Lessons in balance
Gourmet Traveller|February 2022
When it comes to cuisine, balance can mean different things to different people. ANNE HASEGAWA explores the concept across six unique Asian cultures.
ANNE HASEGAWA

Balance isn’t just about flavours, textures and colours on a plate. It’s not just following steps on a page or ensuring perfectly precise measurements. Rather, balance comes from within. It is shaped by our experiences, environments and memories.

In eastern Asia, seeking harmony is a way of life. It is what gives the multitudes of cuisines a complexity that makes them so strikingly distinct from the Western palate.

Philosophies rooted in balance may be impossible to grasp without lived experience, but putting them into practice in the kitchen is an easier task. To help us better understand how, we speak to six experts who share the guiding principles for their region’s cuisines. From flavours and ingredients, to history and culture, here are some key lessons.

KOREA

Bibimbap. Japchae. Gujeolpan. Banchan. Korean food is known for its distinct vibrancy and expertly harmonised dishes. Its roots can be traced back to Obangsaek – the Korean colour spectrum, which consists of white, black, blue, yellow and red, and represents the five natural elements of the universe. It is said that cooking with these colours ensures a healthy and varied meal.

Obangsaek isn’t just an approach to food, it extends to having balance within life. These colours can be found across Korean culture from hanbok (traditional attire) to architecture, paintings and symbols.

Kenny Yong-soo Son, manager of Sydney’s popular Korean restaurant Sáng by Mabasa, explains that Obangsaek isn’t necessarily actively considered when cooking. Rather, it’s something innate, a concept that’s deeply embedded in Korean culture.

“It is a very spiritual way of thinking about our cuisine. At Sáng, we do not specifically intend or think about the Obangsaek philosophy, however it is something that naturally exists within our mind and vision. Balance is everything in Korean food. Not just in regards to the recipe or the taste, but also taking into account the timing and ageing of the food.”

In response to the harsh seasons experienced in the country, says Son, Korean people developed many ways to ferment, age and preserve food. “If you take our Temple food as an example, it is very much about finding the core flavours that naturally exist within the ingredients and discovering the changes of flavours that take place in time.” This all draws upon balance: of foods, practices and timing.

Ultimately for Son, balance is something much more personal. Especially so at his restaurant, where his mother and father head up the kitchen. “At Sáng, the balance is measured by what our family grew up eating, seeing, experiencing and, most importantly, what we believe in as a family.”

CHINA

China is home to some of the oldest and most diverse food cultures in the world. While the country is known for eight major cuisines, there are in fact over 55 ethnic minority groups that exist, each with their own culinary traditions and practices. Despite the diversity of its cuisine, a common thread running through its dishes can be found in the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang.

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