Posted on: Tuesday December 10, 2013
The only country in Southeast Asia never to be colonised by a Western power, Thailand wears its unique identity and remarkable culinary diversity on its sleeve.
Thai cuisine as a whole stands out for its fish sauces notably nam pla phrik, green, red and yellow curry pastes and generous use of coconut. The use of the wok and steamers and the technique of stir frying point to age-old Chinese influence while a shared grammar with India can be seen in the country's range of yellow curries especially the famous chicken curry known as masaman, ranked number one in the 2011 CNNGo listing of 'World's 50 most delicious foods'.
ICONIC DISHES: Pho, Rice Noodles
Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos
Linked by the mighty Mekong River, these countries once formed part of the powerful Khmer Empire. They have all also had episodes of French rule. All of this is reflected in their culinary landscape.
The cuisine of Vietnam stands out for its subtle flavourings and attention to texture. Nearly every dish here is informed by the pungent anchovy -based sauce known as nuoc mam. The period of French colonialism left behind a baguette culture and local adaptations of identifiably French dishes.
As one-time seat of the powerful Khmer Kingdom, Cambodia witnessed the evolution of the Imperial cuisine; the exquisite steamed fish and coconut milk dish known as amok, is an example). The country’s signature taste is defined by the fermented fish sauce known as prahoc.
Laotians have the distinction of being the highest per capita consumers of sticky rice. This chewy addictive staple is commonly enjoyed with a spot of chilli pepper-based paste, jeow and on occasion mok pa, an imperial steamed fish dish.
ICONIC DISHES: Nuoc mam, amok, laap
Burma offers a reorienting experience for both the adventure-seeking traveller and the taster.
While the prevalence of rice is unremarkable for the region, what may be seen as unusual is the use of lentils and chickpeas which are used in the form of sprouts as well as curd. Indigenous bamar cuisine is notable for its leaning to natural flavours. Dried shrimp plays an important role in the ubiquitous table-top condiment known as balachaung and the flavour paste referred to as ngapi jaw.
The use of tea leaves in the Bamar tradition is a real eye opener. While tea is also drunk in much the same way as it is in India, it is especially enjoyed here in the edible form known as lahpet - a dish of pickled tea leaves which when served as a salad is topped with crunchy condiments and a basic dressing.
ICONIC DISHES: Lahpet, ngapi jaw