Of similarities and varieties: Southeast Asian recipes

Here’s a curious observation of Southeast Asian cuisine: many recipes use identical ingredients, but each possess a distinct flavor. It appears one of our region’s talents is to come up with different dishes using the same items, thereby resulting in a wide variety of gastronomic offerings. 

What is halo-halo to us Filipinos is ais kacang to Malaysians. If Vietnamese has pho, we have chicken mami. The dishes may be different but they are characterized by their base and/or basic ingredients. 

If it’s eating something so similar and different at the same time, here are three of the most popular dishes with different versions served in Southeast Asian countries. 


Flavorful dishes in Southeast Asia include, among many others (from top left) the popular red Phanaeng curry of Thailand, Myanmar’s Burmese chicken curry, and (bottom) Cambodia’s Amok curry.


Distinctly Asian, curry is so varied and so popular that it can be found almost all over Southeast Asia, as well as East Asia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and, of course, its origin, the Indian subcontinent. 

It uses a complex combination of spices and herbs, most commonly cumin, turmeric, chilies, ginger, and coriander. 

In the book Curry: A tale of cooks and conquerors, Lizzie Collingham said the precise selection of spices for each curry dish is a matter of national or regional cultural tradition, religious practices, and, to some extent, family preference. 

According to the Handbook of Spices, Seasonings and Flavourings, while coriander, cumin, and turmeric are commonly found in curry powders of the Indian subcontinent, a wide range of additional spices may be included depending on the geographic region and food items included in the dish. 

Here in Southeast Asia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia cook curry on the spicy side of the spectrum, while milder and fragrant versions are served in Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. 

Thailand is famous for its green, red, and yellow curry or kaeng—the colors determine the chilies and herbs used. Phanaeng Curry, which takes the top spot among the varieties, is usually cooked with red curry paste, thick coconut milk, Thai basil leaves, and kaffir lime leaves.

Singapore, on the other hand, offers chicken curry, a traditional dish cooked with potatoes and chicken with a paste made with herbs and spices cooked with coconut milk. This is a popular version also cooked here in the Philippines, ours is known basically as ginataang manok with curry powder. Both versions are best paired with a warm bowl of rice or roti prata. 

On the milder side is Myanmar’s Burmese chicken curry cooked with ginger and lemongrass which are responsible for its particularly fragrant flavor. 

Amok curry in Cambodia features gentle yet fragrant flavors from cod or monkfish—also known as amok trey—steamed in coconut milk which compliment the different herbs and spices that comprise the curry paste called kroeung.

Noodle soup

Noodle soup
Warm bowls of comfort in the form of (clockwise) tom yum from Thailand, pho from Vietnam, and chicken mami from the Philippines.
A quintessential East and Southeast Asian dish that also comes in different versions. 

A quick Google search on noodle soup reveals a truly diverse varieties; each country, in fact, has several of the same dish. For instance, Indonesia has mie ayam, mie bakso, soto mie, and a whole lot more; while Philippines has batchoy, lomi, mami, miswa, pancit molo, sotanghon, and the list goes on.  

Noodle soup is usually served in a light broth, with noodles made of either rice, flour, or egg. 

Chicken mami is a favorite Filipino comfort food. Key ingredients are egg noodles and boneless chicken breasts topped with chopped onions and toasted garlic.

Considered the national soup of Vietnam, pho is typically served with rice noodles and chicken or beef in a bone soup stock. It is usually topped with raw ingredients and garnishes such as lime slices, onions, and sliced chilies that give that fragrant, fresh flavor. 

Meanwhile, tom yum, arguably one of Thailand’s most famous soup is a hot and sour blend commonly served with rice noodles, shrimp, lemongrass, and onion, with a mix of herbs and seasonings to balance the fishy flavor from shrimp.

Shaved ice dessert

Shaved ice dessert
The region’s popular cold treats (clockwise) ais kacang from Malaysia, halo-halo from the Philippines, and nam kang sai from Thailand.
Icy desserts are one of the oldest sweet treats enjoyed by the world over—yes, not only in Southeast Asia. They either come in sno-balls or shaved or curly form, with the addition of flavored syrups, fruits, milk, and ice cream, among others. 

In the Philippines, halo-halo is usually served in a tall, clear glass that shows off the colorful layers of shaved ice, jackfruit, nata de coco, mung beans, rice krispies, and evaporated milk, topped off with ice cream and purple yam.

Similarly, Indonesia’s es campur is served in a shallow bowl or glass, with large chunks of ice floating in a mixture of sweetened condensed milk and pandan syrup, topped with grass jelly, sprinkles, jackfruit, coconut, or avocado.

Ais kacang (ice kacang) is a popular shaved ice dessert served at hawker stands in Malaysia as well as in Singapore. It is made of shaved ice topped with flavored syrups such as rose or pandan and evaporated milk, and served with red beans, sweet corn, peanuts, and durian.

Thailand also has its version of shaved ice dessert in the form of nam kang sai, which is similar to Taiwan’s bao bing and South Korea’s patbingsu. It features topping combinations that include taro, jackfruit, water chestnuts, sweet corn, and even cubes of bread, which is then drizzeled with flavored sweet red syrup known as sala syrup and/or coconut milk.

MasterChef Australia 2017 winner Diana Chan goes around Asia to explore its fresh and aromatic flavors on Asia Unplated with Diana Chan, which airs every Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. on Asian Food Network.

Topics: Southeast Asian cuisine , Curry , Noodle soup , Shaved ice dessert
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