Kinilaw in the Philippines. Image courtesy of Mike Aquino.
Any tourist can appreciate Southeast Asia's larder of culinary treasures, but it takes an expert to tell us why the region's food tastes as good as it does. And two experts are better than one!
We met up with Rosemary Kimani and Claire Rouger when they were traveling through Manila in 2016. The co-founders of Authentic Food Quest quit their corporate careers in 2015 to embark on an extended eating tour throughout the world. They reached Southeast Asia between September 2016 and March 2017, and were amazed by what they found.
“[We] believe travelers can have deeper connections with a destination and people by opening up to the local tastes and flavors,” Rosemary and Claire explain. “After visiting the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, we’d have to say that the cuisine in each of the countries was unique and made an impression.”
We asked them what they discovered in each of the countries they visited, and they were glad to explain in detail.
Philippines: “Surprised by Sweet and Sour”
R&C: Although Filipino food is underrated, we see it starting to see it gain in popularity, especially in the U.S. We had the opportunity to try a lot of diverse foods from the northern region of Ilocos, to the culinary capital of Pampanga and the specialties of Cebu and of course in Manila, the capital. Cebu lechon was one of our most interesting discoveries. With the unique preparation, crispy skin and tender pork, we could eat Cebu lechon constantly.
The Filipino warmth and graciousness was the best part about the food experience. Everyone we met was very friendly and eager to share their favorite foods and dishes with us. We were most surprised by the sweet and sour flavors in Filipino food, most notably in Sinigang.
We tried many traditional foods including; Adobo, Sisig, Kare Kare, Pancit, Sinigang, Longanisa, Kinilaw, Halo-Halo and even balut. Our impressions of the food are mostly positive, though very heavy on the pork.
- Read about food tours in Southeast Asia.
Thailand: “Balance of Flavors”
R&C: Before our trip to Southeast Asia, we thought the food was going to be very spicy. What we found instead was a balance of flavors. The most surprising element we found to counter the spice was sugar. We were incredibly surprised to see white sugar, especially in Thailand added generously to soups and curries.
Overall, each country in Southeast Asia uses spices uniquely to enhance their local dish. Beyond chili peppers we were impressed by the use of ginger, galangal, lemongrass, Kaffir lime, Calamansi and more.
While all countries make the most of their spices, Thailand was quite impressive. We visited a curry paste shop in Bangkok and had the opportunity to see the making of fresh curry paste that form the base of Thai dishes. Pungent, spicy, salty and briny, this was a truly fascinating experience.
The culture of street food is one of the most striking aspect of the food scene in Thailand. Food is everywhere and Bangkok is the mecca for street food. While we enjoyed the diversity of foods and mango sticky rice dessert, the food from the north of Thailand was exceptional. We fell quickly in love with Khao Soi and even took a cooking class to learn how to make it home.
- Read about this unforgettable Thailand experience: an Ayutthaya foodie tour.
Tom yum in Thailand. Image courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Vietnam: “Bountiful Herbs”
R&C: Vietnam is one country that really surprised us. The diversity of flavors across the country (we traveled north from Hanoi to the central region and finally to Ho Chi Minh in the South) was surprising and the local food experience was really unique. The bountiful bowls of fresh herbs that accompanied the dishes surprised us. The experience of sitting low to the ground on the short stools and the restaurants dedicated to serving one specialty meal.
We found the central region of Vietnam including the Da Nang, Hoi An and Hue, to be exceptional for their food. We discovered Bánh Xèo (a savory Vietnamese pancake) and stumbled onto Bo Ne (sizzling beefsteak for breakfast). These are just two examples of the exceptional local flavors from the central region.
- Visiting a vegetable village is just one of Viet Nam's community-based travel experiences.
Cambodia: “Unique Specialties and Ingredients”
R&C: The simplicity of Cambodia foods is one of the things we loved about the food. Many of the dishes are grilled and served in a very simple manner. We were surprised to find fish to be more popular than meat.
Sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, we initially thought the local flavors of Cambodia would be similar to its neighbors. We were pleasantly surprised to discover Cambodia’s own unique specialties and ingredients. The emblematic ingredients such as Kampot pepper, Prahok cheese and Kroeung (spice & herbs paste) all contribute to the delightful cuisine.
One of the characteristics that define Cambodian cuisine, in our opinion is the devastating history of the country and it’s impact on the food. During the Khmer Rouge period, basic food was scarce and Cambodians took to eating insects, frogs, and snakes, snails—whatever they could find, “to survive.” These foods are now part of the Khmer cuisine, and why they are part of the cuisine is a fascinating and sad story.
- Read about finding cheap food in Southeast Asia.
Peranakan spring rolls from Penang, Malaysia. Image courtesy of Mike Aquino.
Singapore & Malaysia: “Diversity of Cultures & Flavors”
R&C: The diversity of cultures in Singapore has created a fascinating and delicious food culture. We enjoyed exploring the marriage of flavors and discovering Peranakan/Nyonya cuisine. The food culture based around hawker centers makes for a really unique local food experience.
[In Malaysia,] we absolutely loved the food culture in Penang. The diversity of flavors, the unique fruit juices and the very local food experiences. Everyone we met was very friendly and was happy to share with us their favorite food stall vendor. The fact that Penang also has the first food museum (Wonderfood Museum), speaks to the importance of the food culture.
- Read about Southeast Asia's best street eats.
* * * *
For more on Rosemary & Claire's culinary adventures, visit their website, or follow them on social media (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram), or subscribe to their newsletter. Rosemary & Claire are authors of Authentic Food Quest Argentina: A Guide To Eat Your Way Authentically Through Argentina.