What’s the first thing you think of when you ponder Chinese and Japanese cuisine? RICE! They all go well with rice. This is because all rice comes from the Far East. Its origins are a little murky, though. Some say it originated in Thailand, others say Burma. But it was the Chinese who were the first to cultivate it successfully by a technique known as “flooding.” You’ve seen those iconic photos of rice paddies filled with water. It was developed hundreds of years ago to ward of weeds and pests. Maybe we need to consider this for OUR crops. Might save us from all those pesticides they spray on the crops!
Rice became popular in Europe in the 1700s and was introduced in America about that same time. South Carolina was the first US state to grow it.
There are a lot of strains of rice, but the two most common are the shorter grain, or Japonica, and the longer Indica-Basmati and Jasmine are examples of this. Rice is eaten with every meal in the Far East. It’s the focal point, with vegetables and proteins adding to the flavor of the dish. It’s a blank canvas of sorts, much like pasta is to the Italians.
Most of the rice they eat is polished, white rice because of the speed with which it cooks. This works well with Chinese stir fry because this technique cooks food rather quickly and they want everything to be finished at the same time, of course! Do you know why the Chinese invented stir fry? Because there were a lot of poor citizens and stir-frying saved on fuel!
Indica rice is basically cooked like this:
1-Rinse it well. Use several changes of water to get rid of surface starch and start it absorbing water.
2-Mix 1 part rice to 1 ½ parts water. Don’t boil the water, get it to a simmer. Stir and put the lid on for about 15 minutes. Don’t peek or stir! Then, take the lid off, put a dish towel on top, put lid back on to hold it and leave it alone for another 10 minutes. The rice should be fluffy and not sticky as the towel absorbs the excess steam.
Japonica rice works a little differently:
1-Rinse and drain and keep it in the strainer. Leave it there for about 15 minutes so water can absorb a little more.
2-Using equal parts rice and water, follow step 2, above to finish it off.
In Japan, rice is popular for sushi. There is, however, an art to it and apprentice sushi chefs can spend a year learning how to make rice for it. It’s seasoned with salt, sugar and rice vinegar and it’s an integral part of sushi (for obvious reasons). There’s a lot of land in Japan that’s used to grow rice. But they also use the rest of the plant. The stalks are used to make mats, shoes and hats.
Sake is made from rice, as is rice wine, or Mirin. It’s sweetened and used as a condiment. In Eastern China, it’s drunk as a wine, but since it’s similar to sherry, it’s used as an inexpensive cooking wine, as well.
Rice vinegar is usually unseasoned there and used to pickle. There are many types and degrees of colors of rice vinegar. Chian King vinegar is from Eastern China and is brown, rich, sweet and similar to balsamic. This, too, is used as a condiment.
The second most important grain in Asian cuisine is the soybean. Most of the world’s soybeans come from China. Soy sauce used in both Chinese and Japanese cooking. It’s fermented with wheat and soy. We know Kikkoman, but there are SO many other kinds to play with when cooking this cuisine, especially in Chinese recipes.
There’s a thin, light sauce that softer and more delicate flavored. This is minimally fermented and is used for fish and shellfish. A darker, “double” soy sauce brings two kinds together or a richer and more concentrated sauce which is good for meats and hearty dishes. Then there’s the black soy sauce. It has added molasses (and the occasional touch of MSG-which would make me get a BAD headache. I’m allergic to it!) It’s obviously a touch sweeter.
Tamari is mostly soy and was traditionally made from Miso. It has a cleaner flavor than regular soy sauce. Shiro is “white” soy sauce and is Japanese. It’s very hard to find. This has more wheat than soy and is used for sashimi.
Speaking of Miso, it’s a fermented paste and can be put away for years before being used, just like wine. The salt content varies by brand.
Who can write about Asian food and NOT bring up Tofu? This bean curd is Chinese and East Asian and it was originally made for their monks to eat as a meat substitute. The softest kind of tofu is called “flower” tofu. It’s almost custard and you have to eat it with a spoon, like a dessert. Regular soft is perfect for miso soup, while the firmer tofu is used for stir fry.
The skin of the bean curd is also used and can be filled and rolled. This is actually made from soy milk-it forms a skin when it’s made and this is taken off and dried. Something I’d never heard of is Thousand Layer Tofu. The Chinese take firm tofu and freeze it. The frozen water in the tofu changes the consistency and when it’s defrosted, it forms thin layers in the cake.
Tofu can be kept in your refrigerator for a few weeks if you change the water every day.
There was so much to be learned in this class-the regions of China and Japan differ tremendously. In northern China, by Beijing, because of the harsher climate they eat grains instead of rice and there is a big Mongolian influence. In the west is Sichuan country. The food is much more intense and spicy, with lovely, earthy mushrooms. The eastern region, by Shanghai, has more delicate and refined food. It’s the rice bowl area and by the coast, so seafood is a staple. Southern China is Cantonese. Hong Kong is here and this food is what most of the world associates with “Chinese food.”
Japan, although smaller, is also divided up into regions and varieties of cuisine. The northern islands are known for seafood and dairy cattle. They also grow wheat here and eat Ramen noodles. See? It’s not just for college kids! Although here, the noodles might come with a pat of butter because of all their dairy. Tohoku, in the south, has a Korean influence and is heavily seasoned and spicy. Tokyo is here and because it’s so metropolitan, has a variety of flavors. Sushi comes from this area. Okinawa is in the southern region and since WW II, has a big US influence in its food.
Kansai includes Kyoto and Osaka. Kyoto’s food tends to be elaborately presented and delicately flavored while Osaka is considered to be a “foodie” area, so the dishes are more fun and interesting. Kyushu has a large European influence from being invaded by Portugal and Spain. They eat a lot of meat here.
I found it truly fascinating that both a tremendous country like China and the much smaller republic of Japan could have so many varieties of “Asian cuisine.” I hope you learned something like I did.
This week I was assigned another fried dish. Wait-another PORK fried dish. I think there’s a conspiracy afoot to tease the little Jewish fitness girl (who’s NOT kosher, by the way!). oh gosh, PLEASE have a sense of humor when reading that….
Cathy’s got some more nifty facts about Asia and another wonderful recipe. Click on her blog to read it.
I made a wonderful Japanese pork cutlet. It’s easy and delicious: