nasi kerabu malaysia kelantan

The Best of Asian Cuisine: 6 Iconic Dishes of Southeast Asia

The mere mention of Southeast Asian cuisines brings to mind a melting pot of cultures and flavours. Home to some of the world’s greatest cuisines, the region is also where you can find Michelin-star epicurean delights in the humble surroundings of a  Singapore hawker centre or the backstreets of Kuala Lumpur.

In the cities of Ho Chi Minh or Yangon, you could sit at a rickety roadside stall to slurp down a simple yet   richly fragrant bowl of steaming pho or Mohinga for an unforgettable gastronomic experience, where every ingredient tells a story through its delicious flavours. 

If you’re in Malaysia’s northwest state of Kelantan, you’ll get treated to a feast that blends the best of both Thailand and Malaysian cuisines in an aromatic serving of ulam rice called Nasi Kerabu.

The recipe is a close relative to the popular Southern Thailand dish called Khao Jum or Khao Yum. 

Beyond the iconic dishes, Southeast Asia is also renowned for its spices that add punches of distinctive flavour o otherwise bland ingredients. Kaffir lime leaves, saffron, lemongrass, star anise, cardamom, torch ginger (bunga kantan), turmeric, bay leaves, Thai basil and galangal roots… the list goes on and on! These are just some of the wonderful spices with their origins in Southeast Asia.

If you’re hosting guests for a festive occasion, this article will help you understand some of the region’s most famous and iconic dishes.

Enjoy an exotic foodie journey of discovery as you scroll down.

Thailand’s Phad Thai 

phad thai recipe
Famous traditional thai food shrimp pad thai, rice noodle stir-fry with prawns, tofu and vegetables on cooking pan.

The mother of all noodle dishes in Thailand. Phad Thai would definitely figure highly on every tourist’s “must-eat” bucket list. This dish may seem simple, but it takes a careful balance of ingredients (and plenty of practice!) to make the perfect tasting Phad Thai. Key ingredients include garlic, tamarind juice, fish sauce, tofu, spring onions and bean sprouts in a marriage of sauteed springy rice noodles and egg  And a good sprinkling of palm sugar and salt. This dish features both sweet and sour notes, enough to make your taste buds dance in delight. 

Check out this tried-and-tested Phai Thai recipe by Hot Thai Kitchen!    

Malaysia’s Nasi Kerabu

nasi kerabu malaysia kelantan

The first thing likely to capture your attention with this dish is the blue rice. Most of us are used to white or brown rice, or perhaps quinoa and cauliflower rice options, but blue herb rice makes an outstanding alternative! Coloured with natural butterfly blue pea flower (or also known as Bunga Telang), Nasi Kerabu is Kelantan’s most iconic dish. 

The word “Kerabu” actually means a mix of vegetables and aromatic herbs that results in a riot of flavours with each bite. Some common ingredients used in a Kerabu salad alongside blue rice and a choice of protein include the following: 

  • Vietnamese mint/coriander (daun kesum) 
  • Ulam raja (Cosmos caudatus) 
  • Wild pepper leaves (daun kaduk) 
  • Kaffir lime leaves
  • Long beans 
  • Cabbage 
  • Thai basil leaves
  • Prawn crackers  
  • Turmeric leaves (daun kunyit) 
  • Torch ginger (bunga kantan) 

Vietnam’s Traditional Beef Noodle Soup – Phở Bò.

beef pho recipe
Assorted vietnamese dishes with pho, bahn mi, spring rolls in top down composition on dinner table

Pho is a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup that was born during French colonialism, with influences coming from Chinese ingredients and French style of cooking.

When the dish first started out, it was a simple noodle soup called xáo trâu that used water buffalo meat and rice vermicelli. Over the years, it evolved into refined beef and chicken versions with more emphasis given to aromatics. 

Myanmar’s Mohinga 

myanmar mohinga burma traditional food tourist
Mohinga is a burmese cuisine fish soup with catfish, rice noodles, chicken eggs and lime.

Singaporeans and Malaysians will probably recognise this dish as a cross between the traditional Mee Rebus and Mee Siam. Others might be reminded of a slightly more substantial version of Japan’s ramen. 

But the Mohinga is truly a dish that belongs in a league of its own. 

Often enjoyed at breakfast, Mohinga has a strong fishy taste and has been described by some as ‘catfish chowder’. 

Some key ingredients for this fish noodle soup include garlic, fish sauce, catfish paste, ginger, and lemongrass.

Check out this version of the classic Mohinga recipe

Singapore’s Chicken Rice 

singapore chicken rice recipe
A plate of steamed chicken rice cooked in asian style with sauce and soup.

For many Singaporeans, Chicken Rice is the dish that they hold most dear to their heart. It’s simple yet comforting. The rice is fragrant, made with garlic, ginger, lemongrass (optional) spring onions and fresh chicken stock.

The secret to good Chicken Rice? We’d say the aromatic ginger rice coupled with that zesty and tangy garlic chilli sauce. For others, the star of the show would be the juicy chicken slices. 

It is said that Chicken Rice hails from Hainan Island in southernmost China. Today, it is extremely popular in the cosmopolitan city of Singapore, famed for its Michelin-starred Chicken Rice hawker stalls and a superb selection of restaurants. 

Check out this Michelin guide to the finest Chicken Rice spots if you’re in sunny Singapore. 

The Philippines’ Adobo

adobo
Homemade Filipino Adobo Pork in a bowl.

Made from either chicken, beef, pork or vegetables, the Adobo would certainly make the list for the most loved Philippines dish. It’s found on almost all local restaurant menus or at roadside stalls — and for a very good reason. Marinated with ingredients such as garlic, vinegar, and soy sauce, the Adobo is truly the ultimate Filipino comfort food. 

Check out this simple Chicken Adobo recipe featured in the South China Morning Post. 

For more delightful Asian recipes, bookmark this page! 

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