East Asian Foods


Despite their distinct cultures, traditions, and societal structures, China, Korea, and Japan, which make up East Asia, have a shared food culture that has persisted to the present day. Undoubtedly, as people moved from the Asian mainland to the Korean peninsula and then on to the Japanese archipelago, food culture moved with them as it did with other aspects of living. However, as the culinary culture spread and people learned new cooking techniques, herbs, spices, and cuisines, tastes and specialized cuisines emerged, giving each nation its own distinctive flavor. Nevertheless, even to this day, there are commonalities in the cuisines of China, Korea, and Japan. Even though there are many ways with which to differentiate the cuisines of China, Korea, and Japan, there are commonalities throughout the cuisines of all three countries which group them together as the East Asian food as demonstrated by the fact that white glutinous rice is a staple food in each country, each country relies a good deal on soy sauce for a food flavoring and the ubiquitous noodle culture which permeates the three countries.

Rice Cultivation and White Glutinous Rice

Rice cultivation made its way out of China as people migrated southeastward finding a foothold in Korea, especially in the South, and eventually onto the Japanese archipelago where rice cultivation was even more successful, due to the climatic cycle. Glutinous white rice is the favored brand of rice in all the countries of East Asia because of its pristine white appearance over its cousin brown rice. In addition to this, ancient physicians in China and India believed that white glutinous rice “fed the brain, encouraged contemplation, and was more auspicious” (Laudan 136). It was also a favorite of Buddhist monks which helped the then little-known grain spread out from its Asian mainland roots. Buddhists, especially encouraged the consumption of white glutinous rice because it was said to be more conducive to meditation and contemplation than wheat or other grains (Laudan 148).Once introduced to Korea, the place that rice held within the diet of Koreans was well established with the term for rice, pap, in the Korean language being the same as the term used for a full meal, showing the level of which Koreans held rice in their culture (Pettid 29). White rice was introduced into Japan during the 6th century (Laudan 156) as Buddhist monks began to contact the peoples of the archipelago. Since its early days, rice cultivation has spread throughout the globe and has become “one of Asia’s greatest gifts to the West” (Mintz 204) which is currently on the cusp of replacing wheat and other coarse grains as a staple food.

Soy Sauce: A Common Condiment

Another quite common East Asian condiment and food additive is the ubiquitous soy sauce. A sauce made by fermenting and refermenting the soybean from its original bean state to a paste and then to a liquid is found in almost every household, dining establishment, and anywhere food is prepared or eaten throughout China, Korea, and Japan. As noted above, the travels of the Buddhist monks in China, Korea, and Japan helped spread culinary culture around the region and, as it was for rice, so it was for soy sauce. Buddhist monks held soy sauce in high regard. It was even referred to as one of the “seven necessities” along with rice, salt, vinegar, oil, tea, and wood (Laudan 155). As with many other foods, soy sauce is a very important part of Korean cuisine. Originally made exclusively by hand by almost every family, each with a unique recipe, soy sauce in Korea has now become the victim of mass production and standardization. This aspect of the history of soy sauce in East Asian cuisine is much the provenance of the Japanese colonial era in Korea (1910-1945). When Japan conquered and occupied Korea they imported their mechanized ways of making soy sauce with them. As Cwiertka explains, in the case of soy sauce, even though Korean cuisine “constitutes one of the most potent symbols of Korean nationalism… it simultaneously functions as a living testimony of the colonial past” (389). Even though the recipes and processes which produce soy sauce have changed over the centuries and have varied further with national reformulations, this dark, salty, and slightly sweet sauce continues to be an important part of the East Asian cuisine.

The Influence of Noodles

For the final example of pervasive East Asian culinary contributions, we examine the ubiquitous noodle in all its varying forms and uses in East Asian cuisine. The start of noodle culture begins, as with the rest of East Asian food, in China several centuries in the past. By the 3rd century A.D., China had a thriving noodle culture based on a variety of grains like wheat, millet, and rice (Laudan 119). Here again, it was the Buddhist monks who had a great hand in transporting this cuisine around to the various parts of East Asia with them as they traveled. Bringing the noodle first to Korea and then on to Japan, the monks introduced literally millions of people to this simple but versatile foodstuff. In the 12th century, the second wave of Buddhist monks brought noodles to Japan along with chopsticks and tea (Laudan 158). However, the greatest explosion of the noodle culture has happened in modern times across East Asia and around the globe. This expansion of the noodle culture has its roots in an invention which started in Japan, the instant noodle. Invented by Momofuku Ando in 1958 (Errington, Gewertz and Fujikura 10), in an effort to assist war-torn Japanese citizens after World War II with supplementing their diets, instant noodles have become a national phenomenon in Japan and have taken a foothold in almost every corner of the globe. Mostly associated with the omnipresent ramen noodles found in grocery stores worldwide, the instant noodle even has its own world organization, the World Instant Noodle Association (WINA). WINA which was “created to improve the quality of instant noodles and increase their consumption worldwide, estimates that 95.39 billion packages and cups of instant noodles were sold during 2010 across an impressive range of markets” (Errington, Gewertz, and Fujikura 10). As Errington, Gewertz, and Fujikura have noted: “Almost everyone eats or has eaten instant noodles” (10). Whether called lo Mein (China), ramyon (Korea), or ramen (Japan), instant noodles are one of the universal foods around the world today.


As noted in the foregoing essay, even though there are a lot of ways one can point to in differentiating the countries of China, Korea, and Japan, there are some qualities and quantities which they share, especially in the area of food culture. Rice, soy sauce, and noodles tie the region of East Asia together in a culinary sense and carry a thread across time and space to the four corners of the globe. Many of the foods which are now common around the globe had their origins in the East Asian countries of China, Korea, and Japan.

Works Cited

Cwiertka, Katarzyna J. "The Soy Sauce Industry in Korea: Scrutinising the Legacy of Japanese Colonialism." Asian Studies Review, vol. 30, no. 4, 2006, pp. 389-410.

Errington, Frederick, Deborah Gewertz, and Tatsuro Fujikura. The Noodle Narratives. University of California Press, 2013.

Laudan, Rachel. Cuisine and Empire. University of California Press, 2013.

Mintz, Sidney W. “Asia’s Contribution to World Cuisine: A Beginning Inquiry.” From Food and Foodways in Asia by Sidney C. H. Cheung and Chee Ben Tan (pp. 201-210). Routledge, 2007.

Pettid, Michael. Korean Cuisine: An Illustrated History. Reaktion Books, 2008.

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