In Southeast Asia you can discover a vast and diverse landscape trodden with centuries-old migration and trading routes connecting ancient sites of once classical kingdoms. The shared borders and easy connections between countries present the modern traveler with a unique blend of cultures and languages in a dynamic region constantly adapting and blending traditions. It is a crossroads of influence with deep connections beyond its formerly leonine neighbors of China and India, to the wider world integrating new ideas and institutions within existing traditions. Perhaps the most discernable and delicious example I have from my travels there is the cuisine.
Banh mi was a staple for me in Vietnam. You might be wondering what banh mi is and fearing the worst. No, it’s not an insect nor is it some sort of pickled appendage. Rather it’s a French baguette stuffed with pate, chicken or pork, pickled carrot, daikon (radish), cucumber and cilantro, topped with hot sauce and mayonnaise. They’re ubiquitous these days on the streets of Vietnam’s cities but are a relatively recent hybrid, developed when Vietnamese chefs were faced with French bread when France presided over Indochina. Indochina is now three separate countries, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam and the cuisine in each area showcases how the region has accepted and transformed outside influences to make it their own.
The French influence is obvious in Cambodia’s most prominent ingredient – freshwater fish. Smoked fish is seen in salads and on baguettes, similar to the much-loved bagels and lox. Coffee and pastries are also easy to find on a trip to Cambodia, although it can be hard to remember where exactly your favorites are located! I found the best Ga-fay ta-kork (Cambodian Iced Coffee) of my life at a small stall in the heart of a bustling market and was never able to find it again. The memory of its bold coffee flavor, the swirling creaminess of the sweetened condensed milk, and the addition of an extra shot right as the ice started to overtake the coffee was sadly all I had left.
Traveling to Laos you’ll find French architecture-inspired wine bars that serve traditional plates such as larb or sticky rice and a variety of fusion options. After dinner, when your sweet tooth gets the best of you, simply meander across the way to a street stall for a thick sweet coffee paired with a baguette (khao ji) smothered in Nutella for dessert.
Each stall you go to, each restaurant you enter will have their own unique twist on what you thought was a commonality. The influence of French cuisine is just one small example of the fascinating fusion that exists in Southeast Asia. Unique ways of connecting past with present and future are what makes this region so special. If you can apply this to everything you encounter as you travel, you’ll find nuances in what people do in daily life to make things unique and their own in an ever-changing and globalizing world. Also, while it’s nice to have a sandwich and some coffee to come back to, don’t forget to try some things you may have never seen before!
Check out the Banh Mi recipe below and get a taste of Vietnam at home! It’s sure to get you excited for the real thing!
Make the pickles: Put the carrots and daikon into a bowl and sprinkle on the salt and sugar. After 15 minutes, rinse off the pickles, drain well and place in the fridge until ready to assemble sandwiches.
Slice the baguette lengthwise, but not all the way through. Lightly toast and spread a thin layer of pâté on the bottom and a thin layer of mayo on the top. Layer on slices of ham. Top with pickled daikon and carrot, cilantro and sliced jalapeños, if using. Enjoy!
Note: A lot of the banh mi flavors come from the pâté and pickled carrots and daikon, so don’t skip out on those!