Know ASEAN Through Their Food

Last update: 27/04/2015

By Ainul Huda Mohamed Saaid

KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) -- Making ASEAN more people-centric is no easy feat. In the 48 years since its inception, its activities had always focused more around the top leadership and policy makers.

Malaysia, which chairs this year's ASEAN summit, bears the task of promoting it to the common people, and it intends to reach the hearts of the people through the age-proven way: their stomachs.


Chef Wan Khairul Hakimin Wan Muhammad said Southeast Asian dishes tended to have two main characteristics - spicy and sweet.

He said dishes that are synonymous with a nation such as Indonesia and its "gado-gado", Malaysia (nasi lemak), Thailand (tom yam), Brunei (ambuyat), Vietnam (spring roll), Kemboja (amok) were either spicy or were eaten with spicy gravy.

"Both characteristics that I have mentioned are highly valued in the countries within this region as our palates have been trained to be inclined to foods that are either spicy or sweet," he said to Bernama.


Countries along the equator also share similar dishes. "Pecal" in Malaysia is similar to the Indonesian gado-gado, while slightly different versions of amok are available in Thailand and Laos.

"The dishes vary due to the availability of ingredients in each country, which in turn are influenced by their weather and ecosystem.

"We can still attempt the recipes, but it will differ in taste," said the author of culinary blog

He said Southeast Asians also share the same staple food, rice. All the countries in the region has their own unique recipes for fried rice and rice porridge.

In Philippine, for example, the leftover rice from the previous night's dinner would be fried with garlic for breakfast. The dish is known as sinangag.


A common dessert ingredient that Southeast Asians share is glutinous rice.

"In Thailand, we have the much-loved sweet sticky rice with mango. They also have a variation of the Malaysian glutinous rice dessert, the 'kuih seri muka'," explained Chef Khairul.

Glutinous rice is also the main ingredient in the Myanmar dish si htamin, which is cooked with oil and turmeric like the Malaysian "pulut kuning". Another dish is htamane - glutinous rice cooked with fried coconut shavings, fried groundnuts and ginger.

In Vietnam, the black sticky rice porridge is one of the more popular desserts, and one that is as popular in Malaysia.

However, the one in Vietnam is usually enjoyed with sweet mangoes, while the one in Malaysia is usually cooked in thick coconut milk.


Southeast Asia is set to become a free market and trade zone by the year end with the establishment of the ASEAN Community.

The plan covers three pillars, the ASEAN Economic Community, Political-Security Community and Socio-Cultural Community.

It aims at forging closer relations between the people of the countries and developing regional economy.

Chef Khairul, who owns the Abuain Kitchen Studio, believes that traditional dishes hold the key for better unity among the various ethnic and religious communities in the region.

"Food will always connect people. We can know more about a community through their food," he said.