Help me learn about Asian countries and their history and cusine
December 14, 2021 3:52 PM   Subscribe

I've realized that I'm not that good at understanding the distinctions between Asian countries, history and cuisine. This is my fault, I'm dumb about this and I'd like to be less dumb. What books/resources/materials/documentaries/youtubes might help?

I know small amounts about some of these countries and have a general Americanized cultural understanding of Asian cultures as depicted in the US (e.g. Crazy Rich Asians, Last Airbender etc). I follow the news, I try to be a clued in individual, but I'm realizing that my education is lacking in a historic understanding about places like Korea, China, Mynamar, Taiwan, Laos, Cambodia, Malasyia, Hong Kong, Indonesia etc.

I certainly don't know the cultural differences very clearly or a have sense of the conflicts or issues between countries or the background and history of these places. Additionally, though I've eaten at Americanized versions of Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese places, Beyond what i order at these places, I don't have much clarity on the food that is actually from these countries and the differences between them etc.

I'd like to be less stupid about all of this.

I realize there may not be ONE specific way to get the information I'm asking about but I'm curious if anyone has suggestions about how to start learning more about the history and culture of these places. Extra gold stars for things that are entertaining, interesting and compelling.

- Is there a readable book you'd recommend that gives an overview of the history of multiple Asian countries? Asia in general? Is that too much to ask for? Maybe certain parts of Asia?
- Are there resources for learning about specific countries, conflicts, food oriented distinctions or whatever that you enjoyed?
- Are there documentaries/webseries/youtubes you'd recommend?

I'm interested in food, which is part of what motivated this. I now live around a lot of immigrant communities and their food is marvelous, though I generally just point at things and try them out instead of actually knowing what something is. I want to learn more, so food oriented materials would be lovely.

In the long run it could be really fun to travel to some of these places as well. And it would be fun to know the difference between the writing I see (e.g. distinguishing between vietnamese and korean).

BTW, I recognize that there are a lot of really distinct countries that I refer to with a general wave of my hands as Asian and I get that I'm oversimplifying. But I'm clueless about much more than what I see on a map. I'm open to anything you might suggest that would be helpful, this comes from a genuine desire to learn more, feel free to call out if I'm getting something wrong.
posted by mulkey to Education (11 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Street Food: Asia on Netflix has an episode each for several countries. It only covers street food but it was a good intro to ingredients and styles that are common in that country’s cuisine.
posted by anotheraccount at 4:02 PM on December 14, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I would start with the Insight Guide to Southeast Asia/Asia. These are beautifully designed travel books with the emphasis on culture and cuisine. Each country has a history chapter/s. Obviously the individual guides for each country will be more in depth. Your library should have them, since you are reading for reference, it doesn’t matter if they’re the latest edition. These guides will give you an introduction and a grounding to this vast area.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:08 PM on December 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding the travel guide recommendation. They'll give you a brief bit of history of the countries with a lot of emphasis on food. I remember planning a trip to Cambodia based on having watched a video on Angkor Wat and deciding that I would go there and reading the Lonely Planet guide was an easy way to pick up a lot of the basics, although there must be better guide books out there.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:47 PM on December 14, 2021

Best answer: Asia's a big place, and the countries you listed are all in the eastern part. You'll have to expand your palette considerably if you want to cover all of Asia. I'm not a geographer, and it seems like there's disagreements about some regions (e.g. does the Middle East count as Asia?), but but here's one list.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 4:57 PM on December 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you can, I would just go to the local library and browse the cookbooks. You can probably find a good one for each country's cuisine that will have a general overview of history, ingredients, etc. And, ask the librarian, or just print out this question and bring it with you. They can help you get started and if you let them know which of their recommendations works / doesn't work for you they can probably fine tune them. They may know your local neighborhoods and be able to better match resources to who you are living near.
posted by Gotanda at 5:02 PM on December 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: China looms large over the continent and with all the recent news about Taiwan and Hong Kong, I recently read through the Wikipedia pages for Chiang Kai-shek, Sun Yat-sen, and Mao Zedong. It really helped fill in a lot of the 20th century history that was missing from my WWII-focused high school history education.
posted by soelo at 5:49 PM on December 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: They're new but i would recommend (that's a Malay word for pot). It is Malaysia-centric but they're really cognizant of the history of cultural exchanges that makes up the population that would help you to contextualise the part of Asia that's heavily involved in the maritime Silk Road (which is most of Southeast Asia at the centre of it with links up to imperial kingdoms of East Asia as well as the main players in South Asia along the coast of the Indian Ocean), while learning new recipes. And because it's not a diaspora publication, it's also not too precious about authenticity. In terms of daily light articles, the Southeast Asian arm of Mashable is also rather clickworthy just to get a sense of things and occasionally they have interesting longreads on food, eg this one on the various laksa types, and also on cendol (sweet shaved ice dessert).
posted by cendawanita at 7:23 PM on December 14, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey follows the chef around Asian countries exploring traditional food and local history. It's available on the BBC Food Pluto channel
posted by Ardnamurchan at 8:19 PM on December 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It feels kind of corny recommending some random privileged white guy's food travel blog, but as an Asian lady who's spent a ton of time in China and Singapore, The Food Ranger's videos are actually really good. He became super popular because of his Chinese street food videos but he's gone all over the place now. What I like about his videos is that they cover a lot of local cuisines and street foods you don't normally hear about over here and he's really committed to bumbling through with the local language as much as possible, which I respect immensely. Not a ton of history, but at least you might get a sense of what differentiates countries AND regions within countries via some of their local cuisines.
posted by thebots at 9:14 PM on December 14, 2021

Best answer: There are many channels clocking Indian street food Aamchi Mumbai is one. It is not your imagination to hear English frittered through the dialog.
posted by BobTheScientist at 9:56 AM on December 15, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks y'all these look like some great places to get started!
posted by mulkey at 5:17 PM on December 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

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