Module 4 – Thai Kitchen and Cooking Tools – Lesson 1 – Evolution of Asian Cuisine

Evolution of Asian Cuisine

Cooking is one of the oldest of human activities; indeed it may be the oldest above basic animal survival.

At the wandering hunter-gatherer level of society, cooking is very simple – kill something, throw it on the fire along with whatever vegetables and fruits were found that day, eat.

No one specialized in cooking, since every able body was needed to find the food in the first place.

Cooking equipment consists of a few sticks for skewering meat and vegetables, leaves for wrapping and baking, maybe a hot flat rock.

At the next level of society, subsistence farming, cooking is a little more complex.

Agriculture increases the selection of food stuffs available and also increases the probability that any given foodstuff will be available when wanted.

Subsistence farmers rely on grain for their calories where hunters rely on meat, but grain requires considerable effort to convert to an edible form.

As a matter of fact, it has been calculated that a farmer has to work harder for his calories than a hunter. The relative abundance of food in a subsistence farming society compared to a hunter-gatherer society is at least partly offset by the amount of effort required to prepare the food.

A settled existence allows the development of arts such as pottery and metal working, which in turn allows new cooking techniques such as baking and boiling.

It is in subsistence farming societies that the regionalcuisine begins to take shape, usually referred to as a “peasant” cuisine.

These peasant cuisines usually consist of a limited number of relatively simple dishes, since a wide variety of ingredients is not available, nor is the time to spend on fancy preparation.

At the next stage of development of a society, central authority and trade begin to emerge. Central authority implies castles and palaces, a ruling class who like to indulge their whims and show off for their neighbors and subjects.

The rulers need professional cooks, not only because they are too important to do their own cooking, but to provide them with the delicacies that only skill and experience can produce.

Trade implies towns and cities, specialization of labour ,exotic foodstuffs from far away, and processed food products. Taverns appear in the market place, and food is served, creating the first restaurant.

The up-scale restaurants serving the lesser nobility and rich merchant classes often mimic the cooking of the palace.

It is in the kitchens of the palaces and restaurants that sophisticated combinations of exotic ingredients are prepared with complicated techniques. It is in these kitchens that recipes are codified and written down.


The Three Cuisine Areas of Asia

The South West – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma

The North East – China, Korea, Japan

The South East – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia ,Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei

Curries are very important to the cuisines of the South East and SouthWest, less so in the cuisine of the North East.

South Western curries are generally based on yogurt, whereas the curries of the South Eastand North East are generally based on coconut milk.

Rice is a staple starch in all three cuisines areas. In addition to rice, South Western cuisines include a variety of leavened and unleavend breads and South East and North East cuisines include rice and eggnoodles.

In the South West, the major oil used in frying is ghee, or clarified butter. In the South East and North East, the major oils are vegetable oils.

Garlic and ginger are used in all three cuisine areas, as are chilipeppers, although chilies are much more common in the South Westand South East.

The North Eastern cuisines use soy sauce in nearly everything; the South East substitutes fish sauce; there is no equivalent in South Western cooking.

In the South East, there are two additional flavorings that are not used in the other cuisines – galangal and lemon grass.


Cuisines of the South East

The original cuisine of the South East is probably the peasant cuisine of Thailand.

Archaeology has recently discovered that the metal workingcultures of the central plain of Thailand date back to at least 3000 BC,easily in the same class as the ancient cultures of China and India.

The peasant cuisine associated with these early metal workers spread east across the mountains into Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and south down the Malayan peninsula and the island arc of Indonesia.

This cuisine did not develop in isolation, of course. As it spread, it was influenced by ideas coming from the North East and South West, and influenced them in return.

Most recently, of course, the cuisines of Europe have influenced the native ones. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were French colonies, Malaysia was a British Colony, Indonesia was a Dutch colony.

Thailand was a rarity in that it successfully resisted European colonisation.

Rice is the staple grain of the North East and South East and is only slightly less important in the South West.

It is the original crop that caused the conversion from hunter-gatherer to subsistence farmer inthis area; as such it spread across the region before regional cuisines began to evolve.

Some Italians may object if you claim that Marco Polo brought spaghetti back from China, but there is little doubt that noodles came to this region from China.

Curries are a very common across the region, but less common in Vietnam where the Chinese influence is strong. The concept probably came from India and spread east, but the people of the South East modified the original by substituting coconut milk for yogurt as the basis for the sauce.

The cooking utensil called the wok, and the stir fry technique using vegetable oils came to the area from the China.

Garlic and ginger are common all across Eurasia and probably arrived in the area at almost the same time as rice.

The arrival of chili peppers in the area can be placed with relative accuracy. Chili peppers, indeed all peppers, are native to the Americas and arrived in the region with European explorers/exploiters. This means they could not have arrived before about 1520, and were widespread by 1600.

Fish sauce is probably a local invention.

There are many spices used in the region; cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka, cardamom and cumin from India, coriander and star anise from China, cloves, nutmeg and mace are native.

Several herbs are common in the region, Thai basil, sweet basil and mint being the commonest. These herbs grow almost everywhere across tropical and subtropical Eurasia, so, while the idea of using them in cooking may have been imported, the actual herbs used are native varieties. This is especially true of Thai basil, with its purple stems and licorice flavor.

Citrus flavors are important to the region’s cuisines, especially lime, which is native to the islands of Indonesia and Malaysia. Not just the juice and pulp are used, but also the zest and leaves.

Last, but certainly not least, are lemon grass and galangal. These two flavors are the flavors which make the cuisines of the region unique.

They are undoubtedly of local origin, for they are used nowhere else in the world.

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