Asian food is not Panda Express
A lot of people claim that they like Asian food. Indeed, many Asian dishes made their way out of their original territory and their namesake and are known by people worldwide, especially food from Eastern Asia (China, Japan, and Korea). Although Eastern Asia cuisines share many similarities, they are also fascinatingly unique and different. Besides the most commonly ordered dishes of sushi, dim sum, and Korean barbecue there are other interesting dishes that have not become so mainstream in American culture.
The Chinese cooking process usually focuses a lot on the texture of the ingredients as well as a balance of flavor, which is usually achieved by mixing different spices and sauces. There are eight major cooking systems in China, about three of them focus on spice level, two of them are relatively lighter-tasting, and the remaining three are all about savoriness. Even with the complexity of the flavoring process, most Chinese dishes aim to present the best taste of the ingredients rather than creating a new flavor for the ingredients.
No matter how much people love General Tso’s chicken, sweet and sour pork, or Mongolian beef, those types of dishes, their flavoring, and choice of ingredients are not the best representatives of Chinese food. There are indeed elements of the famous sweet and sour in authentic Chinese cuisine, but they are most often the result of vinegar and sugar with either soy sauce or other spices to balance the sweet and sour flavoring. In regards to stir fries, especially the ones containing meat, since Chinese people heavily value the texture of the meat as well as a balanced taste, most Chinese people would cook the vegetables first and then add in starch (usually cornstarch, tapioca starch, or potato starch, in a process that makes meat products really tender). Most cooks may also starch the leftover sauce so that the whole dish will not be watery, and instead the flavors will infuse better to the ingredients.
Unlike Chinese food, Korean food usually has a large portion of seasoning in it, mostly focusing on the combination of sweetness and spiciness. On top of that, fermented elements are a huge part of Korean food culture. Kimchi (fermented vegetables with seasonings) is not only a side dish but also an approach to processing food. A lot of vegetables besides napa cabbage (the most common type of kimchi) can be kimchied, like radish, cucumbers, or green onions. Traditionally, side dishes, including gyeranmari (egg roll), seasoned vegetables, and Eomuk Bokkeum (fried fish cakes), play a major role in Korean cuisine. Side dishes always appear in meals in China; the idea of side dishes is that they are meant to be unemphasized and only use food that’s light tasting, like porridge. Some seasonings that are typically used in Korean cuisine are sesame oil, doenjang (a type of fermented bean paste), gochugaru (dried pepper flakes), and gochujang (fermented red chili paste). Korean cooking methods—grilling, stewing, boiling, braising, steaming, and fermenting (pickling) are practiced the most. Stir-frying is also practiced, but not as often as it is in China, and the Korean version of this specific process is more focused on stirring rather than frying.
A large portion of the Japanese food that is popular these days is in fact a Japanese modification of other cuisines. Sophomore Quincy Qu said, “I haven’t been having a lot of Japanese food during my time in Japan. The school dining hall just makes a lot of foreign food with Japanese flavorings. But the traditional ones taste really plain.” As Qu said, traditional Japanese food is quite different from these. Washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine), is all about presenting the most original taste of food. On top of that, it emphasizes choosing seasonal ingredients, having a nice visual form of plating (a colorful combination of ingredients), as well as utilizing the correct utensils. One great example is sushi. In Japan, sushi is basically processed fish (mostly uncooked) on top of vinegared rice with a thin layer of seasoning. Japanese cuisine avoids the use of oil, fat, strong seasoning, and dairy products. The sparing use of fat and oil is practiced in most Japanese households, as people prefer boiling and steaming rather than frying. Even when they do use frying techniques, they mostly utilize the leftover meat fat from a previous meat dish rather than adding additional cooking oil. That is one of the reasons why Japanese food tends to have a clean and healthy taste.