Southeast Asian Contemporary Cuisine: A Historic Influence

Although every culture in the world possesses specific characteristics that mould and develop their cuisine, Southeast Asia is on of the most varied, colourful and rich types of cuisine in the world. Furthermore, Cuisine widely varies within Southeast Asia, depending on what country, type of region and culture the place is.

Why is their food the way it is?
Culture’s usually create their typical foods around what is available in the region to crop. That is why you never see an apple pie around the equator line or a “typical” mango dish up north or down south. The food variety is contingent on the type of recipes that will be created among the people. Usually, people that generate these traditions are middle to lower class and are constructed through generations of developing said recipes.

That being said, Southeast Asia happens to be geographically located in a very warm, humid area, ideal for agriculture and a variety of fruits and vegetables. For example, according to the United States department of agriculture, in 1995, Vietnam produced 4,3 tons per year, almost twice as much as the US (2,5). But rice is much more than just a part of their diet. Southeast Asian individuals have an almost sanctimonious relationship with rice. Its importance is so deep into the culture that the have something called “Rice Rituals”. Rice is seen as a feminine being that has to be taken care of carefully and with appreciation. “She is treated like a pregnant woman whose every whim must be indulged… she determines the auspicious days to plant, transplant, and harvest rice… The rice fields are protected by spirits who must be ritually fed to produce the highest Yields.”

The economic situation in Southeast Asia accompanied by the ability to produce things like rice, have made culinary staples such as wok rice. Although Wok cooking is delicious, its birth came from need. The way food is being cooked through the Wok methodology makes it quicker, cheaper and more scalable than other methods. “Cooking is economically efficient as people use wok cooking which require a low amount of fuel and makes deep-frying easy”.

Alike rice, coffee is quite an easy plant to grow along Southeast Asia. Countries like Vietnam are big producers of the bean and this has reflected on their coffee consumption per capita. “The coffee history of Vietnam is delimited by rapid changes.”

Furthermore, cultural traditions and manners have melded the way food is cooked. Cultural background is so essential to understand how the food culture develops in a country or region that it is peremptory to study their customs before trying any of their dishes. For example, Cambodian street food is highly popular around Southeast Asia. One of their food staples is fried frogs. The important part to consider is how this frog are served. Since it is traditional to eat with your hands around south east Asia, dishes like this are served on a stick, so the client can use his hands directly. Like this, there are hundreds of several recipes served in the same manner around this region, including “innards” and insects.

Likewise, food is usually covered by something that allows the client to eat it without getting his hands dirty. For example, the food blogger John Walker, explores the Banana leaf Curry, in which instead of a plate, the client is served with a banana leaf acting as a napkin/plate/cutlery. “Every restaurant where it’s a norm to eat with your hands, will have a skink and hopefully some soap situated in the eating area for customers to wash their hands before eating.

The cultural relevance of neighbouring cultures and geographic location Is an essential aspect to take into account when understanding why and how the food recipes are constructed along the countries within south east Asia. For example, the Philippines were conquered by the Spanish during the XVII century, so they acquired vast part of the Spanish traditions into their cuisine. Dishes like the typical Spanish Paella, can be found within the Philippines repertoire. This special paella is part of their typical food and only changes the proportions of the food offered. “My customers have tried today in Manila the biggest paella in the history of the Philippines, a country where the Spanish dish staple is still part of the national gastronomy, even a century later after becoming independent. Like this, “Cochinillo” and “Pan de Sal” can be also found around the country still. The well-known spiciness of south eastern Asia actually came from the Americas through Portugal, so this cultural transference made the recipes what we know and love today.

However, there are more important cultural factors that have affected directly the cuisine orientations of the region. The most vital part of their traditions to take into account when analysing their cuisines is their religion. Along Southeast Asia, several dogmas are present in the different countries. Depending on how many followers of said religion are present on the different countries, their food tastes and traditions will shift drastically.

For example, according to the University of Alberta´s study on the subject, In Malaysia and Indonesia, the influence of Islamic faith has virtually eliminated pork from their diet. Religions like Buddhism in Malaysia affect the customs within families. Shared meals are an essential within this type of religion since for them, shared meals are a type of ritual. Muslims are a minority in most countries within the area and since their traditions are more related to not eating than to having a certain diet, their cultural impact on the cuisine is rather limited. Other people still eat pork and don’t stop eating during Ramadan, so it is essentially futile to argue against their relevance.

The strongest influence made over countries within southeast Asia is the neighbouring, stronger and bigger nations. For example, the cuisine within China are India are great part of the inspiration for neighbouring countries in the region. Things like noodles or the Wok were included into the gastronomy of countries like Malaysia and the Philippines, and curries can be found in the typical recipes of the closest countries to India.

“External influences on southeast Asia at times and in certain places have been overwhelming. At other times and places the influence of externa powers was minimal. Whenever Southeast Asian communities absorbed innovations from others, it was always done selectively and always redefined as local, whether it was a Portuguese dessert or a French baguette. Southeast Asian communities were great borrowers but what they borrowed was always grafted onto their local traditions.”

Colonization, liberalization of the countries´ economies and juxtaposed countries constitute the biggest influences into the southeast Asian culture and cuisine. Trade was an essential aspect of this influence, since most products imported from other countries had a cultural aspect behind them, especially if it was food related. Chinese traders were the ones who pushed the Chinese traditions into countries around them, as well as Indian travellers with their own traditional food. “Like in Malaysia, those meals will draw from Malay stir fries to Chinese noodles to Indian curries, all slurped down with coffee, hot gingery tea, or the sweet and herbal citrus vibe of calamansi limeade. And no matter where you are, or what you’re eating, you’ll hear someone tsk-ing about a better noodle, porridge, or bean curd at their favorite hawker.”

On the other hand, colonization left scattered hints of the historic influence into this country. As we know, the Southeast Asian territory was colonized by the Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Depending on who conquered what country, the influences and culinary inoculations diverge.

“. By the 1600s, Portuguese and Spanish explorers began to bring New World plants to the region, including tomatoes, papaya, pineapple, corn, potato and sweet potato, and cassava. The greatest gift of the Columbian exchange to the food culture of Southeast Asia was the Chile pepper from Central America, which rapidly replaced various indigenous peppers as a source of hot taste.”

Finding baguettes in Indochina or pan de Sal in the Philippines is not arbitrary. It is the living proof of the remainders of colonization and one of the reasons why Southeast Asia has on od the most varied cuisines in the world.

However, their innate recipes are incredibly varied as well, the originality of their flavors, spices and colors made the Europeans acquire taste for these dishes. Its relevance and uniqueness among the different cuisines in the world has made the southeast of Asia a major culinary exporter in recipes and raw materials. Thai food has become one of the most recognizable types of food worldwide. “European and North American interests in Thai food was unconnected to historical colonialism.”

Although most cultures from around the world have some degree of influence from abroad, there is no other place so varied and pluricultural as Southeast Asia. Its geographic position, historical events and climate makes the region unique and diverse, unified by a common continent and a general perception towards food… flexibility and innovation.
The amazing thing about the region is that they are incredibly proud of their traditions and make a huge effort on preserving them. At the same time, they discretionally select a few items to add into their menus, adapting them to their style, flavor and taste. Their wide variety of spices and recipes allow them to include subtle foreign items into their cuisine and embrace this innovation.

Overcoming the colonialization era and preserving their traditional dishes is truly admiring and it shows how attached they are to their own culture. Even though they were undermined by Europeans during several decades, food such as Thai were still present, and even exported to other countries due to their attractiveness. After the colonization era ended, the preserved elements that suited their native cuisine and even “improved” them to some, such as spicy peppers and papayas. They’ve known how to manage the transition and evolution of their foods yet maintaining their traditions. They are so well kept probably because the link it has with religion. Making food part of a religious orientation might conserve these customs much better.

I would like to learn about a particular country within Southeast Asia and understand year by year the cultural differences found, and he impact on their food. Also, a very interesting subject would be analyzing the differences between southeast Asian food in a country like the United States, and locally produced south east Asian food. The adaptations made in a foreign language would expose the essential items within the dishes and the attempt to adapt them to the western world.

For further research, considering the spiritual factors of food for natives of Southeast Asia would be a very interesting subject to touch on. At the same time, an in-depth investigation of the negative cultural impact of the colonization process would expose a lot of cuisine-oriented information that got lost through the annihilation of indigenous people and natives.

Another subject of research would be trying to state that all of the southeast Asian region can be seen as a homogenous culture with regionally varied traditions. Focusing more on the way to see the world, their perception towards life, food and their country. Trying to diffuse the borders that go along the countries within the region and analyze them as a whole. Compare the results with the same type of analysis but done for the Latin American countries. The similarities that surge from this research will be compared in a geolocational analysis, trying to relate the part of the hemisphere with their customs.

Finally, a great subject to investigate on is the consequences of globalization in the native cuisine of South Asia. I would propose analyzing memoirs and comparing them with current gastronomical trends along the countries. As a part of this analysis, surveys would have to be done to examine the south east Asian perception of foreign food when living abroad. Comparing natives abroad and abroad food within the region would expose the true impact of globalization and the true cost of this phenomenon on traditional cuisines, customs and traditions. This would expose how globalization is “stealing” what I did my thesis about: the incredible variety of cuisine in this culture.

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