In Asia, food is a big thing. In many cultures people ask if you’ve eaten instead of greeting you with a ‘Hello’. Food is also sacred in many of these cultures and is often offered in prayer before the community partakes in the feast. Street fare is common and you’ll always find a stall offering hot food in the wee hours of the morning. Here are some of the best foods from Asia that have left an indelible mark on the ‘edible’ world!
Words: Efi Hafizah Hamzah
Origin: China, Hong Kong
The words dim and sum have gone through a variety of translations – ‘to touch your heart’, ‘a little bit of heart’ etc. as the literal translation in Mandarin of dim means ‘point’ and sum means ‘heart’. Together, they evoke images of dainty deliciousness. In reality, it couldn’t be simpler as the words in Cantonese mean ‘small snack’ or ‘small dishes of food’.
Dim sum has made its way to menus worldwide with ease because of its taste and simplicity. It began as a tradition that complements the yum cha (drink tea) tradition in olden day China, inadvertently turning the polite and staid tradition to a lively and often raucous event.
Since the 10th century, more than 2,000 varieties of dim sum dishes have been created, with up to 100 types of savouries and sweets offered by bigger restaurants today, including steamed, boiled, fried, baked and chilled varieties.
DIM SUM MUST-TRYS
• HAR KAU shrimp dumplings – steamed
• SHAO MAII dumplings with prawn and *meat, topped with crab roe – steamed
• LOH MAI GAII glutinous rice with *meat wrapped in lotus leaf – steamed
• FU PEI GUEN *meat wrapped in crispy beancurd skin – fried
• DAAN TAAT sweet egg tart – baked
• MAA TUAN sweet red bean paste wrapped in a crispy pancake – fried
* Meat used is usually pork, but chicken is used for the halal versions.
TRY IT HERE…
HONG KONG Islamic Centre Canteen, Wan Chai (halal) +852 2834 8211
KUALA LUMPUR Maju Palace, Maju Junction, Kuala Lumpur (Pork-free) +603 2691 8822
SINGAPORE Asia Grand Restaurant, North Bridge Road, Odeon Towers (non-halal) +65 6887 0010
BANGKOK China Place, 114 Setsiri Road +02 619 87013
JAKARTA May Star (halal) LG Central Park Mall +62 21 5698 5422
Fugu, which means ‘river pig’ in Japanese refers to the puffer fish that has become one of the deadliest things you can put into your mouth. The liver of the puffer fish is considered a delicacy but was banned in Japan in 1984 due to a high number of accidental deaths.
To be a fugu chef, junior cooks undergo rigorous training with their qualification strictly controlled by government authorities.
Fugu has been a highly sought after delicacy in Japan for centuries, from the Jõmon period that date back more than 2,300 years ago. In the early 1600’s right up to 1868, the Tokugawa shogunate prohibited fugu consumption in Edo and other areas, but as the shogunate weakened, fugu became common again. Despite fugu being more common nowadays, be prepared to pay top dollar for the fish.
• SASHIMI The most popular dish is fugu sashimi. Knives with exceptionally thin blades are used for cutting the fish into translucent slices, a technique known as usuzukuri.
• FUGU NO SHIRAKO The soft roe (shirako) of the fish is a highly prized food item in Japan. One of the most popular kinds of soft roe, it is usually grilled and served with salt.
• FUGU KARAAGE Deep fried fugu.
• HIRE-ZAKE Fins of the fish are completely dried out, baked and served in hot sake.
• FUGU-CHIRI Fugu stewed with vegetables, also called tetchiri.
• YUBIKI The skin can be eaten too as long as the spikes are removed.
• A fugu chef is given certifi cation only if he samples what he serves, before handing it over to a customer.
• Fugu is the only food that the Emperor of Japan is forbidden from eating for his own safety.
• Some professional fugu chefs leave behind a tiny bit of poison (as allowed) in the meat; leaving a prickly feeling and numbness on the tongue and lips.
• In Japan, lanterns can be made from preserved fugu, and hung outside restaurants.
• Its poison, tetrodotoxin, is 1,200 times more potent than cyanide.
TRY IT HERE…
TOKYO, JAPAN Tsukiji Yamamoto Restaurant, Chuo-ku; near the Tsukiji station +81 3 3541 7730
SINGAPORE Nogawa Restaurant, Concorde Hotel Orchard Road +65 6732 2911
PENANG, MALAYSIA Miraku Japanese Restaurant, G Hotel, Gurney Drive +604 229 8702
Origin: Singapore / Malaysia – both countries claim to have created this dish
Crab dishes feature in many Asia Pacific menus, but none are quite as popular as Chilli Crabs. The most commonly used type of crab for this dish is the mud crab, which is stir-fried in a thick gravy of tomato and chilli sauces.
Despite its name, the Chilli Crab is hardly spicy. Thickened with cornstarch and flavoured with rice vinegar and soy sauce, beaten eggs are added at the end of the cooking process to create egg-ribbons in the sauce. While many eat it with white rice, the preferred way to enjoy this dish is with steamed or fried man tou (Chinese buns), or even French baguettes and toasted bread that help mop up the sauce.
Chilli Crabs made it on CNN Go’s list in 2011 as ‘World’s 1,234 Most Delicious Foods’ ranked at number 1,234.
TRY IT HERE…
SINGAPORE Roland Restaurant, Marine Parade Central +65 6440 8205
Jumbo Seafood, East Coast Seafood Centre +65 6442 3435
KUCHING, SARAWAK, MALAYSIA Bako Seafood Restaurant, Bako National Park +6 82 348 001
PETALING JAYA, SELANGOR, MALAYSIA Fatty Crab Seafood Restaurant, Taman Megah, PJ +6 03 7804 5758
Origin: West Sumatra, Indonesia
It’s a simple concept but makes for a gastronomic feast: Boiled rice (nasi), served with an extensive list of dishes that originates from the West Sumatran city called Padang.
The plain rice is served with a variety of meats, chicken, fish, seafood and vegetables that are prepared with spices and chillies, making for rich flavours and aroma. It is served like a mini buffet, or brought to you in little plates and piled up in the centre of the dining table. Nasi Padang is usually eaten at lunch or dinner. One point to note: The dishes served at this feast are generally spicy, creamy and devilishly hot!
NASI PADANG MUST-TRYS
• CUMI BAKAR grilled squid
• KEROPOK KULIT SAPI cow rind crackers
• AYAM KAMPUNG BUMBU BAKAR roasted free-range chicken
• SAMBAL PETAI UDANG chilli prawns with stink beans
• TERUNG BALADO stir-fried eggplant with chillies and onions
• DAGING DENDENG BALADO beef jerky in a spicy chilli paste
• While Nasi Padang originates from Padang, West Sumatra, the idea of eating white rice with a selection of dishes is a very common practice throughout most countries in Asia.
• A similar food, nasi rames, was created in West Java during World War II by Eurasian cook Truus van der Capellen, who ran the Bandung soup kitchens during and after the Japanese occupation. She later opened a restaurant in the Netherlands and made the dish popular there.
TRY IT HERE…
PADANG, INDONESIA Pagi Sore, No. 143 Jl. Pondok, Padang +61 32490
MEDAN, INDONESIA Garuda Nasi Padang, Jl. H.A. Malik +61 453 7353
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA Sari Ratu, Jalan Tun Ismail +603 2141 1811
SINGAPORE Hajah Maimunah Restaurant, Joo Chiat Road +65 6348 5457
A dash of chilli with a teensy bit of sourness and a pleasant assault on the palate; that’s how many describe kimchi, Korea’s biggest food export. The 1998 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul pretty much put kimchi on the world map, as the food was introduced to hordes of foreigners with positive feedback.
Kimchi is an acquired taste, and has a way of affecting the taste buds, creating a yearning for it. The earliest recorded account of kimchi is found in the Book of Si-Kyong (collection of Chinese poetry written between 2,600 and 3,000 years ago). There is a stanza referring to kimchi that reads: “A cucumber has grown on the banks of the fields; pickle it for worshipping ancestor.”
At the time Si-Kyong was penned, many Koreans lived in the Manchurian region. It’s believed they made kimchi to preserve the vitamins and minerals in the vegetables for bitter, cold winters. The national dish has come a long way since and is now celebrated at Korea’s Annual Kimchi Festival held mid- October in Gwangju city in South Jeolla, South Korea; featuring kimchi, kimchi-making and, other famous fermented foods of Korea.
NORTHERN REGION KIMCHI Tends to be less salty and less piquant. It also seldom uses brined seafood for seasoning and is more watery in consistency.
SOUTHERN REGION KIMCHI Uses salt, chilli peppers and myeolchijeot (brined and fermented anchovies) or saeujeot (brined and fermented shrimps). This is the kimchi the world is familiar with.
NUTRITIONAL VALUE Nutritionists agree that kimchi is one of the top global health foods, as it’s prepared by fermenting vegetables seasoned with red pepper, garlic, green onion, ginger, and other ingredients rich in Vitamins C, A, B1 and B2, beta carotene, proteins and calcium.
ANTI-SARS Health experts also report that kimchi may prevent SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and may also function as a potential guard against the Avian Bird Flu pandemic.
SPACE KIMCHI The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) signed an agreement with NASA Food Technology Commercial Space Centre to develop Space Kimchi because the still air in zero gravity affects the astronauts’ sense of smell and taste, making for weak appetites.
TRY IT HERE…
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA New Village Restaurant, Central Seoul +82 2 521 6294
JAKARTA, INDONESIA Mr. Park, Level 3 Food Court, Grand Indonesia Shopping Town +62 1 9944 1752
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA Seoul Ria, Level 2, 605-609 George Street +61 2 9269 0222
It’s a little tedious to prepare but one slurp of this spicy soup and all the hard work becomes worthwhile. The word tom means hot (boiling), and yum means sour. That’s very much the basis of this wonderful soup that is bursting with flavours and fragrance.
Characteristically hot and spicy, a huge list of ingredients is used in the broth such as lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lime juice, fish sauce and chilli. Although widely available in most Southeast Asian countries, nothing quite beats the real McCoy from Thailand with different regions producing different styles. Southern Thai versions are creamy and red due to the generous use of chilli paste, the central region is generally clear and subtle in flavour while the Northern ones are creamy but mild.
This dish is the star attraction in any good Thai restaurant around the world and has become so popular that it’s easily recreated using tom yum paste found in supermarkets.
TOM YUM MUST-TRYS
• TOM YUM KUNG most popular with tourists, made with prawns
• TOM YUM KUNG MAPHRAO ON NAM KHON prawn tomyum made with the flesh of a young coconut and a dash of coconut milk
• TOM YUM PLA clear fish soup traditionally eaten with rice; used to be the most widespread form of tom yum in the past
• TOM YUM GAAI with chicken
• TOM YUM THALE with mixed seafood like prawns, squid, clams and fish
• TOM YAM NAM KHON a modern variation, made with prawns, a little coconut milk and balanced with toasted dried chillies
• TOM YAM KHA MU made with pork knuckles, this dish requires a long and slow cooking time.
• It’s listed at # 8 on CNN Go’s “World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods” in 2011.
• While there is no concrete proof, tom yum is considered an immune-boosting food because of its spiciness as chillies contain high amounts of Vitamins C, which helps prevent common colds and the flu.
• The 1997 Financial crisis in Asia, which started in Thailand, is sometimes referred to as the ‘Tom Yum Kung Crisis’.
TRY IT HERE…
BANGKOK, THAILAND Baan Glom Gig, Ruamrudee Soi 1 +66 2254 4254
PHUKET, THAILAND Blue Elephant, Krabi Road, Phuket Town +66 76 354 355
Origin: Persia, but popular in India, mainly Hyderabad
The original biryani was first created in Iran (Persia) and was brought to the Indian subcontinent by Iranian travelers and merchants. The word biryani is derived from the Persian word beryãn, which means fried or roasted.
In India, the biryani was further developed to its current form. It is said that the best biryani in the world hails from Hyderabad in India. The Hyderabadi biryani is a fragrant and mildly spicy concoction of basmati rice, meat, yogurt, onions, spices, lemon and saffron, with coriander and fried onions as garnish. The preferred meat is lamb, goat or chicken.
What sets the Hyderabadi biryani apart from the rest is the blend of Mughlai and Andhra Pradesh spices that were used in the kitchens of the Nizam, ruler of the historic Hyderabad State, giving it a distinctive savoury flavour.
• There are 49 types of Hyderabadi biryani that were created in the Nizam’s kitchen.
• There are over 25 variants of biryani rice – Ambur Biryani, Hyderabadi Biryani, Bhatkali Biryani, Kacchi Biryani, Awadhi Biryani, Calcutta Biryani, Sindhi Biryani, Bukhara Biryani (Arabic), Memoni Biryani, Tahari Biryani, Thalasseri Biryani, Danpauk biryani (Burmese) etc.
• There is a difference between biryani, pilaf and pulao.
• Generally, it is agreed that in biryani, the meat is layered with the rice, in pulao the meat is stirred into the rice. Pilaf is the Indian version of Persian pulao.
TRY IT HERE…
• HYDERABAD, INDIA Paradise Hotel, Mahatma Gandhi Road +91 40 2784 3115
• BANGALORE, INDIA Hyderabad House, Skylark Plaza, HAL Airport Road +91 80 3251 4612/13/14
• CHENNAI, INDIA Asif & Brothers, Butt Road, St Thomas Mount +91 93 8402 2244
• KOLKATA, INDIA Arsalan, Park Street +91 33 2284 8556
Not Your Ordinary
FRIED TARANTULAS Cambodia
This crunchy, high protein snack is commonly found in the town of Skuon. Fried to a crisp, the best way to try this delicacy is by munching on the legs and working your way up – to the abdomen!
Not quite raw but raw enough. This is a boiled, partially developed duckling that is still in its shell. Locals consider it a nutritious aphrodisiac and say it tastes like warm chicken soup.
Dubbed the King of Fruits, this thorny fruit either elicits total love or utter disgust. The yellow, creamy pulp is often said to taste like heaven while smelling like a public toilet.
CHEESE Europe, Central Asia, Middle East
Cheeses are made from milk fats of cows, buffalo, goats, or sheep and produced by coagulation of the milk protein. Some cheeses have mould growing on them. Roquefort is on the ‘Top 10 of the World’s Smelliest Cheese’, and up till five years ago, was banned in countries like Australia and New Zealand. The all-round winner (as reported by BBC), goes to the most pungent Vieux Boulogne from France, made with beer in the fermentation process. Still, none beats the Casu Marzu from Sardinia, Italy – a Pecorino cheese that welcomes flies to lay their eggs in it, as maggots give added ‘body’ to the flavour!
ROCKY MOUNTAIN OYSTERS AKA PRAIRIE OYSTERS The USA, Canada
Testament to the tastiness of testicles, while called oysters, these aren’t harvested from the ocean, but from buffaloes, bulls and boars in areas where ranching is prevalent. The testicles are peeled, boiled, rolled in dough and deep-fried.