Wherever you may find yourself in this world, the window to a nation is in its food. At the very heart of every dish is the soul of its country. Surprisingly, there are some ingredients common to many of the dishes we love regardless of what latitude or longitude we find ourselves in. The lowly onion, the pungent garlic, the spicy pepper, soy sauce and a myriad of other flavors act as a palette from which all the mysteries of all worlds are revealed. This is no more apparent than in Asia. From the North in Japan to the Southern islands of Indonesia, there is a common thread that holds these lands together: their ingredients. The following quartet of cuisines is just a sneak preview to the wonders that this part of the world offers to humanity. After all, all of us recognize the sweet, the sour, the salty and the bitter on that part of our anatomy that holds what differentiates us from the animals: an understanding of flavor and its little nuances, blends of the most simple of flavors that can be so easily accepted as part of our own taste on our tongues. Perhaps, after all is said and done, we do have something in common.
If you ask any Filipino, they would say we have a sweet tooth, but culinary master Claude Tayag will tell you that our palate veers more towards the sour. Pulled apart geographically from the rest of Southeast Asia, and fronting the Pacific Ocean, the Philippines is the gateway to Asia from across the vast waters separating the continent from the West. The tropical heat necessitates the need for dishes that can keep without refrigeration, hence the creation of adobo, with the vinegar serving as preservative. They say there are about 7,100 islands in the Philippines and just as many variations of adobo. The presence of this humble dish even on the vessels of the US Navy is a testament to how this blend of cuisines from all across Asia culminates in this heady stew of either pork, chicken or beef simmered in a blend predominantly of vinegar, soy sauce, bay leaf, garlic and pepper, uniting ingredients from around the world into what truly represents a melting pot of gastronomy. The Elias restaurant levels up this national dish of the Philippines with its own take, combining the basic stew with sweet potato, leeks, goat cheese and crisp, deep fried flakes of pulled pork adobo to create a unique rendition all its own.
Thailand sits at the crossroads intersecting the different countries in Southeast Asia. If one were to look at the shape of the country, it would eerily look like the profile of the elephant and, indeed, this behemoth is a continuing fixture of the land. It’s a reflection of the quiet power of Thai cuisine, from the curries, to the peppers, to its preoccupation with rice, and the aromas of keffir lime and sweet basil. However one might view these as an import into the cuisine, Thai food remains in possession of the quiet power of the elephant by including the passionate presence of the chili in most dishes. The pad thai is the one dish that typifies this quiet power. Although ever-present in the street carts, from Bangkok to Hua Hin and Phuket, it wasn’t until the 2nd World War that this humble dish gained national prominence as the dish that personifies Thai culture. The Mango Tree adds its own twist to the dish but manages to preserve all that pad thai typifi.es. From the tamarind to the prik nam pla to the peanuts encased in a web-shaped nest of scrambled eggs not much different than the khai jiao of Thailand’s street food meccas, it’s pure culinary bliss.
With each new destination, we are assaulted by the scents and flavors of humanity that take inspiration from the world around them. The influences of other cultures impose themselves upon us and before we even realize what’s going on, evolution triumphs and makes what was once strange into the familiar. As one of the world’s oldest civilizations, it was inevitable that Chinese food finds its way into every home in more ways than one. Who wouldn’t know what soy sauce is, if not for the Chinese. Be it a dip, marinade, for coloring or simply to get a whiff of the fermented soy bean, it reveals flavors more than any amount of salt can ever do. Inevitably and as the world turns, tastes evolve as does the foundation of the dishes they serve. The sweet version of soy sauce is such an evolution and serves as a dip to the ubiquitous Hainanese chicken. Coupled with ginger and garlic oil sauce and chopped fresh chilies, the delicate flavor of chicken is highlighted rather than masked in this creation that speaks of the heart of Singapore. Wee Nam Kee’s success in the Land of the Merlion is centered on this humble dish of poached chicken.
More than KPop, Korea has taken the world by storm, not only because of its unique culture that blends the best of China and Japan, but also because of being on the cutting edge of technology. Its claim to fame is being the most wired country in the world. Food-wise, Korean cuisine must necessarily reflect the complexity of its palate. A multitude of side dishes is typical in any dining experience. It is a devilishly cold country from North to South, and the fiery kimchi is foremost among the items in the cuisine that keep the body temperature in check. From cabbage, to radish, to leafy spinach and the sweetened dried fish with sesame seeds, kimchi typifies the bulk of the Korean diet. Necessarily, the typical main course of this cuisine has to respond to this cold weather as well, and there’s really nothing quite as warming to the body as bulgogi in all its many forms. The traditional method is to gather around a hearth and to grill all manner of cured and marinated meat and seafood while munching down on fresh vegetables or the proverbial kimchi as an accompaniment. Everything is then washed down with some soju or hot tea, and you have your typical Korean meal. Bulgogi Brothers elevates this tradition into the 21st century with modern cooking implements in surroundings that remind every Korean of home, and gives the rest of us a sneak peek of authenticity at its finest.
Vietnamese food has always been associated with a sort of freshness born of the desire to touch the five tastes critical to full gustatory appreciation: salty, spicy, sour, bitter and sweet. No doubt, the Vietnamese took this philosophy along with them as they lent their influence to the cooking habits of the rest of the Southeast Asian region. Wandering the rain forests would necessitate the need to be familiar with what is fresh and filled with the flavors familiar to the palate, hence the Vietnamese’s reputation as having one of the freshest cuisines in the world. It is all too common to sense a hint of newly picked basil, parsley and cilantro with every bite of a Vietnamese dish. Accompany this with a rich tasty broth, and just a few paper thin slices of beef that instantly cook as it hits the steaming broth, and you have the quintessential representation of this penchant for freshness, pho. The fresh rice noodles hold up well as they sit in a rich broth made from the bones and marrow of the beef and other such tasty morsels. The combination of noodles, rare beef, scallions, peppers, fresh basil and cilantro, with a dash of fi sh sauce and chili paste, awakens the senses and typifies the five tastes that form the foundation of Vietnamese cuisine. Catch the best representation of this fresh pentatonic cuisine at Pho Bac in Glorietta. With a chef that barely speaks English, it’s a guarantee of authenticity.
Xiao Long Bao
Of the major cuisines across the length and breadth of China, Shanghainese cuisine would have to rank as the youngest. Though highly cosmopolitan, Shanghai always manages to maintain its unique stature With the world converging in this city, it has to necessarily offer a cuisine that will find acceptance among the different resident cultures while retaining its Chinese core. Shanghai cuisine traces its history back to more than 400 years to the Song Dynasty, and as cultures meld into its city, it evolved into two distinct types: one that typifies the complexity of flavors requiring multiple processes of preparation but strives to keep the original flavors of the ingredients. As an evolved cuisine, it takes influences from the surrounding areas and adapts them to local conditions. The snacks are an entirely different story altogether. Although this issue is open to discussion, xiao long bao is one of the most iconic of Shanghai snacks. It is light, made from the freshest ingredients, and dipped in a vinegar-laced sauce so typically Shanghainese. The dumpling itself is a sealed treasure and eaten on a spoon where the slightest pinch releases the steaming broth trapped within the dumpling. Modern Shanghai at the Mall of Asia has elevated this cuisine to an art form and can claim to have the authentic xiao long bao of Shanghai.
Japanese cuisine has a familiar ring to it, with the introduction of some of the more popular and trendy dishes. Although many of its signature selections, such as tempura, was introduced by the Portuguese into the Land of the Rising Sun, it certainly has taken on a personality of its own. In a land of stark contrasts, courtesy is a national pastime, but we also find the cold-hearted code of Bushido whose tenets would shame the Cosa Nostra. By far, its most famous contribution to the growth of civilization and good taste would have to be sushi. Common to the country as far back as the Edo period particularly in Tokyo, it would have to qualify as the world’s first fastfood. Served cold and laced with the fiery green radish, wasabi, it was relatively unknown to the Western world until the 19th century, but has now taken the world by storm and is easily Japan’s contribution to today’s modern taste. The Red Kimono at the Fort takes this legacy several steps forward, serving the traditional sushis, but with some of its creations drawing on the other cuisines of the world.