TL;DR This is a research post on the basics of Southeast Asian Cuisine. Sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and umami – your taste buds are in for quite a ride!
Stewing from a hodge-podge of native (Chinese, Indian) and colonial influences (French, British), the cuisine of Southeast Asia is a cornucopia of variety and flavor, yet tied together by strong common threads. In this post, we dive into the cuisine of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Thailand – As the only Southeast Asian country never colonized by the West, Thai cuisine is devoid of the baguettes, coffees, pate and such Western influences food items. Nevertheless, the cuisine of Thai does absorb heavily from its neighbors, China and India, adding its own spin on traditional dishes such as noodles and curries.
- Northern Thailand – Due to its mountainous geography, Northern Thai food uses more meats (pork, chicken) than its Southern counterpart. The cuisine is spicy, sour, savory, and rarely sweet
- Southern Thailand – Even spicier than its Northern cousin (which means soooper spicy), Southern Thai food brings in the additional element of sweetness from an abundance of coconut milk. For protein, Southern Thai food leans on seafood. Curries are also popular.
Cambodia – Cambodian cuisine is heavily influenced by its neighbors on both sides, to the point where people venture to say Cambodian cuisine is a blend of Thai and Vietnamese. While that’s true to a certain degree, Cambodian cuisine does stand out in its use of a few key ingredients such as Prahok, a gray fermented fish paste reminiscent of stinky cheese. Sweet and spicy flavors are also downplayed in Cambodian cuisines when compared to Thai.
Although Cambodian meals are centered around rice – a common greeting roughly translates to “Have you eaten rice yet?” – Cambodian meals also incorporate a large amount of bread. As a fun fact, Cambodians eat more bread than any other Southeast Asia country as a result of its French colonial past. Baguette + pate make up a common lunch.
Vietnam – Due to heavy influence from French colonization, there is a distinctive Western feel to many Vietnamese food staples – baguettes and pate make up the Banh Mi sandwich, which is often washed down with a sweet condensed milk coffee.
Vietnamese food is also characterized by its abundant use of fresh herbs: cilantro, basil, mint, dill, chives, are all common contenders.
Major Ingredients & Spices
Chili peppers – Thai chili peppers, or Bird’s Eye chili peppers, are small but pack a TON of heat. Bright red or green in color, fresh peppers are often used for flavor as well as garnish.
Curry Paste – Different than dry powdered Indian curry, Thai curry is a ground up paste of chili, lemongrass, garlic, turmeric, shrimp paste, kaffir lime and more. The lime imparts acidity, and peppers add heat.
Lemon Grass – Lemon grass has the appearance of a thick scallion, with the taste similar to the zest of a lemon. Fresh lemon grass imparts the most flavor, and is a major component of Thai curry paste.
Kaffir Lime Leaf – Leaves of the Kaffir lime tree are thick, dark green, with a distinctive aroma. The leaf is often sliced into thin strands for salads, stir-fries, and sausages, as the taste is so strong.
Fish Sauce – Don’t let the words “liquified fermented fish” scary you, fish sauce is a powerhouse umami ingredient that can be used in salad dressing, meat marinade, dipping sauces, and anywhere else that calls for salty, sweet, savory, nutty flavors. Fish sauces is used like soy sauce in many Vietnamese dishes such as bun cha.
Sticky Rice – Sticky rice is the staple food of Thailand, and can be eaten savory or sweet. My favorite? Coconut sticky rice with mango. Mmm.
Coconut Milk – Made from the grated meat of brown coconuts, coconut milk blends together many Thai curries and soups, and mellows out the spiciness.
Palm Sugar – Ranging in color from light brown to dark brown, palm sugar adds a caramel-like sweetness to salad dressings, soups, and dipping sauces. This is the most widely used type of sugar in Thai cooking.
Tom Yum Soup – A lot of spicy, a lot of sour, Tom Yum soup is a clear soup originating from Thai, but popular throughout SE Asia. [Spicy, sour]
Green Papaya Salad – Unripe papaya is shaved noodle-thin, and tossed with a fish sauce based dressing complete with palm sugar, minced garlic, chopped chili, fresh lime juice, and crushed peanuts and cilantro for garnish. [Umami, sour, spicy]
Fish Amok – National dish of Cambodia. “Amok” refers to the process of steaming a curry wrapped in banana leaves. Amok can also be made with beef or chicken, and is often eaten with rice. [Spicy, savory, sweet]
Banh Mi – Baguette base + Pate and/or pork belly an/or beef and/or shrimp and/or pickled radish and/or sliced cucumbers. Fresh herbs are not optional. [Savory, spicy, freshness from herbs]
Pho – Originating in Vietnam, Pho consists of rice noodles served in bone broth, topped with thinly sliced beef (Pho Bo). Pho made from chicken is called Pho Ga. [Umami, savory]