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How to Distinguish Asian Foods: Dishes and Flavours by Region

Sitting down to eat in Banana Tree, it may not cross your mind that you could be gobbling down the dishes of up to seven different countries – yet, even though the dishes complement each other so well, each region of Indochina has its own special flavours. And the rest of Asia is just as diverse – when you pick up hummus and falafels at the deli counter, you probably don’t think of it as Asian food, but it’s every bit as Asian as sushi and noodles.

So we’ve created the definitive Banana Tree guide to distinguishing the many delicious flavours of Asia like a pro – you’ll never mix up your Pho with your Paneer Momos again!

South Asia

We start our culinary journey in the region of South Asia. Most notably encompassing Afghan, Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Nepalese cuisine, South Asian cooking is distinguished by its use of strong herbs and ground spices. Known as Desi cuisine, dishes from South Asia tend to be flavoured with chili, black pepper, butter and ghee, complementing the chosen meat – whether that be lamb, goat, fish or chicken. Given that the majority of those in South Asia are Hindu, cattle’s sacred place within Hinduism means beef tends not to be included in Desi dishes. Additionally, pork is largely excluded due to its taboo status with Muslims – so take note of what kind of restaurant you’re in before placing your order, as you don’t want to cause offence!

Regardless of how tasty your South Asian meal is; it would not be complete without a side of freshly baked chapati. Kneaded by hand and cooked from the inside using steam, these flatbreads are ideal for dipping in fresh mango chutney. And make sure you round off your meal with a dessert – Kheer, a dairy based rice pudding, is a South Asian must-eat – cardamom, raisins, saffron, cashews, pistachios and almonds make a particularly tasty treat!

West Asia

Often referred to as the “Middle East”, the cuisine from this region is as diverse as its constituent countries; covering Arab, Persian, Israeli, Kurdish, Armenian, Georgian, Azerbaijani and Turkish cuisines. You can recognize West Asian cuisine from its use of olives and olive oils, pitas and flatbreads, honey, sesame seeds, dates, chickpeas and parsley. Grilled meats, tasty kebabs and herby salads such as tabbouleh are signatures of this region, as are yoghurt dressings and an abundance of vegetables. As a crossroad between Europe, East Asia and Africa, South Asia has long been a melting pot of culinary exploration. During the Persian Empire (550–330 BCE) the region was introduced to dates, nuts and figs by Arabian warriors, and spices brought back from the Orient – laying the foundation for what we know as South Asian cuisine today. So next time you’re tucking into some sweet baklava or traditional fresh mint tea, remember the historical roots of this fascinating cuisine!

Central Asia

The cuisines of Uzbek, Kazak, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Turkmen may be less common in the West, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have some great dishes on the menu. Though the use of livestock meats may be a little off putting to Western diners (mutton, beef and horsemeat are the predominant proteins), it can be surprisingly tasty (although we prefer to ride horses than to eat them!). Rice, seasoned broth, pilaf, fruits and spices add flavour to these dishes, and bread is highly regarded in Central Asia – it’s actually a social faux pas to leave any on your plate, so dig in!

East Asia

Heading east, things start looking a little more familiar – Chinese, Japanese and South Korean cooking are the most internationally famed, though North Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan and Macau also call this region their home. Being the most populous area in the world, East Asian cuisine is hard to define due to its many diverse regional cuisines and cooking techniques; China alone is home to eight main different cuisine variations thanks to varying climate, geography and history. Despite this, the consumption of rice, noodles, soy and mung beans, seafood and tea tie the region together and are prominent in each countries’ cuisines. Rice cultivation is believed to have originated from the area now known as China in the Neolithic period, and still remains the foundation of East Asian cuisine. Whether it’s sweet sticky rice, fish sushi or ice-cream mochi – you’ll be a rice-o-holic after visiting East Asia.

Southeast Asia

Heading south, we reach our final and most favourite destination – the home of Banana Tree! Southeast Asia, or Indochina, includes the popular cuisines of Thailand, Vietname, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia. This diverse and dynamic region is famous for its prolific use of fresh herbs, vegetables, citrus fruits, fish sauce and rice. Dishes are characteristically lighter than those from the neighboring regions, with an emphasis on contrasting yet complementing flavours.

With close relationships between each country in the region, it is no wonder that each share a similar love of rice. Whether this be rice noodles, rice cakes or sticky rice – the region of Southeast Asia is the prime area to grow and produce rice products. Unlike the wheat based carbohydrates of South Asian cuisine, rice is gluten-free, making Southeast Asian dishes a good option for those who are gluten intolerant. Furthermore, while our neighbours in East Asia favour the use of soy sauce in their dishes, we treasure our fish sauce – which is once again gluten-free! Additionally, the abundance of vegetables in each dish makes Southeast Asian food an ideal option for those vegetarians and vegans who do not want to compromise on flavour – unlike the meat heavy dishes found in Central Asia.

Southeast Asian cuisine is greatly influenced by its geographic location, thus there is a heavy incorporation of local spices, fruits, vegetables and fresh herbs in Indochinese dishes. However, its impossible to ignore Southeast Asia’s colonial past as it remains evident throughout its cuisine. French Indochina (c. 1887–1954) saw the incorporation of traditionally European foods into the mainstream Southeast Asian diet – the most notable dishes being Bahn Mí (a Vietnamese baguette) and Cà phê đá (a Southeast Asian form of iced coffee).

While the French preferred to drink concentrated espresso, those in the Southeast Asia developed a more drinkable version by adding condensed milk for creaminess and ice for the heat. Southeast Asian cuisine is a fantastic melting pot of flavours, textures and tastes, and at Banana Tree, we love to give that experience to all of our customers through our wide, yet authentic, menu.

So we’ve reached the end of our region by region guide to the five delicious yet distinct main cuisines of Asia. Whether you’re craving some Vietnamese Pho, Malaysian Laksa soup or some Thai fish cakes, head to Banana Tree to experience some fantastic, authentic Asian flavours – we’ll be happy to recommend you a dish for every county in the South East Asian region!