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Three Asian Cuisines: Comparisons

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Fall Volume: 2017 Issue: 24(3) pages: 36 to 37

Often asked to compare another specific Asian cuisine with its Chinese origin; here are thoughts doing so with the Japanese and Korean cuisines.

In ancient times, China was the most prosperous of these three countries, particularly for those living south of the Great Wall. Chinese farming areas provided more and better foods compared to those in Central Asia, West Asia, Japan, or in Korea; and its culinary history is older. The Chinese had more and better fruits and vegetables than the others, and they had more and better staple foods; meats too.

Milk and milk products were not important sources of animal protein in these countries. The Japanese rulers did understand they provided better foods for their people, but that was not until the late Meiji Period (irca 1876 and beyond). Then their emperors told their people they were consuming some milk products twice every day, and they should, too.

In Japan during the Nara (710 - 794 CE ) and Heian (794 - 1185 CE) periods, there was a type of milk product called su, but that was available mostly to those in the royal court. It did not became popular until the late 19th century in Meiji times. On the Korean peninsula, royalty had milk and used some in their gruel, but common folk had little.

In Korea and in Japan, they had various kinds of wheat they ground into flour. They baked most into bread or steamed a little into buns and rolled even less into skins for their dumplings. In China, rice was the major crop in the south, steamed or boiled. Steaming was more popular when the grain (rice) was whole, less so if ground into flour. Steaming probably did originate in China grinding more common in Korea and Japan. It was also popular in Northern China because rice was less available there.

Chopsticks and bowls were used in all three places, plates were too, for staple and non-staple foods. In some regions of Northern China, they did steam their wheat, ground or not. They called these products mantou., and rrarely, baked them. Some added more water to their ground wheat and did stretch this by hand and called it la-mien,. Others pulled it with sticks and called it hsien mien.

People in these three countries used soup spoons to eat their non-staple foods and their rice until the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) when chopsticks became popular. The spoon is now the only utensil in China used for soup, and most use chopsticks for non-liquid items except in Korea where the soup spoon is often used for rice. Not so in Japan. In all three countries, rice and soup are often served in different-size bowls, non-staples served and eaten from larger ones or from flat serving plates.

Other differences by country include how they ferment many foods; and the different molds used to make their soy sauces and other soy products. They might use a different starter to ferment their soy beans for the other soy products.

China calls their most important one, which is bean curd, doufu. They also call it ‘meat from the soil.’ They can steam or press it as do those in Japan and Korea who prefer theirs more silken. All adore it and now use chopsticks to eat it and most foods.

Chopstick use began in China before the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE) and are mostly made of wood; in Japan, too. In Korea most are made of metal. Dates first used in Japan and Korea are less clear.

Some minority people including the Mongolians kept their culinary culture, culinary utensils, and oral and written languages; and they have all or some of their own holidays and customs which are less similar than any culinary and festival traditions.

Among beverage use, tea and wine were important in all three countries and still are, as are Buddhist commandments. These are still adhered to by Buddhists including how to slaughter animals. These do not apply to ordinary folk, only to monks and nuns in all three countries.

Pork is the main meat in China, beef the principal one in Korea, and fish is most traditional in Japan. Fresh water ones are common in China’s coastal regions, salted or preserved ones more common for those living further from the sea. Raw meat and raw fish did once prevail in all three countries, except for Japan, that is less true now.

The Chinese lead the way cooking all their foods before eating them. Those eaten cold were mostly cooked then cooled before eating, Other than vegetable oils, many Chinese use lard, chicken fat; and vegetable oils. The Japanese and Koreans use less fat, and a good number of Koreans use linseed oil for cooking; Chinese and Japanese rarely do.

In China, lots of foods are preserved, many dried or salted. Taoists in China lead the way in eating nutritious foods as they believe many have healing properties, and that food and medicine share similar impacts.

As to tools when preparing foods, Chinese lead the way using the fewest and simplest ones for cooking and preserving. They believe knife skills are needed and they have lots of talent when cutting their foods. This impacts their taste and texture.

When eating foods in ancient China, large families and large groups dined with males at one table or at one time, females at others. Religious folk often ate alone but near others but at their own tables. They believe seniority an important consideration, so elders ate together and rarely with young folk. These were true for Koreans and Japanese, too.

All eating and many cooking behaviors are rapidly changing. For them, they are more democratic now than they were. Food preparation, particularly in China, is where more foreign foods have entered their cuisine, though prepared Chinese style.

In Japan, there are greater changes; some include more use of oils and animal products as meat consumption has increased considerably. More and more foreign foods are also now consumed in Japan than ever before; and Korean food adaptations are between those of China and Japan.

In summary, the Chinese dietary and food preparations are the oldest and changed the least except in their large cities. Foreign foods are more popular in the large cities; and their diets have changed lots over the centuries. However, their foods are still prepared Chinese ways, but with newer to China ingredients. They have changed their preparations the least, the Japanese the most. Korean changes are between them Some say the Japanese changed the most, but we have seen no studies to substantiate this.

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