Whenever anyone travels to Asia, a top priority is making the most of the array of impressive and famous dishes of the continent. Whether humble street food enjoyed squatting on the sidewalk, or world famous plates at a Michelin star restaurant, everyone comes to Asia ready to feast! Let’s take a quick gander at some of the area’s most notable dishes and their fascinating histories, from local legends to cultural mandates. Time to dig in to the famous foods of Asia!
China & Hong Kong—Dim Sum, It Hits the Spot
Few Asian culinary traditions are more famous than dim sum. This traditional brunch of Southern China and Hong Kong has a longstanding history in the mighty tradition of Chinese cuisine. It’s notable not only for its fame, but for its interesting and occasionally contested history.
Dim Sum is a high calorie & flavourful brunch, which customers enjoy with endless pots of tea. The dishes are all small, ranging from shrimp dumplings to egg tarts, allowing the hungry patron to try a variety of fresh goodies, both sweet and savoury.
Dim Sum as we know it was popularised in the 20th Century, however its origin can be traced back much further. Some archaeological evidence of ancient tombs suggest it’s over a thousand years old, however most agree it was the Silk Road, tea and flour that really lead to its birth.
Tea is an ancient part of Chinese history, and was popularized for its help in digestion. Many scholars suggest that weary travellers on the Silk Road would stop at local tea houses en route, in order to relax over some tea and snacks. This tradition to ‘drink tea’ with snacks or yum cha migrated throughout the North, eventually making its way south. Other historians suggest that the introduction of wheat flour via this ancient highway was the key ingredient to the development of dim sum. Either way, when it became popular in the southern province of Guangdong , that’s when dim sum really took off!
Here, dim sum transformed into a morning staple, with carts selling steamed buns and dumplings with tea in abundance, making it a mainstay of the morning as popular as a cup of coffee in the west. The Cantonese cuisine of this region also adapted the ritual to its ingredients, using seafood in dumplings which is very common today. However, following the communist revolution in the mid 20th century, dim sum migrated even further south, making its new home in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is a dim sum paradise. Here the tradition of elaborate dim sum restaurants with carts wheeling by an array of fresh dumplings truly took form. As a colony of the United Kingdom, Hong Kong was able to preserve and perfect dim sum into the hearty and beloved brunch we know today. Any trip there without it would be greatly amiss, so be sure to make some time to try dim sum & let it ‘touch your heart’.
Vietnam—Banh Chung, Local & Ancestral Love
Vietnam has many famous fares when it comes to food, but none is as legendary or popular as the lunar New Year specialty banh chung. Glutinous rice is placed in banana leaves, with seasoned pork and green mung bean, wrapped together with bamboo into a mighty brick that’s slowly steamed for hours. This time consuming dish is everywhere come Tet holiday (the Vietnamese lunar New Year) and its history is as epic and ancient as Vietnam.
During the Hong Bang Dynasty, the 6th Hung King won a battle against the Shang Dynasty during the 17th century BC. He was elated, but exhausted and had to choose a successor from his 21 sons. In order to accomplish this, he proclaimed a competition that for succession, the future king must find the best dish. His sons had a year to prepare, and many voyaged far and wide in search of the most impressive, exotic and expensive plates. However, it was the 18th son, Lang Lieu who captured his father’s attention.
The poorest of the family, Lang Lieu stayed in the Red River Delta, to cultivate local ingredients. One night, he was visited by a fairy in his dreams, who showed him the recipe for success. He recreated the dishes and along with his wife, served banh chung and banh day to his father. Many mocked his efforts, as the least impressive; however the humble ingredients and symbolism inspired the King. Banh chung represented the earth with its square shape and the round banh day the sky. The king was enamoured with the simplicity, flavour and veneration of these dishes, and awarded Lang Lieu the crown.
To this day, banh chung is widely recognised as the dish to celebrate the new year with. It brings families together in a symbolic union of ancestral love and loyalty. If you are fortunate enough to travel through Vietnam during Tet holiday, do not hesitate to try this deliciously ancient dish!
Japan–Sushi, Folklore & Fermentation Meets Fast Food
What trip to Japan would be complete without digging into the undeniably delicious array of sushi! This dish is famous and popular east and west, but its origins and traditions lie deep in the culinary development of the Far East.
There are some rumours and folktales that describe the origins of sushi in Japan as a happy accident. An elderly woman was worried her rice may not be safe in her home, and stashed in osprey nests to keep it safe from thieves. When she retrieved it a while later, she found it had fermented with scraps of fish mixed in. She was surprised to discover it was not only tasty, but preserved the fish.
Now this wives tale may be charming, but evidence suggests this technique actually travelled to Japan from Southeast Asia, where preserving excess fish in rice was practiced as early as the 2nd century AD. Without the convenience of refrigerators, this was the best way to cure meat and fish. It travelled to Japan alongside Buddhism a few centuries later, catering to both the Buddhist diet and the abundance of fish available on the island.
This process was called nare sushi, where cured fish was stuffed with rice and aged in barrels for a year. The resulting fish was enjoyed without the rice, until the 7th century when the Japanese began to eat the rice as well. This was known as han-nare and the barrels were opened after a mere few months. Han-nare was the mainstay until several hundred years later, when vinegar was added to speed up the process. This technique became especially popular in Edo (now Tokyo) with Matsumoto Yoshiichi serving this practically instant sushi to his hungry customers in the early 17th century.
However, modern nigiri sushi can be traced back to a bit later when Hanaya Yohei opened a stall in Edo in the 1820s, placing thinly sliced fresh fish atop a finger this fermented rice. Immensely popular, this technique spread throughout Japan, especially after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 led to many Edo residents moving to other corners of the country.
This is the birth of the sushi we know and love, with the help of refrigeration! In addition, after the Second World War, vendors were encouraged to move indoors for sanitary reasons leading to the lush dining experience we now associate with sushi. Be sure to taste the freshness firsthand while in Tokyo, especially at Tsukiji morning market!
Thailand–Pad Thai, Surprisingly Politicised Noodles
Whenever you think of Thai food, one of the first dishes that pops in your mind is pad thai, the nutty, savoury noodles that are stir-fried to perfection. Many love the quick ease of nabbing a plate of these filling noodles on a day tour in Bangkok, but the dish itself is, shockingly, a modern invention created to reinforce political policy.
In 1938, Phibun Songkhram became Prime Minister of Thailand. He was one of the leaders who rose to power after a coup overthrew the absolute monarchy. At the time, Thailand was Siam, an ethnically diverse and traditional country surrounded by colonial giants. Phibun was concerned for the independence of Siam, considering its position with the British Empire to the West and the French Empire to the East, he sought to push the country to be a modern and unified force.
Phibun released the 12 cultural mandates as a decree to guarantee independence by making Siam a modern nation. He changed the country’s name to Thailand, standardised the Thai language, had individuals discard traditional dress for modern, western clothes and created a new national dish: pad thai.
It is unknown who invented the dish, but kway teow phat thai was known as Chinese rice noodle dish stir fried in Thai style. Phibun thought it was the perfect dish for the new, modern Thailand to adopt. Not only was it Thai-styled, it required the use of pans for cooking which encourage good hygienic standards for street food vendors. Despite having other concerns, Phibun put a great deal of effort in the promotion of pad thai. The Public Welfare Department distributed the recipe en mass, and gave food carts to local vendors. In addition he banned a great deal of foreign foods, encouraging the population to buy Thai.
Despite its shockingly political origins, consider the scope of work involved to make this tasty noodle dish the staple it is today. Be sure to try it on a tuk-tuk tour or while wandering through the alleys of Bangkok.
Myanmar–Lahpet Thoke, Legendary & Diplomatic
Myanmar has an array of culinary influences stemming for its many neighbouring countries, yet some dishes stand completely unique. Most notable is lahpet thoke, the pickled tea leaf salad that has a special flavour and crunch, as a delightful mix of tomato, beans, peanuts and pickled tea leaves. While the origin of the dish itself is not well known, if we look at the tea leaves themselves, we can trace it in Burmese historic folklore to one of the ancient kings of Bagan.
Tea is something special in Myanmar, often served with milk and sugar and provides a distinct flavour. Although that may be a remnant of the British colonial era, the leaves themselves have a legendary history. Lahpet, or the tea leaves particular to Northern Myanmar, was discovered by none other than King Alaungsithu, or Sithu I, of the Pagan Dynasty.
According to legend, mighty Sithu embarked on regal raft on an epic journey through the known world at the time. Whilst drifting along with his royal company, he was visited by a Nat, a revered Burmese spirit. The Nat gave him 7 seeds of lahpet, stating that it would help deepen sleep and was a gift only suitable for the greatest of Kings. Situ accepted the gift and took the seeds as far as the northern mountains of Paunglaung.
There, he saw an old man asleep by a fire. The man was completely catatonic, so much so that he had not noticed that his clothes had caught on fire! Sithu awoke him, and after putting it out, he gave the seeds to the man. He ordered him to plant them in the foothills so that he may grow tea crops. The king would collect from him once a year, returning to these majestic mountains for peace of mind and a great cup of tea.
Since those ancient times, lahpet has still been important in Burmese diplomatic relations. Lahpet Thoke has a distinguished tradition as a peace offering. A truly diplomatic dish that has been offered in truce between warring kingdoms for centuries, overall, this historic ingredient has one fascinating history. Be sure to try lahpet thoke after a day exploring the mighty plains of Bagan!
We hope you enjoyed this taste of the history behind some famous foods of Asia! If you’d like to taste some of these delights firsthand, consider a culinary journey through Japan, or a foodie adventure in Thailand and Vietnam or take a masterclass on Hong Kong cooking with Mrs Wan. Whatever your taste, Buffalo Tours has the culinary tour for you to discover the flavours of Asia!