A JOURNEY OF FLAVOURS
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
“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.”
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.
INDIAN & CHINESE INFLUENCES
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