Ask Peter: South East Asian cuisine
Can you help us with a discussion about Southeast Asian foods — we are not clear what the key differences are between the foods of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. What are the flavours or styles that differentiate them? And why is Malaysian food so distinctly different, when it is right over the border?
First of all, you need to appreciate that even within one country, no matter where it might be on the planet, the cuisine can be vastly different. In Italy for example, the food in the north (think butter, milk, cream, beef, truffles) is noticeably different from that in the south (generous amounts of chilli, lamb and goat cheese vs cow cheese, less butter and more cooking in olive oil etc).
I recall hitchhiking around Thailand in the mid-80s, where it was obvious not everyone ate the same food. In the north the food was less fiery, more subtle and the rice of choice was always glutinous. Pork was frequently served and fish, if used, were mostly dried or river fish. In the south, along the Malaysian border, the food had a distinctly, what I’d call Muslim influence (cumin and coriander seeds spring to mind), chillies were used in generous amounts, pork was not in evidence, ocean fish were plentiful and rice was often cooked with coconut milk.
I’ve not been to Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam but I have eaten at restaurants set up by these people all around the world, so here’s my take on the differences.
Vietnam and Laos share borders with southern China, so it’s inevitable ingredients used commonly by the people here would impact on each other’s cuisine.
Noodles, rice (an Asian staple of course) and soup-based dishes are commonplace, especially in northern Vietnam. In Vietnam chillies are used sparingly, and their fish sauce, nuoc mam, is more pungent than the Thai one we’re probably more familiar with (it’s worth stating here for those of you who don’t know your geography, that Vietnam doesn’t actually share a border with Thailand!) Fresh herbs are generously scattered across the food, numerous varieties of mint and basil are used. And there's still a slight French influence left over from the days of colonisation.
At the Vietnamese stall on Broadway Market, near where I live in London, I’ll often have a really strong coffee served with condensed milk (a sort of latte) and eat a banh mi — a baguette that I’ll likely have stuffed full of pork, perilla leaf and lots of raw green leafy vegetables that you’d usually find stir-fried in other Asian cuisines. Rice paper wraps are used to envelop huge amounts of salad greens and mint, and stir- fries are common, whereas galangal isn’t.
Laos on the other hand is a landlocked nation that shares borders with Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and China. Here the king of starch is sticky rice and I understand the Lao eat more of it per capita than anyone else in the world. Here it’s served separately in steamer baskets, picked up by hand and nibbled on rather than used as a base on to which you place other, wetter, foods as you would in Vietnam.
Water buffalo meat isn’t uncommon and the Mekong river’s abundance can’t be underestimated, with river fish being eaten regularly. Galangal and lemongrass are frequently used, but larb is probably the dish most associated with Lao cuisine. Finely chopped meat or fish is mixed with Lao style fish sauce, lots of pungent herbs and toasted spices, and it might well be served accompanied with a green papaya salad. Baguettes can also be found here — those French chefs again...
Cambodians also eat rice, obviously, but when glutinous rice is served it’s generally as a dessert cooked or served with fruit and thick coconut milk, rather like sticky black rice in Bali (which of course is nowhere near here). Cambodia shares borders with Vietnam, Thailand and Laos and, again, commonalities exist in the kitchen. Chillies are used but very sparingly, and many dishes have no use for them at all. Some dishes show an obvious influence from Indian and Chinese cuisines, along with those French again as Cambodians eat, supposedly, more bread than any other nation in Southeast Asia.
Preserved lemons are used (were there Moroccans there as well then?) to help sour some of the tasty dishes the Khmers have created, and this is quite unique in this part of the world.
Re-reading this, I don’t think I’ve answered your question at all. But then the cuisine of just one of these countries would take a book of many volumes to describe. And for that, I’d suggest you head to a cookbook shop.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you’re stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.
Cuisine from the region
A selection of popular dishes typifying Southeast Asian cuisine.