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Food as Living Edible Monument ● Stories of People & Kingdoms through their Cuisine

Monuments are usually made of stone or metal. Unlike artefacts made of wood or leather which can be burned to ashes by enemies, drowned by floods, swallowed by forests, or simply reduced to dust by time, stone and metal can withstand the passage of many seasons.

Fortunately, recipes too can be passed down the generations, travel from place to place like language, legends, music, fashion, etc. Such intangible artefacts have the resilience of the hardest rocks and metal.

So, we can look at a dish as if it is a stone or metal monument or artefact and through it gain insights about the stories and lives of the people, places and times behind it.

I am fascinated by the cuisine of Southeast Asia, the land and sea between the giant, ancient civilisations of India and China. Southeast Asia has a complex history through the millenniums of ebb and flow, rise and fall of peoples and kingdoms. This complex history is reflected in the complexity of Southeast Asian cuisine. The entire complicated, colourful tapestry of Southeast Asian history can be told through the individual histories of its dishes.

Every dish has its own story of people, time and place to tell. Could edible artefacts give us insights about our past which stone and metal monument can't?

Here are just a couple of examples for illustration.

Pho, iconic Vietnamese beef noodle, the national dish of Vietnam likely has its roots in the ngau yuk fun
牛肉粉 of Guangdong province of China.

Northern Vietnam's Red River Delta was under Chinese rule for nearly 1,000 years. Ngau yuk fun was brought by migrants from Guangdong province but it was not a widely enjoyed dish as Vietnamese at that time viewed cows and buffaloes as draft animals, not as food.

After Vietnam became part of French Indochina in 1887, the colonialists brought their beef eating culture. The French love their national dish, pot-au-feu which is soup of beef boiled with vegetables. The French habit resulted in abundance of beef bones which the Vietnamese soon put to good use in their noodle soup. The Vietnamese interpretation of Cantonese ngau yuk fun (which they called pho) made richer with abundance of beef bones, marrow and vegetables like onion became popular.

When pho moved down to central Vietnam, it took on local characteristics. Central Vietnam was once the domain of the Champa kingdom (192 - 1832). It was initially a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom with close links with the maritime Hindu-Buddhist empires of the Malay archipelago (today's Malaysia and Indonesia). Champa later became Muslim like the Malay archipelago and peninsula.

After most of the Champa kingdom was incorporated into Vietnam in the 15th century, a minority remained in Central Vietnam while others migrated to the Malay peninsula and archipelago. Hence, we can find Halal versions of pho in Central Vietnam as well as in Kelantan and Trengganu states in Malaysia.

Moving further south into the Mekong Delta, pho again adapted to the local environment. For a thousand years, the Mekong Delta was part of Funan, Khmer empire and Cambodia respectively. The Khmers like to eat their food with lots of raw aromatic vegetables, flowers and herbs. I love it too.

So, the southern version of pho is eaten with a buffet of raw vegetables and herbs like sawtooth coriander, mint, bean sprout, all of my favourite things. I love the southern version of pho with its bouquet of crunchy fresh vegetables.

After the end of the war with America, Vietnamese refugees moved to USA, Canada, Australia, France, etc. Most refugees came from the Mekong Delta region, hence the pho they brought along was the southern version.

Today, pho is available everywhere around the world thanks to the Vietnamese diaspora and it is usually the southern version.

Another illustration, fish amok (amok trei), the national dish of Cambodia which is fish, spice and coconut milk in a cup of banana leaves cooked by steaming.

Thailand, Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia have a similar fish curry dish with coconut milk and spice wrapped in leaves, then cooked by grilling or steaming.

The origin of fish amok like so many dishes is somewhat obscure. It is said to be brought to Khmer by king Jayavarman II from either Champa or Java. At that time, Cambodia was broken into a few kingdoms known as Chenla. King Jayavarman II brought all under the control of the Khmer empire in 802. The domain of the Khmer empire stretched from the Andaman Sea in the west to the South China Sea in the east.


Whether Champa or Java, at that time both were under the influence of the maritime Srivijaya empire. In the Malay peninsula and archipelago, otak otak is a dish of fish, spices, and coconut milk wrapped in banana or attap palm leaves, and cooked by grilling.

In the 15th century, the kingdoms of Ayutthaya (in today's Thailand) and Lan Xang (in today's Laos) rose and separated from the Khmer empire.

Today, Thailand have their hor mok which is similar to the Cambodian fish amok. 

Laos have mok pa which is similar to fish amok, hor mok and otak otak but instead of or in additional to coconut milk, Laotians use sticky rice solution.

The examples of pho and fish amok are just two illustrations of how every traditional dish of Southeast Asia is a source of the region's history. Southeast Asia is a fascinating world for us to discover through its amazing food.

Written by Tony Boey on 7 Jul 2023

🎗 This research is powered by voluntary contributions from appreciative readers to Tony Boey Johor Kaki PAYNOW 96888768 in Singapore $.

1 comment:

  1. thank you for teaching us these important links and seeing food as living monuments!


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