China's influence in Southeast Asia is often seen only in political terms. In fact, the country has also played a major role in the development of food in Southeast Asia. For centuries, cultural and trade ties between China and Southeast Asian countries have opened the door to rich culinary exchanges.
The long history and presence of the Chinese diaspora in the region has contributed greatly to the diversity and evolution of local cuisines. From Chinese-Peranakan cuisine to the use of Chinese spices in traditional dishes, the Chinese influence on Southeast Asian food has shaped its unique culinary identity.
In Southeast Asia's major cities, it is often difficult to distinguish between Chinese and regional cuisines in small restaurants. This is because many of the region's cuisines have borrowed techniques and recipes from Chinese cooking traditions. Dishes such as noodles with chicken, duck or pork served over rice are common examples. It should be noted, however, that there are also variations of Chinese food traditions that have been influenced in different ways over time and place throughout Southeast Asia.
One such example is the evolution of cuisine in Vietnam. Vietnamese society is a blend of Malaysian and Chinese cultures that have had a significant impact on the history and development of the country. The northern region of Vietnam was historically a place colonized or dominated by China for centuries until the mid-10th century. In terms of food, the Chinese influence is particularly pronounced in the north of Vietnam with the use of stir-fry and noodle-based soups. Not only soups, but the custom of eating porridge as a morning meal in Southeast Asia probably originated in China and has become a popular urban habit in the region.
The development of cuisine in the Philippines has also been greatly influenced by China. Chinese cuisine is said to have contributed greatly to the refinement of Filipino cuisine. Chinese cooking skills are at the origin of the exquisite Filipino dishes. In fact, no family meal is considered important without dishes of Chinese heritage.
China's influence on Southeast Asian cuisine can also be seen in the use of ingredients such as tofu, noodles, and soy sauce in traditional dishes. These ingredients have been adapted and modified to suit local tastes, creating dishes that are unique and distinctive to local communities.
Various food traditions in the region have also been influenced by Chinese culture, such as Sino-Thai, Sino-Lao, Sino-Khmer and Nyonya cuisine (a fusion of Malay and Chinese cultures). Nyonya cuisine is a legacy of the early Chinese traders who came to Malacca and married local Malay women, and has since evolved into a rich food tradition. In Penang and other southern regions, Nyonya cuisine is particularly promoted as distinct from the Chinese and Malay cuisines of the region.
Chinese influence is also evident in the cooking techniques adopted in Southeast Asia. Smoking and roasting methods that originated in China have become an integral part of the region's cuisine. One example is the char kway teow dish in Malaysia and Singapore, which uses deep-fried noodles with ingredients such as shrimp, scallops, and Chinese sausage. Similarly, popiah, a type of spring roll that uses a thin skin and is filled with various vegetables and other ingredients, has also been inherited from Chinese traditions. Thus, China's influence extends not only to ingredients and recipes, but also to cooking techniques, which continue to evolve and adapt to local tastes.
China has also influenced tea culture in Southeast Asia. As the birthplace of tea culture, China has developed a wide range of tea types and varieties that appeal to tea connoisseurs around the world. Eventually, the tea habit spread to countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Different types of tea such as green tea, oolong tea, and jasmine tea have become part of the tea culture in Southeast Asia, often served at social events or in traditional teahouses.
Overall, China's influence on food in Southeast Asia is an integral part of the region's culinary heritage. Through a long history of cultural exchange and strong trade cooperation, China has contributed greatly to the variety of flavors and cooking techniques that make up Southeast Asia's rich and diverse culinary identity.
Van Esterik, Penny. (2008). Food Culture in Southeast Asia. Greenwood Press: London
Roman, Brent, Susan Russell. (2009). Southeast Asian Food and Culture. Northern Illinois University
Hom, Ken. (2015). Chinese Food Culture: Influence From Within and Without. The Asia Dialogue. theasiadialogue.com
Raccuia, Kirsten. (2021). Malaysia’ Humble ‘King of Noodles’. bbc.com
Jim Mee Sha. (2019). Popiah (Malaysian Spring Rolls). myplantifulcooking.com
Southeast Asia Cuisine. My Hungry Traveler. myhungrytraveler.com