Culture plays a huge role in what and how we eat. As we encounter different culinary traditions, our practices and appetites evolve and expand. Given the need today to reduce the impact of our protein intake, what might the West learn from culinary traditions in Asia? Can cultural exchange help scale more sustainable alternatives? Here are five suggestions for what the West might learn from Asia, to enhance positive practices for the future of protein.
1. Nose to tail, eyes to offal
There is a saying that the Chinese eat everything with four legs, except tables. This extends to a large part of Southeast Asian culinary traditions, which use almost all, if not all, portions of the animal. There are preparations for cartilage, blood, brains, eyeballs, heads, feet, trotters, tripe, offal - ingredients that make up the best of street food culture as well. One medicinal delicacy actually serves up the saliva of swallows (bird’s nest), while the fallopian tubes of frogs (hashima) are served in sweetened soups, together with goji berries. While there are ethical concerns regarding the treatment of these creatures, there’s a lesson in looking at all the ways they might plenish our tables. Bones are used in broths (a wellness trend in the West) to extract maximum flavour and nutrients. Nose-to-tail is already gaining popularity in the West, with Restaurant Bror making no apologies for serving up bulls’ balls.
2. Flying or crawling, wild or farmed
On Western menus, wings, legs and eggs mostly mean poultry. Not so in Asia. The Lao people have one of the highest rates of insect-consumption in the world, comprising weaver ant larvae and pupae, wasps, bamboo caterpillars, short-tailed crickets, amongst others. In neighbouring Cambodia, people eat tarantulas, and in Thailand crickets and other insects are a regular street food. Most edible insects in Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia, together with China, have traditionally been collected from wild habitats. Now, NGOs are pushing for the establishment of insect farming practices, to address malnourishment and expand culinary options.
3. Culinary heirlooms
Increasingly, heirloom crops are regaining recognition, expanding our options beyond a few over-exploited grains. For instance, social enterprise Javara is partnering with farmers across Indonesia to grow indigenous varieties such as foxtail millet and white sorghum, while providing a market regionally for the harvests. Other protein sources found in Asia include: mung beans, which feature in sweet and savoury dishes; Job’s tears - also known as Chinese pearl barley or hato mugi in Japanese; and amaranth, rich in protein, dietary fibre and minerals, and grown in much of India, China and Southeast Asia.
4. Fermented flavours
Fermentation is widely used as a preservation technique. With fermentation, the properties of ingredients are altered, affecting flavour, aroma, look and feel. The process can also add value to produce, while preserving nutrients and reducing potential food losses. Take Indonesian tempeh, a common accompaniment to any meal, and seen as an alternative vegan protein source. The process of making tempeh, through the inoculation of legumes with rhizopus oryzae, can be adapted to other indigenous beans. Inspired by the culinary traditions in Indonesia, Nordic Food Lab has conducted experimentations to make tempeh using Danish beans and peas and Japanese koji. Tempeh is a great example of the versatility (of alternative proteins) in recipes - it can be adapted and used in side dishes, snack foods, or foreign - adapted foods - sliced, or diced.
Just like the other plant proteins (peas, rice, beans, potatoes, and so on), microalgae contain proteins, but they also offer other nutrients: fat, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Spirulina is an easy species to grow: many companies and startups are now banking in on the superfood. In Eastern Asia, and particularly Japan, algae is consumed in many forms: in kombu broths, as nori in snacks, and as kanten, more commonly known as agar. In the Philippines, sea grapes, or lato, feature in salads.
Where else might we look for ways to expand our protein options? What new appetites might we develop to help address the pressing issues we face now?
J. David Owens. Indigenous Fermented Foods of Southeast Asia