The Food. It is a completely cliche and overused topic, yet it needs to be discussed all the same; I can no longer avoid it.
As far as I am concerned, in these lands where supermarkets do not offer instant access to the agricultural riches of the world, food is the heart of culture.
It is, literally, the sustaining force of the people who propagate said culture; mainly the poor and working classes. It allows them to live and in many cases it provides them their livelihood. Whether in the form of small food-carts or restaurants or farms - food is one of the few things everyone needs.
Food is probably the only truly enduring form of culture left. In Indonesia, I spoke to an old man who told me that many young Indonesians couldn’t speak the national language because they had no use for it; the world in their xbox consoles was white, and so was wealth and power and the modern age.
Food is a perfect textbook: You can trace the lineage of the traditional food to the habits, history, and hardships of the people who serve it to you — this in itself is fascinating — but all discussion aside Asian food is simply delicious.
An example: The Indonesian archipelago has given birth to a brilliant array of dishes. Imagine taking a single landmass, infusing it with a single culture, and then breaking that landmass into six thousand pieces (there are roughly 6,000 populated islands in Indonesia) and letting global trade routes, hundreds of ethnic groups, and time do its work. In each region, the flavours, preparations and style influences range from Middle-eastern to Chinese, Indian, Polynesia, and even Spanish and Portuguese — yet all with a heavily curried, spicy, raw, and volcanic feel that is distinctly Indonesian.
Or Vietnam — the vast differences in topography between the North and the South, as well as the endless coastline results in an equally endless variety of dishes that are made from whatever ingredients are topographically available. Peppery in the North, spicy in the central regions and vibrant in the South, Vietnamese cuisine is unified by a great common reliance on herbs and fresh vegetables. Like its cities, food in Vietnam bears the marks of thousands of years of Chinese and French imperialism — from fish balls to baguettes. The small, frequent meals and ubiquitous food carts, food stalls, food bicycles (no, I’m not joking), and sidewalk vendors bespeak a society in which eating is more a way of life than it is a necessary labour.
In Singapore, giant “hawker centres” (government-designated food-courts) tell of a nation that is, quite literally, obsessed with food — with original dishes from every single country in Asia being prepared alongside unique Singaporean variants and hybrids and traditional Malaysian cuisine. In its cavernous stall-lined buildings, wealthy socialites and seven-figure business magnates dine delightedly alongside the poor working class. It is totally overwhelming and totally empowering. You will not stay thin for long — I highly suggest you go there.
If you needed any more persuasion to my point, the great food writer Jean Brillat-Savarin famously wrote: “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
If that's the case I may have an identity crisis on my hands.
I’ll try to write more about a few dishes from both countries that I’ve come to love over the next few weeks.