As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) comes closer to the day when it will form one community of 600 million people, it is about time for the grouping’s leaders to start getting serious about food.
Yes, Asean food. What better subject to discuss than the many well-known dishes that grace the region? It’s something everyone could talk about without provoking the kind of conflict that the South China Sea issue has stirred up. No Asean leader would ever have a bad word to say about food—especially those from their home countries.
The only problem to contend with when it comes to Asean’s national dishes is the fact that there are just too many of them. To choose just a few to represent the variety of Asean palates would be unfair. Therefore it is necessary to examine the Asean menu and highlight some of the best ones that the region’s leaders can refer to.
In Burma, the most famous food is unquestionably mohinga, a light fish curry soup served with rice noodles. Everywhere you go in the country, you can see small stands with huge aluminum or sometimes clay pots serving this delightful dish. Sliced cucumbers, diced carrots and other vegetable garnishes are eaten alongside the noodles; boiled eggs and deep-fried tempura-style vegetables can also be added. Street vendors offer servings for a mere 75 cents, and hotels everywhere include it on their breakfast menu.
Because it is located at the center of Asean, Singapore has so many culinary delights to choose from that it’s difficult to single out just one. But Singapore’s chicken rice has made a name for itself throughout the region, if not the world. In the past, it was called “Singapore’s Hainan chicken rice,” but now it’s just “Singapore’s chicken rice,” reflecting, perhaps, the city-state’s growing confidence that it has created the definitive version of this dish. It consists of succulent spring chicken, steamed or boiled and served with garlic rice and sliced cucumbers. What distinguishes the island’s chicken rice from that of the rest of Asean is its unique chili sauce—a careful blend of red chili, ground garlic and ginger. Those who prefer a non-spicy sauce can go for ground ginger in oil. Prices vary from 4 to 6 dollars.
Malaysia is also a gastronomic paradise, thanks to its long history of interactions between local and foreign traditions. Obviously, one has to pick Penang laksa as the ultimate Malaysian dish. Its sour tamarind-based soup, served with various kinds of noodle, can be overwhelming. The perfect bowl of laksa must be garnished with sliced cucumber, pineapples, onion, chillies and and bunga kantan, or ginger buds. When the Malaysian government wants to promote its local cuisine overseas, it invariably picks laksa as a culinary ambassador.
In the Philippines, eating is a national pastime. This used to be the place where citizens of other Asean countries came for American fare, such as hamburgers, Cheese Whiz and mayonnaise. With influences from afar, including Spain and the United States, Filipino food is unbeatable. Crispy pata or deep-fried pork is the dish of choice for many. Its bread sauce (others prefer a vinegar sauce) is extraordinary, with such a smooth flavor. Eaten together with grilled young pork, it has a heavenly taste.
In Indonesia, nasi goreng is the indisputable dish of Java. The fried rice with diced meat, carrots and other goodies are put together over a hot wok. Depending on the vendors, the flavor can vary widely. It’s better and less dry if made with fresher rice. Then again, some like their nasi goreng dry, so it very much depends on the vendors. Indonesia is the only place in Asean that serve durian nasi goreng, which has an indescribable flavor, best appreciated by fans of the creamy and distinctly stinky durian.
Among the Buddhist nations of Southeast Asia, several dishes are similar, but there are differences in nuances of taste and ingredients. It is difficult to pick the right choice. For Cambodia, its famous dried smoke fish salad with mango is the one. Together with fresh vegetables and fruits such as raw green mangos, green papaya and fresh herbs, it is refreshing and can be filling.
Landlocked Laos has a long tradition of eating glutinous rice with fresh vegetables and preserved meats. The Lao dipping dish jiao bong is the most amazing—the dipping sauce is served with a selection of grilled buffalo rinds, onion, garlic and chili paste. The dipping sauce goes along with sticky rice or hot rice, steamed vegetables and crispy buffalo rinds. For travelers, this can be packed easily and can last for days.
When it comes to noodle-based dishes, Vietnamese pho is the most impressive. It takes several hours to prepare the soup, which determines if the bowl of the day is good or not. Well-done cooked rice noodles are served with sliced meats, either beef or chicken. Strangely, pork never seems to be served with such pho.
Finally, there is Thai food. There are quite a few items to choose from: massaman curry, tom yam, papaya salad, and green curry, to name just a few. However, the sweet curry massaman stands out. It was voted by Newsweek online as the world’s most popular dish. But perhaps most Thais and other Asean citizens would pick tom yam soup, which can take the breath away—quite literally, if you put in too much chili. Whether it’s tom yam krung (tom yam with shrimp) or tom yam pla (with fish), this spicy soup contains fresh herbs such as lemongrass, galangal and kafir leaves, mixed with a little red chili and lime juice.
Three years ago, the Asean leaders agreed to hoist an Asean flag to mark the bloc’s founding day on Aug. 8. Now, it is time for Asean to introduce an Asean Food Day to promote dishes from the region. At various meetings, besides serving local dishes, other Asean dishes should be served as well.