Southeast Asian Cuisine

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian food is colorful, fragrant, flavorful, and just plain spectacular. The region stretches east from India and Bangladesh to the southern border of China, encompassing the mainland countries of Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and the island countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines.

Each country has its own unique history cooked into its dishes. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the prevalence of Islam has virtually eliminated pork from the diet. Vietnamese food retains the flavors of centuries of French occupation. Filipino foods are enhanced with Spanish and American accents.

While the countries maintain distinct identities, they also have a great deal in common, and their cuisines share histories as well as similar staple ingredients and methods of cooking. The major influences on Southeast Asian cuisines came from China from the northeast (the wok, dumplings, noodles) and India (curries) from the west. Perhaps the most profound impact on the region’s cooking was made in the 16th century, when the Portuguese brought hot chili peppers from the Americas. Today the fiery chili provides signature heat in Southeast Asian meals. In addition to long-grained rice, rice noodles, and chilies, the regions other defining ingredients are coconut milk, fish sauce, seafood, sweet soy sauce, and an endless array of leafy green vegetables, herbs, and tropical fruits.

Thai Cuisine

Sawasdee! Welcome! The most well known cuisine of Southeast Asia is from Thailand. Thai food virtually bursts with contrasting hot, sweet, sour, and salty flavors. The Thai have taken some of the best ideas from the cooking of Malaysia, China, and India and added their own zesty spirit and love of raw, crunchy, aromatic, and color to create a cuisine that is unmatched in its combination of lightness and seductive earthiness.

Fish sauce is the primary cooking medium and is also used in table sauces. Rice is at the center of every meal. The delicately floral jasmine rice sets Thai rice apart. It’s no wonder Thailand is the leading rice producer in the world. Thai food can be really hot and many dishes in the south use small hot red peppers in huge quantities. Coconut milk softens the heat while tamarind adds piquancy. Generally, hot dishes are balanced with mild ones. Mountains of raw vegetables like mint, lettuce leaves, long beans, and bean sprouts are always present. Noodles are eaten in enormous quantities, especially at lunchtime. There is a phrase in Thailand which says, “There is rice in the fields and fish in the water.” It means all is well and in a culinary sense, better than well.

Notable Dishes – Khai Look Kaey (son-in law eggs), Ma Uon (“Galloping Horses” pork-stuffed tangerine sections), Tom Yum Koong (hot & spicy shrimp soup), Yum Ma Muang (green mango salad), Kwa Brio Wan (sweet & sour cucumbers), Laab (spicy beef salad), Kaeng Pet Kai (chicken red curry), Kaeng Kiew Warn Koong (green curry with shrimp), Kaeng Hunglay (Burmese-style pork curry), Kai Pad Bai Kaprow (ground chicken with peppers and holy basil), Tom Som Pla (fish steamed with lemongrass), Pad Thai (sautéed noodles), Mee Krob (sweet puffed rice noodles with meats), Kao Pad Sapparod (pineapple fried rice), Kluay Tord (banana fritters), Cha Yen (Thai iced tea).

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Indonesian Cuisine

Selamat Datang! Welcome! Any place called “The Spice Islands” has got to have an amazing cuisine. Indonesia’s got that and then some. Located at the crossroads of the great trade route between the Middle East and Asia, Indonesia has, through the centuries, lured traders, pirates, and immigrants, all eager to share in the riches. The culinary influences of the Indians, Chinese, Arabs, and Dutch colonists, added to Indonesians’ ability to combine local spices and herbs, have blended in to a distinctively Indonesian cuisine that makes it one of the world’s greats.

Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world. It is made up of 13,000 islands stretching 3,200 miles from top to bottom. Many distinct regional cuisines exist, often based upon indigenous culture with some foreign influences sprinkled in. Indonesia has over 5,000 traditional recipes. Sumatran cuisine, for example, often has Middle Eastern and Indian influences, featuring curried meat and vegetables. On the other hand, Javanese is mostly indigenous. The cuisines of Eastern Indonesia are similar to Polynesian cuisine. Elements of Chinese cuisine can be seen in foods such as noodles, meatballs, spring rolls, and fried rice.

Indonesian dishes have complex flavors of savory, hot, and spicy and combine basic tastes of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Most Indonesians favor hot and spicy food with sambal, a spicy chili sauce with various ingredients (notably shrimp paste and shallots) which is a staple condiment at all Indonesian tables.

Notable Dishes – Rempah (coconut beef balls), Krupuk Udang (shrimp chips), Rempeyek (crunchy peanut fritters), Bayem Dengan Kelapa Muda (cream of spinach soup), Daging Rendang (Padang-style beef stew), Borneo Ribs, Satai Kambing (grilled lamb on skewers), Ayam Goreng Jawa (Javanese fried chicken), Pepes Bumbu Bali (Balinese grilled fish), Gado-Gado (mixed vegetable salad with peanut sauce), Rujak (spicy fruit salad), Jukut (green beans and carrots in coconut sauce), Nasi Kuning (festive yellow rice), Bakmie Goreng Jawa (Javanese fried noodles), Serundeng Kacang (Toasted coconut with peanuts), Satay (peanut sauce), Acar Kuning (pickled vegetables), Kecap Manis (sweet soy sauce), Telur Bumbu Bali (Balinese spiced eggs), Sambal Ulek (chile sauce), Ban Chan Kuay Martabak (fluffy pancakes with sweet sesame-peanut filling).

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Vietnamese Cuisine

Moi qui cung den thu thuc an Viet Nam! Welcome to Vietnamese cuisine! Despite the varied landscape of Vietnam, all of the cuisine contains this brilliant balance of aromatics, heat, sweetness, sourness, and fish-sauciness. Bright, fresh green leafy vegetables and herbs, and fish (both fresh and fermented) define the flavor profile of the cuisine. As with other Asian cuisines, it’s all about the yin-and-yang; the sweet and the salty, the cooling and the warming, the fresh and the fermented.

The Vietnamese people are of mixed Malaysian and Chinese stock and have a long history of foreign influence. The northern part of the country was occupied or dominated by the Chinese for thousands of years up to the middle of the 10th century. They were followed by the Indians from the south, then the French for another 400 years starting in the 16th century. The food of the north is heavily influenced by China with its stir-fries and noodle-based soups. The tropical climate in the south sustains rice paddies, coconut groves, and herb gardens. The food in Southern Vietnam is typically sweeter: sweeter broths for pho (soup), more palm sugar used in savory dishes, and in the popular taffy-like coconut candies made with coconut cream.

Travel all over Vietnam and you’ll quickly find three universal themes: rice, fish sauce, and fresh herbs. Vietnam is the second-largest rice exporter in the world (after Thailand). Rice is grown all over the country, most bountifully so in the south’s Mekong Delta, which can grow enough rice to feed all 87+ million people of Vietnam. Rice appears at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. Besides the ever-present boiled rice, it can be found in rice noodles, rice paper wrappers, rice porridge, sticky rice, fried rice, puffed rice snacks, and even rice wine.

Most salt intake in the Vietnamese diet is delivered in the form of fish sauce. Salty, funky, fermented sauce, or nước mắm in Vietnamese, is used in marinades, soup broths, salad dressings, spring roll dips, etc… It’s really hard to think of any dish where it’s not used. Fish sauce is made from anchovies that are salted and layered in barrels for 6 months to a few years. The clear, amber liquid extracted is essential to a majority of dishes. Even nước chấm, the ubiquitous condiment found on every table is made of fish sauce that has been flavored with a splash of lime juice, sugar, chilies and garlic.

Vietnamese food makes extensive use of fresh herbs, spices, and aromatics. Sometimes they go into a steamy pot of pho or wrapped into spring rolls. A vegetable platter of fresh mint, cilantro, lettuce leaves, bean sprouts, and carrots is always present for diners to select the fresh herbs they want to add to their food.

Notable Dishes – Pho (meat and noodle soup), Basic Vegetable Platter, Saigon Soup (chicken and seafood noodle soup), Spring Rolls (pork and crab meat wrapped in rice paper and fried), Lettuce Rolls (shrimp, meat, noodle wrapped in lettuce), BBQ Beef Rolls (beef wrapped in fresh rice paper), Shaking Beef (beef cubes with onion and watercress), Shrimp Toast, Pork and Shrimp in Fish Sauce, Lemongrass Chicken (chicken thighs pan-fried with Gingered Vinegar or spicy), Banh Mi (grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables in Vietnamese baguette), Nước Chấm (fish sauce dip).

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Philippines Cuisine

Mabuhay! Welcome! Like most other Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines has seen waves of Chinese traders and settlers who brought noodles, bean curd, soy sauce, pancakes and spring rolls. They also intermarried with the Malaysian natives and intermingled the cuisines of the two countries to create the base which propelled the cuisine to new levels. The Spaniards came in 1521 and ruled until 1898. The Spanish occupation not only gave the Philippines its name (after Philip II of Spain) and its major religion, Catholicism. They also introduced the Mediterranean style of eating- olive oil as the cooking medium, and seasonings like garlic, tomatoes, onions, sweet peppers and vinegar. Rather than discard thousands of years of Chinese and Malaysian dishes, the Filipinos instead incorporated these new ingredients into their traditional dishes to make them even more vibrant.

After the Spaniards left, the American’s stepped in for 50 years until 1946, after WW II. With the Americans came foods canned and bottled foods like evaporated and condensed milk, canned fruit, jarred mayonnaise, hot dogs, sweet pickles, and canned tomato sauce. All these things were quickly absorbed into existing dishes, such as replacing buffalo milk with evaporated milk to improve on the Spanish flan (caramel custard).

Rice, pork, and fish have remained the national staple. Rice is eaten is some form at every meal and made into hundreds of different cakes, noodles, and pancakes. Fish (fresh or dried) is eaten daily and is also made into patis (fish sauce). Lechon (Pork) is the favored meat and makes up many main courses, especially adobo, arguably the national dish. With its Spanish roots, meat is marinated and preserved with soy sauce and vinegar, garlic, and bay leaf to make this uncommonly good dish.

Notable Dishes – Lumpia Shanghai (fried spring rolls), Ukoy (shrimp and vegetable fritters), Sopas (chicken macaroni soup), Morcon (stuffed rolled steak), Lechon (roast pork), Abobong Manok at Baboy (chicken and pork adobo), Guinataang Hito (catfish in coconut sauce), Pancit Luglug (rice noodles with shrimp sauce), Filipino Paella (rice with meat and seafood), Guisadong Sitaw (green beans), Paalat (garlic sauce), Maja Blanca (coconut sweets), Leche Flan (crème caramel), Salabat (ginger tea).

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The Southeast Asian Table

A standard Southeast Asian meal has no courses. All of the parts of a meal are presented at once and eaten together. As in Chinese cuisine, the cook strives for a harmonious balance of textures, temperatures, and flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter. In Thailand, people eat with a spoon, knife, and fork. In Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, people eat with their (right) hands and spoons are used for serving. Vietnam is unique in the region for eating with chopsticks.

In Asia, rice plays a much different role it does in the west. A bowl of rice is the center of a meal and everything else plays a supporting role, allowing the diner to mix and match whatever they want…hot, pickle-y, salty, meat, fish, vegetable, etc. Everything, except noodles, are cut into bite size pieces before cooking. Noodles and soups are slurped noisily, something no grandmother in the West would allow. Breakfast usually last night’s leftover rice fried with garlic, a few other vegetables and a cured meat, washed down with ginger tea.

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