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The Dietary Culture of Asia

Three Main Dietary Cultures of Asia

The various peoples of Asia each developed their own ethnic cuisine through the historical interaction of environment and culture. Still, the major civilizations that have appeared in Asia have each exerted an influence on the dietary lives of people of the continent.

Beginning from the west, the three main civilizations would be Persian-Arabian, Indian, and Chinese.

Historically, the food structure of Persian-Arabian civilization began with cooking techniques innovated in ancient Persia and carried forward by Persia during the Sassan Dynasty. With the coming of Islam, to these were added the dietary customs of the Arabs, and through the growth of the Turkish Empire, Turkish methods of cooking were also incorporated in the culinary tradition. In the areas covered by this dietary civilization, nan became widespread, but on special occasions or among the upper classes, the rice dish called pilau was also frequently served. The most important meat was mutton, and a representative food in this region would be the kebab, deriving from Turkish cooking. Another feature is the plentiful use of hot peppers, black pepper, cloves, and other strong spices. Since this is also an Islamic region, the consumption of pork is of course forbidden and other Islamic dietary regulations rule the inhabitants' eating habits. With the spread of Arab culture to North Africa, the cooking practices of Persian-Arabian civilization also advanced into this area, and at the same time, the expansion of the Turkish Empire carried its influence as far as the Balkan Peninsula, the shores of the Black Sea, and Greece.

One characteristic of cooking in Indian civilization has been the daily use of curry in meals. Here, too, through the influence of the Hindu religion, cows are used only for their milk and not for meat. A butter oil called ghee is frequently used in cooking. In addition to rice, chapati made from wheat or barley are also a staple part of the diet, and beans also play an important role in meals.

In Chinese civilization, pork is frequently used, but traditionally the Chinese have not used the milk of their domestic animals. The Chinese also developed the fermented soy bean preparation jiang, primarily in the form of paste or liquid, as a ready-made seasoning. Fats and oils are frequently employed in cooking, and the use of dried and preserved foodstuffs is an other characteristic of Chinese cuisine. The foods, spices, and seasonings go beyond being mere foodstuffs; they are of great importance in cooking based on their classification as medicines for long life. As mentioned earlier, the use of chopsticks and small, individual bowls is also a characteristic of the Chinese cultural sphere.

In Southeast Asia, which has been influenced historically by both Chinese and Indian civilizations, both influences are evident today--the Indian in the curried dishes and the Chinese in the use of a variety of jiang foods and noodles in Southeast Asian cooking.

The arid region stretching from Central Asia to the Caspian sea has been a crossroads not only of culture but of cooking as well. In the oases from Mongolia to Sinkiang, Chinese cooking has made its mark, and Indian cuisine has penetrated to the northwest to reach Pakistan and then Afghanistan, where it has met and intermingled with the foods and methods of preparation of Persian-Arabian culture.

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