Joel Hung, born in Hong Kong and now residing in New Zealand, has been contributing his thoughtful insights to this site for a long time. He has helped me make a number of connections between Chinese and Vietnamese cooking — for example, pointing me to the wealth of Vietnamese cookbooks available in Hong Kong! Joel recently sent a message asking how to define Southeast Asian Cuisine, a new moniker being used by a number of Asian restaurants. Joel wrote:
to the label "Southeast Asian cuisine". In Northeast Asia (HK, mainland
China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea) and the West the term is a blanket
application of food in every ASEAN member countries. Restaurants said
to be specializing in SE Asian food often may have a pan-ASEAN menu: pho
next to pad thai, followed chicken green curry, and beef rendang and
morcon, which may finish with layered kuih or banana in coconut milk as
enormously different from each other (for example, Cantonese has almost
nothing in common with much of Pekingese food), and we would never think
of Korean food as "local". Is there a similar thought among people from
Southeast Asian countries when it comes to food from another nation
within Southeast Asia? Even within Vietnam the food from the north is
often different from the south, and let alone comparing with the
cuisine(s) of Indonesia (where Jakarta probably eats very differently
from Papua again). I just don't see whether Thais will feel the food of
the Philippines or Malaysia, or whether Vietnamese in general think of
other ASEAN countries' cuisines are "local".
My gut feeling is Vietnamese may think Cambodian cuisine is probably not
too "foreign" because of the shared borders, and Thai cuisine vaguely
familiar, but when it comes to Malaysian or Filipino food it's probably
as foreign as Greek cuisine. Is that thought correct?
My initial Monday-morning response is that you can talk about the cuisines (note plural) of Southeast Asia but you can't have a monolithic Southeast Asian cuisine. There are cultural connections that people may or may not realize, for example, gigantic Vietnamese steamed bao are very similar to Filipino siopao with the egg and lop cheung sausage filling. How did popia hand rolls travel from Fujian province in China to Southeast Asia, fimly plant itself in Malaysia and Singapore and morph into Vietnamese bo bia handrolls and Thai popia thod? Those are connections to be made and savored not squished together.
Southeast Asian food is hot (literally and figuratively) these days so restaurateurs want to capture the favorites of the entire region. That is a difficult business strategy to fulfill, if not an insult to people who devote themselves to preparing well-crafted renditions of heady pho noodle soup, scintillating beef rendang, and plush som tum green papaya salad.
Would you order a club sandwich, hot dog, or Philly cheese steak sandwich at McDonald's? That seems so inappropriate.
On the other hand, the dining public wants to sample the flavors of Southeast Asia in one sitting. The Malay peninsula (Malaysia and Singapore) is the closest I can think of in terms of where you can broadly sample the flavors of Southeast Asia and Southern China. But those flavors have been filtered through the lense of local cooks using local ingredients tailored to local taste preferences.
I'm leery of restaurants that frame their menu as Southeast Asian. When I'm eating at such establishments, I ask where the chef is from and/or what he/she specializes in and then order those items.
What do you all think?