Dishing the basics: Your quick guide to Southeast Asian cuisine

Steph Arnaldo
Who's up for some pad thai, nasi goreng, pho, or satay? Check out other popular Southeast Asian dishes here!

SOUTHEAST ASIAN FOOD. Pho, or rice noodle soup, is one of Vietnam's most popular dishes, comprised of clear broth, meat, veggies, and rice noodles. Photo from Shutterstock


MANILA, Philippines – You know what they say: Love thy neighbor as you love yourself, and when it comes to the Philippines’ neighboring Southeast Asian countries and their rich cuisine – you know we do.

Southeast Asia is comprised of 11 countries: Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Aside from each one’s history, culture, land, and people, these countries also take pride in their flavorful local cuisine, which is definitely worth making a trip for. Here’s a general overview on what foodies can usually expect from their food scene – taste profiles, popular dishes, and common ingredients used.

Let’s dig in!

Thailand

The number of restaurants in the country speaks for itself – Thai cuisine is definitely no stranger to the Philippines.

PAD THAI. Photo from Shutterstock

Known for its strong, aromatic flavors, use of fresh herbs, and its punchy, spicy side, Thai cuisine usually incorporates fresh veggies, fruits, rice (khao), noodles, fish sauce (nam pla), curry paste, chili peppers, coconut milk, kaffir lime, Thai basil, lemongrass, and coriander in their lightly-cooked meat and seafood dishes. 

A few popular Thai dishes include:

  • Pad Thai – Stir-fried rice noodle dish made with shrimp, chicken or tofu, scrambled egg, nuts, bean sprouts, and tamarind sauce.
  • Tom Yum Soup – Thailand’s version of a hot and sour soup, this spicy, orange-red broth is cooked with shrimp, veggies, and sometimes, with coconut milk. It’s hailed for its strong aroma and intense spicy and tangy flavors from the chili and the kaffir lime, respectively. Flavors of lemongrass and Thai basil are also prominent.
  • Mango Sticky Rice – The famed traditional dessert is made with glutinous white rice, served with fresh mango slices and a coconut milk sauce. 
  • Som Tam – Also known as a green papaya salad, this veggie dish is made from shredded, crunchy, unripe papaya, other vegetables, and a mixture of pounded nuts, chili, garlic, and sugar, mixed in a spicy dressing. 

 

Vietnam

Known for its light, fresh, and clean flavors, Vietnamese cuisine mostly makes use of fresh vegetables, rice, noodles, herbs, and fruits in their dishes, and hardly any dairy or oil, making it a top choice for healthy yet flavorful cuisine. Common herbs found: mint, ginger, coriander, bird’s eye chili, lime, and basil. 

BEEF PHO. Photo from Shutterstock

A few popular Vietnamese dishes include:

  • Pho – The popular rice noodle soup consists of a warm, clear, tasty broth, coriander, Thai basil, bean sprouts, onions, and meat – usually beef or chicken. Some like to add sriracha sauce for spice, or hoisin sauce for some savory sweetness. 
  • Banh mi – This street food sandwich is made of crunchy baguette and a mix of meats – usually roast pork, sausage, ham, chicken, beef, or pâté – with fresh veggies, such as cucumber, coriander, and carrots; and chili, mayo, and butter.
  • Gỏi cuốn – A term for the Vietnamese spring roll, this can come either fresh or cold, and consists of pork or shrimp, rolled with fresh lettuce, carrots, and vermicelli noodles, encased in a clear rice wrapper. It is usually served with either peanut sauce, Vietnamese vinegar dipping sauce, or hoisin.

Philippines

Not that much needs to be said, but Filipino cuisine, as we know, prides itself on its richness, sauciness, and salty, sweet, and sour flavors. Through our hearty menu, it’s evident Filipinos especially love their meat!

ADOBO. Photo from Shutterstock

A few popular Filipino dishes include:

  • Adobo – Our national dish is made of chicken and/or pork, marinated and then simmered in a salty-tangy dark sauce typically made from soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, and peppercorns. 
  • Sinigang – This hot and sour tamarind-based broth is comprised of meat (beef, pork, or seafood) and a variety of veggies, up to you – common ones include water spinach (kangkong), green beans (sitaw), radish (labanos), and eggplant, among many others.
  • Sisig – Made from chopped pig head parts, sisig is usually fried/grilled with onions and chili, sometimes with mayo and/or egg, and then seasoned with calamansi, fried garlic, or for extra sinfulness – chicharon. 

Malaysia

Also very fragrant and spice-ful, Malaysian cuisine is very flavorful, making use of herbs, veggies, chili paste, coconut milk, and meats, bearing dishes similar to Singapore and Indonesia, due to historical kinship and migration.

NASI LEMAK. Photo from Shutterstock

Some popular Malaysian dishes include:

  • Nasi Lemak – This dish is has several iterations, depending on your region, but it is usually fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf, served with anchovies, peanuts, boiled egg, your choice of curried meat, cucumber, and sambal, a spicy chili paste.
  • Laksa – A favorite Southeast Asian spicy noodle soup, laksa is famous for its bright-orange broth made rich and spicy with curry coconut milk. Alongside thick rice noodles are either chicken, prawn, or fish, lemongrass, tofu, bean sprouts, and other veggies.

Indonesia

Also heavy on rice, curry, meat, chili, spice, and veggies, Indonesian cuisine is an explosion of flavors in one’s mouth and typically very filling.

BEEF RENDANG. Photo from Shutterstock

Some popular Indonesian dishes include:

  • Nasi Goreng – Also found in Brunei, Singapore, and Malaysia Nasi Goreng literally translates to “fried rice,” served with meat and veggies, sometimes with a fried egg and a crunchy shrimp cracker (krupuk).
  • Satay – This famous street food snack is marinated, seasoned, skewered grilled meat (beef, chicken, tofu, fish, you name it) served with a savory-sweet peanut sauce.
  • Beef Rendang – This spicy, red meat dish is sometimes compared to a curry, however, thicker and richer. Usual meats used include beef, chicken, mutton, duck, or veggies, cooked in a sauce of garlic, chili peppers, coconut milk, lemongrass, ginger, and other ingredients – it depends on your taste!

 

Singapore

With cuisine as diverse as its population, Singapore carries a variety of tasty dishes that usually feature meat, seafood, rice, noodles, and lots of chili, spices, and fresh herbs. 

HAINANESE CHICKEN RICE. Photo from Shutterstock

Some Singaporean dishes include:

  • Hainenese chicken rice – Simple but very flavorful and filling, Hainanese chicken rice of Chinese origin usually needs 4 main elements: poached chicken, seasoned ginger-garlic rice, a clear ginger-chicken broth, and soy-oyster and chili sauces. Don’t forget the cucumbers on the side! 
  • Chili crab – Obviously a fan of seafood too, Singaporean cuisine highlights a whole crab in this dish, stir-fried in a sweet-savory-spicy rich sauce, usually made from tomatoes and chili. 

Cambodia

Also called Khmer cuisine and a “cousin” of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, Cambodian food highlights their staples of rice, seafood, and veggies in a lot of their dishes. Fermented sauces, peppers, spices like cardamom, turmeric, star anise, palm sugar, and coconut milk are also common. 

FISH AMOK. Photo from Shutterstock

Two common Cambodian dishes include:

  • Fish Amok – This traditional curry dish is sweet-spicy, made with coconut milk, chili, kaffir lime, lemongrass, turmeric, and amok ngor, a bitter leaf herb. With the curry is a flaky white fish usually, but it can be substituted by tofu, too. It is usually served in a banana leaf bowl.
  • Khmer Red Curry – Bright red but not very spicy, this coconut milk-based curry stars beef, chicken, or fish with potatoes, lemongrass, beans, eggplant, other veggies, and kroeung, a special spice-herb paste.

 

Myanmar

Burmese cuisine from Myanmar hails from either the coastal or inland regions. The coastal area uses more seafood and fish sauce-based food, while the inlanders make use of meat and poultry. However, Burmese cuisine is generally known for its fresh salads, rice, noodles, and pickled delicacies.

LEPHET. Photo from Shutterstock

Some Burmese dishes include:

  • Lephet – Interestingly, lephet is fermented tea leaves, or “pickled tea.” This tea leaf salad can be eaten as a snack or even dessert, made with sesame oil, garlic oil, chili, shredded cabbage, tomatoes, beans, nuts, peas, under of course, the tangy-bitter leaves on top.
  • Mohinga – A filling essential of Burmese cuisine, this rice noodle and fish soup is thick and flavorful, usually eaten for breakfast by locals. Other elements of the soup include onions, hard-boiled egg, fried veggies. It’s garnished with lime and chili flakes. 

Laos

Laos/Laotian cuisine is vibrant and flavorful, using herbs, spices, and fresh greens. It is also very rice-centric, with rice noodles also in the picture. Common veggies and herbs include bamboo shoots, coriander, ginger, lime, chili pepper, tamarind, Asian basil, and cucumber.

LARB. Photo from Shutterstock

Two common Laotian dishes include:

Larb – Called a “meat salad,” this favorite dish refers to minced meat, quickly-fried or ordered raw. It’s eaten with fish sauce, fresh mint, coriander, and green onions, and toasted sticky rice powder. A dressing can include sriracha, brown sugar, kaffir lime, and fish sauce (nam pla or nuoc nam.)

Khao Niaw – Also called sticky or glutinous rice, this Laotian staple is either eaten with meat, sauces, or on its own. It is steamed and served in a bamboo basket. It’s also the perfect partner to larb!

 

Brunei

Brunei cuisine is also influenced by its Southeast Asian neighbors, serving up dishes that are spicy and dependent on the Brunei staples of rice, noodles, and fish.

AMBUYAT. Photo from Shutterstock

Two common Brunei dishes include:

Ambuyat – This national staple is a starchy, chewy delicacy derived from the interior of a sago palm – also known as tapioca starch. This glutinous delicacy is eaten with a chandas (bamboo fork), twirled and then dipped into the sour-spicy cacah dip. 

Nasi Katok – Similar to the Nasi Goreng series, Nasi Katok has different iterations, but is mainly rice served with fried chicken and the spicy sambal chili-shrimp paste dip. Fun fact: Nasi means rice, and katok means to knock. Back then, people had to knock on the seller’s door at night just to order! 

Timor-Leste

The Portugese-influenced cuisine of East Timor involves meat such as pork and fish, herbs such as basil, tamarind, beans, coconut milk, veggies, and fruit. Aside from rice, they rely heavily on sweet potatoes, corn, cassava, and taro as their starch.

CARIL. Photo from Shutterstock

Two common dishes include:

Caril – This mild chicken curry is coconut milk-based and includes potatoes and roasted capsicum peppers. It is usually eaten with rice.

Batar Da’an – This vegetarian dish means “boiled corn,” which is mixed with mung beans, and pumpkin, making for a a hearty, healthy, stewy staple traditionally served with rice. 

– Rappler.com

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Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.