Southeast Asia boasts some of the most diverse cuisines in the world. From Vietnam and Thailand to Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, the region acts as the culinary bridge between Asia and India. Imagine a classic Chinese dish infused with complex Indian spices and it is easy to see why people have fallen in love with these cuisines.
Many find it fascinating how Southeast Asian dishes can represent many flavor profiles at once – sweet, salty, spicy, and bitter. And because of the depth found in each bite, every meal is served with rice as a neutralizer and communal broth for cleansing the palate.
Typically served family style, Southeast Asians do not follow the typical western-style three course meal. In fact, most countries avoid eating dessert unless it is a special occasion such as a wedding because most meals already contain enough sweetness to satisfy any palate.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the cuisines of Southeast Asia’s most unique countries:
Vietnam has two distinct culinary regions – north and south. Vietnam’s northern region has a strong Chinese influence, serving many noodle based soups. Southern Vietnam is known for its sweeter dishes, utilizing locally grown fruits, herb gardens, and coconut groves. The French have also had a lasting effect on Vietnamese cuisine, introducing both sandwiches and Pho, a soup dish with Vietnamese noodles but French-styled flavored broth.
Contrary to popular belief, not all Thai food is spicy. Some dishes do have a strong heat element, but often, they are simultaneously sweet and sour. Thailand has three basic curries – red, green, and yellow, and all meals are served with jasmine rice. In fact, rice is the main component of every single Thai dish, whether it be breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Malaysia is the “melting pot” in Southeast Asia. Located between Thailand and Singapore, Malaysia was central to many trade routes throughout history and therefore is a true blend of many cuisines. With a diverse population, Malay cuisine carries hints of India, China, Thailand, and Great Britain. You will find street vendors lined throughout the streets day and night with griddles for barbecued meat, woks for stir-fries, and tropical fruits.
There are many sub-cuisines in the Philippines, with each of its islands having its own unique culinary culture. There is one reoccurring theme throughout the islands, however, and that is boldness. Filipino’s love to infuse their meat-centric dishes with bold, strong flavors from marinades and braises. In fact, the most common ingredient in all Filipino cupboards is vinegar, used for such marinades. When it comes to the meat in these dishes, the most popular is pork. Also, as an island nation, you will find an abundance of fish and seafood dishes.
The cuisines of Southeast Asia are just as diverse as the countries of the region, with each having its own unique personality and flavors. Experimenting with these cuisines can be very rewarding, as you will undoubtedly experience new flavors and techniques. Enjoy the journey!