What’s the first thing you think of when you ponder Chinese and Japanese cuisine? They all go well with rice. This is because much rice comes from the Far East. Its origins are a little murky, though.

Some say rice originated in Thailand, others say Burma, but it was the Chinese who were the first to cultivate it successfully by a technique known as “flooding.” You’ve seen those iconic photos of rice paddies filled with water. The technique was developed hundreds of years ago to ward off weeds and pests. Maybe we need to consider this for our crops, it might save us from all those pesticides!

Rice became popular in Europe in the 1700s and was introduced in America at about that same time. South Carolina was the first U.S. state to grow it.  
There are a lot of strains of rice, but the two most common are the shorter grain, or Japonica, and the longer, like Indica-Basmati and Jasmine. Rice is eaten with almost every meal in Asia. It’s the focal point, with vegetables and proteins adding to the flavor.

Most of the rice eaten is polished, white rice, because of the speed with which it cooks. This works well in Chinese stir-fry, because the technique cooks food rather quickly and the quick-cooking rice will allow everything to be finished at the same time.

Indica rice is basically cooked like this:
1-Rinse it well. Use several changes of water to get rid of surface starch and begin absorption of water.
2-Mix 1 part rice to 1 ½ parts water.  Don’t boil the water, get it to a simmer. Stir and put the lid on for about 15 minutes. Don’t peek or stir!
3-Take the lid off, put a dish towel on top, put lid back on to hold it and leave it alone for another 10 minutes. The rice should be fluffy and not sticky, as the towel absorbs the excess steam.

Japonica rice works a little differently:
1-Rinse and drain and keep it in the strainer. Leave it there for about 15 minutes so water can absorb a little more.
2-Using equal parts rice and water, follow steps 2 and 3, above, to finish it off.  

In Japan, rice is popular for sushi. There is, however, an art to it and apprentice sushi chefs can spend over a year learning how to make proper sushi rice. It’s seasoned with salt, sugar and rice vinegar and it’s an integral part of sushi. There’s a lot of land in Japan that’s used to grow rice. The rest of the plants are used, as well. The stalks are used to make mats, shoes and hats.



Sake is made from rice, as is rice wine, or Mirin. It’s sweetened and used as a condiment. In Eastern China, it is drunk as a wine, but because it is similar to sherry, it is also used as an inexpensive cooking wine.

Rice vinegar is usually unseasoned and used to pickle. There are many types and degrees of colors of rice vinegar. China King Vinegar is from Eastern China and is brown, rich, sweet and similar to balsamic. This, too, is used as a condiment.

The second most important grain in Asian cuisine is the soybean. Most of the world’s soybeans come from China. Soy sauce is used in both Chinese and Japanese cooking. It’s fermented with wheat and soy. We know Kikkoman, but there are so many other kinds to play with when cooking this cuisine, especially in Chinese recipes.

There’s a thin, light sauce that is softer and more delicately flavored. This is minimally fermented and is used for fish and shellfish. A darker, “double” soy sauce brings two kinds together for a richer and more concentrated sauce, which is good for meats and hearty dishes. Then, there’s the black soy sauce. It has added molasses (and the occasional touch of MSG). Obviously, it’s a touch sweeter.

Tamari is mostly soy and was traditionally made from Miso. It has a cleaner flavor than regular soy sauce. Shiro is “white” soy sauce and is Japanese. It’s very hard to find. This has more wheat than soy and is used for sashimi.

Speaking of Miso, it’s a fermented paste and can be put away for years before being used, just like wine. The salt content varies by brand.

Who can write about Asian food and not bring up Tofu? This bean curd is Chinese and was originally made for monks to eat as a meat substitute. The softest kind of tofu is called “flower” tofu. It’s almost custard and you have to eat it with a spoon, like a dessert. Regular soft is perfect for miso soup, while the firmer tofu is used for stir-fry.

The skin of the bean curd is also used and can be filled and rolled. This is actually made from soy milk, as it forms a skin when made which is then taken off and dried. Something I’d never heard of is Thousand Layer Tofu. The Chinese take firm tofu and freeze it. The frozen water in the tofu changes the consistency, and when it’s defrosted, it forms thin layers in the cake.  

Tofu can be kept in your refrigerator for a few weeks if you change the water every day.

There was so much to be learned in this class as the regions of China and Japan differ tremendously. Because of the harsher climates in northern China, by Beijing, they eat grains instead of rice and there is a big Mongolian influence. The west is Sichuan country. The food is much more intense and spicy, with lovely, earthy mushrooms. The eastern region, by Shanghai, has more delicate and refined food. It’s the rice bowl area and by the coast, so seafood is a staple. Southern China is Cantonese. Hong Kong is here and this food is what most of the world associates with “Chinese food.”

Japan, although smaller, is also divided up into regions and varieties of cuisine. The northern islands are known for seafood and dairy cattle. They also grow wheat and eat Ramen noodles. Here, the noodles might come with a pat of butter because of all the dairy. Cuisine from Tohoku, in the south, has a Korean influence and is heavily seasoned and spicy. Tokyo is here and because it’s so metropolitan, it has a variety of flavors. Sushi comes from this area. Okinawa is in the southern region and since WWII, has had a big U.S. influence in its food.

Kansai includes Kyoto and Osaka. Kyoto’s food tends to be elaborately presented and delicately flavored, while Osaka is considered to be a “foodie” area, so the dishes are more fun and interesting. Kyushu has a large European influence from being invaded by Portugal and Spain.

This week, I was assigned another fried dish. Wait, another PORK fried dish. I think there’s a conspiracy afoot to tease the little Jewish fitness girl (who’s NOT kosher, by the way!). Oh gosh, PLEASE have a sense of humor when reading that.

Cathy’s got some more nifty facts about Asia and another wonderful recipe. Click on her blog to read it.

I made a wonderful Japanese pork cutlet. It’s easy and delicious:

Tonkatsu

Ingredients:

4 slices pork fillet, cut as for schnitzel  (thin)
4 T Japanese soy sauce
4 T mirin or dry sherry
1 clove garlic, crushed
Pinch of sansho (Japanese pepper) or ground black pepper
1 egg, beaten
1 T finely chopped spring onion
1 C panko breadcrumbs (use more if you need them)
Vegetable oil for shallow frying (go up about an inch in the pan)
Shreds of pickled ginger

Marinate the pork in mixture of soy, mirin, garlic and pepper for 30 minutes. Mix egg and spring onion together. Dip pork in egg, then in panko, pressing firmly. Chill for 1 hour or so.

Heat oil in a large, heavy frying pan and fry crumbed pork slices over medium heat until golden brown on both sides. Drain on absorbent paper or place on a rack to cool. Slice each one into about 6 pieces and assemble again in original plate. Serve on white rice with the pickled ginger as garnish. A tempura style dipping sauce can be served separately.