One of the many reasons I love traveling to Southeast Asia so much is the food. Fresh ingredients, a wide variety of spices and cultures that venerate the art of cooking make it a perfect environment for culinary delights. Of course just about everyone knows about Thai food, and it certainly is one of my favorite world cuisines. But the other countries in the region also have some amazing dishes. Here’s a short list of five meals from different countries that I could easily consume every week of the year and never get tired them.
Thailand – Tom Kha Kai
Thailand has an incredible variety of delicious dishes, but this one stands out the most for me. It’s a coconut milk-based soup with chicken (gai), lemon grass, coriander and galangal which is part of the ginger family. Traditionally it is spiced up with fried chillies which adds heat but blends perfectly with the creamy coconut base. And it is often topped off with a fresh kaffir lime leaf to add yet more flavor and aroma. My mouth is literally watering as I type this.
Cambodia – Amok Trei
Simply known as amok, this is one of the most traditional dishes in all of Cambodia. The main ingredient is fish which, when eaten in Cambodia, usually comes from the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia and a UNESCO bioshpere. The fish is baked or steamed in a banana leaf after being coated in an herb paste called kroeung that has many ingredients including lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, tumeric, garlic, shallots and dried red chillies among others.
Myanmar – Mohinga
Usually eaten during breakfast in Burma, this national dish is served by street food vendors as well as the finest restaurants. It’s a rice noodle soup that usually includes fish, and it has an amazing array of ingredients that add to the flavor and texture. Garlic, onions, lemon grass, ginger, fish sauce, and crushed dried chillies are some of the ingredients depending on availability. As a typical westerner I am not always up for Asia cuisines first thing in the morning, but for some reason this dish really works well for me at that time of day.
Bali, Indonesia – Sate Lilit
Sate (satay) originated in Indonesia where it is the national dish, and sate lilit is a specialty on the island of Bali. Minced fish (or beef, chicken or pork, but I prefer when it is fish) is mixed with grated coconut, coconut milk, lemon juice, shallots, galangal, lime leaves and other spices, affixed in smallish amounts to bamboo, sugar cane or lemon grass sticks, and then grilled. It is so flavorful on its own that it often isn’t served with any sort of sauce to dip it in. When fresh fish is used, which is just about all the time on Bali, it can be heavenly delicious.
Laos – Beerlao
OK, I know beer really isn’t a ‘dish’, but to me it is a major food group. And I think Beerlao is the best beer in all of Southeast Asia. After the Vietnam War the head brewmaster studied brewing in what was then Czechoslovakia for six years, and the quality and taste of the beer shows it. At least part of what makes her beer different is that she started using rice as malt instead of relying solely more expensive imported barley. Unlike so many mass-produced beers in the US that do the similar things though, Beerlao still has great flavor and often wins at international beer competitions.
This kind of a list could go on and on and on, but these are the first five things that come to my mind when I think of satisfying my taste buds in Southeast Asia. Do any of you have a favorite or two that you would personally add yourself?