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Nutrition Section

Asian Cuisine

With today’s world obesity problems, heart disease and diabetes problems, it makes sense to use more stir fry Asian style cooking in your diet.

Asian style stir fry cooking is very economical and extremely nutritious. It is high in fibre and low in fats. Because it uses seasonal vegetables, your ingredients tend to be fresher, cheaper and higher in nutritional value – not stored in a refrigerated warehouse for a month before delivery to a supermarket.

Today China also has an obesity problem but this is largely due to the Westernisation of their diet – the addition of high fat, high starch snack foods and soft drinks (soda).

One of the more appealing aspects of Asian Cuisine today, is the reduced cooking time; an added bonus in today's hectic lifestyle. The reduced cooking time also means the nutritional value for the meal is usually higher than if the same ingredients were prepared Western style by roasting or boiling.

Thai cuisine

Because Asian cuisine is cooked faster, more of the nutrition is retained in the food.

We tend to lump all cooking that involves stir fry, as Asian but there are many different types of Asian cooking. Chinese food tends to be oily, Yum cha is gelatinous, Indonesian tends to be rich in flavours, Thai is renowned for its flavour layering (the flavour changes as you eat it) and Korean food uses a lot of pickles and is often salty or vinegary.

Within China itself, there are provinces (equivalent to our states) that in terms of culture, are more like the small countries in Europe and each has its own characteristic style. However, there is one unifying characteristic – their use of a salad style presentation of a range of vegetables with less meat per serving than a typical Western cuisine meal.

Thai Cuisine dishes

There are many different styles of Asian cuisine

It is impossible here to show the differences between the various Asian cuisines simply through pictures - it's the taste that sets them apart. Vietnamese cuisine uses fresh coriander leaf, which imparts a distinctive flavour to their food, while Thai cuisine uses lime to combine the flavours. Indonesia favours cinnamon as a spice, which makes their food distinctly different. What sets them all apart from Western cuisine is more vegetables and fruits are used and the cooking time is usually much less for Asian dishes.

From a dietician's viewpoint, if we were analyse the different cuisines it soon becomes obvious that most Asian cuisine dishes tend to be higher in fibre and nutrients, lower in carbohydrates and fats and contain a wider variety of vegetables per serve than Western dishes. While there are still starchy vegetables in both, the starch per serve tends to be lower in an Asian diet and in rice is less processed. This means the digestive system has to work harder to extract that starch, then convert it to glucose or fats - or in other words use more energy to digest the food.

So even if the starch content was the same for a western meal of, let's say meat and three vegetables and an Asian stir fry meal, the body will use more energy to extract that starch from the Asian serving. While the calories (or kilojoules) for both servings might be identical, the Asian serving will be less fattening since more calories are required to digest the food, leaving less to be stored as fat.

Many vitamins and other nutrients break down with heat and dissolve in water. Western cuisine tends to prefer boiling and roasting - both expose food to long periods of heat, reducing the nutritional content of the food. By comparison, traditional Asian cooking tends to expose food to intense heat for a very short time. Western cuisine will discard the water the food was boiled in (along with the dissolved nutrients), whereas Asian cuisine will use that juice as a sauce. Even dissolved nutrients are consumed and not wasted.

Cooking Asian style - using a wok

Begin by preparing all the ingredients, they are going to cook on intense heat but only for a very short time, usually a maximum of 10 minutes from start to finish, so you won't have time to prepare anything else when the cooking process begins. The aim is to end up with a serving that contains a wide array of vegetables and meats in a tasty glaze style of sauce. To achieve this we use small quantities of different vegetables and cut them in different ways to add to the visual selection. Zucchini is cut to remove the green outer skin, which is sliced and the paler centre flesh is sliced separately.

Cooking with a wok

Zucchini is cut several ways to appear as different vegetables

Asian cooking is very economical too. Not only do we use small amounts of a wide range of vegetables but we use more of the vegetable too. Asian cuisine uses parts of the vegetables that we often discard. Broccoli for example; where the head is cut as we would for Western cuisine but the thick stem that we would discard, is sliced very thinly, the dry end slice is discarded and the rest added to the vegetables. It cooks up similar to cabbage. The knack in Asian cooking is in the preparation. Basically the cooking ingredients are prepared and sorted into four groups:

Cooking with a wok

Cooking with a wok

1 Begin by adding either oil or fish sauce to the wok when it is hot. Our first group of ingredients are the long-time cooking items. These have time to caramelise to form a rich stock which is the base of the glaze/sauce. This includes onions, meat, spices (curries etc.) and garlic. Fish sauce is often added first for a rich stock base. This has to be allowed to completely dry and the moment it is no longer a liquid, add your oil and meat. When the meat is caramelised, add the onion. Once that has also caramelised add any other long-time ingredients. (We have one member in the family who won't eat carrot, so I grate up a carrot or two and add in this at this stage. They get the nutrition but never know it's there.) I cheat and add about half a wine glass of red wine here for about every three servings.

2 It's now time to add the other vegetables except for the cabbage vegetables (wombok or Chinese cabbage, Bok choy etc). These vegetables need some time to cook. For Thai cuisine add coconut cream and lime zest at the end of this stage so the flavours meld with the coconut cream to create that smooth silky tasting Thai base sauce. Any green herbs are added now - for Vietnamese cuisine the chopped coriander leaf is added now.

3 Stage three is where we add the cabbage type vegetables (which includes cress or spring onions). These are your leafy green vegetables that will turn into soggy toilet paper if overcooked so don't cook too long. Once almost cooked, shut the heat off and toss. By the time you serve it, it will be cooked to perfection. If you think you have too much liquid or the sauce is too watery, open up a hole in the centre of the wok by pushing the vegetables up the sides, out of the liquid. Sprinkle them lightly with flour and toss them so they are evenly coated (the flour will appear to vanish) then stir them back into the sauce in the bottom of the wok again. Keep tossing it all together and watch the sauce thicken. Remember it's a glaze not a gravy. You are after a consistency of creme soup.

4 The final stage is adding the remaining liquid that will unite all the flavours together and make the glaze. In the picture 4 above, I am adding some chicken stock and the rice flour water (the white water left from washing rice before boiling it). This will slightly thicken the stock to form the glaze that will cover everything.

Colourful Singapore restaurant

Singapore cuisine

Until 1819 Singapore was virtually uninhabited except for a few Malay fishermen. In 1819 it was settled by Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Indonesians and Europeans. The unique Singapore cuisine dishes are the result of Singaporeans borrowing ingredients and cooking styles from the various cultures that settled there.


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Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

A few tips for Asian cooking

Sesame oil - not all oils are made for cooking. Sesame oil is a garnish oil and applied at the end of the cooking process to maximise that nutty flavour. Add it too early in the cooking and it will lose it's flavour. Also with high cooking heat, it polymerises to become indigestible as well as tasteless.

The best cooking oil - the absolute best cooking oil to use is rice bran oil. It has a very high smoke point which means less oil vapour on your walls. It is the most tasteless of all the cooking oils, so you only taste the food, not the oil. It is highly digestible and high in vitamins. It is also the highest in antioxidants and continued used will actually lower bad (LDL) cholesterol. It might sound like a new gimmicky food to us Westerners but it has been used in Japan so long, no-one can recall when it was first used (which means over 1000 years at least). It was also used there as a makeup base for pigments.

Rice and glass of oil

The best cooking oil for flavour and nutrition is definitely rice bran oil.

Curry and spices - Most spices don't release much flavour or aroma until heated. Curry should be fried with a little hot oil to release the aromas. Adding curry 'cold' to a recipe requires twice as much curry for the flavour and the flavour is more bitter. When consumed, the oils will come out and the extra quantities of aromatic oils will create an unpleasant body odour, especially the cumin in the curry. Generally if the spice is ground, it should be fried to release the oils, the exception is cardamom. If the spices are in leaf form (or herbs), they are usually added later and rely on liquid, like stock or sauce to disperse the flavour.

Fish sauce is a common additive at the start of cooking (and make sure it's at the start!) to make a rich sauce base. But there is a trick to it - add it first to a very hot wok and don't add anything else until it is dried off. The smell while it reduces from a liquid is like old socks but the taste is worth it. Once it's dried, quickly add your oil then the ingredients in the first step outlined above, before it burns. Do not add it later in the cooking process unless you want your dish to taste of old fish.

Thickening sauces - To thicken soups, stews and gravies, in Western cooking, we mix flour and water to a thin paste and stir it into the food to turn the liquor into a sauce. In Asian cooking it's not that complicated. You can either add rice water from washing rice with the stock, you can stir in peanut butter for a satay-like sauce or by moving the pieces of food up the sides of the wok out of the juice and dusting with flour, simply tossing them in the juice at the bottom again, will thicken the juice into a sauce.

Thickeing sauce in a wok

Dusting raised vegetable peices with flour to thicken

Allergic reactions - MSG or monosodium glutimate is a white powder like salt that has similar flavour enhancing qualities in Asian cooking and helps vegetables retain their colour during cooking. I never use it because I don't like chemical additives and I throw a mild allergic reaction to it - a raging thirst for a couple of hours after eating. The flavour is like a sweet version of salt but many people have an allergic reaction to it so check first and use sparingly.
Nuts can be fatal for some people so again, check first and beware that some oils, margarines and paste curries contain oils extracted from nuts.

Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

Basket of Fresh herbs

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