What Is Oriental Cuisine?

What Is Oriental Cuisine? (Image: GMVozd/E+/GettyImages)

A generation ago, when someone had a craving for Oriental food, that usually meant moo goo gai pan, sweet and sour chicken or other famous Americanized Chinese food. Today, uttering the phrase "Oriental food" provokes curious head turns and could-have-heard-a-pin-drop silence for using the outdated, somewhat-offensive term. It's been replaced almost entirely by the phrase "Asian food," not to be confused with "Asian fusion" or "pan-Asian" cuisines.

Defining Oriental Cuisine

When asked, most Americans would define Oriental food as dishes from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand because these are the Asian foods with which they're most familiar. Technically, however, Oriental dishes would be those from the Orient: The area of East Asia that includes China, Japan, North and South Korea, Taiwan, Tibet and Mongolia.

The word "Oriental" has become offensive because it was frequently used pejoratively to denigrate Asian people, both because they looked different and because they were often in subservient roles at that time. Still, not everyone shuns the word. No one bats an eye when Oriental rugs are discussed, and many restaurants have retained the word in their names.

Differentiating Asian and Oriental Food

When discussing food, Oriental is out and Asian is in, but are they the same cuisines? Asia is a huge continent including not only the countries of the Orient, or East Asia, but also countries of the other regions of Asia. Although they share a fondness for rice, garlic, ginger, soy, sesame seeds, onion and tofu, each region also has some major culinary differences. For example:

East Asia

  • China, Japan, North and South Korea, Taiwan, Tibet, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Macau
  • Rice, long grain in China and short grain in Japan and Korea
  • Also uses soybeans, noodles and seafood

Southeast Asia

  • Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia
  • Aromatic dishes, often with citrus flavors, basil, coriander, lemongrass and tamarind
  • Jasmine rice from Thailand
  • Fish sauce sometimes replaces soy sauce

South Asia

  • Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka
  • Aromatic basmati rice, especially in India, curries of yogurt and coconut milk, ghee, chicken, mutton and fish
  • Beef and pork mostly banned due to religion

West Asia (the Middle East)

  • Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar
  • Not usually considered Oriental or Asian food because it is substantially different
  • Olive oil or butter, olives, chickpeas, mint, dates, sesame seeds
  • Pita and other breads eaten at every meal
  • Meat is usually lamb (baby sheep, more tender) or mutton (older sheep)

Central Asia

  • Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan
  • It's not uncommon to find dishes that borrow flavors and ingredients from East and West Asia

North Asia (Russia)

  • Not one of the five regions of Asia but instead is Russia
  • Its proximity to Asia can influence Asian dishes

Understanding Asian Fusion and Pan-Asian

Fusion cuisine is food that blends ideas from two or more regions. The most popular and well known is Asian fusion. Though some describe it as a fad, Asian fusion has existed at least since the 1970s, and combining dishes from different cultures has occurred for centuries, once explorers began traveling from one part of the world to another. Asian fusion is a style that combines popular dishes, ingredients and cooking methods from different regions of Asia or from Asia and non-Asian cultures.

Pan-Asian means "all of Asia" and is an ideology that attempts to unite all Asians. It shows up most often in cuisine as pan-Asian food and restaurants that are self-described as pan-Asian. This means they have a variety of dishes on their menu that are from different regions and culinary types. So, at a pan-Asian restaurant, you would choose traditional dishes from China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and other Asian countries. For example, a pan-Asian restaurant's menu might include:

  • Mu-shu pork and egg rolls from China
  • Teriyaki salmon and sushi rice from Japan
  • Pad Thai and lemongrass soup from Thailand
  • Pho ga (chicken noodle soup) and lettuce wraps from Vietnam

At a pan-Asian restaurant, the chef isn't mixing up the dishes to create new flavors. At an Asian fusion restaurant, you might find kimchi fries (combining Korean and American) and Thai tacos (combining Thai and Mexican). At a pan-Asian establishment, the chef wouldn't dream of altering the dishes. Also, you're not likely to find the word "Oriental" anywhere on either menu.

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