These Western dishes can be found in almost all major cities and towns of the United States which have created a cultural appetite for anything that is ready for consumption. Oriental food, on the other hand, is viewed mostly as an alternative, albeit oftentimes costly, for the average Westerner (Counihan, p. 58). As with most Asian meals, the principle is to cook food from the freshest ingredients available. Typical vegetable dishes are prepared using vegetables that are picked fresh whereas seafood meals are cooked using the freshest fish and seashells for instance.
Every food is prepared carefully regardless of the duration of the process, thereby creating the impression that each serving of Oriental food is a handiwork, so to speak, that can hardly be rivalled by fast food chains. Although there is hardly any single ingredient that unifies all the rest of the Oriental cuisines, there are similarities that can be pointed out. For instance, the Tom Yum soup of Thailand, a taste of hot and sour flavours using aromatic herbs, is a mix of spices and leaves of plants that are abundant in the country.
As for the more general Thai cuisine, dishes are basically hot and spicy and are prepared using a balance of its five key flavours: salty, sweet, sour, spicy and the optional bitter flavour. Fresh herbs and spices are preferred over dried ones which is perhaps one reason why Thai dishes have that distinct taste. In addition to these single whole dishes, rice is also served as part of each meal with the inclusion of fish sauce such as nam pla and other complementary dishes. Japanese meals are another example of Oriental cuisine.
Perhaps the most fundamental and unique characteristic of most Japanese meals is that each dish is served using raw ingredients. For instance, the popular Japanese food sashimi is raw seafood coupled with a dipping sauce. Aside from seafood, meat can also be prepared raw in Japanese meals such as Basashi, a raw horse meat delicacy. Sushi is also one of the more popular dishes in Japanese cuisine. It basically includes vegetable, meat and fish which can be rolled inside dried sheets of seaweed or placed over a bowl of rice. Philippine cuisine as an example of Oriental dishes also includes rice as part of the whole course of every meal.
However, most Filipino dishes are prepared using the milk from coconuts and the sauce from tomatoes. Examples of these dishes are kaldereta (goat in tomato stew), afritada (beef or pork simmered in thick tomato sauce) and ginataang manok (chicken in coconut milk). In a way, Philippine and Thai cuisines are similar in the sense that they make use of the ingredients that are naturally found in the surroundings and that these ingredients are harvested and cooked almost the same day. There is the preference for everything fresh instead of dried spices, herbs and main ingredients.
Fresh fish and meat is also preferred over frozen ones although the option to make use of the latter is available. More importantly, the techniques involved in preparing these Oriental dishes are unique in their own ways. The way Japanese sushi or sashimi is prepared is different from the way Thai tom yum is prepared. And yet while there are differences, there are also semblances which seem to connect all these Oriental food. Apart from the fact that most Oriental meals include rice as part of the course, these dishes also include spices and herbs which strengthen their flavours.
Westerners who have travelled all the way to the Eastern parts of Asia often encounter the strong aroma from Oriental dishes that are distinct from those of Western dishes. It is not surprising that most Americans, for instance, would rather depend on fast food restaurants for their meals. For people living busy lives in the dense urban areas of the United States, time is a precious commodity that should not be wasted in exchange for sumptuous meals in cosy Oriental restaurants. Moreover, Westerners barely have a full idea of how to prepare Oriental meals for themselves without learned skills or the help from other skilled individuals.
The knowledge of preparing Oriental food is simply beyond the inherent or immediate environment of Westerners. The fact that not all ingredients for Oriental cuisines are readily available in Western societies adds to the seemingly inaccessible or at least hardly accessible nature of Oriental dishes for Westerners. In general, there are more reasons to believe that Westerners are more inclined to settle for what they have in their immediate surroundings than to learn things outside of their reach as far as cuisines are concerned.
What does Oriental food mean? For the most part, Oriental food reflects the culture of Oriental people in many ways. The ingredients used in these dishes reflect the kind of environment that the people have in which they have no other choice but to survive. Every piece of vegetable or leaf of plants in each delicacy indicates the available and usually abundant resources in the peoples native land. In effect, the unique ingredients in Oriental dishes create the identity of these dishes that are distinct and entirely different from Western dishes.
Moreover, the very presence of these ingredients easily helps in identifying what is Oriental from what is Western. From a Western perspective, these Oriental dishes appear to be entirely different from the food delicacies which they are accustomed to, creating the impression that what is alien to their taste buds, so to speak, are either exotic or rare. By attributing these qualities of exoticness and rareness to Oriental dishes in a general manner, Westerners have showed the tendency to suffuse some of the ingredients founds in these dishes into their own meals.
Moreover, Western societies have found ways to establish food chains that provide supposedly genuine Oriental dishes in their menus. In the United States, for instance, numerous restaurants serving Oriental meals have been put-up primarily for profit. Through the profit-seeking motives of business-minded individuals, Oriental dishes in Western markets have been characterized oftentimes as luxury delicacies or alternative dishes to the more predominant pizza, burgers and other Western meals. In contemporary times, the effect is that Oriental dishes are stereotyped as the cultural Other when in terms of food.
The ways in preparing Oriental dishes also reflect the behaviours of individuals and groups in these Oriental regions of Asia. They indicate a performance done in order to create the distinct flavours and tastes of these dishes, the knowledge of which has been passed-on from one generation to another. The skills involved in preparing these dishes have been practiced and perfected through the generations of families that have continued the legacy of preparing Oriental food. For them, preparing these meals is nothing but an ordinary routine that has become a part of their daily survival.
From the viewpoint of Westerners, Oriental dishes are rarely part of their daily survival or not at all. That is, they can continue with their lives even if they are not able to relish the taste of Oriental food. These meals that are foreign to Western societies are, in effect, taken for granted or are simply considered as alternative viands to their regular course of Western meals. That attitude reinforces the notion that any plate of Oriental dish is just another Other. It can be said that Western societies can only get as close to so-called authentic Oriental dishes by replicating them through food establishments.
Whether consciously aware or not, Western societies are public outlets for contributing to the notion espoused by Fusco; they reinforce the stereotype of the primitive and the Western ability to exert control over and extract knowledge from the primitive world (Fusco). Restaurants in Western societies that feature Oriental dishes are not simply established from almost everywhere in these societies without first studying these culinary delicacies. On the contrary, Westerners tend to extract knowledge from such primitive dishes as if Western meals are the bases for identifying a dish as whether a part of civilized world or otherwise.
Like Fuscos public experiment”one that sought to bring into realization the often disregarded observation that a substantial portion of the public believed that our fictional identities were real ones as though these beliefs have never been challenged and has sit firmly well in the collective consciousness of the people”so-called Oriental restaurants in Western societies reinforce the many illusions about Oriental dishes and, more generally, Oriental culture. One of these illusions is the belief that there are Oriental dishes that do not fit well with the palate of Westerners.
For instance, there are Oriental delicacies which make use of several animal organs which are rarely used for preparing Western meals. There are even insects that are part of the ordinary Oriental dishes. Westerners tend to develop an aversion towards Oriental dishes with these animal organs and become branded as either exotic or primitive. The larger consequence of such an aversion, apparently, is an aversion towards the people who take pride in preparing and eating such dishes (Smith, p. 486).
Nevertheless, the fact that there are restaurants in Western societies that serve Oriental dishes signify that there are attempts to bring these dishes closer to Western societies even if such attempts are only secondary to the intent to profit. Moreover, a notable characteristic of Oriental restaurants situated in Western societies is that they slightly redefine the Oriental dishes that they serve in order to attract potential customers and maintain the patronage of the buying public. They add a Western touch, in a manner of speaking, to these foreign dishes.
In consequence, Oriental dishes are given the impression that they are merely subjects of Western consumption and can be subject to change depending on the needs of the Western clients. To a certain degree, it goes to show a form of cultural subjugation or assimilation that distorts the original nature not only of the dishes but also of the Oriental culture from a Western perspective. The dishes that are presented to the Western public are no longer faithful to the original dishes as they were in Oriental countries.
Western societies become unknowingly unaware of the original nature of such dishes, thereby treating their false impressions of these Oriental dishes as the so-called Other. On a personal note, I can say that there is a great deal of knowledge that can be derived from studying Oriental dishes as they serve as windows into the cultural aspects of several Asian countries. An awareness of Oriental dishes in terms of their distinct ingredients and unique methods of preparation can help the Western perspective look beyond that false impression that veils the genuine.
If we are able to comprehend a significant portion of the stories behind each of these Oriental dishes and the whole array of Oriental food in general, there is a chance that we can gain substantial cultural knowledge of what has been called as the Other (Mintz, p. 104). As the saying goes, you are what you eat”if you know what the Other eats, it is likely that you get to know the Other.
Counihan, Carole M. Food Rules in the United States: Individualism, Control, and Hierarchy. Anthropological Quarterly 65. 2 (1992): 55-66. Fusco, Coco. The Other History of Intercultural Performance. 1994. November 21 2008.