Defining the Asian Palate

7 November 2011
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee


During university, I nearly became a philosophy major; I certainly took enough philosophy courses to justify it. However, under my parents’ encouragement, I chose to study international relations, a subject far more practical that dealt with policies and issues that had concrete solutions and answers, even if the solutions provided were flawed. At least, they argued, the subject asked questions and raised concerns that had to be solved and were practical, whether one looked back in history or into the future.


I enjoyed studying geopolitics and international security issues but I preferred the bigger questions that philosophy raised: What is the meaning of our existence, what should be our core values in life and for society, what is morality, which type of government is best, what does it all mean? My tendency to be attracted to the big questions is probably why I was excited and thrilled to research the big question in wine: What is the Asian palate?


Although I wrote a book on the subject, when people ask me to define the Asian palate, I offer an answer that is unsatisfying for many: it is a nebulous concept that we are trying to define and understand. First of all, Asia or what is Asian, is already an imprecise concept depending on how it is defined, geographically or historically, and who is defining it – a politician, economist or cartographer would all have different views. Then you have the term ‘palate’, which is also equally ambiguous since it can mean preference or taste for something that is not easily quantifiable.


Despite the obvious challenges that make it difficult to define the Asian palate, I felt it would be a shame not to deal with this big question. For me it is by far the most important question if we are to understand the growing appreciation for wine in Asia. Thus in my book Asian Palate, I explored the palate preferences for different flavours in food to gain some insight on preferences for wine styles. By exploring the food and dining culture of ten major cities in Asia, I can better understand the local palates so that I can suggest wines which take into consideration the palate preferences for certain flavours. For example, for a grilled fish dish, I might recommend an off dry or sweet wine in Thailand since sweetness is often found at the dining table in the form of coconut milk, palm sugar or fresh fruits. But in Korea I would not recommend sweet styles for the same grilled fish because sweetness is not often found at the dining table.


I spent weeks in each city really trying to understand not just the ingredients, the methods of cooking, seasonings, spices and techniques, but also the way people eat and enjoy their meals. In each cuisine, there emerges a combination of repeated flavours and local preferences for different levels of spices, umami, sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness. What was also fascinating was how different cultures defined ‘deliciousness’ in food – the Cantonese love for rubbery, chewy textures in dishes like jellyfish, abalone and chicken feet. Then there is the love for subtle texture and purity of flavours as in Japan. In Korea, it is all about intensity and spices, which are laden with generous amounts of chilli and garlic.


Each country, city and region has its own food and eating culture; the Asian palate is extremely diverse and multi-faceted. What emerged after months of research, traveling and eating sometimes five meals a day, were differences as well as similarities. The aspects that unite the Asian palate in the ten cities I researched included a love and true appreciation for texture in food, whether it is for soft and creamy, gooey, crunchy, chewy, firm or sticky. In Thailand there is always an element of crunchiness in dishes which can appear in the form of chopped peanuts, crispy fried shallots or garlic, fresh sliced cucumber or fruits. I grew up eating noodles with kimchi, Korean fermented cabbage, so when I eat noodles I am always looking for some type of pickles, vegetables or other crunchy element to balance the soft texture of the noodles.


There are other aspects too that unite us – our love for variety and diversity of ingredients and flavours. Our tables are filled with condiments that can completely alter the dish. Our numerous condiments allow us to combine just the right amount of XO sauce, vinegar, chillis or soy sauce and blend it into our food as we wish. We acknowledge the diversity of different palates and the wide range of preferences we have when enjoying food.


While my book may not have answered the question ‘what is the Asian palate’, I hope it is one step closer to understanding the diversity, depth and complexity of the question. Approaching the Asian palate through food, wine, our dining and eating culture, is just one facet of a fascinating question that I was excited and thrilled to explore. I will leave the really tough job of pinning down the definition to the next generation.


Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post