Southeast Asian cuisine
Take local tropical fruits, nuts, and spices, add plenty of seafood from the abundant coastlines, then stir in techniques, ingredients and recipes from China, India, the Middle East, Holland, Britain, France, and Spain - even Mexico. The delicious melting pot that results is Southeast Asian cuisine.
It's difficult to generalise about Southeast Asian cuisine - every apparent rule has some sort of qualifier or contradiction. The region contains 11 countries divided into two subsections: mainland Southeast Asia (also known as Indochina, and including Thailand and Vietnam) and maritime Southeast Asia, also known as the Malay Archipelago. Much of the continent is comprised of islands (Indonesia alone has more than 15,000) and the food varies not just by area, but by religious and ethnic traditions, as well as historic patterns of immigration, trade and colonisation. The result is a fascinatingly diverse mix of styles.
The Chinese, particularly merchants, have been travelling across Southeast Asia for thousands of years. They brought stir-frying to the region, and introduced a wide variety of ingredients and recipes. Yet there are some key ways in which Southeast Asian cuisine varies from most forms of Chinese. One is the willingness to eat food raw, and fresh salads are typical of both mainland and maritime Southeast Asia.
Chinese woks have been adopted in Southeast Asia because they provide an economically efficient way of cooking, allowing food to be cooked quickly and lightly using a low amount of fuel. However Southeast Asians use a variety of other pots for cooking and some dishes, such as beef rendang, need to simmer in a heavy pot for hours.
Chopsticks are not the norm in Southeast Asia either. Many Indonesians, for example, still prefer to eat with their right hands, using spoons for serving. The right hand is kept very clean and washed before and after eating. However, Western traditions have made a degree of impact, and today it is common to find food eaten with spoons and forks - the spoon held in the right hand, and the fork held in the left, and used to push food onto the spoon. Knives are not necessary because all ingredients are cut into pieces before cooking or serving. In general, dishes are placed at the centre of a table or mat (if people are eating on the floor) and diners serve themselves portions as desired.
The attitude to dairy products varies throughout Southeast Asia. Where the influence of India is strong, such as in Malaysia and Singapore, dairy products are consumed, and evaporated and condensed milks play a key role in drinks and desserts. Other areas use soya milk, as in Chinese cuisine. But more common is 'milk' and 'cream' extracted from the indigenous coconut, which is an important flavouring in Southeast Asian curries, desserts and cakes.
Salty flavours come not from salt but from fermented products such as fish sauces, shrimp pastes, and soy sauce. In general, Southeast Asians love sourness, taking it from ingredients such as tamarind, lemongrass, galingale, turmeric, bitter cucumbers or gourds, and sour fruits. The resulting tangy flavour in a savoury dish will often be balanced by sweet notes such as palm sugar and coconut.