The Diverse Cuisine of Southeast Asia

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Southeast Asia is located in the tropics of Asia and it’s a perfect place to grow fruits and vegetables. The region is made up of many small islands, which created many various cultures. The indigenous widely grown ingredient in the region is rice, which is consumed around the region. Other examples include noodles, starchy tubers, and legumes. Many of the Southeast Asian recipes have been passed down through the generations. Very little is known about Southeast Asian history than that of China, India or Europe. Traditional food in this region is quite different from the more well known Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean or Thai dishes that are widely available in western Chinese restaurants, Indian restaurants, Japanese restaurants, Korean restaurants, Thai and any Asian restaurants in western countries. Outside the major cities in this region, the traditional preparation methods of the food has been passed down through the generations. With the great variety of local cultures in this region there is no single theme for food. These cultures basically have the same things in their environment. But because of the religious influences of Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism, the food in this region goes through a great number of variations; it has been prepared by a stray of different herbs to season the food, and a great deal of the food has been complex to prepare.

Overview of Southeast Asian Cuisine

Returning to the concept of the diversity of Southeast Asian food, the range is so wide that it is easier to identify commonalities in the type of food. Most of the countries have some form of salad, as well as grilled/BBQ meat and boiled/steamed rice. The salads are not just limited to vegetables, rice vermicelli, and seasoned rice or mustards also count as forms of salad. Soup is also a common feature, made from all manner of ingredients to complement and contrast taste sensations. Although the base of the cuisine is relatively identical, the way that the ingredients are prepared and the way it is infused with local culture and tradition is what sets Southeast Asian food apart from each other and the rest of the world.

On one hand, exposure to other types of food and influence has been a positive experience. An increase in global trade and easier access to information has made people increasingly more health-conscious. This has led to an increased interest and awareness of the types of foods people are eating. The Defence Science Organisation of Singapore has classified and had success at creating a healthier version of traditional foods to help increase the standard of living in the defense force. Additionally, the World Food Research Sdn. Bhd. has developed a tropical fruit salad with a long shelf life as a healthy snack alternative. Increased health awareness has also created a fusion of healthier options. An example is the Japanese macrobiotic influence, which aims to create a balanced lifestyle by eating natural produce with a greater emphasis on locally grown foods. The Suzuki Institute. It is evident that these would not have become options if there was no influence from other countries or external growth of knowledge and information.

Colonialization indirectly helped spread and popularize rice to certain Southeast Asian countries, for example, Malaysia and Indonesia. Portuguese trade with the Spanish shaped modern-day Malaysia and Indonesia. Indonesia has a heavily spice-influenced cuisine thanks to the Dutch who created the spice trade which is still flourishing to this day. Vietnam has a nod towards France with their use of bread, and their own colonial history creating “fusion dishes” an example would be a French-style beef stew with noodles. Fast food and Western supermarkets are also a common phenomenon in the more metropolitan areas of SEA, as well as a lot of food manufacturing. Much of the food products are high speed, high energy density, convenience foods with little or no nutritional value. This is a negative offshoot from globalization.

The Monsoon Asia, the region of Southeast Asia, is defined as geographically situated south of China, east of India, and north of Australia, and is composed of a very wet and tropical monsoon climate. This climate is the reason why rice is a staple food in this region. It is this very climate and rice field cultivation that also lays the reason for the abundance of spice usage throughout the region to flavor food. With abundant natural resources at their disposal, as well as trade routes from East Asia, European, Indian, and the Middle Eastern countries, Southeast Asia has an extremely diverse food culture. This is due to the varieties of migrations and colonial activities which had taken place in the past. This result, however, has both positive and negative influences on the lifestyle of peoples of Southeast Asia.

Influences on Southeast Asian Cuisine

Japanese cuisine has also had a substantial impact on Southeast Asian food. Tempoyak, the fermented durian sauce, a typical Malay food, is similar to tempura as it is made of small parts of durian fruit and fish, making it nothing like the original product. Tonkatsu sauce has also been localized using a mixture of Indian and Malay spices. The Japanese introduced tofu to the region and it is now widely used in many dishes.

Chinese food in the region has had a great influence on the style of cooking, ingredients, and the dishes. The Chinese brought along a tradition of stir-frying and deep-frying vegetables and meats which has been incorporated into local cuisine. The use of a variety of different sauces to flavor their food can be seen in the Indonesian use of kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) as well as in Malay cooking where it is not uncommon to use soy sauce, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, and many other different varieties of Chinese sauces in one dish. The Chinese introduced a number of different leafy green vegetables such as bok choy and Chinese cabbage which are not indigenous to the region but are now commonly eaten. Finally, and most importantly, is the Chinese introduction of noodles and rice as staple diet. This has come to define the typical meal in much of Southeast Asia.

The Indians also brought sweet and savoury deep-fried snacks such as vadai, gaedgery, and the dumpling-type snack known as curry puff. These are still very popular in Malaysia and Singapore. The Indian influence in Malay and Indonesian food is so deep that this is the only foreign food that can be classified as totally local.

Indian and Chinese influences have played a particularly prominent role in shaping the region’s culinary traditions. The Indian use of spices can be seen in the use of such spices as cardamom, cumin, turmeric, and coriander. Indian influence is also seen in the use of Muslim featuring cattle meat. Mutton and lamb were not used because farmers needed the animals for milk production and to increase the flocks. This form of food production created a society that was free of malnutrition and disease, providing a stable population base for pursuing other activities.

Popular Southeast Asian Dishes

While nasi goreng is often thought to be an Indonesian dish, it is actually widespread across the Southeast Asia region, and each country has its unique twist to it. In Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore, for example, nasi goreng is often served with additional items such as ikan bilis (dried anchovy), acar (pickles), and fried egg. In the Netherlands, through its colonial connections with Indonesia, nasi goreng and its derivative known as bamigoreng are popular meals, to the extent that they are being described as part of Dutch cuisine.

Nasi goreng is Indonesian for “fried rice”. It is a meal that includes stir-fried rice in a mixture of soy sauce, shallot, garlic, tamarind, chili, and accompanied with other ingredients like egg, chicken, and prawns. Nasi goreng is often described as an Indonesian equivalent to Chinese fried rice because of its similarity. However, it is spicier and more savory due to the generous addition of sweet soy sauce. The main difference is that nasi goreng often uses kecap manis or sweet soy sauce, which gives the dish its black color. Nasi goreng can also be found in hawker stalls, warungs, and high-end restaurants. There is also instant nasi goreng seasoning, which is relatively popular in Indonesia and its neighboring countries.

Nasi Goreng

Nasi Goreng literally means “fried rice” in Indonesian and Malay. Each country has its own interpretation of this dish, but it is generally prepared with stir-fried rice, spiced with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), shallot, garlic, tamarind and chilli and accompanied with other ingredients, particularly fried egg, acar (pickles) and fried chicken. It normally takes the previous day’s cooked rice for better results, as the rice would be hardened and coated by the other ingredients. Nasi goreng can be found at all food vendors in Indonesia and Malaysia, from hawkers, warungs, to high-end restaurants. There are many variants of nasi goreng; a popular one is Nasi Goreng Pattaya, which is wrapped with an omelette. It is also a popular choice for a supper dish in Malaysia and the popularity of this dish has led to Nasi Goreng being served in many western-style food courts in the region. A simpler dish for children called Nasi Goreng Merah (red fried rice) is merely fried rice with ketchup or tomato sauce, which gives it the red color. A similar recipe exists in the Netherlands and is known as nasi goreng, taken to the country during the Dutch East Indies colonial period. This is one of the reasons nasi goreng is often considered as a national dish for Indonesia and Malaysia.

Pad Thai

The Pad Thai recipe and its stories are completely different from the rest. It was claimed that Thai Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram promoted the dish as a part of his campaign to establish Thai nationalism. Pad Thai reflects the Thaification of the country during his era. Stir-fried noodles had been common in ancient times, it was called Guay Tiew. The improvement of Pad Thai is just a part of the Thai government’s plan to make Guay Tiew a national dish. The good mixture of sour, sweet, salty, and hot taste had improved the popularity of Pad Thai throughout the world until now. Traditionally, Pad Thai is made from soaked dried rice noodles, which are stir-fried with eggs and chopped firm tofu, and flavored with tamarind pulp, fish sauce, dried shrimp, garlic or shallots, red chili pepper, and palm sugar, and served with lime wedges and often chopped roasted peanuts. It has established its popularity all over Thailand and also the world with its simple ingredients, easy cooking method, and satisfying taste, not forgetting its cheap price. Pad Thai has been one of tourists’ favorite dishes when they visit Thailand. They have conducted Pad Thai cooking classes to learn Thai cooking, and one of the menu items is usually Pad Thai.


Laksa is a popular spicy noodle soup from the Peranakan culture, which is a merger of Chinese and Malay elements found in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. There are various types of laksa, but the main ingredients for the many variants are coconut milk and/or tamarind (or in Indonesia, which might be the only one that does not use coconut milk), which gives the laksa its rich, creamy base. The secret of laksa lies in the rempah, a spice paste or wet spice made from a mixture of shallots, garlic, ginger, galangal, turmeric, lemongrass, and chili. It is stir-fried in oil to bring out the aroma, and oil will rise to the surface. This gives the soup its distinct “head” of spicy flavored oil on the surface. Usually, this process of frying the spice paste can take a long time, and the flavor becomes more intense the longer it is fried. This “pesta rempah” or “party of spices” can be too much for some, and the amount of chili that is put into the paste is very much dependent on the individual’s tolerance of chili. Coconut milk is then added, and some recipes call for the paste to be mixed with the coconut milk and strained to produce a clearer soup. Ground fish is also commonly added to the paste to give it a rich, fishy taste and thicker consistency. Other common ingredients include various other vegetables, tofu puffs, hard-boiled eggs, seafood, or chicken.


“If you’ve never tried making it yourself, give it a go on the weekend using a slow cooker. You can let the broth simmer away overnight and always wake up to a nice aroma,” he suggests. You’ll definitely still have to buy a few bowls on the side to get the full experience, but it’s a more convenient option than standing over the stove for hours. Pho is a Vietnamese custom that will no doubt be around for generations to come. With its rich flavors and heartwarming essence, there’s more than enough reasons to prove why it’s the country’s number one dish. Step aside pizza, pho may also be a suitable candidate for the title of world cuisine.

Rutherford also recommends trying out a traditional pho serving style – straight from a street-side vendor. “Vendors inexpensively set up mini charcoal burner tables and chairs on the sidewalks. You sit in the open air, enjoying the food while watching the world go by,” he explains. Offering a glimpse of the local culture and a hotter bowl of pho than the ones you’d find at home.

Vietnam might be the smallest country in Southeast Asia, but it is not lacking when it comes to unique, mouth-watering dishes – pho being the most famous. This popular rice noodle soup has its origins from the French and Chinese and is a fragrant and delicious taste of Vietnam. Coming in a myriad of variations, the southern-style pho has thin slices of beef, and a chicken variety is also popular. Each region has its own style of spices, but generally, pho is in a broth flavored with ginger, onions, coriander, and star anise. Top it off with fresh mint, basil leaves, and bean sprouts. Pho is considered comfort food in every Vietnamese household.

Unique Ingredients in Southeast Asian Cuisine

Kaffir lime leaves are another unique ingredient used in both Indonesian and Thai cuisine. The leaves are widely used in both countries to add a distinct and complex flavor to a variety of dishes. In addition to the leaves, the zest and the juice of the kaffir lime fruit is also used to marinate meats and seafood. The leaves are most commonly used to flavor a traditional Thai soup Tom Yum and are also used with other herbs to make a spicy Indonesian sambal. The kaffir lime leaves are known for their aromatic nature and often give a unique citrus-refreshing taste to any dish.

Galangal is a relative of the ginger root and is a very common ingredient used in Indonesian and Malaysian cooking. The galangal root is very firm and has tough, outer skin and the flesh is a creamy white color. It has a stronger flavor than ginger and is said to be a cross between ginger and pepper. The unique taste of galangal adds an authentic flavor to many Southeast Asian dishes such as the popular Indonesian beef stew, Soto Betsawi. This dish calls for galangal to be mixed in with a number of other spices to make a flavorful paste and thus giving it an unmistakable taste of Indonesia.

Lemongrass is a very commonly used herb in Southeast Asian cooking and adds a distinct lemon-like flavor to dishes. Most notably, lemongrass is often used to flavor various curry pastes, such as in the delicious Thai dish Tom Yum Goong. In addition to its culinary uses, lemongrass is also known for having medicinal properties and is used to make a calming tea, which is said to be good for the digestive system. However, in the context of its use in cooking, this unique spice adds an authentic flavor of Southeast Asia to any dish.


Lemongrass, a tall, hardy plant, is a key ingredient in Thai and Vietnamese cooking. In fact, the Thais use lemongrass in everything from curries to soups and salads. The Vietnamese also use lemongrass in soups and other dishes. Looking like a green onion, lemongrass tastes a little like lemon, but without the acidity. To prepare lemongrass, trim off the root end and remove the tough outer leaves. The inside of the plant, starting at the bottom, will be tender and light green. This is the part you want to chop for cooking. Stop chopping when you reach the leaves at the top and discard them, as well as any parts of the plant that have browned. Lemongrass is said to aid in digestion and alleviate muscle spasms, making it a useful remedy for stomach problems and arthritis. This is good news for those on a Southeast Asian adventure, as lemongrass is often included in dishes to counteract the effects of hard-to-stomach ingredients like tough meats and medicinal herbs. Lemongrass has also been found to lower blood pressure, increase red blood cell levels and stimulate the menstrual flow. And, if you’re feeling really adventurous, you might want to try brewing a soothing cup of lemongrass tea.


Galangal is a good example of a unique ingredient which is used in SE Asian cooking. It is widely available throughout the region and features in Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai, Singaporean, and Vietnamese cooking. In each of these countries, it is given different pronunciations and has different local names, and the culinary uses also vary as its use has adapted to local tastes. Galangal is most commonly used in the preparation of aromatic spice pastes which form the flavor base for a variety of dishes. Pastes are made by grinding the root with various combinations of chilies, shallots, garlic, lemongrass, tamarind, and other spices. Galangal is often used in combination with other ingredients such as turmeric and ginger, which is the case, for example, in Malay cooking where it is an essential ingredient in the preparation of Rendang. A well-known Indonesian dish where galangal is the key ingredient is the hot and sour soup called Soto, and the Thais are also particularly fond of galangal using it in dishes such as Tom Yum Soup. In Vietnam, it is mainly an ingredient in fish dishes and various elaborate meat stews, while in each case, the taste of the galangal has been combined with local ingredients to create dishes with special regional tastes.

Before delving deeper into the example of galangal as a unique ingredient, it is important to understand how unique ingredients as a whole are significant in distinguishing Southeast Asian food from other parts of the world. The use of various unique ingredients is what makes SE Asian cuisine so different from other parts of the world. And it is not only the type of ingredients used, but it is also the way in which they are used. There is a strong emphasis on aromatic roots, herbs, and leaves which are pounded or ground and used as a base for many dishes. Compared to the heavy reliance on powdered spices in Indian cuisine, or the use of soy sauce and ginger in Chinese food, with time the unique ingredients have not only given SE Asian food its own regional identity, but also as a symbol of national pride.

Kaffir Lime Leaves

Kaffir lime leaves are used in many curry dishes, for example, green curry, where the leaf is torn into pieces and added to the dish to release its flavor. The leaves can also be finely shredded and added to a hot and sour or coconut milk-based soup. Indonesian and Malaysian cooks typically use the leaves in their version of Nasi Goreng (fried rice), and it is almost always included as part of the aromatic ingredients employed in the initial stage of cooking the rice. Due to its versatility, kaffir lime leaves can be added to almost any dish as a quick and easy way to give it an exotic and fresh appeal.

Kaffir lime leaves are a unique ingredient of Southeast Asia. Their leaves are more commonly used than the fruit itself. The leaves are highly aromatic and provide a distinct lime flavor to many Thai, Indonesian, and Malaysian dishes. Kaffir lime leaves are available fresh, frozen, and dried, though the frozen variety tends to retain more of the pungent, less bitter citrus flavor and are often deemed the most favorable in terms of taste.

Fish Sauce

Deep amber in color and with a pungent aroma, fish sauce is a quintessential ingredient in many Southeast Asian dishes. It is often compared to soy sauce in terms of its usefulness in the region, though I would say fish sauce has a stronger cultural association with Southeast Asia than soy sauce has with the East. It is used as a staple seasoning in Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Filipino cuisine. In addition to being added to dishes during the cooking process, fish sauce is also used as a base for a dipping condiment by adding lime juice, sugar, chopped garlic, and chili. A fish sauce known as nam pla is the most commonly used fish sauce in Thai and Laotian cuisine. Nam pla is a clear salty sauce which is an essential ingredient in Thai cuisine as well as in Laotian, often used in place of soy sauce. The Indonesian variation of fish sauce is called kecap ikan. The coastal town of Cirebon in Java is famous for this type of sauce, derived from Chinese influence. The Cirebonese primarily used fish sauce as a dipping condiment on seafood and grilled chicken. Over time, Chinese people began to integrate it into traditional Javanese cuisine by substituting soy sauce with fish sauce in their dishes. The strong and savory Indonesian fish sauce is similar to that of Vietnam’s nuoc mam, which is widely used as a dipping condiment and the essential ingredient in the Vietnamese dish cha ca. Due to the global popularity of Southeast Asian cuisine, fish sauce has also gained international recognition. In recent years, chefs around the world have begun experimenting with fish sauce in non-traditional dishes, proving itself to be a versatile ingredient.

Shrimp Paste

Shrimp paste, known as belacan in Malaysia, terasi in Indonesia, and kapi in Thailand, is a pungent-smelling fermented product that is heavy in umami. It is made from tiny shrimp or krill, salted, and then fermented for several weeks. It is most commonly wrapped in plastic and set in the hot sun to mature. Shrimp paste is used as a flavoring and is an essential ingredient in many Southeast Asian dishes. Its strong taste is not for everyone, and the smell of it cooking is known for clearing rooms. Shrimp paste varies in color from pale golden to deep reddish-brown and has a smooth, hard, or sometimes sticky and granular texture. In Thailand, there are local instant pastes that are more like salt, whereas Malaysian shrimp pastes are often in blocks, sometimes with the aid of sodium carbonate added. The Vietnamese mắm ruốc is in a purée-like condition. During the cooking process, the distinctive shrimp paste aroma is often toned down and not as strong in the finished dish. It is frequently mellowed first in a small pan over a very low flame, followed by the frying of other aromatics such as garlic, shallots, and chilies. The frying process brings out the full depth and complexity of the shrimp paste’s umami flavor, resulting in a balanced, deeply savory ingredient that complements and enhances many Southeast Asian dishes.

Street Food Culture in Southeast Asia

Street food is part and parcel of everyday life for millions of Southeast Asians. Until you’ve eaten on the streets in Asia, you really haven’t eaten the most delicious food the continent has to offer. Often prepared by mobile vendors with a basket that can be carried upon their shoulder, these on-the-go meals are convenient. Every major city in Southeast Asia has street food, some with major street food events on a weekly basis. The variety of street food in the region is immense, often featuring dishes specific to a certain culture or country. In Thailand, for example, food might be skewered on a bamboo stick, while in Indonesia it is often wrapped in a banana leaf. Many regional street foods have become cultural icons, and are thus vital to preserving the traditions of the local people. Taking a look at Malaysia as an example, the cultural mix has resulted in diverse range of street foods. Hawkers in Peninsular Malaysia originally hailed from China. Hence, with them they brought noodles – which can be found in a type of soup called “loh mee”, or in a spicy and sour dry curry called “curry laksa”. Indian breads such as naan transformed into the local favourite roti canai. This pocket of culture is often referred to as mamak (an Indian Muslim). The diversity of Malaysia’s food is further enhanced by the fact that each of its many ethnic groups produces traditional festive foods. A good example of this is “lemang”, a food originating from the Malay culture. This savoury-sweet sticky rice is cooked in bamboo, and is usually only made during the Hari Raya festive period. Street food acts as a preservation of culture for many of these foods, as well as being the most authentic and tasty – often being the best choice consumers will have.

Night Markets

Night markets are an integral part of the street food culture in Southeast Asia. By day, the space may lie dormant and disregarded but when the sun sets, tents, carts, and stalls emerge and the air is filled with the sizzle and smells of Southeast Asia’s diverse cuisine. One can expect to find both food and drink at night markets with each stall or cart generally specializing in only one or two dishes. Commonly set up in the middle of a small town, night markets are a social hub for the local and sometimes even the visiting community. Here, the upbeat and fast-paced lifestyle of the West meets with the easy-going and relaxed nature of the East. This is mirrored in the food with vendors often preparing meals before your very eyes with a flurry of chopping and stir-frying. A plate of food from the night market will usually be quite cheap and the flurry of sights, smells, and sounds is guaranteed to make it an experience hard to forget.

Hawker Centers

It is common to find food vendors at markets in various locations around the globe. Hawkers often specialize in one or a few related dishes from a particular culture or region. Often, they carry portable menu boards and utensils, prepared food, or even a complete mobile kitchen. Wheeled carts and motorbikes are not uncommon. With minimal set-up and overhead, hawker food is convenient and a popular way to eat in Southeast Asia. In the open-air, less formal equivalent of a ‘hawker center’ is the ‘food court’. Similar to centers, these are clusters of vendors selling cooked food. The variety of food available at hawker centers is overwhelming and would easily require several meals to sample everything on offer. For someone unfamiliar with the local food culture, the scene can be both intimidating and alluring at the same time. There is something for everyone, from Chinese and Indian food to Muslim and Western food; and there are a great many dishes that are difficult to classify by race. Prices at hawker centers are a reflection of local living costs. In a more developed city like Singapore, a plate of chicken rice might cost $3. In Thailand, the same dish might be had for 30 Baht, and an equally delicious plate of pad thai would cost about the same. It is generally said that the more humble the setting and the lower the prices, the better the food is likely to be. This sentiment holds very true for some of the best food in Southeast Asia. At certain centers and with certain dishes, it is difficult to argue that a more delicious or authentic version of the dish exists at a five-star hotel or restaurant. The culture of hawker centers is slowly dying out in some places, due to advances in infrastructure and changing eating habits. But for many in Southeast Asia, a good proportion of daily meals are still eaten at these places, and the centers remain a focal point of social activity in the community. They are places where people from all walks of life gather to eat, and do so in the company of friends or family. The atmosphere is occasionally noisy or crowded, and it is not uncommon that the scent of delicious food is overpowered by smoke from a neighboring satay or grilled fish stall. But these sensory assaults, the clatter of chopsticks and china, and the occasional din of a wok stirring up a fresh order of stir-fry make hawker centers a truly unique and endearing experience.

Must-Try Street Food Dishes

Banh Mi is a Vietnamese sandwich. It serves a crispy French baguette over strictly Vietnamese ingredients. The sandwich usually consists of the baguette, a pork or chicken filling, pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro and chillies for that extra kick. The best part about Banh Mi is that you can get a completely different sandwich from one vendor to the next. Also, because it’s a sandwich it can be taken away and eaten on the move, this fits in perfectly with the Vietnamese street food mentality. Laksa is a popular spicy noodle soup from the Peranakan culture, which is a merger of Chinese and Malay elements found in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. There are various types of laksa, however, coconut milk is an ingredient that is present in every version. The richness of the coconut milk results in a fragrant, full-bodied and creamy soup. Laksa can be either a seafood-based soup, or a curry coconut base with chicken or beef, garnished with coriander. Additional ingredients include fish sticks, tofu puffs, and half an egg.