Southeast Asia is fascinating. This region is most known around the world for its pristine beaches. However, travelers also fall in love with the incredibly colorful and diverse culture and tradition in every country under its banner.
Its food, in particular, is a reflection of its history. Southeast Asian cuisine is a fusion of different influences, including Indian, Chinese, Spanish, French, and American.
The cuisines in the region vary vastly from country to country. Each new destination would offer something different for the palate.
However, as you make your way through Southeast Asia, you may start to notice some similarities, too. Many recipes use similar ingredients, but they differ in name.
Here are dishes in Southeast Asia that are at the same time similar and different across every member nation.
Shaved Ice for Desserts
Dessert is not very common in Southeast Asia, or at least not in the same way as it is consumed in the West. A typical Southeast Asian family may eat fruits with their meals; fruits are, after all, abundant in the region. However, it would not be considered a dessert.
However, Southeast Asians do love sweets. One example is the variation of shaved ice desserts that many countries in the region have.
One of which is the Filipino halo-halo. You can find it being served in curbside eateries called karinderia, but more upscale restaurants that serve the local cuisine have it, too.
Barrio Fiesta Philippines, a popular chain restaurant offering Filipino food from across the country, has halo-halo on its menu. The sweet treat usually contains layers of colored jellies sweet beans, coconut meat, sweet banana, rice crispies, cream flan, sweet purple yam, and ice cream.
To eat it, you pour milk onto the ice and mix (its name literally translates to “mix-mix”) the ingredients for an explosion of flavors and textures in every bite.
Indonesia, on the other hand, has es campur which means “mixed ice.” It is usually loaded with fruits like papaya, cantaloupe, and lychees, mixed with nata de coco, basil seeds, jelly, and condensed milk.
Es campur is quite popular in Indonesia and, therefore, it is being sold everywhere. If you find yourself suddenly craving a bite, you can buy es campur from street sellers. Or, if you want to be a little fancy, you can get es campur from almost any restaurant in Indonesia.
A Bowl of Noodles
You probably associate rice with Southeast Asia. While it is true that Southeast Asians eat rice for every meal, noodles are a staple to the region’s cuisines, too. Each country can serve you a bowl of noodles submerged in hearty and hot soup.
Vietnam’s Pho is probably one of the most popular. Served with rice noodles and chicken or beef broth, pho has won over the world with its flavorful, fragrant, and fresh flavor.
Thailand’s tom yum should be mentioned, too. It is a rice noodle dish that contains shrimp and a mix of herbs and seasonings. The soup is sour and hot which makes every bowl memorable.
You can find a variety of curries around the world, including in Southeast Asia.
Different countries cook curry differently. Some can get very spicy, such as Thailand’s infamous phanaeng curry, while others offer a more gentle flavor profile like Singapore’s chicken curry.
Pork is the most widely-eaten meat in Southeast Asia, and every part of the animal — from head to tail — is cooked and can feed a family for numerous meals.
A good example of this is the Philippines’ lechon, which is an entire pig roasted for hours over an open fire pit with a large stick. It is typically served in parties and guests are allowed to eat whichever part of the pork that they want.
Even pig fat is rendered and used to flavor stir-fry vegetables and seafood.
One-of-a-Kind Gastronomical Experience
Food in Southeast Asia is an adventure. Anywhere you go, your taste buds will be treated to different flavors. Dishes can be sour, salty, sweet, spicy, and bitter in one bite.
That is why Southeast Asian cuisine is increasing in popularity across the world. There are so many complex tastes that you will not be able to find anywhere else.
However, make no mistakes. There are similarities in dishes across Southeast Asian countries, but each cuisine is different. Some enjoy intense flavors in every bite, others prefer milder tastes.
If you find yourself exploring Southeast Asia, do not forget to try out every cuisine to see which one suits you best.