Pacific Rim Cusines – Overview

Cooking – The Oldest Art

Chinese Tang Dynasty art from Silk Road

Chinese Men in Foreign Dress
Tang Dynasty Figures from the Gobi Desert

Our focus is the food and cooking of the Pacific Rim, but it is also a story of human history. As Brillat-Savarin said, “Cooking is the most ancient of the arts, for Adam was born hungry.”

With such a wealth of culinary styles, ingredients, cooking methods and national ways, how can we make some kind of order out of this ocean of recipes? It’s a good idea to create a kind of grid or structure to group the major national cuisines that we will feature in this Site.

The cuisines of the Pacific Rim may be grouped several ways.  Many people outside the region or even living in the region have no structural viewpoint or maybe not a very logical one way of doing this.

There is no single unifying theme common to all the cooking styles of the Rim. The Pacific Rim is home to many cultures speaking unrelated languages.  It is also home to a number of cultures that have grown up in relative isolation, at least in the earliest times, resulting in several major different life styles and cuisines.

Some observers – like the linguist and Asian cooking fan James McCawley – have tried to group the cuisines of the region according to the major starch used in the cuisine.  Another way is by the major salty or savory food used.  Still another would be preferred cooking methods.

Chinese Tang Dynasty ceramics from Silk Road

Tang Dynasty Camel,
From the Oases, 8th Century

Or again, you might group them by the major tools used to eat food, including the human hand.  All of these may be helpful in some way, but may not be enough to sort out the cooking styles in a logical way.

Societies of the Species: If we accept that cuisine is civilization or at least linked to a particular civilization, then maybe one way to start would be with a broad classification of civilizations.

One such scheme is that of British historian Arnold Toynbee in his Study of History. Toynbee tries to classify the major broad historic trends in human history and identify the main cultures of the world, which he called the “Societies of the Species.”

China – The Oldest Civilization: Thus there is a very broad area of Asia which is closely tied to Chinese culture, with its origins in the Yellow River in ancient times.As Pearl Buck said, “They are the oldest civilized people on earth.”

Toynbee calls this the Sinic Group, and includes Japan and Korea.  We will however make separate categories for China, Japan and Korea, reflecting their considerable degree of independent development, especially in cuisines.

India – A State of Mind: Toynbee identified another major Asian civilization, which he called Indic, with its origins in the Indus River, also in the distant past. The Indic world includes the present day country of India plus Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sir Lanka, Nepal and the other Himalayan states.

We include all these other countries in the Indic group.  As Ruth Prawer Jhabvala said, “In a way, [India] is not so much a country as an experience,.” and that broad historical spread of land is what we have in mind in this group.

Southeast Asia and the Island Empires – Structural Unity: The peninsulas of Southeast Asia and the island groups of the Philippines and Indonesia should be considered as a whole.  As geographer Dudley Stamp says, the island groups are connected geologically with the rest of Southeast Asia and also have similarities of climate and cultural ties.

Buddha Meditating
India 12th century

Cultural Crossroads: Southeast Asia is a region where the Sinic and Indic civilizations met, sometimes merged, and borrowed from each other.  The term Indo-China describes this accurately.  These are elements of both major civilizations in the cultures of the various Southeast Asian nations.  There are many cross-cultural borrowings, loan words, recipes and religious cross overs.

In this site we will use Toynbee’s basic plan with some modifications. His Sinic group includes Japan and Korea.  We will consider Japan and Korea to be separate major cuisines in their own right.

Some of the nations of Southeast Asia speak languages of the Sino-Tibetan group and in the past were part of the Chinese political sphere. However we are putting them all in the Southeast Asia group, based on their past in the crossroads between the Sinic and Indic worlds.

Additional Islands: For convenience, under Southeast Asia we include a subgroup which we call The Islands – this includes Hawaii.

The Silk Road – East-West Corridor: For much of history, the route known as the Silk Road was the main highway between East and West, a “ceaselessly flowing stream,” in the words of Frances Wood, over which people, things and ideas moved in both directions. So we added an additional category, The Silk Road.This includes cuisines of the Pacific Rim along the old Silk Road, along which so many things and ideas flowed. We include some of the Central Asian cuisines in this group, but we cut off the category as it approaches the Middle East, as outside our focus.

The Big Picture: So here are our groups:

  • China
  • Japan
  • Korea
  • Southeast Asia and the Island
  • The Silk Road

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