Article: Capturing the Essence of Southeast Asia -- January 2009
Southeast Asia, a land of culinary indulgence, is populated by people of intrigue and ruled by craving palates. Vibrant pigments of Southeast Asian cultural life adorn the region’s exquisite culinary canvas. Here, food is much more than sustenance; mealtimes form the very basis and building blocks of everyday life and are the social glue that bond friends, family and colleagues. The flavors of these on-trend cultures and culinary hot spots are becoming a passion of our prepared foods consumers, and more authentic flavor profiles are becoming mainstream. But, what are the basic, elemental building blocks of this region’s diverse cuisines, and how can knowledge of these aid in our production and sales of quality prepared foods?
The Importance of Dry Spice Mixtures
Throughout Southeast Asia, the motherland of flavor and culture is undeniably China, and one spice mixture, born in this land of origin, has permeated the cuisines of the Southeastern realms of Asia. The classical and prolific Chinese five-spice mixture can be found rubbed on crispy, roasted pork belly in Vietnam and accenting various roasted meats from Thailand to Malaysia and Singapore. As is the case with most food, the exact standard of identity for this spice mixture is nearly impossible to nail down; therefore, there are a handful of different spice blends that can be referred to as five-spice. One of the most common is composed of cinnamon, Szechwan peppercorn, star anise, anise seed and clove.
Another genre of dry spice mixtures is that of curry powder. Although recipes in the West rarely call for a specific type of curry powder, or even acknowledge the existence of different varieties, curry powders in Southeast Asia can be as different as brown sugar to white and vary in composition, flavor and application. Thanks to Leslie Krause, director of R&D, and her talented team of R&D professionals at Elite Spice Inc., it has been possible to pinpoint what these variations are and develop recipes for each curry powder.
In Thailand, recipes call for curry powder made from ground and deeply toasted spices. Thai curry powder owes much of its flavor to fenugreek seeds. While many consumers have never knowingly used this spice, its flavor will seem uncannily familiar to most Americans, as it is the primary flavoring agent in imitation maple syrup. This spice lends a deep, sour flavor to Thai curry powder, which is balanced by the mystical essence of cumin. Vietnamese curry powder is the only one to include powdered annatto seeds, which lend a reddish hue to foods cooked with it. In this unique combination of spices, sweet hints of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves harmonize with the essence of coriander. Vietnamese curry powder is much higher in this lemony, floral spice than Indian-style curry powders and is completely devoid of cumin--a spice that the Vietnamese have not embraced fully. In Malaysia, the world of curry powder gets a little more complicated, as the Malays have different formulas for curry powder, depending on the protein being served.
Generally, when compared to Thai and Vietnamese curry powders, the Malaysian versions have a higher percentage of turmeric. This assertion is especially exhibited in the Malaysian curry powder for seafood. The turmeric rhizome imparts a vivid, yellow color to any protein or innocent bystander it encounters. In ancient Malay and Indian cooking, folk medicine dictated that fish should be rubbed with pulverized turmeric to rid it of bacteria and smooth the fish flavors. Today, their folk wisdom has been proven, as chefs recognize that flavors are tempered by turmeric, and scientists acknowledge its proven antiseptic characteristics. As for meat recipes, Malaysian curry powder is dominated by red chilies marrying with coriander to elevate and accentuate rich meat flavors and nuances of game. Cinnamon, anise and cardamom are indigenous to the Malay Peninsula and provide a complex, spicy accent to this curry flavor.
Dry spice mixtures are not the only, or even primary, tools of imparting flavor in Southeast Asian cuisine. In the land of curry, wet spice pastes are king, possessing all the flavor of their dry cousins, but then fortified by incorporating fresh aromatic ingredients such as shallot, garlic, ginger, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, cilantro root, fresh chilies and kaffir lime zest. These fresh aromatics are combined with dry, toasted spices and pounded or blended into a paste that will act as the flavor foundation for a multitude of dishes.
Moist Spice Pastes Add Flavor Intensity
Thai curry pastes generally contain coriander, cumin, peppercorns, dried and fresh chilies, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, cilantro root, galangal, and shrimp paste or gkapi. Red curry paste is one of the spiciest, though some chefs assert that green is the hottest. The deep, red hue comes from its dried red chilies. Green curry paste abounds with fresh green chilies and cilantro root, which add an earthy quality that pairs well with pork and eggplant. Yellow curry paste is tinted by ground, dried turmeric and is frequently used with seafood, similarly to the Malaysian curry powder for seafood. The flavor profile of southern Thai Mussamun curry is constructed of spices and flavors usually associated with sweeter offerings such as cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. It reflects this curry’s southern origins and proximity to Penang and all of Malaysia’s Muslim, Malay and Indian influences.
Across the Southern Thai border into Malaysia is another incantation of moist spice paste. Here, these flavorful amalgamations are referred to as rempahs, which literally translates to “spice pastes.” A key point of differentiation between Malaysian-style rempahs and other spice pastes is that rempahs are cooked after pounding; this step is taken as a balancing measure and seems to mellow many of the sharp, funky and raw flavors that can be quite pungent and offensive, while at the same time coaxing out and accentuating the pleasant aromatics of the paste. When pulverized in a mortar, a rempah can even be the primary thickener in Malay stews and soups--this is also true for Thai curries. Most rempahs contain ingredients such as garlic, shallots, spices, rhizomes like galangal and turmeric, lemongrass, chilies, and shrimp paste or belacan. Shallots are less expensive than onions in these lands, and they are used more extensively as an integral part of many rempahs. Dry spices travel well, and thus, are readily available, yet there are still challenges sourcing fresh aromatics such as cilantro (coriander) roots, fresh galangal and other essential elements in the wet spice pastes. The ingredient list may seem similar to that of the Thai curry paste, and it is; however, the subtle differences in technique, application and a few ingredients here and there result in an overall product and flavor that is completely different and distinctive. It would be very hard for even a novice cook to mistake one for the other.
The land of Vietnam is surprisingly devoid of spice pastes, although spice and heat are never far from the table. Although much of the food in Vietnam is cooked without the addition of spicy elements, do not be deceived; here, heat makes its way into the mouth in the form of table condiments. These implements of pleasurable pain are manifest in the forms of sliced Thai bird chilies, the slightly sour orange chili, pickled green chilies, sliced chilies in fish sauce, or Nahm Pla, ground and roasted dried red chilies, whole bird’s eye chilies and a traditional chili sauce of Vietnam called Tuong Ot. This Vietnamese chile-garlic sauce can be seen on many Vietnamese restaurant tables. It is a blend of fresh chilies, garlic and vinegar, combined and coarsely pureed, or pounded in a mortar. Tuong Ot is the chili sauce traditionally served with the famous Vietnamese beef noodle soup of Hanoi, Pho; however, in the U.S., this dish had been bastardized by the substitution of Sriracha sauce, a Thai chili sauce, in the place of Tuong Ot.
Few cultures around the world possess a cuisine as chili-laden as that of the Thai people. Here, heat is added and enjoyed in just about any way possible. As if the curry paste is not hot enough on its own, Thai cooks lace their culinary creations with handfuls of dried, ground and roasted chili flakes, as well as minced, fresh chilies and finely pounded, white peppercorn. Some dishes, such as the Drunken Rice Noodles with Pork, Basil and Oyster Sauce or Pad Kee Mao, contain whole bunches of fresh, green peppercorns, which add a heat that is as unique as the ingredient itself. As the food reaches the table, the common saying “out of the pot and into the fire” seems to describe the scene most accurately, as the relentless onslaught of capsicum continues. Most Thai tables are dressed with a dubious duo of fiery finishing elements, such as ground roasted chilies and pickled Thai bird chilies.
Depending on the region and restaurant (or alley), one may also find a delicious and deeply roasted red chili paste called Nahm Prik Pow. This aptly named condiment is a chili sauce with a roasted punch that is also referred to as roasted chili in soya bean oil, roasted red chili paste or even “chili jam,” since palm sugar gives this moderately spicy paste a sweet taste with a cloying quality. Garlic, shallots, dried shrimp, chilies and galangal are each independently fried or grilled, and then combined with oil, shrimp paste, palm sugar and tamarind pulp and simmered until a thick jam is produced. This harmonious chili paste is not only found on the table as a condiment, but also often used as the base to Thai hot and sour soups. The sharper and fermented Sriracha chili sauce that has become so popular in this country is also a common table condiment and has its origins in the city that bears its name, Sriracha, a town in southern Thailand. Sriracha chili sauce is made from sun-ripened red chilies, which are flavored with garlic, sugar and salt. Some versions also contain fish sauce (nahm pla). This infernal combination of cuisine and condiment is slightly cooled, but far from doused, by the ever-present jars of white sugar and fish sauce. Although authentically Thai, this combination of chili, sugar and fermented seafood is reminiscent of their neighbors to the South, and the delectable, yet dangerous, spicy sambals of Malaysia and Singapore.
Singapore resides at two degrees latitude, and the equatorial heat is matched only by the heat of the edibles offered in Singapore and its sister country, Malaysia. Malaysian and Singaporean foods find heat throughout the journey to the table and on to the palate. Chilies and peppercorn are implemented through the cooking process, as well as at the table. The chili of choice seems to be the chili padi, called so because of its size and resemblance to mouse droppings. These are the perfect chilis to be served as a tableside accompaniment, as their powerful heat is matched inversely by their tiny size. Take one bit of this chili, and all one is left with is the stem, sweat and tears, as well as a mind-clouding flood of endorphins. To “chili heads” the world over, this is the holy grail of tooth-grinding, pleasurable pain packaged in a convenient, one-dose capsule of capsicum. Here, the chili sauce of choice is definitely sambal. This term is primarily used in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and the most common ingredients are chilies, garlic, shallots and sugar, though many also contain salt, tamarind and a unique shrimp paste called belacan.
Shrimp pastes, such as belacan, are an essential part of gastronomy in Southeast Asia. These double agents of umami supply the fifth taste through a fermentation that transforms small shrimp and salt into an aromatic paste. There are numerous regional variations of shrimp pastes, all made essentially the same way. Small shrimp are pounded or ground, combined with salt and then fermented. Vietnamese shrimp paste, mam ruoc or mam tom, is essentially the same purplish paste as southern Chinese “fine shrimp paste.” It is so important in Vietnamese culture that, when looking for an article of clothing, one might ask for “mam ruoc” color, since ladies favor the same purple hue across Vietnam. Mam ruoc is used in the central and southern parts of Vietnam and is made from very small shrimp, while mam tom is a more northern style, made from larger shrimp. The Thai version, called gkapi, is a pungent, thick dark paste with a slightly pink tint that is almost always included in Thai curry pastes. Wrap a ¼-inch thick amount of it in wild pepper leaves, banana leaves or aluminum foil and then toast it over an open flame before using it. Malaysian or Singaporean belacan is an almost-crumbly shrimp paste. It is so pungent, it should be wrapped in multiple layers of plastic to prevent everything in the refrigerator from taking on its smell. Malaysians and Singaporeans also toast the belacan over a medium fire for a couple of minutes before using it. Or, one can sandwich a spoonful between two layers of foil, push down to flatten and put directly on low flame for 10-20 seconds on each side.
The indispensable flavor-building tool, fish sauce, is the most universal, sodium-based seasoning in Vietnam and Thailand. Its clear amber, pungent liquid is always at the ready. In Vietnam, it is called nouc mam, and in Thailand, nahm pla. It is used in all types of dishes, regardless of whether or not they contain seafood. The sauce is primarily made with a species of small fish, known as the long-jawed anchovy, or Stolephorus. Actually, there are 2-3 varieties of the Stolephorus fish: Baccaneeri, Miarch and Purpureus, which is often referred to as an anchovy, but is not the familiar anchovy of the Mediterranean (Engraulis encrasicolus). Traditionally, the fish are layered with salt in wooden vats, two parts salt to one part fish by weight, and fermented there for 6-8 months. Now, cement wells have become the norm for larger-style manufacturing plants.
To avoid mashing the fish, which would cloud the sauce, a spigot at the bottom of the vat or sunken “extraction well” allows the amber juices to be tapped. The first draining of this liquid gold is the most prized, premium grade, labeled nhi in Vietnam. For those produced in Thailand, look for the Thai Department of Export Promotion (DEP) emblem from the government. After draining, water is added, and the mixture is fermented again for a lower quality, less expensive second run. As with fine olive oils, one gets what one pays for. The best fish sauce costs only a few dollars more than the mediocre second run, so do not skimp here. Fish sauce is often the foundational flavor in a dish. Fermented fish sauces, similar to the sauces used in modern day Southeast Asia, were consumed in ancient Greece and Rome. The fermentation process creates a sauce that has a high free glutamate content. Even ingredients used for natural flavorings, such as maltodextrin, malt extract and whey protein, contain significant amounts of glutamate. It is everywhere, but as with most things, moderation is the key.
Fermentation of Soy Sauces
The history of fermentation in Asia is far from limited to fish. With more than 3,000 years of presence in Asia, soy sauce is integral to all Southeast Asian cooking. In Malaysia and Singapore, more so than in Thailand and Vietnam, this is due to the high percentage of ethnic Chinese presence. The term “brewed” soy sauce is important, yet somewhat misleading. The Chinese version of the sauce is not brewed or cooked like beer, but it is naturally fermented with whole soybeans. Thin soy sauces (regular soy sauce) should never be colored with “caramel color.” Its presence is a sign that shortcuts were taken to achieve the dark color that usually takes months to develop as the soybeans ferment.
The primary soy sauce used in much of the world is referred to as thin, light or regular soy sauce. It adds not only desirable saltiness to foods, but, like its cousin fish sauce, packs a wallop of umami, the coveted meaty, savory flavor. Soy sauce plays the role of utility condiment, acting as a marinade, dressing, braising liquid, table condiment and more.
The dark color and extra viscosity of “dark soy sauce” comes from the addition of caramel color (a product of cooked sugar). Some manufacturers also use a vacuum-dehydration process to concentrate the sauce. Not only does dark soy have a desirable, slightly bitter flavor, but its jet-black color enables it to be used as a coloring element in dishes, like stir-fried noodles, without adding too much soy flavor. A drop will add a rich, brown color to soups, stews and sauces alike. There is also one variation available, mushroom dark soy sauce--traditionally made by infusing dark soy sauce with straw mushrooms. Some manufacturers have switched to using the savory and more widely available Chinese black (shiitake) mushroom for a more intense flavor.
There is yet another variety of soy sauce common to Southeast Asia: thick soy sauce. This gooey, black soy sauce has molasses added to achieve its jet-black color. It is used to marinate meats before stewing them, as in the Malaysian chicken and Chinese black mushroom stew, or Pong The. Do not confuse it with the much sweeter Indonesian kicap manis. Just as brown sugar is less sweet and more bitter than white sugar, thick soy is not as salty or thin as dark soy sauce, but it has a full-bodied, bitter flavor. Hence, a little goes a long way.
A Place for Sweetness, Too
Many people are surprised to find the importance and prevalence of sugar in Southeast Asian cuisines. The common, white granulated sugar can be found everywhere, from inside Malaysian sambals to the tables in Thai dining rooms. Palm sugar is less familiar to Western culture, but can be more flavorful than processed and refined white sugar. To produce this succulent sweetener, sap is extracted by cutting the flower buds at the top of the tree. Containers are strapped on and left to collect the sap. Shaved wood of the Shorea genus is left in the sap buckets to prevent souring. The day’s sap is combined with cane sugar of varying amounts--less cane sugar is considered of better quality--then, the mixture is boiled down in large woks until it becomes dark, aromatic syrup. After cooling, it is either poured into jars to solidify (the Thai way--this version usually has a slightly fermented flavor), or it is stirred vigorously until it crystallizes and is then spooned into large disk shapes (typical in Thailand and Vietnam). In Malaysia, the sap is boiled at higher temperatures, until it turns deep brown and then poured into bamboo molds to make their signature cylindrical shape. A good dessert to seek out in a palm sugar-producing area would be reduced sap, served over shaved ice.
Many consumers of the food and beverages that are conceptualized, developed, test-marketed, manufactured and sold are no longer in the dark about the cuisines of Southeast Asia. Food television is the most influential factor in this, and these newly produced shows not only display what they eat, but how they eat. The context of a meal is nearly as important as the content (flavor), so get a packaging team on board and strive to provide “cuisine within context,” as visual perception is the first clue as to what one should expect to taste. pf
Website Resources:http://southeastasianflavors.com -- A more in-depth look at these topics, videos of the cuisines within the cultures and recipes that illustrate points in this article
www.PreparedFoods.com -- Type in “Southeast Asian Cuisine,” “five-spice” or the names of the individual countries for articles pertaining to this topic on Prepared Foods’ website
More Than a CookbookCHEF DANHI’S BOOK, SOUTHEAST ASIAN FLAVORS--ADVENTURES IN COOKING THE FOODS OF THAILAND, VIETNAM, MALAYSIA, AND SINGAPORE (MORTAR AND PRESS, OCTOBER 2008), IS BILLED NOT AS A COOKBOOK--IT IS A “FOOD BOOK.” IT DOES FAR MORE THAN PROVIDE RECIPES; IT ALSO USES CHEF DANHI’S PHOTOGRAPHY TO PUT THE CUISINES IN CONTEXT. BY ILLUSTRATING THE “SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PEOPLE AND THE FOOD THAT SUSTAINS THEM,” THE READER GETS MUCH MORE THAN A SENSE OF THE FOODS AND REGIONS COVERED IN THE BOOK. INSTEAD, THEY ARE IMMERSED IN THE VARIOUS CULTURES--INCLUDING THE PEOPLE AND PLACES THAT CAPTURED THE AUTHOR’S HEART AND CONTINUE TO INSPIRE HIM. IT IS MORE OF A “CULINARY ADVENTURE” THAN A BOOK ABOUT A CULTURE’S FOOD, AND THE GOAL IS TO HELP THE READER TO A GREATER UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT MAKES EACH COUNTRY, REGION, CITY, TOWN AND VILLAGE UNIQUE TO ITS CULTURAL IDENTITY. CONTAINING MORE THAN 100 RECIPES AND OVER 700 PHOTOS (TAKEN BY THE AUTHOR HIMSELF, ON HIS TRAVELS), THIS BOOK IS A MUST-HAVE FOR ANYONE INTERESTED IN THE COOKING, CULTURE, HISTORY OR CUSTOMS OF THESE FOUR AMAZING COUNTRIES.
--BARBARA T. NESSINGER, ASSOCIATE EDITOR