Colonizers' Influence Infuses Southeast Asian Cuisine

I woke up on a sunny morning ready to discover an unfamiliar city. Out on the street I passed a woman serving perfectly baked baguettes smothered with fresh pate. I strolled by cafes, gelato shops, the Opera House and central market. Arriving at Paris Bend, I stared up at the towering peaks of Notre Dame cathedral and wandered the halls of the Central Post Office, designed by Gustave Eiffel in the late 19th century.

Yet I was not on a boulevard in Paris, or anywhere in France for that matter. I was in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Banh mi, a ubiquitous street food in Vietnam, consists of French bread fully loaded with pate, pork, chicken, pickled carrot, daikon, cucumber and cilantro, topped with a fried egg, hot sauce and mayonnaise. i i

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Banh mi, a ubiquitous street food in Vietnam, consists of French bread fully loaded with pate, pork, chicken, pickled carrot, daikon, cucumber and cilantro, topped with a fried egg, hot sauce and mayonnaise.

Eve Turow for NPR
Banh mi, a ubiquitous street food in Vietnam, consists of French bread fully loaded with pate, pork, chicken, pickled carrot, daikon, cucumber and cilantro, topped with a fried egg, hot sauce and mayonnaise.

Banh mi, a ubiquitous street food in Vietnam, consists of French bread fully loaded with pate, pork, chicken, pickled carrot, daikon, cucumber and cilantro, topped with a fried egg, hot sauce and mayonnaise.

Eve Turow for NPR

I arrived in Southeast Asia expecting a bounty of noodle soups and spring rolls, but once I entered the lands once occupied by the French and Dutch, my culinary expectations were turned around. I found that in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, French staples such as coffee, bread, pate and pastries are the norm. In Indonesia, I observed the colonial influence of the 17th century Dutch spice trade. Today, Dutch products abound, and the Dutch often claim the traditional Indonesian recipes as "Dutch Indonesian."

Two of my favorite Vietnamese meals were clear hybrids of Vietnamese and French cuisine. Banh mi is a ubiquitous street food, available in several variations, with vendors competing for "best banh mi." The fully loaded banh mi comprises French bread stuffed with pate, pork, chicken, pickled carrot, daikon, cucumber and cilantro, topped with a fried egg, hot sauce and mayonnaise. My other favorite, banh xeo, is inspired by the French crepe. Made with a rice flour and coconut milk batter, banh xeo is filled with ground pork, shrimp and bean sprouts, and served on a bed of lettuce, fresh mint and basil with a side of spicy dipping sauce.

Cambodia exhibits French influences in both its cuisine and its architecture. i i

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Cambodia exhibits French influences in both its cuisine and its architecture.

Eve Turow for NPR
Cambodia exhibits French influences in both its cuisine and its architecture.

Cambodia exhibits French influences in both its cuisine and its architecture.

Eve Turow for NPR

In Laos, colonized by the French from the late 19th century to mid-20th century, I was overwhelmed with the bounty of bread, the smell of coffee and the fabulous wine bars in Luang Prabang. My friends and I, tired of rice and Chang beer after a month in Thailand, surrendered to our Western cravings and ordered baguettes with Nutella or La vache qui rit (Laughing Cow) cheese. One evening we lounged at a wood-lined wine bar on Sisavangvong Road, ordered a beautiful Bordeaux and snacked on fried broad beans. It was hard to believe I was not in Europe.

Cambodia showcases similar French influences, culinarily with pastries and coffee and architecturally with French peaked roofs and traditional windows. Unlike the Laotians and Vietnamese, Cambodians incorporate smoked fish into salads and even bagels with cream cheese at some higher-end cafes. While some write that the use of smoked fish was originally done to preserve the produce, I find the recipes' similarities to French smoked fish salads to be remarkable and likely French influenced.

About The Author

Eve Turow is a freelance writer in New York with a passion for travel, cooking, eating and writing about food. You can find more information on Eve and her culinary adventures at her website.

In Indonesia I was able to observe a different colonial influence, the lasting imprints of the Dutch. An archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, Indonesia is an immensely diverse country with varied religion, ethnicity, language and cuisine. Yet the Dutch spice trade affected each island, forming a shared connection with the Netherlands.

While the Dutch contributed to the Indonesian language and economy with advances such as their world-famous irrigation system, culinarily, the effect seems to go in the other direction. Instead of Indonesians integrating Dutch food, the Dutch adopted the Indonesian cuisine. Dutch traveling companions were amazed to learn I was not familiar with gado-gado (steamed vegetables with peanut sauce) or bami goring (stir-fried noodles). These dishes, they informed me, are traditional foods in the Netherlands. Really, they said, they thought of Indonesian food as Dutch. In fact, today there is a cuisine known as "Dutch Indonesian."

Before venturing to Southeast Asia, I never imagined that I would find myself in Cambodia attempting to read a school sign in French, or in a supermarket in Bali trying to work through a label in Dutch. I never imagined a baguette with jam and coffee would be the local breakfast served at a restaurant near Angkor Wat and the Imperial City in Hue. Whether it was the iron detail on a balcony, the superb brew of coffee or the vocabulary borrowed from colonizers, French and Dutch influences remain in modern Southeast Asia. It is just one more reason to travel: You never know what you will learn once you arrive in a new place.

Banh Xeo (Sizzling Crepes)

Adapted from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors by Andrea Quynhgiao Nguyen (Ten Speed Press 2006). The author notes that she soaks and grinds raw rice for the batter instead of using the traditional rice flour in order to obtain the same thin crepe found in Vietnam. This was once of the most delicious things I ate in all my time in Vietnam.

Banh Xeo (Sizzling Crepes) i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Banh Xeo (Sizzling Crepes)
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes eight 8-inch crepes, to serve 4 to 6 as a one-dish meal

Batter

1 cup raw jasmine or regular long-grain rice

2 tablespoons firmly packed leftover cooked rice

1 tablespoon firmly packed ground steamed mung bean*

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/4 cup coconut milk, canned or freshly made*

1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons water

1 scallion, white and green parts, thinly sliced

Filling

3/4 pound ground pork or thinly sliced boneless pork shoulder

1/2 pound small white shrimp in their shells, legs and tails trimmed

1 can (15 ounces) whole or broken straw mushrooms, drained and cut lengthwise if whole

1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced (3/4 cup)

1 cup ground steamed mung bean*

4 cups bean sprouts (about 2/3 pound)

1/2 cup canola or other neutral oil

Vegetable Garnish Plate (see below)

1 1/2 cups Basic Dipping Sauce made with garlic (see below)

Vegetable Garnish Plate

2 heads leaf lettuce or Bibb lettuce

1 bunch mint leaves

1 bunch Thai basil*

1 bunch cilantro or Mexican coriander* (optional)

1 bunch fish mint (vap ca)* (optional)

Basic Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Cham)

3 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup water

2 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce*

1 small garlic clove, finely minced

1 or 2 Thai chilies, thinly sliced, or 1 teaspoon store-bought chili garlic sauce (tuong ot toi)*

To make the batter, put the raw rice in a bowl and add water to cover by 1 inch. Let soak for 3 to 4 hours. Drain rice and transfer to a blender. Add the cooked rice, mung bean, salt, turmeric, coconut milk and water. Blend for about 3 minutes, or until very smooth and lemony yellow. Pour the batter through a fine-mesh sieve positioned over a bowl and discard the solids. Stir in the scallion and set the batter aside for 1 hour. It will thicken to consistency of heavy cream. There should be about 3 cups batter.

To make the filling, roughly divide the pork, shrimp, mushrooms and onion into 8 portions. (Dividing the ingredients now will ensure less frantic frying and avoid overstuffing.) Put these ingredients along with the mung bean, bean sprouts, batter and oil next to the stove.

For each crepe, heat 2 teaspoons of the oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add a portion each of the pork, shrimp, mushrooms and onion and saute, breaking up the meat, for about 45 seconds, or until seared and aromatic. Visualize a line down the middle of the skillet and roughly arrange the ingredients on either side of the line. Anything in the middle would make it hard to fold the crepe neatly later.

Give the batter a good stir with a ladle. Pour 1/3 cup of the batter into the skillet and swirl the skillet to cover the bottom. The batter should dramatically sizzle (making the xeo noise) and bubble. When it settles down, sprinkle on 1 1/2 tablespoons of the mung bean, then pile 1/2 cup of the bean sprouts on one side. Lower the heat to medium, cover and cook until the bean sprouts have wilted slightly, about 3 minutes.

Remove the lid and drizzle in 1 teaspoon of the oil around the rim of the pan. Lower the heat slightly and continue to cook, uncovered, for 3 to 4 minutes to crisp the crepe. The edge will have pulled away from the skillet and turned golden brown. At this point, use a spatula to check underneath for a crispy bottom. From the center to the edge, the crepe should go from being soft to crispy. Lower the heat if done. When satisfied, use a spatula to fold in half and transfer to serving plate.

Increase the heat to medium-high and repeat with the remaining batter and filling ingredients. Serve the crepes with the vegetable garnish plate and dipping sauce. Pass around 1 or 2 pairs of chopsticks or scissors to cut the crepe into smaller pieces. To eat, tear a piece of the lettuce to the size of your palm, place a piece of crepe on top, add a few herb leaves, shape into a bundle and dip into sauce.

Note, to prepare a shortcut rice flour batter: In a bowl, stir together 2 cups rice flour, 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch, 3/4 tablespoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric. Make a well in the center, pour in 1/3 cup coconut milk and 2 cups water and whisk to create a silky batter. Add 1 scallion (white and green parts), thinly sliced, and set aside for 1 hour. Cook the batter the same way.

For The Vegetable Garnish Plate

Wash and dry all lettuce and herbs. Separate lettuce leaves and pull off leaves from herbs, stacking onto two or three separate plates. Serve on the table for all guests to share.

For The Basic Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Cham)

Combine lime juice, sugar and water, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Adjust the flavors to balance out the sweet and sour. Add the fish sauce and any of the optional ingredients. Taste again and adjust the flavors to your liking, balancing out the sour, sweet, salty and spicy. Aim for a bold, forward finish — perhaps a little stronger than what you'd normally like. This sauce may be prepared early in the day and left to sit at room temperature.

* Available in Asian aisle at supermarket or specialty Asian food stores.

Chicken Laap

In Laos, poverty and local goods dictate most meals. The French influence is seen mostly in coffee, wine and baguettes. Laap is the quintessential Laotian dish, often made with raw meat or fish. This recipe for the cooked, chicken version, much like the one I had in Laos, is adapted from Gourmet (September 1999). Laotian cooks use a large, conical steamer basket for steaming the rice, but a footed colander or the steamer insert of a pasta pot works well, too.

Chicken Laap i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Chicken Laap
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 4 servings

For The Laap

4 tablespoons raw Thai glutinous rice*

1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breasts

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

1/4 cup minced scallion, white and green parts

1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped fine

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce*

1 to 2 small (1-inch) fresh Asian chilies such as bird or Thai, minced*

Accompaniments (For Serving)

Fresh mint, basil and cilantro leaves

Tomato and English cucumber, coarsely chopped

2 cups Thai glutinous rice*

Cook the 4 tablespoons of rice in a dry, small, heavy skillet over moderately high heat, stirring constantly, until golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes (rice will smoke). Grind to a coarse powder in an electric coffee/spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle.

Thinly slice chicken crosswise and cut slices into thin strips. Season chicken with salt. Heat oil in a wok or heavy skillet over high heat until hot but not smoking, then stir-fry chicken until cooked through, about 2 minutes. Remove chicken from heat and stir in 2 tablespoons rice powder, reserving remainder for another use. Add remaining ingredients and stir well.

Mound chicken on a platter and serve with a basket or bowl of sticky rice (see below) and a plate of the herbs, tomato and cucumber.

To make sticky rice, cover the 2 cups rice with plenty of water in a large bowl and soak at room temperature at least 3 hours. Drain and put in a cheesecloth-lined steamer basket. Steam rice, covered, over boiling water until shiny and tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, 5 minutes before serving.

* Available in Asian aisle at supermarket or specialty Asian food stores.

Smoked Fish And Green Mango

A simple and superb salad from Cambodia. Smoking is a traditional Cambodian method to keep the catch fresh, but some Cambodian smoked fish preparations also resemble the French culinary uses of smoked fish. Recipe adapted from Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet: A Culinary Journey through Southeast Asia By Jeffrey Alford, Naomi Duguid (Artisan Books 2000).

Makes 3 to 4 servings with rice or 6 as an appetizer

For The Salad

2 green mangoes*

1 small smoked trout

1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves (may substitute celery leaves or mint)

For The Dressing

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon fish sauce (preferably Thai or Cambodian)*

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced shallots

1 tablespoon minced galangal* or substitute 1 teaspoon minced ginger with a pinch of lemon zest

Peel the mangoes, then coarsely grate or cut into fine julienne. Place in a medium bowl.

Remove and discard skin and bones from fish. Chop or simply pull apart meat into small pieces (about one cup) and add to mangoes. Stir in the cilantro and set aside.

In a bowl or cup, combine all the dressing ingredients. Just before serving, spoon 5 tablespoons of the dressing onto the salad and toss gently. Add more dressing to taste.

* Available in Asian aisle at supermarket or specialty Asian food stores.

Gado-Gado

My favorite meal in Indonesia and a staple in the Netherlands, gado-gado is a healthy and delicious recipe. Adapted from recipes in both Cooking the Indonesian Way: Culturally Authentic Foods Including Low-Fat and Vegetarian Recipes by Kari A. Cornell and Merry Anwar (Lerner Publications Company 2004) and Spices of Life: Simple and Delicious Recipes for Great Health by Nina Simonds (Borzoi Book, Knopf 2005).

Gado Gado i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Gado Gado
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 6 servings

Salad

1 cup red potatoes (about 2 medium potatoes)

1 cup fresh green beans, ends trimmed

2 cups green cabbage, chopped

1 cup fresh bean sprouts

1 cup carrots (1 to 1 1/2 carrots), peeled and thinly sliced

1 cup cucumber (about 1 medium cucumber), sliced

2 tablespoons canola oil

4 ounces firm tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 hardboiled eggs, peeled*

Deep fried shallots for garnish**

Peanut Sauce

1 1/2 Thai chilies, ends trimmed, or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried chili flakes***

4 shallots, peeled

3 cloves garlic, peeled

3/4 cup crunchy peanut butter

1 cup light unsweetened coconut milk

2 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar

2 tablespoons fish sauce***

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 teaspoons tamarind pulp, dissolved in 1/2 cup water, or 3 tablespoons lemon juice with 1/2 cup water***

For The Salad

Fill saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Using a slotted spoon, carefully add potatoes to the water. Cook about 20 minutes or until the potatoes can be pierced easily with a fork. Then use the slotted spoon to transfer the potatoes to a colander. Rinse under cold water. When cool enough to handle, slice the potatoes into bite-size quarters or cubes.

Fill a second saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Use a slotted spoon to lower the green beans into the water and cook for about 3 minutes. Use the slotted spoon to move the blanched beans to a colander. Rinse under cold water.

One vegetable at a time, repeat this procedure to blanch the cabbage, bean sprouts and carrots. Arrange the green beans, cabbage, bean sprouts, carrots, potatoes and cucumbers however you like on a large platter and set aside.

Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Cook tofu cubes for about 10 minutes, or until crisp and lightly browned. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels. Scatter tofu cubes over the salad.

Cut hardboiled eggs into quarters and arrange along the edge of the platter. Serve gado-gado with fried shallots and peanut sauce.

For The Peanut Sauce

Use a food processor fitted with a steel blade, or a blender; drop the chilies, shallots and garlic in while the machine is running and chop fine. Add the remaining ingredients one at a time, pulsing after each addition. Pour the dressing into a saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring, for about 2 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit for a minute to let the flavors marry. Pour the warm dressing into a serving container and serve on the side. Once cool, the dressing will keep, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for several weeks.

*To make hardboiled eggs, fill a medium saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Use a slotted spoon to lower eggs into the water one at a time. Boil eggs for 10 minutes, then use slotted spoon to retrieve them from water. Transfer eggs to a clean plate. Allow them to completely cool before removing shells.

**To make deep-fried shallots, cut 1 shallot into thin slices and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Heat 1/2 cup canola oil into a skillet and fry the shallots 5 to 7 minutes, stirring frequently. When the shallots brown slightly, remove from pan and drain on paper towels.

*** Available in Asian aisle at supermarket or specialty Asian food stores.

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