The Cuisine of Southeast Asia: 4 of the Region’s Most Popular Dishes


Possessing a tropical climate, fertile soil, and crystal-clear waters, the lands and oceans of Southeast Asia produce an abundance of mouthwatering produce. Encompassing Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines, the region has been influenced by numerous people and cultures throughout the centuries, culminating in an exciting fusion of different cooking styles. In this article, we look at a selection of Southeast Asia’s most celebrated dishes.

1. Martabak – Indonesia

From the sugar-white beaches of Bali to the orangutans of Borneo, Indonesia lures travelers from all over the world with its ancient temples, exotic wildlife, and breathtaking landscapes.

Little known outside of the country, Martabak is an incredibly popular Indonesian street food. Available in both sweet and savory versions, it is cooked to order and served hot and fresh.

A savory Martabak from a reputable vendor is typically made with duck eggs, featuring a two-egg filling as standard, although customers could order up to five. The vendor works a small piece of wheat dough with impressive dexterity, stretching it so thinly that the dough becomes translucent, to make a very thin base.

The dough is laid flat in a large shallow pan and fried in hot oil until it starts to bubble and blister. Meanwhile, the vendor adds cilantro, chopped green onions, and seasoned cooked ground chicken to the beaten eggs. The cook stirs the mixture, then spreads it across the center of the bubbling dough to form a thin layer.

The vendor then makes a series of folds, culminating in a neat, crispy rectangle, which is cooked until it turns golden brown before being served with sour pickled cucumbers, radishes, and raw hot chilis. The filling resembles fluffy scrambled eggs with a fresh herb flavor.

2. Bak Kut Teh – Malaysia

From the ultra-modern Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur to the azure waters of Langkawi Island, Malaysia’s eclectic blend of ancient temples and customs and chic, modern cities attracts tourists of all ages.

Made with Chinese herbs, garlic, and pork ribs, Bak Kut Teh translates as “pork bone tea soup”. Traditionally made in a clay pot, the recipe involves hours of slow boiling, resulting in pork that is so tender that it melts in your mouth.

Bak Kut Teh contains tofu puffs and Shitake mushrooms, as well as being infused with herbs like star anise, cinnamon, and Dong Quai, filling the kitchen with tempting aromas as it cooks. The dish is commonly accompanied by stir fried vegetables, rice, and a small plate of minced garlic, chili, and soy dipping sauce.

The soup is believed to have its origins in Fujian Province, China. Historians suggest that Hokkien migrants introduced the dish to Malaysia in the 1800s. Bak Kut Teh is said to have been a popular breakfast among Chinese laborers, setting them up for a day of backbreaking work.

3. Pho – Vietnam

From bustling Hanoi to the emerald mountains of the north, Vietnam is home to several UNESCO World Heritage sites, including mystical Ha Long Bay and the imperial city of Hue.

The origins of Pho are thought to date back to the 1880s in northern Vietnam. Heavily influenced by both Chinese and French cooking, Pho is a delicate rice noodle soup that is made from beef bones, green onions, fish sauce, yellow rock sugar, and a variety of aromatic species, including fennel seeds, cinnamon, star anise, cardamon, and ginger.

Served sprinkled with chopped fresh herbs, Pho is considered a national dish of the Vietnamese, its complex flavors capturing the attention of Americans following its introduction to the West by Vietnamese migrants. Today, there are an estimated 2,000 Pho restaurants across the United States and Canada.

This versatile, adaptable dish is prepared in a range of different styles as chefs experiment with different ingredients. Typically made with beef or chicken, contemporary versions of this Southeast Asian staple contain pork or seafood.

4. Adobo – The Philippines

The Philippines is an archipelago comprising more than 7,000 Pacific islands. Famous worldwide for its white sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters, the country is home to many amazing natural waters, including an underground river and some of the finest diving spots in the world.

Adobo is a popular dish in the Philippines. It is made by marinating meat in soy sauce; garlic; and cane, rice, or coconut vinegar. Whole tomatoes, bay leaves, black pepper, and white onions are added, before the stew is cooked. Adobo is typically garnished with green onions and served with steamed rice. Traditionally, adobo was cooked in small clay pots, although metal pots and woks are commonly used today.

Adobo is usually made with chicken, pork, beef, or a mixture of different meats, although the seafood and vegetable versions are sometimes prepared. It is a popular daily meal as well as a feast dish. Since vinegar preserves meat by inhibiting the growth of bacteria, adobo has a relatively long shelf life. The dish keeps well without refrigeration and is commonly packed for Filipino travelers and mountaineers.

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