SouthEats: Highlighting Southeast Asian Foods
We've all felt those cravings when you're away from home and suddenly miss dad’s martabak, grandma’s meat skewers, or maybe even your great auntie's cousin's sister's flash-fried noodles! Honestly, there's nothing better than home cooking, and in our opinion, our Southeast Asian dishes are sure hard to beat.
Get to know our team's favorite dishes:
- Christy's comfort meal is Sai Oua with sticky rice
- Bea’s all time favorite is nasi uduk and shrimp laing with extra sambal
- Gwen’s go to meal is puto’t dinuguan
- Vanesa always craves her mom’s khao piak whenever she feels under the weather
- Naz’s favorite food is martabak, both the savory and sweet versions
Our food doesn’t just feed us; it transports us back in time and place. For most Southeast Asian families, food is one of our main sources of comfort. It's a love language, a way to connect, heal, and reacquaint yourself with 'home' -- whatever that means to you. At Tuk Tuk Box, we use food not only as a catalyst for social change, but to highlight the amazing achievements of our community.
This month, we're deconstructing some of our favorite traditional dishes, recognizing the people who are bringing our food to the forefront, and digging modern twists on classic comforts. We love a good history lesson, and what other way to learn than through indulging our bellies? A mix of spicy, sweet, salty, and sour; our tastebuds are exploding just imagining the possibilities!
Wanna explore Southeast Asian food and try your culinary hand? Hop on our tuk tuk and let's take your tastebuds on a ride!
Southeast Asia’s Big Three
Stirfries, noodles and curries are the keys to Southeast Asian cuisine. These are the gifts of trade and emigration; Chinese and Indian settlers and merchants shared their recipes, ingredients, spices and techniques and we made it into our own. Chow fun, Chinese flat noodles are a flavor vehicle for so many dishes like Thailand’s pad see ew and Indonesia’s kwetiau. Indian prata is essential in Singapore and Malaysia’s roti canai and curries are enjoyed across Southeast Asia with the addition of coconut milk. Under these three main categories, thousands of dishes have been discovered, and become sacred culinary staples that we will crave no matter where we are.
The Struggle to Find “Real Food” in the Diaspora
Let’s face it, whenever life cuts deep or we want to celebrate a special occasion, we don’t want to turn to cheeseburgers and fries. Our team just wants our rice, our noodles, and our spices - our food doesn’t just feed us; it transports us back in time, and takes us home to our homelands and next to our loved ones. For those of us in the diaspora, often food is our main comfort.
In recognizing this need to connect to familiar cuisines, especially during the pandemic, there has been a surge in home cooks and caterers. Get instantly connected to the kitchen superstar aunties in your community through WhatsApp or get hip to the amazing food our friends are making on IG. @momic919_kitchen and @gurih.table are our Indonesian favorites in the Bay, and @so_saap is the plug for authentic Lao and Thai food in San Diego!
Our intern Vanesa Donangtavanh suggests hitting up temples and other communal places to get the intel on what's good to eat and where or who to get it from. The small Asian grocery stores sometimes have prepared food available for sale, too. A lot of these food networks are under the radar and so you would need to find them by asking someone in the know. Oftentimes with homecooks, their food is shared through WhatsApp or word of mouth only - so you're going to need to do some digging, but trust us, the reward is real.
Sometimes the best and fastest way to forge a connection with your community is through food. We are so thankful that these options are available!
Street Food Finally Hitting Streets in the US
As popular and fairly accessible Vietnamese and Thai food is in the US, the same can’t be said for other Southeast Asian countries- but we’re well on our way!
Where would we be as a country without pho? Well, D’Grobak Bay Area is introducing another beef soup to the masses - Indonesia’s bakso, or meatball soup! Bakso is a beloved street food you can find on any corner in Indonesia, a comfort food that consists of a rich beefy broth, and noodles, flavored with green onions, fried shallots, sweet soy sauce, and sambal of course!
Sure you’ve had Thai skewers but have you had Cambodian meat skewers?! RiceString Noodle Shack in Cerritos, CA will hook you up with these amazing perfectly flavorful skewers among traditional Cambodian noodle soups and stir-fries. You can taste the lemongrass infused in the beef, and it’s grilled to perfection- truly an addictive experience!
Filipino cuisine is actually starting to gain momentum and what better destination than Mama’s Lumpia in Pacheco! Passes the vibe check with flying colors and their lumpia and baked goods won over our hearts and stomachs!
Sweet Mango has all the Thai and Laotian goodies you need! From wings to papaya salad done the Thai way or Laotian way, you'll definitely walk out of here with your belly full and your heart happy. If you want to find a place that has the most bang for your buck, Sweet Mango is a great place that works your appetite and not your wallet. Make sure to add this Fresno favorite on the list as your go-to place for affordable street eats!
Southeast Asian food and snacks are still a long way from becoming mainstream in the diaspora but groups like the Lao Food Movement and Filipino Food Movement are doing all they can to promote their food while involving the people they intend to feed. Nothing can happen without the support from within their own communities and so they highlight chefs, foodies, restaurants and small businesses. They also use their platforms to educate the masses about their cuisines and share recipes to preserve them for the generations to come.
Sometimes there’s nothing that can fix you except a home-cooked meal, but what if your city doesn’t have any cool spots that can make bubur ayam or sisig the way your mom used to? Cooking at home sometimes is the only cost-effective way to taste your childhood favorites.
But how do you turn your kitchen into a Southeast Asian one? Don’t sweat, don’t fret -- we got you! We know that shopping at 99 Ranch or H Mart can be daunting, even more so the small little shops we used to go to under the guidance and protection of our parents but here’s a mini Tuk Tuk Box guide to getting all the kitchen essentials needed for most Southeast Asian dishes!
Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei: kecap manis (sweet dark soy sauce), bawang goreng (fried shallots), shallots, garlic, chili, ginger, lemongrass, turmeric, bay leaves, palm sugar, indomie, coconut milk, pandan/pandan paste, tamarind, candlenut
Philippines: eggroll wrappers, soy sauce, vinegar, calamansi, patis (Filipino fish sauce), fermented fish paste, garlic, ginger, ube/ube paste
Cambodian, Thai, Lao: Fish sauce, ginger, lemongrass, mugwart, cilantro, mint, cucumber, basil, makrut lime leaves, fermented fish paste, oyster sauce, tamarind, turmeric
Vietnam: rice paper, vermicelli, fish sauce, hoisin, sriracha, garlic, ginger, shallots, cilantro, basil, mint, lemongrass
Singapore: soy sauce, various noodles, curry powder, chili, coconut milk, pandan, evaporated milk
Tools: Lots of us use mortar and pestle to grind spices and to make pastes- definitely helps you feel connected to your ancestors and is a must-have in any SEA kitchen! Banana leaves are also widely used in various regions of Southeast Asia from cooking rice in to wrapping and presenting food in. Bamboo is also used for steaming and cooking.
Initiatives like The League of Kitchens even provide online cooking classes from immigrant women chefs. Don’t forget that our favorite charity Courageous Kitchen also has online classes and self guided recipes to help you confidently and painlessly cook your favorite Thai dishes!
Want to try your hand at cooking up some Southeast Asian dishes of your own? Try out our Pho Meal Kit. Satisfy your pho craving with our first meal kit complete with the necessary pantry ingredients for the revered Vietnamese beef noodle soup including Son Fish Sauce and Mai Mom’s Chili Oil! We collaborated with Cooking Off The Cuff’s Ly Nguyen to bring you her family’s shortcut oxtail pho recipe. As always, a portion of the proceeds will be donated back to the community and for this kit, it’ll go to Vietnamese Boat People, an organization whose mission is to preserve the histories of the Vietnamese Boat people for the younger generations of Vietnamese Americans and also provide aid to help today’s refugees transition to safety.
We hope that we helped ease your worries a little about finding home food wherever you may be in the diaspora. It definitely is eye-opening how the community is crucial, even in terms of basic necessities like food. All of us at Tuk Tuk Box understand how food is a cultural gateway; it's what we share to get our foot through the door and what we run back to when the world shuts us out. Our food is where our love is reflected the most, and so that is why we'll always do all we can to seek it out. If it means reaching out and connecting your local cultural community or you forging your own connection to your homeland by cooking yourself, we hope that you find the peace and the comfort you desperately need once you take that first delicious bite!