese chicken is considered to be Singapore’s national dish; which was brought into the country by Hainanese immigrants during the mid-1800s. The language of food is, indeed, universal, which is evident from the availability of this dish at various hawker stalls, fast food restaurants, and high-end hotels spread across the country. Hainanese chicken is cooked in two ways: by steeping the bird in boiling water or by roasting it. The dish is served with rice (cooked in chicken stock and pandan leaves), spicy chili, and ginger paste.
Tandoori Chicken – India
Several sources indicate that a certain Mr. Kundan Lal Gujral had a small restaurant called Moti Mahal in Delhi, India, during the partition days of India and Pakistan in the 1920s. It is said that this was where the first tandoori chicken was cooked. The chicken is marinated in yogurt, and seasoned with tandoori masala, which is then cooked in a “tandoor.” The “tandoor” is an open top bell-shaped clay oven, which is set into the earth and is most commonly used in northern parts of India. Charcoal fuels the flames as air exits and enters the oven through the small chimney at the bottom of the Tandoor. The key ingredient to making this dish is the “masala” or the spices—which is usually comprised of cumin, mace, nutmeg, and red chilli powder.
Nasi Lemak – Malaysia
“In Malaysia, any time is nasi lemak o’clock.”
Nasi lemak translates to ‘rich rice’; which refers to the coconut cream content of the rice. This common all-around meal in Malaysia is typically served with deep-fried fish or chicken wings, ‘otah’ (grilled fish paste), fried ‘ikan bilis’ (local anchovies), hardboiled eggs, cucumber slices, peanuts, and ‘sambal’ (spicy chilli paste). The add-on side dishes usually depend on where the nasi lemak is being sold or who is cooking the dish—seaside villages may opt to throw in a couple of fish, while Malaccans prefer a side dish of their favorite “kangkung.”
One of the oldest known (and still standing) nasi lemak stalls in Kuala Lumpur is the family-owned Nasi Lemak Tanglin. The stall started out in 1948, and is currently under the management of the third-generation owners.
Chicken Adobo – Philippines
“Adobo” translates to “vinegar-braised” and its origin dates back to the Spanish colonial period in the Philippines in the 1600s. The ingredients are simple: vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, bay leaves, and black peppercorn. Cooking adobo usually takes a few a few hours of letting the meats simmer in low heat, allowing the flavors to perfectly infuse together. While the varieties of this Filipino favorite are endless—Adobong Pusit (squid), Adobong Gata (coconut milk), and Adobo Flakes (dry version), it is safe to say that this is the dish that every aspiring Filipino cook yearns to master in his lifetime.
Bánh Mì, Phở – Vietnam
The French colonizers of Vietnam first introduced bread to the country during the late 18th century—with fresh baguette bread being one of the key elements of Vietnam’s Bánh Mì sandwich. When the invaders left the country, locals started to mix their own flavors into the sandwich (the French version only had butter and ham) using local ingredients like a mayonnaise-like spread, cured hams, pickled vegetables, coriander (cilantro) and chili. Now the Bánh Mì is some sort of a worldwide phenomenon, when an article by BBC documented it as the world’s best sandwich, and praised the Vietnamese specialty for its complexity in flavor despite its simple ingredients. Get your Bánh Mì fix from Bon Banhmi here. (link to GS Bon Banh Mi)
Phở Noodle Soup is Vietnam’s national dish. It is a hearty yet simple soup made of light chicken/beef broth; mixed with chewy rice noodles, beef slices, and various herbs and spices. The murky history of how pho came to be in Vietnam argues that, like the Bánh Mì sandwich, the Phở is a product of the French colonization of Vietnam in the late 1800s.
Nasi Goreng, Rendang – Indonesia
Nasi Goreng directly translates to “fried rice” in Indonesia. The practice of cooking fried rice is a way to avoid wasting rice; old rice is far more a threat for food poisoning than spoiled meat, due to the development of Bacillus cereus—a bacteria that forms in rice at room temperatures. Nasi Goreng, like the Malaysian Nasi Lemak, is usually served with cucumber, tomato, and shrimp crackers, but other varieties may include fried egg, chicken, dried anchovies, prawns, and even squid. The rice is stir-fried with oyster sauce, or chili paste. Other optional spices include cumin, coriander, and curry powder.
Rendang is considered to be a local dish in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. Because of its preserved state, dry rendang was the ideal dish of the early merchants trading and migrating to Malacca in the 16th century. Properly cooked dry rendang can last weeks at room temperature and up to six months in the refrigerator. It is said that there are symbolic meanings behind the four main ingredients of rendang. The meat symbolises revered leaders, the ‘meat’ of the community; coconut symbolises teachers, poets, writers and other intellectual leaders who enrich a society; the heat of the chilli is a symbol of the religious leaders whose duty it is to impose religious limits; finally, the spices, which symbolise the rest of society.
Now you’re hungry? Be sure to checkout some of BigDish’s partner restaurants which specialize in Asian cuisine like Jatujak, Me Love You Long Time, Neil’s Kitchen, Katsu, Merlion’s Cuisine, Pink Panda, Sasa Asian Cuisine, Woodchuck House and the Rivera Cafe at the Heritage Hotel.
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