Southeast Asian cuisine’s growing popularity is translating into experiencing the authentic food of the region no matter where you live.
It was a major theme at this year’s Feast Portland, a three-day food-tasting festival held each September. And in the past few years, Southeast Asian food has become easier to find in Central Oregon.
While it shares elements with Chinese and Indian cuisines, Southeast Asian cooking has its own fragrant and exotic qualities. Comprising Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, Southeast Asia offers one-of-a-kind regional flavors — just as American food ranges from Tex-Mex to Southern-fried chicken and gumbo.
Many of the Southeast Asian flavors were presented at the Feast Night Market by a couple of dozen chefs from around the United States. The strong aromas of the cuisine wafted through the air at its venue along the Willamette River — lemon grass and kefir lime mixed with coriander/cilantro, tamarind and basil.
During the event, celebrity chef Andy Ricker, whose PokPok restaurant serves Northern Thai food, discussed the trend of getting back to basics — in other words, returning to family recipes from specific regions. That trend is obvious in Bend restaurants like Wild Rose and Nam Tok.
Rosie Itti Westlund of Wild Rose says Thai food became popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But the food was mostly Americanized. When some Thai friends came to visit her at her restaurant, she said, they were surprised when customers asked for peanut sauce. In Northern Thailand, peanut sauce is only used for satay, originally a Malay food. Many of the foods seen in (southern) Thai restaurants in the U.S. are actually a fusion of foods brought from Malaysia, China or Muslim countries, Westlund said.
Paul Itti, owner and chef of Wild Rose, has introduced such family dishes as Grandfather’s Thom Kha, a soup with rich coconut milk, lemon grass and galangal flavors. Khao Soi Curry, yellow coconut curry with chicken or beef and egg noodles, was another family recipe.
Nam Tok in NorthWest Crossing offers authentic family recipes from Laos. Chef and owner Lee Bretoi makes all of the dipping sauces, spices and curry from scratch. Curries may taste different depending on the time of year because a main ingredient, galangal, develops a smoky flavor as it ages, she said.
Bretoi noted similarities in food where Laos and Northern Thailand border one another, but she said each area creates different dishes from the same ingredients. In landlocked Laos, for instance, many meats are dried, as reflected in the Sai Oua (Lao Sausage) and Savan Beef (beef jerky) combo. The house-made sausage includes mouth-watering lemon grass and kefir lime flavors, and comes with dipping sauce and sticky rice.
Locally, Southeast Asian flavors and dishes are offered in restaurants you might not expect. Inspired by a meal at the Burma Superstar in San Francisco, chef Amy Wright of Sunny Yoga created a Burmese pork bowl with samba chilies, garlic, ginger, onions and jasmine rice, topped with a sunny-side-up egg. The pork, which is marinated for two days, is also used in a Vietnamese bahn mi sandwich that she switches up by using arugula instead of carrots and daikon radishes.
Initiative Brewing in Redmond offers a bahn mi sandwich along with its list of burgers. While the sandwich is served on a soft bun from Big Ed’s bakery rather than the traditional baguette, it includes the pickled veggies and pork with a creamy sauce.
June’s Asian Kitchen in Sisters serves food from all areas of Asia including Singapore Street Noodles.
Lemon Tree offers the Indonesian spicy fried rice dish Nasi Goreng.
With the growing appreciation of Southeast Asian dishes, some predict the authentic-flavored noodle dishes may replace mac and cheese as the new comfort food and pho will replace chicken noodle soup as a cure-all. If that’s true for you, Central Oregon has plenty of places that offer the cuisine.
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