What can Vietnam’s phở, Thailand’s pad thai, and Cambodia’s amok trei tell you about the people who make and eat them?
Southeast Asia is one of the world’s great culinary hotspots. Featuring bold flavors, subtle complexities, and an endless variety of ingredients, techniques and approaches, you’ll never run out of incredible new dishes to try.
The region’s boundless cuisine has a lot to do with its fascinating history and its diverse geography. Everywhere you go you will see the influence of the wok-frying Chinese cultures to the east and the curry-making Indian cultures to the west. The West has also had an impact: the chili peppers that now feature in almost every Southeast Asian dish were actually brought from South America by Portuguese traders in the 16th century. More recently, the French colonizers also made their mark on the kitchens of Vietnam and Cambodia…
While the region is known for the intense localism of its cuisine – specialties can vary from street to street! – a few dishes have transcended these divisions to become national staples. Let’s take a closer look at three of the most famous…
Intoxicatingly sweet and spicy, and packed with moreish proteins, pad thai must be Thailand’s most famous culinary export. But, according to Mental Floss, this uber-famous noodle dish isn’t even 100 years old (at least not in its current form) and it’s packed with foreign ingredients and techniques.
When Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram – Phibun for short – brought an end to the absolute monarchy in the 1930s, he introduced 12 cultural mandates that were designed to unify and modernize the Thai nation. This included changing the country’s name from Siam to Thailand, banning some traditional clothing, introducing a new national anthem … and distributing the recipe for pad thai to street vendors around the country!
Phibun didn’t pluck the recipe from the ether, however. Chinese traders introduced stir-fried noodles to Thailand in the 18th century, and Phibun’s son said it was a family favorite long before his father came to power.
Phibun chose pad thai for several reasons. First, it’s delicious. But it’s also cheap and easy to make – and bursting with calories. The early 1940s were tough in Thailand: the combined impacts of World War II and unprecedented flooding led to a devastating rice shortage. Phibun knew that one bowl of rice could be used to make two bowls of rice noodles, and soon the slogan “noodle is your lunch” was pasted on buildings, buses, and boats across the nation. He also knew that carbs alone could not keep his people toiling, so he chose a dish that was packed with several cheap proteins: in addition to shrimp and/or chicken, pad thai typically features tofu, peanuts, and stir-fried egg. Even if one ingredient was unavailable, he knew the Thai people would be getting a meal in a bowl.
Given that Thais were encouraged to eat the dish every day as a patriotic act (I can think of worse forms of government control!), it’s no wonder pad thai became the most popular dish in the country. But this isn’t the end of the story: its international appeal is also the result of government intervention! In the early 2000s, in a bid to increase Thailand’s global reputation, the Thai government launched a campaign to open Thai restaurants all over the world. This government-funded scheme included three pre-planned restaurant models (budget, mid-range, and gourmet) complete with suggested restaurant names and menu templates. It goes without saying that pad thai featured on all of these menus…
Phở, pronounced ‘fuh’, is the indescribably moreish herbed beef (or chicken) noodle soup that put Vietnamese cooking on the map. But as this excellent BBC article explains…
While most historians agree that phở was invented in the late 19th and early 20th century in northern Vietnam during French colonial times, its origins are murky. Some believe phở was an adaptation of the French one-pot beef and vegetable stew pot-au-feu, which shares a phonetic similarity to ‘phở’. Others say it was from the Chinese communities who settled in the north of Vietnam and sold a dish called 牛肉粉 (beef with noodles). The Chinese character for 粉 (pinyin: fěn) is pronounced ‘fuh’, which is similar to the Vietnamese ‘phở’.
The truth, as is usually the case, likely lies somewhere in the middle. Phở almost certainly draws on both China and France for inspiration … But it is unmistakably Vietnamese.
Folks who’ve tasted phở outside of Vietnam are most likely familiar with the sweeter and more heavily garnished southern version. For this we have the war to thank: most of Vietnam’s diaspora – including the famous boat people – hails from the area surrounding Saigon, and these southerners have opened Vietnamese restaurants all around America, Europe, and beyond.
But the most authentic (yes, that word) actually originates from the north, and specifically the village of Nam Dinh, near Hanoi. Northern phở is all about purity of ingredients, and specifically the broth. Some of the most famous phở masters frown on the addition of herbs or even salt. They say that beef broth should be made from nothing but beef marrow bones and meat. Chicken broth, meanwhile, should be prepared by boiling whole chickens until the broth is clear, fragrant, and singular. “The single use of an animal type in broth is very similar to the French cooking, which makes the taste more delicate and refined,” explains Bui Thi Suong, a cultural ambassador for Vietnamese cuisine.
Without politics, phở probably would have remained a northern staple. But in 1954, when the end of French colonial rule saw the country cut in two, many northerners migrated south, taking phở with them. These days, phở is eaten in every corner of Vietnam with each region adapting the dish to suit its produce, palate, and culture. While the phở in Ho Chi Minh City might not be entirely true to its roots, this doesn’t mean it’s not delicious.
While you travel around Vietnam, we’d highly recommend trying the phở (both chicken and beef) in every region you visit to find out more about the people who make it. As Vietnamese chef Alex Tran puts it, “I personally would call it a dish that unites and tears us apart. This is our national pride, but we would never settle on which type of phở is the ‘real phở’. If you want to make Vietnamese fight each other, ask them which phở is the best.”
Dating back at least 600 years (and possibly more than 1,000) to the royal Khmer Empire, amok trei (or steamed fish curry) is the oldest and most venerable dish in this article. But it was almost lost to humanity in the 20th century. During Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in the 1970s, much of Cambodia’s cultural patrimony was wiped out – along with 1.7 million of its people. So much so that the complicated and painstaking skill of preparing amok, traditionally passed from mother to daughter, ran the risk of extinction. As Audrey Gillan writes for , “to embrace amok now, is to reach back beyond the era of Pol Pot’s murderous regime, pick up something ‘good’, and bring it back to the present.”
Cambodian food isn’t nearly as well-known as that of its neighbors Vietnam and Thailand. But once you’ve tasted amok – with its delicate flavors, melt-in-the-mouth consistency, and simple complexity – you’ll wonder why on earth this is the case. While it’s hard to be disappointed by pad thai in Thailand or phở in Vietnam, amok is different. You really have to try the real deal, made by hand using a pestle and mortar, and steamed slowly in banana leaves.
As renowned Cambodian chef and restaurateur Kethana Dunnett explains, “Amok is not an everyday dish. People make it for special occasions – ceremonies and weddings and things like that. In our family, we started it from scratch and it took a long time. Now people can make it much more quickly because food processors can help them do all the grinding and pounding. But when you put it through the machine, the smell is different.”
Sim Thea, who runs Kravanh, one of the country’s top Khmer restaurants, is concerned that genuine amok may once again go extinct. “The children these days can’t do it. It’s a big job that you learn from your mum. We’ve got 10 chefs in our kitchen but only two can do amok – and they just do amok. We do use a blender, but two kilos of amok takes one hour with a blender.”
Good things, as they say, come to those who wait.
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