A teacher and writer, Kim Jane Saunders is a graduate of international politics and history, and holds a master's degree in education. She has lived in Hong Kong and Indonesia, and has traveled extensively throughout East and Southeast Asia. Currently living in Singapore, Kim acts as lecturer and consultant on issues relating to contemporary Asian culture.
The Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan can seem as though they’re worlds apart from each other. Filipinos are the absolute friendliest people around, Taiwan has a hidden wild side, and Japan is home to the metropolitan city of Tokyo. But along with their Southeast Asian geography, these subtropical isles have another thing in common—food.
Each country has been influenced by foreign traders and migrants who brought exotic ingredients with them as they traveled, including condiments like soy sauce, ginger, chili, garlic, and fish sauce. Let’s dive a little deeper and see what else brings these regions together.
Voted the number two hot spot for foodies in a 2015 CNN poll, the Philippine culture is sometimes described as, “300 years in a convent, and 50 years of Hollywood.” Before Hollywood came, the indigenous people were hunter-gatherers and foraged for natural ingredients from their environment—animals included. Lechon is a spit-roasted suckling pig, chicheron is a crispy pork crackling snack, and both have their roots in hunter-gatherer cooking. The Chinese traders brought over pansit, or noodles, lumpia, or filled-pancake rolls, and sinigang, a sour pork and vegetable brother flavoured with tamarind. When the Spanish arrived with Magellan in 1521, they brought chili, olive oil, paprika, saffron, ham, sausage, and cheese.
Today, one of the top ten national dishes is one-pot pork, or chicken adobo. Every Filipino knows how to make it! Also popular are dishes such as kinilaw, raw fish marinated in vinegar, ginger, onions, and garlic; arroz caldo, a chicken rice porridge, similar to Chinese congee; and certainly leche, a crème caramel dessert that is Spanish in origin.
The Paleolithic Aboriginal people of Taiwan hunted for game and fish and ate the indigenous sweet potato, or taro. During the late 17th century, Chinese settlers from the Fujian province migrated to Taiwan; in the mid-19th century, a major exodus brought many more Chinese settlers to the island, bringing with them more southern Chinese cuisine, including stews and soups. The use of salted black beans pre-date soy sauce and sesame oil, as well as imported items such as chili, ginger, coriander, and basil.
Today, Taiwanese cuisine is characterized by a very individual interpretation of southern Chinese cuisine. Traditionally, beef dishes were rare as most of the population was Buddhist; pork, poultry, and seafood, however, remain popular. Other popular street dishes include xia ochi, savory snacks like Hong Kong’s Cantonese dim sum, and oyster omelettes. (By the way, that 2015 CNN poll I mentioned? Taiwan was voted number one.)
Though Japan has four main islands—Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku—the indigenous people of the country are the Ainu, who were traditionally hunter-gatherers and fishermen living in Hokkaido in the north. China left a strong influence on Japan, introducing rice in 300BC. The eating of meat was prohibited, and preserving and pickling fish became an essential part of their cuisine—with dishes such as sushi and sashimi—as did tofu. Tempura was introduced by the Portuguese in the 17th century, as were breads and cakes. Under the Meiji restoration from 1868 – 1912, meat came back on the menu and Japan became known for its Kobe beef and dairy production.
The cuisine of Japan is characterized by the aesthetics of food and harmony on the plate; the Japanese eat with their eyes first. Harmony and balance are seen in the serving of a staple such as rice or noodles served with meat or fish, bean curd, tofu, and a variety of vegetables and pickles. The plating of Japanese cuisine showcases Japanese art forms such as porcelain, ceramics, lacquer-, and basket-ware.
Today, yakitori, tonkatsu, and shabu-shabu, are all meat dishes and known internationally. Popular street food adapts pizza, curries, and croquettes with Japanese flavors, and the okonomiyake pancake is not to be missed; nor are the oysters of Miyajima Island, or chawan mushi—a savory egg custard, and my personal favorite!
And now, as they say in Japanese, Itadakimasu!