South­east Asia’s cuisines are truly a melt­ing pot of the world


South­east Asia’s cuisines are truly a melt­ing pot of the world

There’s re­ally no such thing as South­east Asian cui­sine. Af­ter all, how do you use a sin­gu­lar ref­er­ence to ex­press such a vast di­ver­sity of cuisines? There are no less than 10 coun­tries in this part of the world—In­done­sia, Malaysia, Sin­ga­pore, Myanmar, Cam­bo­dia, Philip­pines, Viet­nam, Thailand, Laos, Brunei. They are home to over 640 mil­lion peo­ple, all with their own dis­tinc­tive eth­nic­i­ties, cul­tures and cuisines, and we haven’t gone on to dis­cuss the re­gional vari­a­tions yet. Oc­cu­py­ing 4.5 mil­lion square kilo­me­tres, there are few places in the world that boast such di­ver­sity, con­cen­trated in so small a space.

The food of this re­gion is beau­ti­fully var­ied, evolved from peo­ples who seem to be nat­u­ral-born food­ies. Over the thou­sands of years, the dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties who live in this re­gion have de­vel­oped great cuisines that make the most of the vast bounty that grow, swim, fly and live on the same land mass. One can say Mother Na­ture blessed them with a huge pantry of in­gre­di­ents, but the ter­ri­bly so­phis­ti­cated cuisines that evolved here are also im­pres­sive tes­ti­mony to the cre­ativ­ity of South­east Asia’s cooks.

In­done­sian food, with all its bold spices, is very dif­fer­ent from the gen­tler flavours of Viet­namese, while the joy­ful cui­sine of the Philip­pines, with its Span­ish in­flu­ences, is dis­tinct from the fiery, sour, sweet com­plex­ity of Thai. The huge range of kueh, desserts, snacks, sam­bals and condi­ments that ex­ist in some form or other in all the re­gion’s cuisines, also point to so­ci­eties that cared enough about the en­joy­ment and so­cial func­tions of their food to de­velop their cui­sine far, far be­yond the mere ne­ces­sity of fill­ing the stom­ach and keep­ing full.

There are sim­i­lar threads that run through them all. You could say that the cuisines of South­east Asia are like a vast net­work of threads that run, some in par­al­lel, oth­ers criss-cross­ing, di­vert­ing to other coun­tries, mak­ing de­tours and round­abouts be­fore com­ing back into the fold. It is no sur­prise that the cuisines here are so lit­tle un­der­stood by the rest of the world.

It would take an en­cy­clopaedic tome to cover even the es­sen­tials, but here, we can at­tempt a quick out­line. Like all cuisines of the world, the cuisines of South­east Asia are shaped by the land and cli­mate, and by ne­ces­sity. Nat­u­rally, many com­mon­al­i­ties are found through­out these coun­tries.


Above every­thing else, there is rice, the pre­dom­i­nant sta­ple of South­east Asia, and the grain that turned early Asians from hunter­gath­er­ers to farm­ers. It was first cul­ti­vated in the Pearl River Delta of China in 6000 BC, then spread south­wards to the fer­tile river deltas of Viet­nam and Thailand, and to the rest of South­east Asia. The stun­ning rice ter­races of Lu­zon, Sapa and Bali, carved into slopes over 4,000 years ago and which are still bright green rice paddy fields to­day, stand as liv­ing tes­ti­mony to its im­por­tance here. In­ter­est­ingly, rice as a sta­ple was en­trenched across South­east Asia long be­fore re­gional cuisines evolved, and hence runs through all the cuisines here.

Then there are the plethora of spices that grow in this part of the world. Cloves, cin­na­mon, cardamom, pep­per and so many more per­fume the foods here, along with na­tive herbs like lemon­grass, lime leaves, chill­ies, galan­gal, gin­ger, shal­lots, torch gin­ger flower, basil and pep­per leaves. These bold aro­mat­ics can be found in all the cook­ing of this re­gion, but blended and pre­pared dif­fer­ently from cul­ture to cul­ture.

With them, In­done­sians have turned out a cui­sine that prefers deep, savoury flavours with dis­tinct sweet notes, from their sa­tays with dark sweet soy sauce, to tauhu telor, so­tos, sam­bals and cur­ries. The Thais, South­east Asia’s spice mi­esters, use lemon­grass, shal­lots, chill­ies and co­rian­der roots to cre­ate a tit­il­lat­ing cui­sine filled with sweet-hot-sour-pi­quant flavours, most pop­u­larly ex­em­pli­fied by the fiery-sour tom yam soup, re­fresh­ingly lilt­ing sal­ads and in­trigu­ing savoury-sweet desserts. Not far away, the Viet­namese and Burmese use these flavours too, but milder, gen­tler and with more Chi­nese in­flu­ences.

Bounded by seas, com­prised of thou­sands of is­lands, and tra­versed by great rivers like the Mekong, Ir­rawaddy and Chao Phraya, it is no sur­prise that South­east Asia’s cuisines are heav­ily re­liant on seafood and river­ine fish. Along­side fresh fish dishes, by-prod­ucts made from har­vests from the sea fea­ture in most cuisines here—orig­i­nat­ing no doubt as a ne­ces­sity among poor peas­ants long ago to pre­serve and ex­tend what­ever food they could get their hands on when the go­ing was good. As they say, ne­ces­sity is the fa­ther of in­ven­tion. Out of ne­ces­sity and an or­ganic de­vel­op­ment of cui­sine, South­east Asians came up with dried fish and prawns of all sorts so they could be stored, but which also con­cen­trated in­tense, de­lec­ta­ble, umami flavours. This happy re­sult means dried fish are used widely to add bursts of flavour to a great num­ber of dishes, from the salted fish fried rice pop­u­lar in Malaysia and Sin­ga­pore, to salted fish sam­bals that the Per­anakans en­joy. Dried ikan bilis are a sta­ple in the most hum­ble kitchens in Indo-China, scat­tered onto rice for a sim­ple meal, into a bowl of fresh vegeta­bles topped with co­rian­der and mint for a re­fresh­ing Filipino salad, or fried till crisp with peanut and served with co­conut rice as part of our beloved nasi lemak. Dried prawns, of­ten pounded with aro­mat­ics, or used whole also fea­ture in dishes from Sin­ga­pore to Thailand and Viet­nam.

Fer­mented fish or prawns are al­most univer­sal through­out South­east Asia, turned


into a sauce or paste and used as a sea­son­ing or ac­com­pa­ni­ment to a meal. Fer­mented fish sauce—nam plaa to the Thais and nuoc mam to the Viet­namese—is im­por­tant in Thai, Cam­bo­dian, Viet­namese and Lao­tian fare. Fer­mented shrimp, in the form of a thick paste or a solid block, is an­other build­ing block in our var­ied cuisines. Most of us know it as bela­can—cru­cial in In­done­sian, Malay and Per­anakan rem­pahs and cur­ries. But it is just as im­por­tant to cooks in Myanmar, where it goes by the name of ngapi; among the Thais who call it kapi; and the Viet­namese, who know it as mam­tom.


But this part of the world had al­ways been a busy place, with all sorts of peo­ple pass­ing through its mar­itime and land routes for hun­dreds of years. The great In­dian and Chi­nese civil­i­sa­tions, which sand­wiched South­east Asia in the west and north, ex­erted their in­flu­ence mainly through trade, but many set­tled here too, with records of Chi­nese set­tle­ments go­ing as far back as the 10th cen­tury.

These in­ter­ac­tions brought some of the most im­por­tant culi­nary build­ing blocks to South­east Asia. From the Chi­nese came the use of soy sauce in all its it­er­a­tions, bean­curd and fer­mented soy condi­ments, which you will find in most cuisines here. Soy sauce has long be­come a ba­sic sta­ple in all Asian kitchens as an in­gre­di­ent for cook­ing or as a dip. For in­stance, Ba­li­nese sa­tays are served with a side dip of dark soy sauce and chilli; the In­done­sians also have the de­lec­ta­ble tauhu telor, deep fried bean­curd doused in a sweet soy sauce. Of all the cuisines here, Viet­nam’s is most in­flu­enced by Chi­nese fare, shar­ing a bor­der with China and in the dis­tant past hav­ing once been colonised by China.

Noo­dles also made its way from China to South­east Asia. Next to rice, it be­came the sec­ond sta­ple here. You’ll find them eaten at break­fast, lunch and as a street food in al­most all South­east Asian coun­tries, each with their own vari­a­tions. So well in­te­grated is it that the thought of it as a for­eign in­flu­ence hardly ever comes to mind. Fully en­trenched in the ba­sic make-up of South­east Asian foods, noo­dles have been turned into a vast ar­ray of meals, from pho in Viet­nam and mo hinh gha, the na­tional dish of Myanmar, to mee goreng in Malaysia, pad thai in Thailand, pancit in Philip­pines, and that’s just nam­ing a few.

Uten­sils and tech­niques have also come from China. The wok, for in­stance, an es­sen­tial tool in ev­ery South­east Asian kitchen, orig­i­nated in China over 2,000 years ago. Made to cook food quickly with min­i­mal use of fire­wood and fat, the wok of­fered an ad­van­tage that was quickly recog­nised and bor­rowed. The quick method of stir-fry­ing best com­ple­ments the wok and plays up to these ad­van­tage, and this too was adopted by the tal­ented cooks of the re­gion.

To the west, In­dia was a pow­er­ful civil­i­sa­tion that had long con­nec­tions with this re­gion—not just through vast amounts of trade but also through crafts­men, re­li­gious teach­ers, monks, as­trologers and the like who had trav­elled here to live and work. In­dia’s in­flu­ence can be seen in mon­u­ments like Angkor Wat and Borobu­dor, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of the Ra­mayana, re­li­gions like Bud­dhism and Hin­duism, and pow­er­ful Sriv­i­jaya Em­pire that ruled the waves here. What more culi­nary prac­tices in the kitchen?

Most notable of In­dia’s culi­nary in­flu­ences here is curry, which was bor­rowed and evolved into a genre of dishes found through­out South­east Asia. Not lim­ited to the spice mix alone, ‘curry’ here refers col­lec­tively to stews cooked in spicy aro­matic gravies, with or with­out co­conut milk. Whereas yo­ghurt is used in In­dian cur­ries, the cooks of South­east Asia use more co­conut milk in­stead. The dry spices in In­dian cur­ries—cloves, cin­na­mon, star anise, black pep­per—also fea­ture in the more southerly coun­tries like In­done­sia and Malaysia, but the north­ern coun­tries like Cam­bo­dia and Thailand have taken to us­ing lo­cal herbs like lemon­grass, chill­ies, lime leaves.

What’s more, schol­ars spec­u­late that the tech­nique of pound­ing spices into a rem­pah, then fried as the first step to cook­ing, also came from the In­di­ans.


Just as In­dian in­flu­ence be­gan to wane, the 14th cen­tury saw the ar­rival of the Euro­peans greedy to dom­i­nate the lu­cra­tive spice trade and the am­ple prof­its it promised. Coloni­sa­tion fol­lowed, with the Por­tuguese, Span­ish, Dutch, French and British grab­bing ter­ri­to­ries for them­selves, and rul­ing over the lo­cals all the way to the 20th cen­tury. As dirty as pol­i­tics and power play were then, it brought plenty of for­eign flavours into the cook­ing pot, and made a last­ing im­pact on the lo­cal cuisines. You’ll find in South­east Asia’s cuisines lega­cies of each coun­try’s colo­nial his­tory.

Viet­nam, which was long un­der French rule, count baguettes as a sta­ple, but given a lo­cal twist in banh mi, where ham or pate is sand­wiched in a baguette with pick­led daikon, car­rots, cu­cum­bers and topped with co­rian­der and slathered with chilli sauce. You can also see the French crepe in banh xeo, which is made with rice flour and co­conut milk, and filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts, and served on a bed of let­tuce, mint and basil along­side a spicy dip­ping sauce. Lao­tian fare also shows up the French in­flu­ence: baguettes drip­ping with con­densed milk is a break­fast stan­dard, washed down with good strong cof­fee, or pate sand­wiches.

Philip­pines had been un­der the yoke of the Span­ish from the 14th cen­tury to just be­fore the 20th. To­gether with Catholi­cism, the Span­ish in­flu­enced the Filipinos in their love for roasted whole pigs, rich meat stews and dairy-based sweets. The mag­nif­i­cent le­chon, roasted pig, is eas­ily the coun­try’s most fa­mous dish and im­port from the Span­ish. Then there are ado­bos, rich vine­gar-laced meat stews, leche flans, pochero stews with chorizo and lo­cal cook­ing ba­nanas, and menudo, a tomato-based dish of sliced pork and calf’s liver.

And let’s not for­get Eurasian food, an en­tire cui­sine that came about with the ar­rival of the Por­tuguese, and which left a culi­nary trail that stretched from Goa all the way to Malaysia.

Worth not­ing at this point, the Euro­peans also brought with them ex­cit­ing pro­duce from the New World, in­clud­ing chill­ies, toma­toes and pota­toes, amongst oth­ers. Firm stal­warts in our kitchens, it is im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine what Thai or Per­anakan cui­sine would be like with­out chilli, for in­stance. And what is chicken curry or curry puffs to­day with­out pota­toes?

Run­ning through this en­tire nar­ra­tive is the nat­u­ral os­mo­sis of ideas, flavours and meals where com­mu­ni­ties and cul­tures meet. The food of south­ern Thailand carry the in­flu­ences of its neigh­bour Malaysia, show­ing up in hot­ter, sharper cur­ries, sa­tays with peanut sauce, and khao yam, a rice dish com­bin­ing lime leaves, green beans, peanuts, co­conut, and which have echoes of nasi ulam. Sim­i­larly in south­ern Philip­pines— Min­danao, Sa­mal and the Sulu ar­chi­pel­ago—lo­cals dine on ren­dang, curry manok iban talum or chicken curry, and other stews per­fumed with co­conut milk, turmeric, gin­ger, gar­lic, lemon­grass and chill­ies. In Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia, from the melt­ing pot of races evolved hy­brid dishes that have be­come main­stays in lo­cal fare, like mee goreng which blends a lit­tle of In­dian, Malay and Chi­nese el­e­ments; and Chi­nese satay, or pork satay mar­i­nated in tra­di­tional spices and with a peanut-pineap­ple sauce.

It would take a tome to fully deal with this vast topic, of how cul­tures in­flu­ence the food across South­east Asia. It is a story of the land, the cul­tures, the col­lec­tive re­gional his­tory as well as that of the in­di­vid­ual coun­tries. What’s more, it is a liv­ing topic that con­tin­ues to de­velop right be­fore our eyes—for in­stance, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of north­ern Chi­nese foods into our street food scene now, when barely 20 years ago, it was seen as a ‘for­eign cui­sine’ in Sin­ga­pore.

Suf­fice to say that the food story of South­east Asia is a liv­ing, breath­ing, fas­ci­nat­ing one, that car­ries with it the sto­ries of the past and the fu­ture.

Top Rice is the pre­dom­i­nant sta­ple of South­east Asia

Left Ven­dors sell­ing lo­cal pro­duce

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