Feeling the Heat
A Primer on Southeast Asian Cuisine
Anthony Bourdain — the late “rock star” chef, provocateur and food author — traveled extensively around the world for his popular television programs “No Reservations” and “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” Throughout his globe-trotting adventures in eating, he always held a special place in his heart for Southeast Asian cuisine. “Going to Southeast Asia for the first time and tasting the spectrum of flavors … that certainly changed my whole palate, the kinds of food I crave,” he famously remarked. “A lot of the dishes I used to love became boring to me.”
Thankfully, you don’t have to book an international flight to experience the transformative power of an authentic bowl of tom yum goong (a hot Thai soup containing shrimp, lemongrass, chile peppers, shallots and fish sauce). There are plenty of wonderful windows into the spice-laden world of Southeast Asian cuisine that are available close to home. And while there are a few staple ingredients (rice and fresh vegetables) that appear throughout the Southeast Asian culinary landscape, regional offerings are distinctively inspired by their local topography, geographic neighbors (China and the Indian subcontinent), and historic colonial influences, resulting in unique flavor profiles that surprise and delight.
Southeast Asia is comprised of mainland and maritime components. The mainland countries of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar (formerly known and frequently referred to as Burma) make up the Indochinese Peninsula, while island or maritime Southeast Asia includes Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and the new nation of East Timor (formerly part of Indonesia).
For the purposes of this article, we will focus on food that’s native to the mainland peninsula, for no other reason than space on the page. What follows should be viewed as a simple starter on Southeast Asian cuisine, featuring flavor profiles and dish highlights from a handful of regions. It should not be read as exhaustive coverage of any of the complex and nuanced cuisines that are featured, all of which are rich in culture and wildly varied. In truth, we would be hard pressed to cover them fully in 4,000 pages, let alone four.
We also will recommend some local restaurants that promise to make your taste buds tingle.
Perhaps the most familiar Southeast Asian flavor profile to the casual American consumer, Thai food is a delicious blend of hot, sour, salty and sweet taste sensations, evoked by indigenous spices, herbs and fruits such as galanga, ginger, lemongrass, tamarind and cilantro. Thai food is generally stir-fried or steamed, mainly in a wok. Thailand is one of the largest rice exporters in the world, so it’s unsurprising that most Thai meals are based around rice. Noodles — likely introduced from China — also play a prominent role, depending on your location within the country.
For Americans, the dish most often associated with Thai cuisine is pad thai, a palate-friendly stir-fried noodle dish that features prawns or chicken mixed with a sweet and sour sauce. A dried chile powder or phrik nam pla (spicy fish sauce) is added sometimes to take the heat up a notch. Due to Thailand’s coastal placement around the Gulf of Thailand and its many internal waterways, fish and shrimp (along with their pastes) are featured in many Thai dishes, as well. You’ll also find a variety of lovely Thai curries, influenced by southern Indian cooking. Coconut milk is used to lessen the heat.
Local eatery: Thai Sweet Basil l Andover, Mass. l (978) 470-8098 l ThaiSweetBasilAndover.com
Vietnamese cuisine is similar in many ways to Thai food, although curries aren’t nearly as prevalent. Most meals are marked by fresh herbs, delightful aromatics, and strong fish sauces. Often considered healthier than some of its Southeast Asian counterparts due to its fresh spring rolls and bone broth noodle soups, Vietnamese cuisine is also heavily influenced by the French colonization of the 19th and 20th centuries. Banh mi, essentially a Vietnamese take on a French baguette, is traditionally stuffed with sour pickled daikon, carrot, chiles and sweet minced pork. Pho (pronounced “fuh”), another popular option, is a slowly simmered broth poured over thinly sliced meat, vegetables and rice noodles, and topped with fresh herbs.
Local eateries: Pho88 l Lowell, Mass. l (978) 452-7300 l Pho88Online.net
Pho Street l Nashua, N.H. l (603) 718-8678 l PhoStreetRestaurant.com
Cambodian cuisine (also referred to as Khmer food) shares many dishes with its geographic neighbors. Here, you’ll find food items similar to Thai soups, Indian-inspired curries (although they’re typically less spicy than their Thai counterparts), and num pang (sandwiches comparable to Vietnamese banh mi). Freshwater fish plays a prominent role in many dishes, including the popular staple amok, a thick curry commonly made from fish that is cooked in banana leaves, sweetened with coconut milk and seasoned with indigenous spices. For the adventurous among us, delve into exotic delicacies like tarantula or pong tia koon (also known as balut), a fertilized duck embryo; or venture into market-style snacks, including beef skewers, fried noodles, and num kachay (chive cakes).
Local eatery: Heng Lay Restaurant l Lowell, Mass. l (978) 458-4619 l HengLayRestaurant.com
Packed with lemongrass and galanga (a rhizome related to ginger with a sharp and peppery citrus flavor), Laotian cuisine most closely resembles Thai and Cambodian food, though it embodies a culture all its own. Laap, the unofficial national dish of Laos, consists of chopped meat (beef, chicken, pork or duck) mixed with toasted rice and seasoned with fish sauce and lime, and sprinkled with herbs. Som tam (green papaya salad) and ping pa (marinated freshwater fish) are two popular dishes, the latter often accompanied by sticky rice, an experiential food used to scoop up the other parts of the meal.
Local eatery: Lanxang Star Restaurant l Dracut, Mass. l (978) 677-6339 l LanxangStarDracut.com
Myanmar, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, but often referred to by its former name of Burma, is the largest country on the Indochinese Peninsula, and its culture and cuisine reflect Indian and Chinese influences. The sour and savory food hasn’t received the international recognition it may deserve, perhaps due to the country’s 50 years of isolation under military rule. It was dissolved in 2011, but this February the Myanmar military deposed democratically-elected officials.
Many people in Myanmar start the day with mohinga, a breakfast bowl of rice noodles swimming in a fish-based soup and sprinkled with deep-fried fritters. Tea leaf salad is also a popular dish, as are samosas (savory triangular pockets served hot and packed with onions, yogurt or chutneys).
Local(ish) eatery: Yoma Boston l Allston, Mass. l (617) 783-1372 l TeaSalad.com
Food for Thought:
• In the 16th century, Portuguese traders brought chile pepper from their colonies in the Americas to Southeast Asia. The fiery pepper has since become a staple in many a Southeast Asian dish.
• Illustrative of the cultural importance of food and rice, Cambodians often greet one another with the phrase, “Nyam bai howie nov?” (“Have you eaten rice yet?”)
[Author’s note: Although not in the MV, Yoma Boston is one of the region’s only authentic Myanmar/Burmese restaurants. It was started by a couple who left the region as political asylum-seekers and consistently receives favorable reviews.]