What Makes Food, Southeast Asian? It's All in the Culture

What Makes Food, Southeast Asian? It's All in the Culture

By Tristan Chan

Some say Southeast Asian food is all about the flavours. Typically, that’s sweet, sour and spice. But others say there’s more to it. Supper clubs, intimate gatherings where people eat, drink and be merry, believe that the secret thing to making a meal Southeast Asian is to tuck into its culture. 

Vast ingredients influence Southeast Asian dishes 

To begin, Southeast Asian food gives and takes from each other's cuisine. Its dishes are a colourful reflection of some of at least 11 countries that make up the region.  

Tablescape at Pan Africanism - with plantain and jollof rice arancini and charmoula dip. Photo: Brunch Bandits 

“Rendang hints of influences from India and Portugal but stays uniquely Malay while sawtooth coriander which features heavily in Vietnamese and Malaysian cooking, is integral to Caribbean kitchens,” says Nithiya Laila, founder of culture-themed supper club in Singapore, Brunch Bandits

Laila continues the trend of using ingredients from all over Southeast Asia in her menu. There’s both “traditional flavours and native edible plants,” including tempeh grilled burgers and a corn tortilla tacos stuffed with rendang made of green jackfruit.

And she’s not the only one. 

Top chef Ivan Brehms describes his menu as “crossroads cuisine”. The chef and owner of Michelin-starred fusion restaurant, Nouri says, “many of today’s popular dishes such as nonya laksa, Thai yellow curry and gohu ikan are a result of multiculturalism where the region’s food traditions are by default the product of human trade and interaction over time.” 

That’s perhaps how satay was born. Now did you know that the sweet grilled meat stick, which first came from Indonesia, was actually influenced by the shish kebab? That smoky, chunky meat slab is a staple in Turkey and Lebanon.

Chaotic atmosphere part of the Southeast Asian eating experience 

At another supper club, atmosphere is key to a Southeast Asian meal. At Once Upon a Secret Supper, founder Angie Ma spices up the menu with nuggets of colourful backstory, including those of “a grandmother’s recipe to a memorable travel encounter”. Reason? She believes these stories are a big part of Asia’s chaotic mealtimes.

Diners listening to a story on Nusa Cana Indonesian rum, at dinner by Once Upon a Secret Supper. Photo: Once Upon a Secret Supper 

“You’ll find that conversations here are generally louder and more boisterous and the atmosphere is one of positive chaos rather than the prim and proper settings of Western European dining,” she said, after previously opening the club in Melbourne and London. 

Techniques like “wok hey” signal of authentic Southeast Asian food  

But beyond atmosphere and ingredients, technique too, is essential. Ever heard of wok hey? Well, you’ve probably tasted it. It’s an addictive, slightly charred aroma that is believed to be a marker of authentic Chinese food in the region.

A plate of hor fun. It’s generally agreed that one can always taste wok hey in a good hor fun. Photo: Getty

“Indeed, ‘wok hey’ or ‘breath of the wok’ requires cooking with a wok (Chinese style pan) over a live flame at very high temperatures. Ingredients cooked with this technique retain their original flavours very well. Cuisine prepared with ‘wok hey’ is known for its freshness and lightness,” says Chris Choo, chef at Relish.sg, a Singapore-based private dining experience that incorporates antiques, music and dance.

And where can you get this? Walk into a hawker centre in Singapore and Malaysia, and order anything from carrot cake to hor fun.

So what makes a meal, Southeast Asian? Well, perhaps it’s the familiar flavours of sweet, sour and spice. But to make it truly sizzle – add a generous sprinkle of culture - from ingredients to atmosphere.

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