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Food lovers are like sports enthusiasts when it comes to entering into zany arguments triggered by the discussion of trivial matters. Make a list of the best type of vegetable, fruit, meat, sauce or make a suggestion regarding the best way to cook lamb or fish, and without a doubt an argument ensues as a result of the provocation. A common starting point pertains to the existence of a regional identifier, and it begins with a question like: is there an East Asian food? Food lovers congregate on one side of the argument due to a sense of pride, while the rest may support the opposite side of the debate for the purpose of gastronomic accuracy. If assumptions are made and accepted, and if specific parameters are acknowledged to form some sort of metric, it is possible to answer the query in the affirmative.
A quick review of geo-political information concerning East Asia seemed to indicate a negative answer to the aforementioned question regarding the existence of East Asian food. The counter-argument was considered after weighing the implications of the statement that says the East Asian region is comprised of certain key players including a few Russian territories. This assertion is true when the inclusion is made on the basis of geopolitics and trade concerns. When viewed from this perspective, it is not possible to make the conclusion that a certain type of food clearly represented the countries listed under this grouping. However, when the question is viewed from a cultural perspective, one can make the argument that it limits the selection to include only the following nations: China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam. Thus, it is possible to develop an argument framework that supports the assertion made earlier.
The Three Factors
The existence of an East Asian food type must create a tangible effect. At the same time, it is made possible by the presence of certain factors. Finally, it has to have a clear identification so that it is not confused with other types of food that are available in the market. In this regard, it is prudent to identify three factors that also form part of a measuring mechanism that helps isolate, identify, and verify the existence of a so-called East Asian food. These factors are based on a high level of desire for the said food, the geographical aspect of growing and preparing the food, and the unique cultural signature associated with the said food product.
The first factor is craving. Craving is the inevitable and tangible effect of the existence of a specific group of food products. Craving is the first distinguishing mark. In other words, people crave for this type of food because they are looking for a distinct taste that is brought about by a certain type of cooking technique or as the end result of a combination of several ingredients. For example, kimchi is fermented by a microbe labeled as lactic acid bacteria.1
A group of individuals craving for a certain type of food highlights the failure of substitutes to satisfy a specific gastronomic need. For example, it is possible to dine in a European restaurant that serves octopus, whale, goby, shark, blowfish, monkfish, stingray, and herring hoe. However, the spices and other ingredients used are significantly different from the Japanese or the Taiwanese way of cooking. It is possible to consume blowfish in other parts of the world, but the chefs do not have the skill to cut the blowfish’s meat to paper thin strips.2 Therefore, the craving deepens until a similar substitute becomes available.
The craving for East Asian food becomes a reality not only because of the difference in the recipe that chefs use, such as, the type of ingredients utilized and the cooking techniques deployed. This food type is also the result of geographical differences. In other words, the craving is the end result of scarcity, due to the inability to grow the same fruit or crop. Diane Jacob exemplified this type of craving when she discovered that Canada’s climate made it impossible for farmers to cultivate her favorite Asian mangoes.3
The geographical factor creates a unique flavor not only in limiting the availability of the fruit, vegetable or seafood in a particular area, but also as a result of social and historical forces that help develop a particular way of life. For example, the sticky white rice, a staple food in Asia is made available through the traditional way of food preparation, which is the boiling of rice until a significant amount of the liquid water evaporates after using a combination of boiling and simmering cooking methods. Europeans may cook imported Asian rice using a different approach, but after an overview of Asian history, it becomes clear that the sticky white rice cooking technique is not just the byproduct of preference but also as the result of figuring out the most cost-efficient way of transforming the cereal into a sumptuous fare.
The proof of the existence of the so-called East Asia food is in the presence of cultural identifiers. In other words, the recipe or the food product is associated with a certain ethnic group. It is impossible to dissociate Kimchi with Korean culture. It is impossible to talk about sushi chefs and completely cut-off its Japanese origin.4 When sharp knives produce exquisite carving made from the delicate parts of a frozen tuna fish, the camera need not zoom out to reveal a Japanese expert behind the action.
Kimchi and sushi became cultural identifiers as it became impossible to characterize Japanese and Korean culture without the use of certain food products. The best example is the joint space venture between South Korea and Russia that made headlines not only because of the scientific implications of the journey but also as the result of the need to create a kimchi product that is safe for space travel.5 It is no longer possible to deny the East Asian food label after food companies and space agencies spent millions of dollars developing space kimchi.6
The proof of the existence of the so-called East Asian food is in the tangible manifestations characterized by cravings and cultural identifiers. The craving is affected by geographical limitations that prohibits the availability of ingredients or encourages the development of food preparation techniques. The distinct taste, aroma, and texture is also brought about by socio-economic factors that popularized the use of certain flavors or the preservation of a food product. It is hard to explain the evolution of kimchi without considering the need for a cheap and yet effective way to preserve seasonal fruits and vegetables. Finally, cultural identifiers are like distinguishing marks that made it impossible to dissociate certain food types with a specific ethnic group. A good example is Japanese sushi and Korean kimchi.
Bestor, Theodore. Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.
Jacob, Diane. “The Meaning of Mangoes.” Web.
Ku, Robert. Dubious Gastronomy: The Cultural Politics of Eating Asian in the USA. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014.
Sang-Hun, Choe. “Kimchi Goes to Space, Along with First Korean Astronaut.” The New York Times, February 22, 2008.
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- Robert Ku, Dubious Gastronomy: The Cultural Politics of Eating Asian in the USA (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014), 95.
- Theodore Bestor, Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 2.
- Diane Jacob, “The Meaning of Mangoes,” Web.
- Choe Sang-Hun, “Kimchi Goes to Space, Along with First Korean Astronaut,” The New York Times, February 22, 2008, 1.