Cuisine of Southeast Asia is a thrilling amalgam of ingredients grown in this fertile corner of the globe. Rice, noodles, seafood, and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables form the basis of most any menu. During Discovery Tours’ Gems of Southeast Asia, we witness the finer points of Vietnamese cooking firsthand during a cooking lesson. And throughout our journey, particularly in Vietnam and Cambodia, you’re likely to see a strong French influence, whether in a savory sauce or in the bakery-fresh baguettes stuffed into the bicycle baskets of locals. Here’s a small sampling of dishes from each country that’s sure to get your mouth watering.
Pad Thai. Synonymous with Thai cuisine, this flat-noodle dish is prepared with egg, spices, and vegetables, meat or shrimp, all mixed together in a sauce that is typically made with tamarind paste and fish sauce. A few spritzes of lime and some bean sprouts and ground peanuts add a light texture and a satisfying crunch. It’s a delicious dish of sweet, salty, and spicy wonder!
Khao Phat. This common fried dish is prepared with Thai Jasmine rice, unlike Chinese fried rice dishes that use long-grain rice. It is stir-fried with meats and vegetables and perhaps chili or fish sauce and served with cucumber and tomato slices, green onion, coriander, and lime wedges.
Pho. Versatile, light, and healthy, Vietnamese pho is a soup that’s packed with ingredients and flavor. The broth is typically prepared ahead of time, then rice noodles, onions, meat, cilantro, and ginger are added. The beauty of the dish is its versatility. It can be made with virtually anything, then complemented by the basil, chilis, bean sprouts, or lime that are served on the side.
Banh Beo. This Vietnamese rice pancake may not look appetizing by itself, but the savory ingredients served with it bring it to life. Shrimp, scallions, bean paste, and fried shallots might all have a place as accompaniments to this interesting dish.
Prahok. You cannot visit Cambodia without encountering prahok, a pungent ferment of paste derived from local fish. Admittedly it is not for everyone, but it’s a staple of Cambodian cuisine. Usually, cooks add it to recipes as a protein enhancement or flavoring, but it is also eaten on its own.
Amok. This delicious Cambodian curry dish begins with fish or chicken that is cooked inside banana leaves. The result is then added to a base of coconut milk that’s been spiced with tumeric, nutmeg, cloves, chili, and other local and Indian spices.
Laap. This national dish of Laos is a simple blend of chopped meat, toasted rice, and fish sauce. It’s a versatile recipe that can be made with most any kind of meat, and flavored with lime, chili, or mint. It is typically served at room temperature and eaten with the hands.
Sticky rice. You will likely see this clumpy rice in other Southeast Asian countries, but the Lao eat more of it than any other group of people in the world. It is, for locals, the essence of being Lao. They might even refer to themselves as “luk khao niaow,” or children of the sticky rice.
SHRIMP & SPINACH DUMPLINGS
Of course, the cultures of Southeast Asia share many flavors and textures in their menus and on their tables. One of our favorite dishes is the simple dumpling. Versatile, easy, and delicious, you can serve them on their own, with a sweet and sour dipping sauce, or in a soup. Here’s a tasty preparation, but you can alter the ingredients as you’d like!
2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 oz. spinach, coarsely chopped, about ½ cup
4 oz. uncooked shrimp, peeled, deveined, and finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
6 oz. ground pork
1 egg, separated
20 fresh wonton wrappers
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a wok or skillet. Add spinach and stir-fry over medium heat until soft. Remove from heat and let cool a little, then squeeze out excess water.
In large bowl, mix together spinach, shrimp, garlic, ginger, ground pork, egg yolk, salt and pepper, and mix well.
Spread out wonton wrappers and distribute mixture evenly, placing in center of wrappers. Brush the edges of wrappers with lightly beaten egg white and fold each in half to create 20 triangles.
Wet the two bottom corners of the triangles and seal them together. At this point, you may either cook them or cover them in the refrigerator for up to 6 hours before cooking.
Boil water in a large saucepan and cook dumplings in batches of 4-5 for 5 minutes each. Serve immediately with your favorite Asian dipping sauce.