Beans—a simple, small word that is anything, but—whether it’s brown, black, green, sweet, savory, a topping, an entrée, or dessert, the super power bean is really one of the most dynamic food elements in the world.
In a conversation with The Bean Institute, registered dietitian (and MSGdish blogger) Mary Lee Chin talks—well, beans! As the daughter of Chinese American immigrants and a renowned consultant, Chin’s love of Asian cuisine is both personal and professional.
In her interview, she discussed what Asian cuisine is—diverse—and isn’t—a monolith:
“I think one of the major things to remember is that the term ‘Asian’ food is an artificial construct, because there is nothing that really unites the countries of Asia. From language, religion, politics, and food – it’s a huge area with tremendous variation.”
It’s a good point to make. In the culinary world, many use the word “Asian” to describe China, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan, often discounting India, Pakistan and other nations on the western part of the continent that eat very different foods.
Across the varying regions within Asia, beans are used in completely different ways as Chin highlights:
“With regards to Asian cuisine, you really look to India as the dominant area for bean use. They use beans in everything: flours, fillings, sauces, etc. …
“In China, you are more likely to find beans used in sweet desserts than in savory recipes. My husband jokes that you have to be Chinese to like bean desserts. We make a sweet red bean soup with honey and sugar. If you were in the Philippines, this soup would be poured on shaved ice with condensed milk on the top.”
Even with their differences, Chin manages to point to two items that are almost universal to Asian cuisine no matter where you’re eating it: rice and umami. “You can see that there’s a lot of variation across the Asian countries, but I would say the two largest commonalities amongst all Asian cuisine is the umami flavor and rice,” she said.
Due to the large vegetarian population—whether it’s in Japan where meat is difficult to raise (where umami was first discovered) or in India where vegetarianism is cultural for dogmatic reasons, umami is heavily relied on to provide that savory, earthy flavor that carnivores gets from meat. In the 60’s, false information gave MSG a bad reputation. Many turned to other sources of free glutamates: fermented fish, soy and bean sauces for the flavor. But the misperceptions about MSG have slowly been turned around with good science, and it seems to be enjoying an impressive resurgence around the world. Rice is also a staple across the continent even though the cultures vary.
“Rice is such a sustainer of life and is so critical to Asia,” Chin said. “In my culture, one of the greetings when someone arrives at your home is ‘Have you had your rice yet?’”
That’s a great question to ask and quite the icebreaker!
Find more of Mary Lee Chin’s interview with The Bean Institute, here.
Photo used with permission. See license here.