Unraveling the Shared Culinary Heritage of Southeast Asia

SimpleJoy
5 min readMay 11, 2023
Vietnamese Pho
Vietnamese pho, source: skinnymixers

As I sip a warm and comforting bowl of Vietnamese pho, I can’t help but marvel at the richness and diversity of our culinary world.

My years working with ASEAN institutions granted me the opportunity to travel across the vibrant Southeast Asian countries, with each trip broadening my understanding and appreciation of our shared heritage and unique differences.

These experiences have taught me that food is more than sustenance; it’s a language of love, a symbol of hospitality, and a testament to our shared history.

You might wonder, “What does a bowl of Vietnamese pho have in common with a hearty plate of Indonesian nasi goreng (fried rice)?” Or how does the delicate Hainanese chicken rice of Singapore relate to the fiery Tom Yum Goong of Thailand?

Indonesian nasi goreng (fried rice), source: masakapaharini
Hainanese chicken rice of Singapore
Hainanese chicken rice of Singapore, source: honeycombers
Tom Yum Goong of Thailand
Tom Yum Goong of Thailand, source: Hot Thai Kitchen

The answer lies in the story of our shared heritage—a beautiful tapestry woven together through centuries of cultural exchanges and historical trade routes.

The ancient maritime trade routes that crisscrossed the region, often referred to as the "Spice Route”, connected the distant corners of Southeast Asian countries to the broader world.

It was through these routes that traders from India and China, along with Arabian merchants, carried their precious cargo of spices, silk, and knowledge, leaving indelible imprints on our cultures.

From India, we embraced the complex spice blends, the art of slow cooking, and the spiritual tradition of vegetarianism. Dishes like the Indonesian sayur lodeh, a vegetable curry with coconut milk, echo these influences.

Indonesian sayur lodeh
Indonesian sayur lodeh, source: Ikafood

China brought us the art of stir-frying, the tradition of dim sum, and the love for noodles. The delectable Char Kway Teow (flat noodle) of Malaysia or the comforting Bak Chor Mee (minced pork noodle) of Singapore are delightful testaments to this.

Char Kway Teow of Malaysia
Char Kway Teow of Malaysia, source: Rasa Malaysia
Bak Chor Mee of Singapore, source: Miss Tam Chiak

But it wasn’t a one-way exchange. Our ancestors, with their inherent creativity, adopted these foreign influences and transformed them, creating dishes that were unique yet familiar. The result? A culinary tapestry that’s as rich and diverse as the people who weave it

Each dish we enjoy today is a historical nod to these exchanges, a testament to our shared past, and a celebration of our resilience and adaptability.

As a Jakartan with a son who spent his school years in Singapore, I’ve become well versed in the culinary conversation between these nations. The gastronomic dialogue is not one of dominance but of harmony and mutual influence. It’s a testament to how our ancestors embraced the new and unfamiliar and adapted it into their own culinary traditions.

From Indonesia’s vibrant Pasar Malam (night markets) to Singapore’s buzzing hawker centers, the same spirit of sharing and community thrives.

Hawker Center in Singapore, source: Hotel.com

Let’s talk about rice, a staple food that unites us. The simple grain takes on a multitude of forms across the region.

It’s the fragrant base of Nasi Lemak in Malaysia, the soothing comfort of Singapore’s Hainanese Chicken Rice, the robust heartiness of Indonesia’s Nasi Goreng, and the sweet delight of Thailand’s Mango Sticky Rice.

Nasi Lemak of Malaysia,
Nasi Lemak of Malaysia, source: Taste Atlas
Mango sticky rice
Mango Sticky Rice, source: Hot Thai Kitchen

In Vietnam, the humble grain transforms into bánh chung, a traditional rice cake filled with mung beans and pork. Each preparation, while unique, echoes a shared love for this versatile grain.

Vietnamese bánh chung
Vietnamese bánh chung, source: VN Express

Spices, the soul of our cuisines, tell a similar tale. Our ancestors navigated vast oceans and dense jungles on the spice trail, bringing home flavors that now define our cuisines.

The fiery bird’s eye chili, the aromatic lemongrass, and the earthy coriander dance together in our dishes, creating a symphony of flavors that reverberate from the beef rendang of Indonesia to the fiery Som Tum (papaya salad) of Thailand.

Som Tum (papaya salad) of Thaliand
Som Tum (papaya salad) of Thaliand, source: Palatable Pastime
Rendang of Indonesia, source: Tokopedia
Rendang of Indonesia, source: Tokopedia

Coastlines and rivers bless Southeast Asian countries with an abundance of seafood, with each country celebrating the bounty in its own unique way.

Be it Indonesia’s Ikan Bakar, a grilled fish delicacy; Malaysia’s iconic Chili Crab; Singapore’s savory Black Pepper Crab; or Thailand’s tangy Tom Yum Goong, each dish narrates a tale of the sea and its generous gifts.

Malaysian Chili Crab, source: Eat, Cook, Explore
Malaysian Chili Crab, source: Eat, Cook, Explore

Looking back at my own journey, each mouthful of these diverse dishes has offered me a little lesson in history and culture.

Food, I've discovered, has this extraordinary power to open our minds as well as fill our bellies. It’s a way to connect with and understand people who, on the surface, may seem different from us.

For those of us living in these vibrant Southeast Asian countries, let’s continue to explore the flavors that our neighbors bring to the table.

We are a part of a rich and diverse culinary fabric, and every meal is an opportunity to learn more about our own culture and those around us.

ASEAN map
ASEAN map, source: Wikipedia

And if you’re reading this from a corner of the world far from the bustling markets of Jakarta or the hawker centers of Singapore, I encourage you to take a flavor-filled leap into our culinary world.

You are not only getting a taste of a new cuisine, but also a glimpse into our shared traditions and history.

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SimpleJoy

Mother & aid practitioner 🌏 | Exploring cultural bridges 🌐, aid industry insights 🔍, and cherishing life's simple pleasures 🌸