Basic Foods in Southeast Asia
A great way to explore the regional cuisines of Southeast Asia starts with the basics — the most common foods in each culture.
Banh mi: A take on the French casse-croûte (meaning "break crust," or sandwich), this Southeast Asian lunch favorite is made with a small baguette, split open lengthwise and filled with pickled carrots and daikon, fresh lettuce, cilantro, chili sauce and Vietnamese bologna, pâté and/or grilled lemongrass-flavored sliced pork.
Basic Marinade: The delicious, authentic combination of equal parts palm sugar and fish sauce with grated garlic and lemongrass is used as a marinade for all sorts of proteins. Pork chops or chicken thighs, for example, are marinated for about 20 minutes, and then grilled and served with lime or lemon wedges on the side.
Cabbage Salad: Popularly referred to as "Asian coleslaw," this refreshing shredded green cabbage salad is seasoned with fish sauce, sugar and freshly squeezed lime juice, and garnished with crushed peanuts and cilantro, mint or Thai basil leaves. Add leftover shredded or sliced roast chicken or pork, or steamed shrimp for a more filing version of the recipe.
Coconut Tapioca Soup: This sweet coconut soup with tapioca pearls is often consumed as a snack or at the end of a wedding or birthday dinner. Served hot, at room temperature, or chilled, it is delicious topped with yellow corn kernels, or diced banana, taro root or sweet potato, and garnished with a light sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds.
Curries: Coconut milk-based for the most part, curries play an important role in Southeast Asian cuisines. Ranging from mild to intensely hot and spicy, they often start with melting coconut butter and stir-frying a spice paste—commonly lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, turmeric and galangal with dry spices including coriander, cumin and fenugreek — followed by meat or vegetables. Coconut milk and occasionally stock is then added, and reduced until slightly thickened. Curries are often served with long-grain white rice, sticky short-grain rice or French baguette.
Green Papaya Salad (or Green Mango Salad): Unripe green papaya or mango are often used like vegetables. Here either fruit is shredded or finely julienned and dressed in a sweet lime and fish sauce dressing. In a pinch, use readily-available and hard-to-the-touch mango.
Nuoc cham: A sweet lime and fish sauce dipping sauce with sliced, chopped or minced fresh garlic and chilies, this ubiquitous table condiment is enjoyed throughout Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It is great for dipping spring rolls and all sorts of lettuce-wrapped grilled meats and seafood. It is also a delicious alternative to classic salad dressings.
Peanut Sauce: One of the most popular dipping sauces in Southeast Asia is made with dry roasted, unsalted peanuts, Hoisin sauce, fish sauce and coconut milk. Significant regional variations exist, for example the sauce can also be enhanced with garlic, shallots, chilies and red curry paste.
Pickled vegetables: A cucumber, daikon, and carrot mix that is drained using salt, and marinated in sugar-sweetened rice vinegar. This is often had at the beginning of a meal to whet the appetite; or served as a vegetable main course over rice with a grilled protein such as fish, squid or pork.
Raw Beef Salad: The beef here is more accurately spice-and-salt-cured rather than strictly raw. A specialty item, it is fragrant with fish sauce, or fish paste (prahok) combined with palm sugar, and tamarind. Loaded with fresh Thai basil, fresh mung bean sprouts, and sprinkled with crushed roasted peanuts; the beef is thinly sliced and mixed in.
Rice Noodle Soups (K'way teao): Street food vendors' classic rice noodles soups are popular in many parts of Southeast Asia. Boiled, the noodles are set afloat a steaming beef, chicken, or pork-based broth, which is sometimes served separately on the side. The noodles are topped with thinly sliced beef, shrimp, squid or pork, or a combination of proteins, a handful of fresh mung bean sprouts are added. Garnished with fried shallots, or garlic oil, freshly torn herbs such as Thai basil or cilantro, and drizzled with freshly squeezed lime juice, these soups were originally considered breakfast or snack fare. Nowadays they are enjoyed throughout the day as a single dish meal.
Satay: These grilled, skewered morsels are very much like shish-kebobs. Often flavored in an herb and spice paste combining fish sauce, palm sugar, lemongrass, garlic and dry spices including turmeric, cumin, coriander, for example, the cubed or ground meat or seafood is grilled and served with chili sauce, nuoc cham or a peanut-based dipping sauce.
Sour Soups: Sour soups are enjoyed throughout Southeast Asia. The souring ingredients are often lime, calamansi (a citrus fruit about the size of a key lime), green star fruit (carambola) or green mango. The broth is generally clear, much like a French consumé, and sometimes enhanced with fragrant ingredients such as Thai basil, kaffir limes leaves, galangal and lemongrass.
Spring Rolls: These deep-fried morsels are often made using rice paper, thin wheat flour wrappers, or thin lacy crepes. Filled with all sorts of vegetables and proteins, some versions are served with nuoc cham, while other versions are served with sweet soy sauce called kecap manis, and still others with rice vinegar for dipping.
Stir-fried Leafy Greens: Seasoned lightly with fish sauce and the occasional pinch of sugar, leafy greens such as water spinach or mustard cabbage are often had stir-fried in pork fat or oil, and flavored with garlic.
Summer Rolls: Also referred to as "salad rolls" or "fresh spring rolls," these deliciously refreshing rolls of shrimp, lettuce, carrot, cucumber and mint, wrapped in softened, delicate rice paper make for a wonderful appetizer. The technique is easy to learn, and you can replace the traditional protein of shrimp with shredded or sliced leftover chicken, pork or tofu, for example. These are often served with peanut sauce or nuoc cham garnished with ground peanuts. Serve summer rolls as an appetizer, especially as your guests wait to be called to the table for a family-style meal.
Table Salad: Served alongside grilled meats or seafood, a table salad consists of cooked rice vermicelli drizzled with fried scallion oil, shredded carrots, sliced cucumber, fresh mint and tender lettuce leaves. To eat, a little of each ingredient, including a morsel of grilled protein, is wrapped in a lettuce leaf and dipped in nuoc cham.