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Colonizers’ Influence Infuses Southeast Asian Cuisine

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
October 18, 2011

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.

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.

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.

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. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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