by Jose Sealtiel Cruz
An interesting question has been raised in the Department of Education – International Cooperation Office’s (DepEd-ICO) recently concluded webinar on popular food across Southeast Asian nations: What represents an ASEAN dish?
The eight speakers for the webinar, who each represented a member country of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), were posed the question after they presented their country’s popular – national if you may – dish. Entitled Exploring Popular ASEAN Delicacies, the webinar, held August 19, is second in the three-part series arranged by DepEd-ICO to celebrate the 53rd founding anniversary of the ASEAN.
It seemed that the speakers had a challenge coming up with a satisfying conclusion.
It was a three-hour, light-hearted introduction of popular cuisine in Southeast Asia as the speakers of different backgrounds took turns in presenting what they believe is their country’s most popular dish.
Peter Prem Padman, Director of Food and Beverage in the Sunway Resort Hotel, first presented nasi lemak, a Malaysian staple consisting of rice cooked in coconut milk and screw pine (pandan) and partnered with an assortment of items including fried anchovies, peanuts, a hard boiled egg, and sliced cucumbers. He also showed how the country staple can take different forms, from handheld and cheap to sophisticated and restaurant quality by swapping out ingredients.
English lecturer Pwint Yee Win boasted Myanmar’s mont-hin-gah (roughly translates to rice noodles in gravy), a fish-based soup thickened by roasted rice flour and chickpeas eaten usually for breakfast.
Restaurateur Rolando Laudico, owner of culinary group under his namesake and fondly known as Chef Lau, presented the Filipino adobo. He walked through what constituted the Filipino adobo (vinegar, garlic, soy sauce, bay leaf, and a meat or vegetable) while cooking a variant of chicken adobo with turmeric and lemongrass – reminiscent of Indonesia’s rendang – to “fuse” the flavors of the various regions of the country and their renditions of adobo.
A video demonstration of Thailand’s sweet-sticky rice followed, where rice cooked in coconut milk is served with fresh tropical fruits (usually mango, but jackfruit and durian was also shown) or, unexpectedly, fish and shrimp.
Kem Malyskrang, co-founder of Vathanak Pheap School, then presented Cambodia’s somlor korko, a vegetable-forward soup with a protein – usually river fish – and flavored by Khmer kroeung (a Cambodian spice paste consisting usually of lime leaves, turmeric, and garlic) and prohok (a salty fermented fish paste).
Linda Rahmanto, vice chairman of women’s group DWP KBRI Manila, featured Indonesia’s gado-gado, a salad of blanched vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, and tofu dressed in a chunky peanut sauce – she acknowledged that the sauce can be made smoother with coconut milk, though the addition is not traditional. This was after she mused on Indonesia’s rich food culture where East meets West: Chinese cooking techniques, Indian and Middle Eastern spices, and European pastries provides a formidable foundation of their cuisine, owing to colonization and extensive trading.
Singaporean technopreneur Joanne Ng presented a variety of Singapore’s famous foods before settling with what she thinks is the small nation’s most popular: chilli crab, consisting usually of mud crabs dressed with either a sweet-spicy tomato sauce or a black pepper sauce.
Ng was asked if chilli crab was authentic Singaporean food fare, knowing how the small country is a melting pot of numerous cultures. She explained how it started in 1956 from a couple owning a pushcart and eventually touted as one of Singapore’s national dishes by their tourism board on 2009. Evidently, chilli crab is proudly Singaporean.
TOPICA EdTech Group’s Dr. Dang My Chau went hands-on in wrapping Vietnamese spring rolls, with lettuce, carrots, scallions, glass noodles, meat, and shrimp wrapped neatly in rice paper and dipped in soy sauce mixed with a sweet-chili sauce.
The last presenter, Laos’ Nouamkham Chanthabury, Deputy Director General for the Ministry of Education and Sport, presented papaya salad using shredded, raw, green papayas and flavored with lime, chili, tomato, garlic, sugar, shrimp paste, and their local fermented fish sauce. The salad, Chanthabury said, is present in most Lao meals, simple or extravagant, and even in celebrations.
The mildly educational exhibition still leaves the nagging question open: what would an ASEAN dish be like? The keynote speaker, Philippine Ambassador to New Zealand Jesus “Gary” Domingo, had some suggestions.
Where food intersects
In his keynote speech, self-confessed foodie Ambassador Gary noted how there are numerous commonalities in ASEAN food and food culture despite the vastly different cuisines of the countries in ASEAN, from shared ingredients thanks to a long history of trading to adapting Western fare with a local touch (Philippines’ Jollibee, for instance), diverse food cart cultures (Philippines’ tusok-tusok and Singapore’s hawker centres, for instance), the use of hands in eating, and associating food with celebrations.
However, the different ways food is prepared in the region posed a challenge in fusing them to make up one plate. The ambassador was ready and gave three suggestions: a dish that involves rice a la bibimbap, on a stick and barbecued (a take on kebab), and an ice dessert much like halo-halo – arguing that these are the main food themes in the region, besides the polarizing durian which he did not consider as a dish as it does not require cooking.
While Indonesia’s Rahmento was fond with the suggestion of food on sticks (satay being her prime example), Ambassador Gary’s first suggestion sparked the most interesting discussion. He elaborated further that the “rice bowl” should feature a dish from every country – while most of the speakers were in mutual agreement (inserting their popular dishes while they’re at it), Peter Padman thought that it may resemble nasi kandar more, a dish of steamed rice and various side dishes and curries, due to the distinctness of flavors a dish from each country has to offer.
Chef Lau had a different take: while he acknowledged the idea of having different ASEAN dishes as rice toppings to be “cool,” he said that “there is no one dish that can represent ASEAN; what ASEAN represents really are the vibrant flavors and the rich ingredients that we have … in each of our countries.”
Perhaps the ambassador’s suggestion makes more sense in boasting Southeast Asia’s rich food culture: a food exposition – buffet – of sorts that showcases each country’s cuisine. For a region of diverse tastes, unifying taste buds might be approaching the question in a manner that would be difficult to resolve.
Conceiving an ASEAN dish may not be the answer, but the wonder lingers on.