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5 Differences Between Chinese and Indian Cooking

(Lemon Rice recipe here)

"It's ok, I've got too much work, go on without me, I'll probably tapau something (tapau means takeaway). I've uttered that miserable sentence many times before knowing I'd be eating at my desk surrounded by piles of paperwork and bad office lighting. I hated eating out of a polystyrene box rushing deadlines because I literally cannot taste my food. I might as well be chewing on cardboard.

Tapau is a bad second choice to eating out, an act only undertaken to subsist on 'the nearest' rather than my favourite food because well...sometimes work comes first.

But when I was a child growing up in suburban Gombak, I looked forward to Wednesdays. Because Wednesdays meant PM and if you grew up in the 80s, you would know it meant going to tapau food from Pasar Malam (night market, not Private Message hellooo..) where food choices abound and we would have a real life prototype version of foodporn (it existed way before social media made it ✌🏻lifestyle✌🏻 and in vogue). These food would not be readily available at home but have become my staple cravings and the reason why I'm happiest on Wednesdays. I owe my Malaysian palate of Malay, Chinese and Indian food to my cousin sister, Yvonne. She was always going on about ayam percik, assam laksa, popiah, rojak Mamak, tom yam and many kinds of food that were not served at our Chinese home. As a kid, I just soaked in her passion and happy to try all the exciting food she loved. I think I owe my foodie beginnings to her and in fact, I owe my entire existence to the family that loved everything with an open mind. We used to split Mars bar 5-6 ways and so having to tapau food that I can enjoy on my own was a massive treat.

The fluffy Roti Canai was my first introduction to Indian food. Wrapped in newspaper with an inner layer of plastic, it was a treat to enjoy it on its own or in the old skool way, dipped in sugar. As I sat waiting for my food to be done, I would always get engrossed with the man that flipped and whirled the dough in the air like Cirque du Soleil.

Food preparation remains my favourite part of cooking up until today.

(Butter Chicken Recipe here)

As I experiment more with home cooking I was drawn to mastering Indian dishes. It took me more than 8 years to be proficient with the basic knowledge of Indian spices and I learned it parallel to honing my skills with Malay and Chinese cuisines as well.

I think it's time to give my husband a break as my captive audience and finally share with a wider group of foodies what I've learned in the kitchen.

1. Mastery of Fire vs Masterful Layered Tastes

Chinese cooks are adept at manipulating the intensity of fire. There is almost a mathematical rhythm to using searing heat to release aroma and then snuffing it with the wok lid on to allow trapped heat to finish off the dish.

Indian cooking works in layers to introduce taste at every stage of the dish. For example, to make a sumptuous but balanced cumin chicken, cumin is used in small amounts throughout the dish in different forms. First through raw cumins fried in oil, followed by layering roasted and grounded cumin towards the last 5-10 minutes before completing the dish.

2. Adding Body

To body up a dish, Chinese food recipes may introduce another meat element for example adding dried shrimps to a poached chicken broth while Indian cooking adds different forms of spices throughout the dish for example coriander seeds at the first stage of flavouring the oil followed by coriander powder to thicken the curry.

3. Releasing Flavours

The base flavour for Chinese cooking comes from frying aromatics like ginger or lemongrass in hot oil while Indian cooking builds taste from flavouring the oil with spices like mustard seeds, cardamom pods and/or fennel seeds first.

4. Base Ingredients

The conventional base ingredients for Chinese cooking comes from a combination of soy sauce, rice wine and sugar to balance while Indian cooking prefers the combination from a variety of earthy ingredients like mustard seeds, curry leaves, cloves, star anise, cardamom pods to flavour the oil.

5. Achieving Harmony

Chinese tastebuds are individually catered to through the pairing of condiments with mains. For example, a simple Chicken Rice taste is perfected with a side of ginger chilli sauce and one can adjust the level of heat/saltiness by adding more chilli sauce to the chicken rice.

Indian cooking is conceptualized to be perfectly seasoned upon being served and when a meal consists of small dishes, they are designed to balance each others' tastes by hitting every kinds of flavour from spicy, salty, sweet and astringent. A good example of harmonious and complementary dishes is the thali.

I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on Chinese and Indian cooking, please let me know if you want to read more of these kinds of stories.

I feel incredibly happy to share my kitchen experiences and a portion of my life with you. I think truly growing up in such a multicultural setting shaped a big portion of my identity and I'm sure many Malaysians will say the same too.

Let me take this opportunity to wish everyone a very Happy Malaysia Day.

(Gotta go, my cat, my anak bulu has awakened and is need of cuddles) 🐱


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