Outside of Asia, many of us have a limited view of the region’s culinary riches. However this is a continent home to 100,000 traditional rice varieties, fermented beverages, pungent forest-grown spices and thousands of types of tea; not to mention a vast range of national specialties such as Korean kimchi and Japanese miso. Visitors at AsiO Gusto, taking place this week in South Korea, are getting the chance to taste some of these traditions in the international market, where delegates from over 40 countries have come to showcase their gastronomic treasures. Here’s an appetizer of ten…
Milk balls – Kazakhstan
Across Central Asia, kurt takes many forms. Essentially a cheese made from cow’s milk curd that is shaped and left to dry, it can be molded into strips, balls or chunks. In Kazakhstan it is rolled into little balls and can be salted, sweetened or left plain, explained Aida Baimakova from the Slow Food Almaty Convivium. “We normally eat them as a snack. Our famers used to take them for long days in the field: The plain ones take away thirst.”
Dragon boat dumplings – China
At AsiO Gusto the ZongZi – a pyramid shaped dumpling of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves and soaked overnight to cook – was the star of the day; showcased to passing marketgoers and the theme of a Taste Workshop. They are traditionally made for the Dragon Boat festival which falls on the eighth day of the lunar calendar. ZongZi varies across China, eaten saltier in the south and with beans and sugar in the north.
Candlenut – Malaysia
Maybe you don’t want to bite this one: Although it can easily masquerade as an innocent macadamia nut, if left uncooked it is poisonous. Ground up and cooked, however, it becomes a staple in the Malaysian kitchen, mixed into a paste with chili or used to thicken sauces. Due to its waxy texture, the nut can actually be lit, explained Nazlina Hussin from the Slow Food Penang Convivium, hence its telltale name.
Yak cheese – Tibet
Nomadic herders in Tibet’s Golok Prefecture have long relied on the local yak breed which supplies them with meat and milk for food, wool for canvas, and dung for fuel. Since fresh products cannot easily be distributed, with the nearest markets a long ride away, Tibetan cheesemakers have begun to produce a range of cheeses from the milk, with the help of the Slow Food’s Presidium project, in order to provide a viable income for the herders.
Grasshopper garum – Denmark
You heard us. Not exactly a traditional Asian dish but an innovation brought by Ben Reade as one of the Nordic Food Lab’s recent experiments. Grasshoppers replace soybeans in a soy sauce-inspired recipe and are left to ferment six months, creating a pungent dipping sauce with a rich, meaty, umami flavor.
60 varieties of mulberry – Tajikistan
The Pamir region of Tajikistan is home to more than 60 different varieties of mulberry. Perfectly adapted to the difficult mountain environment, they are the result of centuries of natural selection and adaptation. The berries can be eaten raw or dried, whole or ground, made into jams, or used as a sweetener in drinks and desserts. Producers in the Pamir Mulberry Presidium gather, dry and preserve the berries. Here at AsiO Gusto, visitors can taste the dried fruits made into bars mixed with almonds, apricot or figs.
Kering tempeh – Indonesia
This crunchy tempeh is made with potato, peanut, soybean, chili and coconut-palm sugar, and is eaten as a snack or with rice. The tempeh was used to showcase one of the many uses of coconut-palm sugar that, as delegate Dian Niaga informed us, when produced organically on a small-scale, is a much better choice than cane sugar. “It has a lower glycemic index so is better for your health. In cold areas we drink this in the mountains, mixed with hot water, like tea.”
Radish cake – Taiwan
For the lunar new year in Taiwan, many families prepare this traditional dish: a paddy made with rice, a large white radish and the addition of either dried shrimp or meat. Find our more about Taiwan at AsiO Gusto.
Variety, the spice of rice – Sri Lanka
Thilak Kariyawasam brought ten of the 80-some varieties of indigenous rice grown by the producers he is representing. “Mawee is a rice that grows very tall so can survive in areas that are prone to floods, whereas Pokkali grows well in saline environments and is becoming more common due to climate change and resulting salination,” he explained, demonstrating the importance of crop diversity not just for the variety of flavors on our plate, but also for the food security of the communities that rely on them.
The healing potion – New Zealand
When food becomes medicine. Apple cider vinegar can do more than add zest to vinaigrette. It can also be used to treat what ails you, from ear diseases to eye infections, skin disorders to problems with digestion.
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