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Mighty Mekong ● River of Fish, Rice & Life

The nearly 5000 km long Mekong starts high up in the snowy Tibetan Plateau and flows south through Yunnan, China (where it is known as Lancang 澜沧), and every country in Indochina (Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam), before draining into the South China Sea.

The Mekong is the twelfth longest river in the world, third longest in Asia. The longest rivers in Asia, the Yellow River and Yang Tze also start in the Tibetan Plateau but run east across China towards the sea.

In China it is called Turbulent River, in 
Laos it is the Mother of Waters, in Cambodia the Great Water, and in Vietnam where it fans out in the Mekong Delta, it is the Nine Dragons.

The rich Mekong sediment nourishes the banks and its waters irrigate the crops (vegetables, fruits) and rice fields of all the countries that it passes through, which is China and all of Indochina.

The Mekong is rich in biodiversity, second only to the Amazon and is a major source of protein for over 70 million people who live near the river. The Mekong is the river of life either as food source or transportation life line for the 300 million people who live in Indochina.

As all these countries depend on the Mekong for food, water and transport, so naturally the river always plays a central role in the politics, economy, culture, history and just about everything about Indochina.

Indochina is the world's "rice bowl" which is dependent on the Mekong. So it follows that rice in its various forms are staples of Indochinese cuisine be it Vietnamese pho (rice noodle with beef soup), Vietnamese spring rolls wrapped with rice paper, Myanmese mohinga (rice noodle with fish soup), or pad Thai (stir fried rice noodle), just to name a few. The Lao national dish larb, minced meat and raw vegetable salad is eaten with sticky rice.

The Mekong is the home of unique water life such as Giant Catfishes, Giant Stingray, etc not found anywhere else.

The Mekong yields the world's largest inland fishery producing over 2 million metric tonnes of fish a year (a quarter of the world's freshwater fish come from the Mekong).

Myanmar is blessed by three major rivers - the Mekong, Salween and the Irrawaddy, all of which provide the country with plentiful fish and fresh water.

The Myanmese love fish curry. Catfish steaks marinated with turmeric powder are deep fried. The curry is made with garlic, onion, tomato, chili pepper, lemongrass, turmeric powder, fish sauce, etc. The fried catfish steaks are stewed in the curry. Tamarind juice, masala powder are added for flavour and the fish curry is dressed with cilantro before serving. The best pairing for Myanmese fish curry is plain white rice - fish and rice from the Mekong.

Catfish is common and popular with people living in the Mekong Basin.


Myanmar's national dish mohinga is based on a fish soup. The fish soup is made by boiling garlic, onion, ginger, banana stem, turmeric powder, ground white pepper, fish sauce, and cubes of catfish (marinated with turmeric powder). 

The soup is thickened with rice powder and split pea powder. Pearl onion and boiled egg are added to the boiling soup. The soup is poured over boiled rice noodles and garnished with fried garlic, fried shallot, chili flakes, or fried split pea fritters before serving.

Thais call the Mekong "Menam Kong" or "Mother of Water". One third of Thais especially in the Northeast Isaan region live around the Mekong and depend on it for their livelihood.

The Thai national dish pad Thai is a fairly recent creation, created during the Second World War (1939 - 1945) under the Phibun military government. Its key ingredient is flat rice noodle.

At that time, Thailand was in an economic crisis. In order to export more rice to earn more foreign exchange, Phibun encouraged Thais to eat lower quality rice and reserve the best for export. To make the poor quality rice palatable, the poorer rice were ground down to make rice noodle.

Phibun promoted his own family's fried rice noodle recipe. It's a tasty, nutritious complete meal of rice noodle with bean sprout, dried tofu cubes, chive, duck egg, dried shrimp, fish sauce, crushed peanut, sweet preserved radish, palm sugar and tamarind juice. The Thais took well to pad Thai and soon it became its national dish. Today, pad Thai has much more ingredients including fresh prawn, and options of meat like beef, chicken, and pork 

Fish in all its form provide protein for Cambodians who have fermented fish known as prahok and spicy fish with coconut milk known as amok as national dishes.

Small fish known as trey riel (mud carp) from lake Tonle Sap is fermented 20 days to 3 years to make prahok or fermented fish paste. The versatile pungent umami salty paste is used as seasoning, flavouring, ingredient, condiment or made into a dip or sauce. A product of the Mekong, prahok is indispensable in Cambodian cuisine.

Fish amok or amok trey is traditionally made with mashed catfish and spices like turmeric. lemongrass and chili pepper held together with coconut milk and beaten egg wrapped with banana leaves and cooked by steaming.

Laos is the only landlocked country in Indochina - it has China to its north, Myanmar and Thailand to its west, Cambodia to the south and Vietnam to its east. However, the Mekong gives life to Laos with 35% of the Mekong Basin inside its boundaries - Laos has the largest share of the Mekong. Laos doesn't have the sea but it has the Mother of Waters.

Umami savoury fish sauce made from fermenting fish is widely used by all nations of the Mekong. 

Larb, the national dish of Laos, is sautéed minced meat, raw vegetable salad (shallot, scallion, cilantro, mint, etc) eaten with sticky rice. The salad is flavoured mainly with fish sauce and lime juice dressed with chili flakes and toasted sticky rice powder. The minced meat can be from beef, duck, chicken or fish from the Mekong.

Vietnam is home of the Mekong Delta where the great river fans out into nine tributaries, hence the Vietnamese call it the Nine Dragons. The Mekong Delta is hugely fertile and rich with water life.  

For centuries the Mekong Delta was under the Funan (68 - 550), Chenla (550 - 802), Khmer (802 - 1431) empires before its eastern region came under Champa (192 - 1832) and the whole delta under the Vietnamese. Hence, southern Vietnamese cuisine in the Mekong Delta resembles Cambodian cuisine in the south.

The Vietnamese national dish pho is a rice noodle dish with beef broth, a bit of beef slices and lots of fresh raw vegetables like bean sprout, sawtooth coriander, mint, etc. Pho literally refers to flat rice noodle but is also the name of the entire dish.

When eating pho, I love everything including the raw vegetables. It's an all-you-can-eat salad at the side 🤭 Pho is a complete nutritious meal of protein, vitamins and carb served in a most delicious way.

The Muslim Cham minority in Vietnam have a Halal version of pho known as Mee Champa

Pho is Vietnam's most recognisable dish globally besides the famous banh mi which, of course, is an adaptation of the French baguette. 

The Vietnamese have ca kho to or sweet savoury caramelised braised catfish. It is catfish steak marinated in garlic, black pepper, sugar, fish sauce, optional chili pepper, etc medium-low simmer in caramelised sugar, coconut water and fish sauce until the fish is cooked and the liquid reduced to a sauce. The caramelised sugar, coconut water and fish provide layers of sweetness and the fish sauce adds the balancing umami savouriness. Garnished with chopped scallion, black pepper and optional chili pepper.

The sweet savoury soft catfish is perfect with what else.... but simple plain boiled white rice.

Fish and rice, all from the Mekong.

Written by Tony Boey on 26 May 2023

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