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The Dietary Culture of Asia

Staple Foods

In the western areas of Asia, the representative food can be seen as bread, whereas in the eastern regions of the continent, rice would occupy this position. This is true to the extent that in Japanese, the term "eating rice" is synonymous with "having a meal." Let's look for a moment at these staple foods and the methods of preparing them.

First, speaking broadly, in western India and farther west, wheat is an important foodstuff, and it is all ground to flour and baked or otherwise cooked. It is used to make bread or nan, the large flat or bowl-shaped bread of western Asia, and in central and northwestern India, wheat flour is baked unleavened into chapati. In contrast, in all of Asia to the east of eastern India, the staple food becomes rice, with the whole grains usually boiled or streamed for eating without being ground into flour.

Rice and wheat are thus representative staples of East and West Asia, but the continent also includes peoples who find their staple foods still elsewhere. The varieties of the staple foods of these various ethnic groups are closely linked to the environments in which they live and their own histories. Here, in order to give some thought to the traditional dietary cultures of Asia, let us imagine a map of Asian staple foods as they stood in the 15th century.

On this map, Mongolia to the north and Central Asia are blank because in these areas there was no active agriculture, it being limited to small-scale farming in the oases, and these regions were inhabited by pastoral nomads. For these nomadic peoples, the milk and meat of their livestock were important foods, and they had only such grains as they could procure through trade with the farming peoples to the south.

In the deserts running from southern Iran to the Arabian Peninsula, dates were cultivated in the oases, and the dried dates were an important source of nourishment for those engaging in animal husbandry.

Wheat and barley spread northeast from the ancient seats of West Asian civilization, and a variety of barley suited to cold climates (processed into the parched barley flour called tsampa) also became a staple food in the highlands of Tibet. There barley held sway, while to the east in North China wheat was again the staple diet, where it was made into a kind of steamed bread called mantou or thick wheat noodles.

Various millets--sorghum, German millet, proso millet and the like--were introduced into East Asia from ancient India, long ago passing through the northern mountains of Southeast Asia and on eastward, eventually reaching North China and Manchuria. The ancient Chinese culture that grew up along the Yellow River of North China relied heavily on German millet as its staple. This ancient millet-eating region, however, was later overtaken by the development of cultures whose staple foods were wheat, barley, and rice, and at present, millet remains the sole staple of northern Korea. In India, millet is normally ground and baked as chapati. In North China and Manchuria, it is normally ground, formed into balls, and steamed for consumption, or else the whole grains are boiled into a gruel and eaten. In Southeast Asia, the crops of longest standing are taro, yams, bananas, and others which are not planted as seeds but which are cultivated through transplanting. These, however, were displaced to a major extent by rice and other grains which appeared later, until today the grain-cultivating cultures have taken root in Asia to the extent that the above form the staple diet only in eastern Indonesia and on the islands that dot Bashi Strait between Taiwan and the Philippines. They are still important crops on the islands of Oceania where grain cultivation did not penetrate earlier dietary patterns.

One point that must be made concerning animal proteins deals with the use of milk of domestic animals. In Mongolia in northern Asia, Central Asia, and from India westward, milk from a variety of domestic livestock is made into yoghurt, butter, cheese and other dairy foods, which serve as an important source of nourishment. China, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia, however, traditionally have not used milk this way. Instead, these non-milk areas developed a variety of fermented foods made from soy beans--for example soy sauce and soy bean paste--and rely heavily on these as sources of vegetable protein in their daily lives.

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