The History and Culture of Food and Drink: Southeast Asia

Christine S Wilson. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Southeast Asia, geographically and culturally diverse, stretches from Burma (Myanmar), through Thailand and the Indochinese and Malay peninsulas, to islanded Indonesia. Some would include the Philippines and Indonesian New Guinea as parts of Southeast Asia, but this study adds only the Philippines. European scholars called the region “Farther India” for its location “beyond the Ganges” (Coedes 1968). It is separated from China by the Himalayas and their eastern extension. Each country in the region has other mountain chains, channeling rivers to the South China, Java, Celebes, and other Indonesian seas, and to the Indian Ocean. Lowland plains south of the highest ranges of the mainland are home to most of the populations of Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia (Kampuchea), Laos, and Vietnam. The region is also insular: Indonesia has over 13,000 islands, spreading some 5,400 kilometers (3,300 miles). Most people live on or near oceans or river deltas.

Southeast Asia is in the tropical belt along the equator, with little temperature variation—about 15.5 to 24 degrees Celsius (60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit) in winter to 29 to 32 degrees Celsius (85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit) in the dry summer months (Hanks 1972).

This is monsoon Asia, and annual rainfall amounts to several hundred millimeters (over 100 inches). North Pacific winds bring rain from the northeast down the South China Sea from October until March, and there is a southwesterly monsoon in summer from May to September (Jin-Bee 1963). Rain is not constant, but brief showers or thunderstorms are always imminent. Temperatures and precipitation are noticeably lower in higher parts of the region. Europeans early recognized the comfort of the foothills and built hill-station retreats where their accustomed temperate plants—fruits, flowers, trees, and vegetables—all flourished.

The mountains, rivers, plains, seas, climate, and laterite, “red-earth” soil have combined to influence what foods are grown or have been available for the choosing since human beings first dwelt there. But despite northern mountain barriers and north-south mountain chains that hinder passage within and beyond the region and keep hill-tribe people (with their different agricultures and religions) apart from lowland dwellers, outside influences have managed to modify behavior and material objects, including what there is to eat. In other words, historically, political, economic, and social factors have frequently resulted in new technologies, products, foodstuffs, and behaviors.

European exploitation of Southeast Asia began with the Portuguese during the Western Age of Exploration in the sixteenth century. But Indians had ventured there much earlier, perhaps in prehistoric times (Jin-Bee 1963; Burling 1965), and had founded kingdoms and introduced Buddhism (Coedes 1968). China has also had a long history and influential relationship with Southeast Asia. Northern Vietnam was part of the Chinese empire for a thousand years until the tenth century A.D. (Burling 1965). Malacca, commanding the waterway through which ships passed from the west to China or the Spice Islands, came under Chinese control in the fifteenth century as a hub of trade. But by the fourteenth century, Islam had been introduced to Southeast Asia by Gujarat Indians, Arabian merchants, or both.

Later colonizers included the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Germans, French, and, in the Philippines, Spaniards and North Americans. All of these cultures influenced foods and the implements for producing and eating them, as indicated among other things by Romanized names for both foods and implements in the languages of the region. It is interesting to note, however, that the World War II occupation of much of the area by Japan had little effect on food practices.

And finally, increased air travel, tourism, commercial marketing, television, advertising, and imported foodstuffs have certainly made the diets of indigenous people more complex, although not necessarily more nutritionally or culturally worthy (Wilson 1994).

Obviously, then, from the foregoing, much of the history of food and drink in Southeast Asia is the history of introductions, some of which can only be guessed at. Written records of the movements of peoples and their political and religious struggles were first made by early Chinese regimes (Coedes 1968). Pre-Aryanized, preliterate kingdoms (Cambodia and Burma) are known to have had complex material cultures, irrigated rice, domesticated cattle and plants, ancient belief systems, temples, and art objects, and also to have bestowed important roles on women. Archaeological records are intermittent, with imprecise dating (Burling 1965; Coedes 1968), so the written Chinese records provide most of our knowledge of early history. But other clues come from linguistic changes, plant distributions, local lore and myth, and, for recent centuries, reports of administrators, travelers, and ethnographers.

Despite the region’s diversity, a basic eating pattern common throughout Southeast Asia is a heavy reliance on white rice, consumed with smaller quantities of an accompanying side dish, most often fish, prepared with a sauce from grated coconut meat and a variety of spices, many of which originated in the region (Wilson 1975).



Rice (Oryza sativa) belongs to the family of grasses, Gramineae. The cultivated species is chiefly O. sativa, which, some authorities believe, originated from wild rices native to southeastern Asia (Burkill 1966). Oryza sativa is polymorphic, responding with changes in structure to altered environmental growth conditions. This trait earlier led to reports of many different genuses and species until plant genetic studies showed which species were fertile when crossed and which were sterile. Botanists reduced the number of distinct species to 25, but hundreds or thousands of varieties (also termed races) of O. sativa exist, having different growing seasons, or responding with inflorescence to less sunlight or drier soils (Burkill 1966; Hanks 1972).

Rice will grow on dry uplands, which may have been the site of its first cultivation in late Mesolithic or early Neolithic times (Coedes 1968; Hanks 1972). The early cultivators could also have accidentally created new species by tying awns of different varieties together to prevent lodging. However, present species and races could also have developed in nature because they grow under similar conditions in the same places and readily interbreed. Quite likely, the process goes on at present when different races are planted for specific characteristics, as suggested by Douglas E. Yen (cited in Crawford 1992).

Rice is a plant of warm, damp areas and, hence, is climate-dependent. It grows satisfactorily in the tropical and subtropical belt from Asia through Africa to warm, moist parts of North and South America. Recognition of its reliability must have been gradual, and the initial understanding of its potential for dependable growth again and again in the same locale (initiated by inserting seeds in the ground) was probably fortuitous suggested when ungathered seeds germinated in a rain-fed field. A liking for the taste of this intermittent crop probably led to efforts to husband its growth, though when and how rice cultivation dawned as a regular agricultural pursuit can only be guessed at (Hanks 1972).

Based on archaeological finds (shards and tools) made in this century (Coedes 1968), together with recent techniques of carbon dating and ethnobotanical research, it has been estimated that the “first” crops of rice appeared some 10,000 to 15,000 years before the present. But “primitive” rice culture continues in some remote areas today, and its ecological and economic consequences that have been recorded also provide insights into early rice cultivation (Conklin 1957).

Rice requires moisture, warmth, and soil with organic matter. The soils of Southeast Asia, like those of much of the tropics, are lateritic, from iron compounds above underlying clay that oxidize upon exposure to air. For plants to grow, a top layer of organic matter, humus, is needed. This may be deposited naturally as fallen detritus in forests or as silt brought by rivers to the deltas. Many of Asia’s rice bowls are located between inland forests and coastal mangrove swamps that hold these deposits.

But “dry” rice, which preceded irrigated rice, is still grown in Southeast Asia’s upland forest areas, as well as in small dooryard plots (Wilson 1970). Most dry-land rice involves shifting cultivation, for the plant removes much of the soil’s nutrients, and considerable fallow time must be allowed before a new crop can be nourished (Hanks 1972).

Early growers had to be keenly aware of and attuned to the rhythms of the seasons and plants before regularizing their planting activities. These began by cutting forest growth well ahead of the onset of the rainy season, then drying and burning it. The latter tended to destroy competing plants, and the ash provided phosphates and potassium otherwise lacking in the soil. Still before the rains, seeds were planted through the ash. Such soil could produce crops for two years; after this, the agriculturists would either select another nearby area to plant or move on. Overpopulation and continued land use could lead to erosion and incursion of hardy weeds, and with prolonged soil use, trees would not be able to regenerate to restore the forest.

The other principal method of rice culture is wet-rice cultivation, with its use of shallow water to kill off competing plants. In all countries where rice constitutes the “bulk of consumption” (Wilson 1985), each step in rice raising, from selecting grains for the next year’s crop to harvest, storage, and husking for cooking, is accompanied by rituals of worship. People from Burma to the Philippines have long felt that this paramount food is the homesite of a potent god and have made it central to civil and religious rites.

Indeed, beliefs regarding the efficacy and supernatural or curative properties of rice antedate the introduction of organized religions to the region (Geertz 1960; Rosemary Firth 1966;Wilson 1970).

Varieties in which the endosperm starch is partially replaced by soluble starch and dextrin produce glutinous, “sticky” rice that is sweeter, but less easily digested, than ordinary rice (Burkill 1966). Dyed yellow with turmeric (formerly saffron, which is the color of royalty in Southeast Asia), glutinous rice is served for ceremonial occasions as part of the meal or made into sweetmeats exchanged at religious holidays (Geertz 1960; Rosemary Firth 1966; Wilson 1985). One of the most popular of these “cakes” is Malay-Indonesian ketupat, usually made of steamed glutinous rice (white, red, or black) mixed with coconut cream and recooked in a woven or folded leaf (Wilson 1985). In Sumatra this mixture is called lemang and may be served with fruits or with festival meats such as sate or rendang. The rice sometimes is made into a fermented liquidlike toddy.

Despite the widespread visibility of wet-rice paddy fields, they are a relatively recent phenomenon. Wet rice was not extensively cultivated in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, or Burma until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Its cultivation coincided with the opening of the Suez Canal and a greatly expanded trade to the area, at a time when colonial powers were encouraging increased food production for growing populations (J. N. Anderson, personal communication).

A continuous need for water and its control has increased sensitivity to seasonal fluctuations in the rains and has also encouraged an elaborate technology to harness and store it—all accompanied by rituals similar to those used for the rice that grows in the water. Where hillside erosion prevented regular upland cropping, terracing was introduced and is still used. Terraces require substantial investments of time and energy because effective structures can be realized only gradually. Notable examples of terracing are to be found in Java and Bali. It has been suggested that the terraces of the northern Philippines were constructed for earlier propagation of taro and other root crops, which may have preceded rice planting (Pollock 1992).

Dry-rice growers practice various means to delay fallowing and maintain soil fertility, including inter-cropping, a common technique among shifting cultivators. Indonesians, for example, have recently introduced peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) in some areas. Moreover, at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and elsewhere, high-yielding, fast-growing, more highly nutritious strains of rice have been bred to meet increasing demand.

This “Green Revolution” was technically successful, but preexisting races cultivated by small growers were often preferred for taste or for aroma, and when hand-hulled by pounding in a mortar, they retained much of the germ removed by machine hulling. The new strains that replaced them, however, required greater input in terms of time, technology, fertilizers, and water control, and have, therefore, proven too expensive for many small cultivators. Because of these developments, some compromises have ensued, and gene banks for rice now recognize the value of older varieties.

Root Crops

In addition to rice, or as a substitute, Southeast Asians have eaten a variety of other starchy staples (chiefly root vegetables) that are indigenous as well as introduced. Notable among them are yams of the Dioscoreaspecies, chiefly Dioscorea alata, the greater yam, and Dioscorea esculenta, the lesser yam, both of which are ancient plants thought to have been domesticated several thousand years ago in Southeast Asia (Burkill 1966; Pollock 1992). Dioscorea alata, is a cultigen unknown in the wild, whereas D. esculenta, still has wild varieties. Robert Dentan (1968) notes that the Semai (Malaysian aborigines) tend wild yam patches, which may give us a glimpse of how agriculture began. The plants have climbing vines and starchy tubers that can be stored in the ground. Now chiefly famine foods, these roots, propagated by cuttings, contain alkaloids and other toxins not yet identified, among them acrid substances used by indigenous peoples as fish poisons (Heiser 1990). Consequently, those who rely upon wild yams are careful to boil or roast them before eating.

Another root that may have preceded rice as a staple is Colocasia esculenta, together with other members of this family, Alocasia macrorrhiza, Cyrtosperma chamissonis, and Xanthosoma sagittifolium, that are collectively known as taro. Except for Xanthosoma, which is American in origin, taros are Asian or Pacific plants. Alocasiaand Colocasia have been cultivated “from remote times” throughout Southeast Asia (Burkill 1966). Colocasia,unknown as a wild plant (Herklots 1972), probably originated in northern India. Its common names are dasheen, eddo, cocoyam, or keladi (Malay). Taros have not been relied on as a starch food in much of Southeast Asia for many years. They contain crystals of calcium oxalate that must be leached out before the corms are cooked. Occasionally, however, the stems and leaves are boiled or fried in coconut oil.

Two other starchy roots, introduced to Southeast Asia, are the white potato (Solanum tuberosum) and manioc (cassava, yuca) (Manihot utilissima), both of South American origin. The potato was probably brought by the Spaniards to the Philippines in the sixteenth century and by the Dutch to Java in the following century (Burkill 1966). A taste for it has been slow to develop, but the same cannot be said of manioc. Of the family that includes figs (Ficus) and other latex-producing species, manioc was widespread in tropical America (Jones 1959). It was noted by voyagers who followed Christopher Columbus and was taken early to Africa; it reached Asia much later, however, and although the date of its arrival in Southeast Asia is not certain (Burkill 1966), it may have been as late as the eighteenth century.

According to Robert Hefner (1990), in the nineteenth century the Dutch colonial government introduced manioc to Java, where rural people resisted its cultivation until a serious food crisis was experienced in the 1880s. Although a comparative latecomer, manioc is now ubiquitous throughout the region. The roots may be left in the ground for long periods, and because manioc produces more food per unit of land than any other crop, it is increasingly relied upon as a famine food. Yet manioc is nutritionally inferior to most other foods, and it drains soils of nutrients without contributing any. Moreover, most races contain hydrogen cyanide (prussic acid), and South American techniques for removing this poison by boiling or roasting did not accompany manioc to Africa and the East. In Java (Burkill 1966), Malaysia, and other parts of the region, sun-dried strips of manioc are sold and consumed as snacks. In both countries, parboiled tubers are fermented several days with locally produced yeast to make an inexpensive tapai (Burkill 1966; Wilson 1986). In addition, the young leaves are sometimes used as a vegetable.

Grain Staples

Another New World staple, maize (Zea mays), caught on considerably more swiftly in Southeast Asia than did manioc and the potato. Lucien Hanks (1972) quotes the European traveler Nicholas Gervaise, who wrote, in 1688, that the grain had first been sown just 12 to 15 years earlier in Siam, yet it already covered the upland plains. Maize was also relied upon as a staple by upland dwellers in precolonial Java (Hefner 1990)—before Dutch rule in the nineteenth century. Although the Semai adopted it (together with manioc) as a staple food (Dentan 1968), it has tended to be a substitute grain in the region, and despite introduction of newer varieties, it is used primarily as feed for animals or as a snack, roasted or boiled, for humans.

Some staple grains of importance elsewhere also grow in Southeast Asia. Foxtail, or Italian millet (Setaria italica), and some other races have been food sources for tribal peoples (Burkill 1966). Wheat (Triticum vulgare) flour is of some importance in bread, biscuits, crackers, and cookies. Wheat was introduced following European settlement and used to make, among other things, noodles, which came to Southeast Asia from China (Chang 1977). Noodles are made and eaten in all the countries of the region, often as snack foods (Wilson 1986). Bread is of some importance in Vietnam and is increasingly common in other parts of the region. Bakeries in major urban centers produce bread and rolls that are sold in shops and markets and by itinerant salespeople. Such baked goods are usually consumed as morning snacks but are considered inferior to rice in relieving hunger.

Palm Staples

The sago palms (Metroxylon sagu or Metroxylon rumphii) yield a starch from the inner parts of the trunk after they are grated and soaked. This starch is a fallback food, consumed when rice supplies are short in the region. The trees are cut at maturity, about 9 to 15 years after planting, when the starch is at its peak (Burkill 1966). Sago flour is also used in making snack foods.

Another palm, the lontar (Borassus flabellifer, also known as the palmyra), grows from India eastward to the Celebes and yields sugar and toddy (wine) in the juices of its trunk. The time required for the lontar to reach maturity is similar to that of the sago (Burkill 1966). The tip of the tree is cut, and the juice collects in a vessel. It may be tapped for several months with daily cuts. J. J. Fox (1977) studied an Indonesian group on the island of Roti, Lesser Sundas, who subsist largely on this juice. Vinegar is made from overfermented lontar toddy (Burkill 1966), and the leaves have long been used in Indonesia for writing; books of leaves fastened together are known as lontar.

Staple Qualities

Southeast Asians believe that foods have inherent qualities that affect the body. Such beliefs stem from the humoral systems of Ayurvedic (Indian), Chinese, and Islamic medicine, all of which have influenced these populations over the last millennium (Hart, Rajadhon, and Coughlin 1965; Hart 1969; Lindenbaum 1977; Laderman 1983). Although with ethnic and individual differences, objects, physiological states (including disease), weather, and behaviors are categorized as having degrees of “hot,”“cold,” and “neutral.” Most staple foods are defined as “neutral” among these populations. Manioc, however, is “hot,” and eating it is thought to make the body hot, a situation also brought about by consuming animal protein, salt, and some anomalous fruits and seeds. The definition of manioc as “hot” may indicate recognition of the toxic chemical in the raw tuber.

Fish, Meat, and Fowl


There is little disagreement among experts (Raymond Firth 1966; Hanks 1972) that the dietary staples of Southeast Asians during the historical era have been primarily rice and fish. But the archaeological record is less clear regarding the presence of fish in diets of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, in large part because archaeological research in the area is far from complete. Finds in northern Vietnam of middens of mollusk shells in Hoabhinian-era levels (Burling 1965) indicate an early reliance on foods from the sea, and E. N. Anderson (1988) writes of rich sources of fish and game for central and southern China in Neolithic times. For later periods, Ying-Shi Yu (1977) has noted the finding of several species of fish in the tomb of a Han aristocrat who died in the first century before the present era in Hunan Province (southern China).

The bony fishes antedate mammals by several hundred million years. When the continents reached their present-day positions, land masses blocked fish migration through the tropical seas, but species found in Southeast Asia range throughout these latitudes as far as Africa or Australia. Relatively few comprehensive listings have been compiled, yet Raymond Firth (1966) cites C. N. Maxwell, who described 250 species of marine food fishes for Malaya, and J. S. Scott (1959) lists 294, including the skate, shark, and ray family, and the dolphin, Coryphaena hippurus, as sea fishes of Malaya. Though many are edible, the list of favored marine fish is shorter. Raymond Firth (1966) notes that over 20 types were landed at a Malay village in amounts greater than 1,000 tons. Most were of the mackerel family, Scombroidii, including herring ( Clupea spp.) and small horse mackerel (Scomberomerus spp.) (Scott 1959). Of deepwater fish feeding near the surface Firth notes dorab or wolf herring (Chirocentrus dorab), shad (Clupea kanagurta), sprat or whitebait (Stolephorusspp.), and anchovies (Anchoviella and Thrissocles spp.). Bottom feeders taken in quantity during Firth’s research included jew-fish (among which are numbered croaker, Umbrina dussumierii, Corvina spp., Otolithes ruber, and several types of Johnius), sea bream (Synagris spp.), sea perch (Lates calcarifer), snapper (Lutianus spp.), gray mullet ( Mugil spp.), and flatfish (including sole, flounder, Pseudorhombus, and Synapturaspp.) (Scott 1959; Raymond Firth 1966). This list is echoed by Thomas Fraser (1960), Carol Laderman (1983), and Christine S. Wilson (1983).

Other fish common to the region and mentioned by Raymond Firth include pomfret (Stromateus spp., generally prized in Southeast Asia), catfish (Chilinus spp., not a popular food), sardines (Sardinella spp.), bluefish (Pomatomus salatrix), grouper (Epinephelus spp.), pike (Sphyraena spp.), and scad (Caranx leptolepis). Fish have been caught with indigenous methods developed over time, chiefly by nets from shore or small boats, or by handline. Before the existence of motorized transport, these activities were local and subsistent, but commercial trade of sea products seems to have begun with Chinese embassies early in the first millennium (Fraser 1960).

Additional sea animals eaten by Southeast Asians include squid or cuttlefish (Loligo and Sepia spp.) (Burkill 1966), crabs (Charybdis spp.), prawns and crayfish (Penaeus, Penaeopsis, Parapenaeopsis spp. and Peneus semisulcatus; the spiny lobsters Panulirus), and the lobsterlike Squilla. Shrimp (Acetes erythraeus) (Burkill 1966) and other crustaceans caught in tidal nets are the source of a fermented paste eaten as a side relish with rice meals (Wilson 1970).

A fish of continuing commercial value, used in dishes such as cooked vegetables, is the small white-bait or anchovy (Stolephorus spp.). The green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) (Burkill 1966) provides meat occasionally and widely prized eggs seasonally. Mollusks—cockles (Cardium), clams, mussels ( Mytilus spp.), and oysters (Ostrea edulis and Ostrea rivularis)—are collected along shorelines, often by women and children (Burkill 1966).

Sharks and rays, the Elasmobranchs, are widely found in tropical seas. The gelatinous skeletons are prized by the Chinese, and members of the Carcharidae and Dasybatidae families provide income to fishermen who sell the valued fins (Burkill 1966). The dogfish (Scoliodon sorrakowah C.), and other members of this class, are usually eaten by poorer people (Scott 1959; Burkill 1966). Salting (curing in brine) and drying fish have long been practiced. Before ice machines and mechanical refrigeration, these preservation methods permitted the sale of surplus fish at a distance and storage for monsoon months when fishing was unsafe.

Animal Meats

Meat—the flesh of mammals—is chiefly reserved for feasts and special occasions (Geertz 1960; Kirsch 1973; Volkman 1985). Often the flesh is that of the water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) (Burkill 1966), that ancient ricefield plough-laborer. A native of Asia, the water buffalo is said to have been domesticated in many locales, but at present the best evidence points to southern China some time around 5000 B.C. (Hoffpauir, this work). Buffalo milk is higher in fat than that of most cattle, about 7 percent (Heiser 1990), but is little used in Southeast Asia because the populations exhibit high incidences of primary adult lactose intolerance (Simoons 1970).

Other Bos species have been domesticated in the region, such as the seladang (Bos gaurus) of Malaysia, themithan (Bos frontalis) of Indochina, and the banteng (Bos sondaicus) of Java. Some cattle (Bos taurus), the species common in the West, are found in the region—mainly in Java and the Philippines (Burkill 1966). Zebu, Indian cattle, though well adapted to the climate are relatively rare.

Another ruminant of the bovine family, the goat (Capra hiracus), is widespread throughout the region, where it has substituted for more expensive meat species despite its strong flavor. Its Malay name, kambing, is well known throughout the region and is applied locally to sheep—kambing biri-biri—as well. Rural people neutralize goats’ destructive grazing with fences or by staking. Archaeological remains of domesticated sheep have been dated from 9000 B.C.; goat domestication probably was almost that early (Heiser 1990). K. C. Chang (1977) indicates that goats were introduced to China from western Asia in prehistoric times.

The pig (Sus scrofa) is said to have been domesticated in the Near East (Anderson 1988; Heiser 1990) around 7000 to 5000 B. C., when villages developed, although Frederick Simoons (1994) suggests that pigs were first domesticated in Southeast Asia. When Islam came to Southeast Asia, its prohibition against eating pork stopped pig raising among many peoples, although others who were not converted continued the practice. Wild pigs are native to Asia as they are to Europe, and it has been suggested that in rural Asian Muslim countries, the animals may be called something other than “pigs” by the natives and, thus, may be hunted and eaten.

Although many wild mammals and birds are protected by legislation (Medway 1969), some are still hunted for meat, particularly by aboriginal peoples. Well liked by all inhabitants of Southeast Asia is another local ruminant, the deer (Cervus unicolor) (Medway 1969), along with the mouse deer or chevrotain (Tragulus javanicus and Tragulus napu). The flesh of this smallest of hoofed mammals is said to be excellent and is salted, dried, and smoked (jerked) throughout Malaysia. Other wild animals that have acted as occasional food sources include the large fruit-eating flying fox or fruit bat (Pteropus edulis or Pteropus vampyrus) (Burkill 1966; Medway 1969). In addition, jungle tribes may hunt birds, monkeys, and other small animal species for food.

Poultry or Fowl

Chickens (Gallus gallus) are generally the most important domestic fowl in Southeast Asia and may have been domesticated there. The archaeological record is not clear, and experts differ as to whether this Asian jungle bird was first domesticated in India or Southeast Asia (Heiser 1990). Yet there is general agreement with I. H. Burkill (1966) that the chicken was early selected for gaming as well as divination, in which both entrails and thigh bones were and still are used (Heiser 1990). Chickens are kept for meat and eggs in rural areas, with the meat often prepared for feasts (Geertz 1960), along with other animal meats. Clifford Geertz and other anthropologists (e.g., Fraser 1960) have noted the frequency of kenduri or slametan, special feasts of a familial or community nature, with curried chicken dishes to accompany the glutinous rice. Chicken is generally liked and is sometimes a meal-saver during monsoon months when fresh fish is not obtainable.

Fowl eggs have also been valued for use in divination. Simoons (1994), for example, has commented on their use in this capacity by hill-tribe peoples from Assam eastward, while also noting their avoidance (along with fowl meat) because of beliefs associating them with fertility. Others (Rosemary Firth 1966; Strange 1981) have noted the symbolic use of eggs as fertility symbols that are given to female guests at weddings and as spirit offerings to launch a boat or enter a new house.

Simoons (1994) notes a particular preference in this region for brooded eggs, with the embryo well developed—these are especially relished in the Philippines. He hypothesizes that the practice may have originated, before domestication, in the gathering of wild fowl eggs, which, if they contained half-hatched chicks as recognizable forms of life, were judged as not dangerous to eat. Other poultry kept by Southeast Asians include ducks (the Anas species, related to the mallard), which were domesticated independently in both Europe and China (Burkill 1966). In Indonesia, ducks are part of an ecological system that includes rice fields and irrigation ditches containing fish. The ducks subsist on the rice (after threshing) as well as on the fish, while providing eggs and meat for their caretakers. Geese ( Anser anser, the European domestic species, or an Indian hybrid, Anser cygnoides) (Burkill 1966) sometimes play similar roles in rural Southeast Asia. The goose probably reached the region via India.

Nonstaple Plant Foods


Although Western visitors to Southeast Asia have noted native plants sometimes used as food (for example, Burbidge 1989; Wallace 1989), and have commented on “curries” for main meals without always specifying their components (Lewis 1991), nutritionists and anthropologists have been those most concerned with the importance of vegetable foods in Southeast Asian diets. Rosemary Firth (1966), for example, has noted that for Malay fishing people, vegetables are a marginal need. The sandy soil near the sea is not conducive to vegetable propagation, and the people who might have time for such an effort, and who play significant roles in rice raising, have no tradition of gardening. Before the advent of motorized transport, the attitude toward vegetables seemed to be that they made a nice addition to a meal but were not essential to it (Wilson 1988).

Traditionally, the growers of vegetables for market in Southeast Asia have been the Chinese. But others living in rural areas long ago learned of wild plants growing on empty lands and in the forests, including wild ferns, and well into this century, older women made gathering trips to bring these wild plants back for consumption (Wilson 1970). Burkill (1966) lists a number of edible ferns, such as Diplazium esculentum and Stenochlaena palustris, although most of the species cited are used for making woven objects or for medicinal purposes.

During colonial times, Europeans introduced a number of Western vegetables to the hill stations at higher altitudes. The carrot—Daucus carota sativus—is an example: It was carried from Persia to India and then China in the thirteenth century (Herklots 1972). (The Dutch introduced quick-maturing cultivars in Indonesia during the nineteenth century, but roots such as carrots do best at higher elevations.)

Laderman (1983) lists three dozen vegetables that she identified as collected or purchased in an East Coast Malay village. Among those eaten occasionally that are grown locally are many types of spinach, gucil (Antidesma ghaesembilla), sweet shoot (Sauropus androgynus), and bamboo shoots (Bambusa spp.) (Burkill 1966). Several species of amaranths (Amaranthus gangeticus) (Herklots 1972) are ancient potherbs here, native to the region and eaten like spinach. Another local spinach abundant in the region is kangkung (Ipomoea reptans) (Burkill 1966; Herklots 1972). It grows on or near water, has a peppery taste like watercress, and is also called swamp cabbage.

The Western view that Southeast Asians have little interest in eating vegetables probably results from the climatically difficult enterprise of raising temperate species. Those that are grown are often natives of China or India, such as Brassica chinensis, Chinese cabbage, and Brassica juncea (Burkill 1966). Among the leguminous plants that are found is the long bean (Vigna sinensis), which became a cultigen during ancient times in Asia or Africa and has pods that may measure 1 meter in length (Burkill 1966). Another legume, Psophocarpus tetragonolobus, the winged or four-angled bean, was noted in the seventeenth century in the Moluccas as introduced from elsewhere. On the basis of its Malay name, kachang botor (botor means lobe in Arabic), Burkill (1966) infers that it was brought by Arabs from the African side of the Indian Ocean. The pods and beans are eaten raw or cooked, as is the root. This plant has received international attention in recent decades thanks to its high protein content, along with some derogatory comments because of preparation difficulties (National Academy of Sciences 1975; Henry, Donachie, and Rivers 1985; Sri Kantha and Erdman 1986).

Another legume is the yam bean (Pachyrhizus erosus). A native of tropical America, this bean was brought by the Spaniards to the Philippines in the sixteenth century. From there it quickly spread as far as Indochina and Thailand and soon grew wild (Burkill 1966; Herklots 1972). Both young pods and the starchy root are eaten.

Several other leguminous seed pods that originated in Africa or Asia have added protein and variety to Southeast Asian diets. Examples are the gram beans: red (Cajanus indicus), the Indian dhal (some-times known as the pigeon pea), green or mung (Phaseolus aureus), and black, also known as mung or dhal (Phaseolus mungo L.) (Burkill 1966; Herklots 1972). Sprouts as well as vegetable cheese have been prepared from both dhal beans.

The other bean-cheese source for the region is the soybean, Glycine max, which has been cultivated by the Chinese for at least 4,500 years (Herklots 1972). In addition to sprouts and oil, the beans have been fermented to produce tempe or tofu and soy sauce, a fermented product soaked in brine and exposed to the sun (Burkill 1966).

The South American groundnut or peanut (Arachis hypogaea) may have reached Asia early by western as well as eastern routes (Burkill 1966). A variety of races have developed over the last two centuries, some of which have been selected for oil content. Peanut oil production has been a Southeast Asian industry for over a century, with the oil (chemically similar to olive oil) sold in the region. Nuts, ground into paste, cooked with onions, peppers, and other spices, are served with curries, roasted meat, and in fresh fruit and vegetable salads in several Southeast Asian countries.

Two leguminous trees of the Parkia and Pithecolobium genera provide seeds that are eaten with meals as a relish and also used as diuretics (Burkill 1966). Parkia biglobosa is also found in Africa, where the seeds are eaten after roasting, but the preferred species in Southeast Asia is Parkia speciosa, the petai. Pithecolobium species are found in Asia and America. Pithecolobium jiringa, the jering, is the seed of choice for both medicinal and food purposes. It may be boiled or roasted. Both seeds smell and taste like garlic, and the odor lingers on the eater’s breath.

One vegetable seemingly native to the region is eggplant (also called brinjal and aubergine, or terong in Malay). Solanum melongena, related to the potato and tomato, reached India, Africa, and Europe via Spain (Burkill 1966). Charles Heiser (1990) and G.A. C. Herklots (1972) believe it originated in India, reaching Spain and Africa via the Arabs and Persians. The latter authority notes its mention in a Chinese work on agriculture of the fifth century. The plant produces large, egg-shaped fruits, ranging in color from white through golden to green and blackish purple.

Another vegetable—this one has been cultivated in the region for at least two millennia and may, indeed, have originated there—is the climbing snake gourd (Trichosanthes anguina or Trichosanthes cucumerina) (Burkill 1966; Herklots 1972). The Chinese obtained it from the south, presumably Malaysia, suggesting that it was cultivated there at least from the early Christian era. Another native gourd is the wax gourd (Benincasa cerifera) (Burkill 1966; Herklots 1972). Bitter melon or cucumber (Momordica charantia L.), a long, green, warty-looking gourd (Herklots 1972) with seeds inside bright red arils, has long been an ingredient in curries (Burkill 1966). It is probably African in origin. The bottle gourd (Lagenaria leucantha) may also have originated in Africa; known to the Egyptians, it reached China sometime during the past 2,000 years (Burkill 1966). Other gourds of ancient origin, such as the Luffah species, have also served as vegetables (Herklots 1972).

The Chinese or Japanese radish (Raphanus sativus), a cultigen of eastern Asia with a long white root, has origins similar to the European radish (Burkill 1966; Herklots 1972). Okra, or “lady’s fingers” (Hibiscus esculentus), a vegetable assumed to be of African origin (Burkill 1966), is sometimes named a bean in local languages; the Malay term bendi is from Hindi (Burkill 1966; Herklots 1972).

The tomato (Lycopersicum esculentum) (Burkill 1966) was brought from America to Europe and thence to Asia more than 300 years ago. Eaten raw or cooked, it is also the source of bottled sauces called in many lands kichap—the name usually given in Malay to soy sauce. (A Malay calls catsup sos tematu.)

Edible toadstools or mushrooms (Volvariella volvacea) are grown and eaten in some countries of Southeast Asia (Burkill 1966). With the advent of refrigeration and tinned foods in the twentieth century, a variety of Western vegetable foods became available to people in money economies, particularly in urban locales.


Southeast Asia has a wealth of native fruits, as well as some introduced from other regions. Best known is the banana (Musa species). Heiser (1990) believes that Musa acuminata, the wild banana of Malaysia, was the progenitor of all other banana species. In fact, Heiser feels that Southeast Asia was the original home of all bananas, although Betty Allen (1967) suggests that the place of origin may have been India.

Cultivated bananas may be small or large, red- as well as yellow-skinned, and sweet or tart. Plantains have always been eaten cooked; some other races, cultivated for centuries, are dipped in batter and fried. Flowers from banana plants of a Philippine race are served as a vegetable. For millennia the leaves have been used as wrappings for food and as temporary rain cover.

Citrus fruits are also of Asian origin, although grapefruit may be an exception (Burkill 1966; Heiser 1990). Species have been cultivated in subtropical climes from before the time of Alexander the Great. Citrus microcarpa (Burkill 1966) is a small, round, green ball of a fruit (sometimes called the music lime) long used in cooking and making drinks, as is Citrus aurantifolia (much like the West Indian lime) . Citrus nobilis (Burkill 1966) is the Mandarin orange or sweet lime, not to be confused with Citrus sinensis, the sweet or Chinese orange familiar to Western palates, though both may have originated in China. The rind of the Mandarin orange, green to orange in color, peels easily like that of a tangerine, and the segments are readily removed. Native to Southeast Asia is Citrus maxima or Citrus grandis (Burkill 1966; Allen 1967), the sweet pomelo, as large as a grapefruit. It reached Europe in the twelfth century (Eiseman and Eiseman 1988) and is now sold in U.S. markets. It is highly valued in Southeast Asia, where it is associated with the Chinese New Year.

Garcinia is a genus of trees of the rubber family in the Old World tropics (Burkill 1966). A number of species have edible fruits, and several yield dyes, ink, or watercolor paint. Garcinia mangostana, the mangosteen, is a favorite throughout Southeast Asia and has been known elsewhere since the voyages of exploration; it is also famous for having earned the admiration of Queen Victoria. The small, round fruit has a ¼-inch (0.635 centimeter), dark red to purple rind, and five or more white, fleshy segments of edible matter with a delicate, slightly tart flavor. F.W. Burbidge (1989) was enthusiastic about the mangosteen when he wrote in 1880, as was Alfred Wallace (1989: 148), who commented in his mid-1850s report on the Malay Archipelago that “those celebrated fruits, the mangosteen and … durion … will hardly grow” elsewhere. Garcinia atroviridis, a bright yellow-orange, acid-astringent, fluted fruit about 3 to 4 inches (8 to 9 centimeters) in diameter, and eaten as a relish (Burkill 1966), is native to Malaysia and Burma and common in Thailand (Allen 1967).

Several members of the Sapindaceae family have a tart-sweet pulp, with the best known, rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum), named for the hairlike cilia extending from its red or yellow rind. Native to the region, it is widely cultivated, but wild forest specimens are also found (Burkill 1966). Also native is Nephelium malaiense (“cat’s eyes”), which is small with a buff skin (Allen 1967). The litchi (lychee) from southern China (Litchi chinensis) is cultivated as well (Burkill 1966).

Other fruits with refreshing pulp include the langsat (Lansium domesticum)—an indigenous fruit that is now cultivated. It was noted by the Chinese in Java in the fifteenth century (Burkill 1966). Salak (Zalacca edulis) is a similar fruit from a palm that grows throughout Southeast Asia. Its thin, brown skin looks like that of a lizard (Burkill 1966; Eiseman and Eiseman 1988).

Two members of the rubber and castor oil family produce pleasant fruits. One, Cicca acida (Burkill 1966; Allen 1967), known in English and Malay as chermai, the Malay or Otaheite gooseberry, is a very tart tree fruit. Although it has been cultivated for centuries, its place of origin is not known. The other fruit, rambai (Baccaurea motleyana), is a Southeast Asian native and has long been cultivated there (Allen 1967).

Perhaps the most famed Southeast Asian fruit is durian (Durio zibethinus) (Burkill 1966), which grows on trees too tall to climb (70 to 80 meters or more). Ovoid or round, variable in size, each fruit may weigh several kilograms. The thick, green rind has sharp spines that cushion its fall. Inside are four or five arils of soft pulp surrounding seeds. Durian smells and tastes like onion, garlic, or cheese. The fruit is edible for only a few days after dehiscing, after which it undergoes rapid chemical change (Wilson 1970). Most Southeast Asians and some Europeans relish this seasonal fruit, and the seeds are roasted and eaten as well. Durian conserves, sweet or salty, have been made by local people, and in recent decades durian ice cream has been developed.

The mango (Mangifera indica) is the most famous member of its family, which originated in India (Burkill 1966). Other species grow throughout Southeast Asia. It has been known for more than 4,000 years (Allen 1967) and was one of the earliest tree fruits to be cultivated (Eiseman and Eiseman 1988). Fruits may be 17 centimeters (7 inches) long, and about 7 centimeters (3 inches) in diameter. When ripe, the flesh is yellow to reddish, sweet, aromatic, and much prized. Mangifera odorata, called kuini in Malay, is also sweet when ripe, with a resinous smell. The horse mango, Mangifera foetida, is inedible until ripe. Both M. odorata and M. foetida are fibrous and are sometimes eaten to help remove intestinal parasites.

A New World member of this family, Anacardium occidentale—the cashew—was brought by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century to become one of the first American trees cultivated in Southeast Asia (Burkill 1966; Allen 1967). The tart fruit, a greenish pedicel the size of an apple, which is rich in ascorbic acid, and its appended nut are both well liked. The nut must be boiled or roasted to remove an irritant chemical, cardol. In rural areas, monkeys and fruit bats vie with human consumers for the fruit, which otherwise serves as a cooked relish with a rice meal.

Two members of the Urticaceae family, Artocarpus integra and Artocarpus champeden (jackfruit and chempedak), are native to Asia, the jackfruit coming from India (Burkill 1966). Both have large fruits as long as 30 centimeters (1 foot), with mottled green, bumpy rinds and yellowish, creamy flesh surrounding seeds that are boiled before eating. The fruits are used to make sweetmeats. Historically very popular, they were known to Pliny. Artocarpus communis (bread-fruit), a member of this family, is less common and not much consumed.

Two small trees native to Malaysia produce acid fruits that are cooked and used as tart, refreshing relishes, Averrhoa bilimbi and Averrhoa carambola (Burkill 1966). The latter, brought to the West by early explorers, is known in Western countries as starfruit because of its shape when cut horizontally. In Asia, both are called belimbing. Four tropical American fruits, Annona muricata (soursop, or “Dutch durian”), Annona reticulata(custard apple or bullock’s heart), Annona cherimola (cherimoya), and Annona squamosa (sweetsop), were brought very early to Southeast Asia (Burkill 1966).

Eugenia, found throughout the tropics, has more than two dozen species in south India and Southeast Asia that have grown wild and been cultivated for centuries for their valued fruits. One, Eugenia aromatica, produces cloves. Others have pearlike, rosy or pink-tinted fruits, about 5 to 7 or more centimeters long (2 to 3 inches), that are called jambu in Malay, and “apples” by English speakers: Eugenia aquea (or Eugenia jambos) are water or rose apples, Eugenia malaccensis is the Malay apple, and Eugenia javanica is the Java apple (Burkill 1966). Also of this Myrtaceae family is the guava, Psidium guajava, an American native brought by the Spanish across both the Atlantic and Pacific at an early date (Burkill 1966). The thin, green skin becomes yellow and soft at maturity; the pulp is white, greenish, or rose, with many small seeds. They are good eaten raw and make excellent juice drinks.

Other well-liked, early introductions from the Americas are papaya (Carica papaya), pineapple (Ananas comosus), and passion fruit (Passiflora laurifolia). Papaya reached Southeast Asia via the West Indies before the sixteenth century (Burkill 1966;Allen 1967). A large herb, it is fast-growing, producing fruit in six months. Ever-bearing, the papaya is a useful dooryard plant, rich in nutrients, green-skinned until ripe, with yellow to red flesh, and 15 to 35 centimeters (6 to 14 inches) in length.

Pineapple was cultivated in America from remote times, and the Europeans brought it around the world to all parts of Asia before the seventeenth century (Burkill 1966). A pineapple plantation industry was developed during the nineteenth century in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, when canning was introduced (Allen 1967). Passion fruit, a climbing herb of tropical America, was also introduced to India and other Asian countries in the nineteenth century (Burkill 1966).

Fruits of purple Passiflora edulis and yellow Passi-flora laurifolia are sweet in smell and taste and suitable for both eating or juice. Passiflora quadrangularis, the grenadilla, is popular in Indonesia. Unripe it serves as a vegetable and is also preserved in sugar. Not a fruit but a similar snack is sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum),a grass eaten by chewing the cane, or drunk as pressed juice (Burkill 1966). It was domesticated in New Guinea or Indonesia during remote times (Heiser 1990). Burkill (1966) has documented its spread through Asia, and Sidney Mintz (1985) has provided its later history. Early Indian references to the crystallized form of sugar date from several hundred years B.C., and Alexander the Great noted it during his voyages (Burkill 1966). The water-melon (Citrullus vulgaris), an African plant known to the Egyptians (Burkill 1966), reached China via India in the tenth century and is grown in some Southeast Asian countries. The fruits resemble North American varieties in color and character.

Fruits native to the region but less well known because they are seldom marketed are cultivated in dooryards for local consumption. Among these are Sandoricum indicum (the sentul) (Burkill 1966) and Erioglossum rubiginosum (mertajam), a tree with small red to black astringent fruits, called kerian by Malays. The kundungan (Bouea macrophylla) is a small tree related to the cashew that is cultivated in villages (Burkill 1966). It is native to Malaysia and much of Indonesia, with a sour-to-sweet taste. Further north, it is called setar for the capital of Kedah, Alor Star (Allen 1967).

Kemuntung, or rose myrtle, a shrub of the Myrtaceae family (Rhodomyrtus tomentosa), produces small, wild fruits prized by children. Still other fruits have been available since refrigerated shipping began; pears, grapes, and oranges are enjoyed by rural people who can afford market prices. Some grow in hill stations or at high altitudes. A few wild species of Prunus, relatives of the peach (Prunus persica), as well as species of Pyrus, related to the pear (Pyrus communis) and the apple (Pyrus malus), are grown, but most are of European origin (Burkill 1966).

Spices and Seasonings

Southeast Asia encompasses the Spice Islands, whose lure motivated the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European voyages of discovery. Most sought after were pepper (Piper nigrum), cloves (Eugenia aromatica), and nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) (Reid 1993). Although clove and nutmeg trees are Southeast Asian natives and have been cultivated for centuries, their early history is dim (Burkill 1966). Clove was known to the Chinese by 300 B.C.; it was in Egypt by the first century A.D. and reached the Mediterranean by the fourth century. Arabs brought nutmeg to Europe in the sixth century. Nutmeg, which is also the source of mace, is made into a sweet by boiling to remove tannin before adding sugar (Burkill 1966). Before the twentieth century, it was candied for sale in Europe.

Piper is a genus of many species that grow in moist, warm parts of the world (Burkill 1966). Piper nigrum, with both black and white berries, was apparently first cultivated in India; its name in countries to which it subsequently spread are cognates of the Sanskrit pippah. By the sixteenth century, it became an export plantation crop in Dutch-controlled Sumatra and in other countries (Andaya 1993). Supplanting the Portuguese, the Dutch assured their profit by allowing cultivation only in areas they controlled by treaty with local rulers. All these spices remain important cuisine condiments and, thus, important commercial crops (Steinberg 1970).

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), the bark of a tree of eastern and southeastern Asia, is another aromatic spice of ancient origin (Burkill 1966). The genus was once common in Europe and was known to the Egyptians, Hebrews, and Aryans. Cinnamomum cassia, a Chinese tree known over the last two millennia, provides cassia, an alternate form of cinnamon in Southeast Asia. Cinnamomum zeylanicum grows wild at high elevations in western India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and still produces the best cinnamon (Burkill 1966). Both cassia and cinnamon are known in Malay as kayu manis (“sweet wood”) and are used medicinally as well as for seasoning.

Ginger (Zingiber species) is an herb native to tropical Asia and the Pacific (Burkill 1966), where several species and races grow wild. Zingiber officinale was cultivated in India and China before the Christian era (Yu 1977). The fresh rhizomes are used medicinally and as flavoring and are also dried and candied. Another family member, galangal (Zingiber galanga) (Burkill 1966), is also native to tropical Asia and India and has been extensively used in Malaysia and Java. Its history and use compare to that of ginger.

Turmeric (Curcuma domestica), from the same family, is a Southeast Asian native as well and was used as a condiment (a substitute for saffron) and dye long before the Aryans reached India (Burkill 1966). Its color was the same as the royal color of India and the Indianized states of Southeast Asia, and turmeric was used in weddings and to tint ceremonial rice (Rosemary Firth 1966). Cardamom (Amomum kepulaga) (Burkill 1966), still one more herb of the ginger family, grows wild in Java and is cultivated as a breath sweetener and for use in curries.

Other important seasonings in general use have reached Southeast Asia from the outside world. Chief among these are members of the lily family ( Allium species, such as onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, and chives) and chilli peppers ( Capsicum species, which are natives of the Americas). Alliums are northern plants, mainly from the Mideast, where they have been grown since ancient times (Burkill 1966). But garlic (Allium sativum) and others were also cultivated long ago in India, spreading east from there. Bulbs of the Allium species (for example, shallot—Allium ascalonicum) are grown for market in hilly parts of Indonesia and the Philippines; most, however, are imported from India. All are ingredients in curries and used as seasonings, and most have also been employed medicinally for generations (Skeat 1967; Gimlette and Thomson 1971). Shallots are eaten raw individually or in salads along with other vegetables and are pickled in brine. Garlic is more prominent in areas closer to China. Allium cepa, the white or red onion, may be shredded and deep-fried as a condiment for other foods, as may shallots.

Columbus brought Capsicum (the chilli pepper) to Europe, whereupon writers of the time commented on its introduction (Burkill 1966). But less than 50 years later it was termed the “pepper of Calicut,” a misnomer that ignored its New World origin. Chilli peppers have long been cultivated in Central and South America, and their European names reflect Spanish versions of the Mexican term aji as well as the desire of Dutch black pepper traders to save their own product from confusion by means of another Spanish translation, “ chilli. ” Early on, naturalists distinguished over a dozen races, but the main species remain Capsicum frutescens, the sweeter, less pungent type represented by bell peppers, and Capsicum annuum, the very hot, small perennial known as bird pepper, which is the source of tabasco.

A number of races of both grow in Southeast Asia. Capsicum baccatum var. baccatum, the source of cayenne (Herklots 1972), has been used medicinally and for arrow poisons in Asia as it was in South America (Burkill 1966). Certainly the chillies are much appreciated in Southeast Asia. Burkill has noted that Malays prefer Capsicum to “black” pepper in cookery, and Westerners have long commented on the fiery nature of Thai cuisine (Steinberg 1970). The active principle in peppers is capsaicin, an alkaloid known to irritate skin and mucous membranes (Burkill 1966). It is also said to be addicting (Pang-born 1975), which may explain its lengthy history of use in Southeast Asia as well as in America (Rozin and Schiller 1980). Chillies have long been dried for market sale throughout Southeast Asia.

Tamarind, a leguminous tree with pulp-filled pods, was known to Greeks in the fourth century B.C. Although it probably originated in Africa or India, it was early cultivated in Southeast Asia (Burkill 1966). The pulp of Tamarindus indica, which is sweet to tart, looks in its marketable form like dates, which prompted Arabs and Persians to call it tamar, the Indian date (Burkill 1966). It is used as a relish and in cooking, and the flowers are sometimes eaten as well. In Java, the pulp is salted and made into balls that are steamed for preservation. Tamarind has also been used for medicinal purposes, to fix dyes, and to clean metal.

A grass native to the region, Cymbopogon citratus—lemon or citronella grass—has been cultivated as a food flavoring, a liquor spice, and a tea (Burkill 1966). In Java it is part of a spicy sherbet drink, and in Malay it plays a role in medicine and magic. The Portuguese took it to Madras in the seventeenth century, and it subsequently spread to all the tropics (Skeat 1967).

Three herbs of the temperate Old World or Levant, caraway, coriander, and cumin (Carum carvi, Coriandrum sativum, Cuminum cyminum), have been seasonings in Southeast Asia since their introduction at about the beginning of the Christian era. Because they have a past prior to written records (Burkill 1966), they are sometimes thought of as interchangeable, and anise (Pimpinella anisum), another family member, has been associated with them because of its odor and f lavor. Anise was known to the Egyptians and, within the past thousand years, was carried by Arabs or Persians to China and India. In Malay, anise, caraway, and cumin are all called jintan (Winstedt 1966). Fresh coriander leaves (cilantro, or Chinese parsley) are used to flavor soups, meat, and fish dishes; the Thais, in particular, have a passion for them uncooked in many dishes.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum and Ocimum canum), an herb of the warmer parts of the world, has religious or symbolic roles as well as seasoning and medicinal ones in Southeast Asia (Burkill 1966). The Hindus, to whom it is sacred, may have introduced Ocimum species to Southeast Asia during “Indianization” (Coedes 1968). Mint (Mentha arvensis and other species), a similarly fragrant herb, is cultivated at higher elevations and used for flavoring and for medicines (Burkill 1966).

Salt has been a substance of physical as well as economic need (to produce dried seafoods) in Southeast Asia and, therefore, has been an item of commerce as well (Kathirithamby-Wells 1993). The salt trade probably antedates written records. Seacoast areas have long been local sources, and sea salt from solar evaporation has been produced in Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam for export as well as domestic use (ICNND 1960, 1962; Raymond Firth 1966); in addition, Thailand has salt deposits in the northeast (ICNND 1962).

Unfortunately, the local salt is not iodized, and iodine-deficiency diseases are a health problem in several of these countries (ICNND 1962) despite reliance on seafood, which is a good source of the mineral. The incidence of goiter on Bali, for example, may result from the Balinese preference for pork instead of seafood.

Although honey was undoubtedly the earliest sweetener, the boiling of the inflorescence of the nipa palm (Nipa fruticans) to make sugar has been an enduring cottage industry (Burkill 1966; Winstedt 1966). Refined white cane sugar has been much prized for hot drinks, but although refining was done in Java and other locales from early colonial times (Burkill 1966), it has proved too expensive for rural people, even in recent decades (Rosemary Firth 1966). Perhaps unfortunately, however, it has become a dietary essential (Wilson 1970, 1988).

Vinegar has been made from both palm and cane sugar, as well as from rice and fruit pulp (Burkill 1966). It occurs naturally if palm or fruit syrup is allowed to ferment more than 40 days. It is used in food preparation, and much of it has been imported from China in recent decades.

Soy sauce and the fish soy of Vietnam, nuoc mam, have already been briefly discussed. Nam pla or pla-ra (ICNND 1962) is the Thai version. Malay coastal villagers make budu by salting small fish, such as anchovies, in vats until the mixture ferments (Wilson 1986). A Philippine version is called patis (Steinberg 1970). A similar product, gnapi, is made in Burma by allowing fish to decay in the open (Lewis 1991). Shrimp paste is similarly made in most of these countries. The Malay version is belacan, the Indonesian terasi, and the Philippine bagung. These products are relishes or side dishes, often enlivened with fresh raw chillies; all are excellent sources of calcium and protein (Wilson 1986) and, with the chillies, of vitamin C.

Although not a condiment or a seasoning, yeast for household cooking is locally made (Wilson 1986). Burkill (1966) reports that the Javanese use their word for yeast, tapai (of Arabic origin), to include the Malaysian preparation ragi (from the Hindu) (Winstedt 1970). To rice f lour and several spices, Aspergillus fungi as well as Saccharomyces spores are added, some adventitiously. This combination results in the fermented glutinous rice cakes, tapai (Wilson 1986), and also toddy.

Cooking Fats and Oils

Until the past few decades, the cooking mediums in Southeast Asia have been water, oils, sauces, and coconut milk. To save fuel, most cooking was done over wood fires, as quickly as possible, and long, slow roasting was done over coals. The premium oil has been coconut (Cocos nucifera). The nut of this palm is the seed of the fruit, and its grated ripe flesh, squeezed in water, also provides coconut milk (santan in Malay), the base for the curries of the region. This “most useful of trees” (Heiser 1990) requires warmth and moisture to grow well, and seacoasts provide the best climate. Southeast Asia produces 90 percent of the world’s coconuts.

When the coconut was domesticated is not known (Heiser 1990). Its importance to Southeast Asians can be seen in the Malay names given it at every stage of development (Burkill 1966). It is planted by human effort at house sites, and when the trunk has formed, it will fruit in 4 or 5 years, yielding about 50 fruits a year for decades. The nut reaches full size before the meat forms and is fully ripe in one year. People generally pick coconuts, but the Malays and Thais also train the macaque, or “pigtailed,” monkey (Macacus nemestrina) to climb the trees and gather ripe fruits when they are ready to fall (Wilson 1970).

The water inside can be drunk for refreshment before the fruit ripens, but it is astringent. The endosperm of a 10-month fruit is eaten with a spoon as a delicacy, whereas the meat of the ripe endosperm is grated for consumption. It is also sun- or heat-dried to make copra, which is pressed for oil as both a cottage and commercial industry. The oil, milk, and meat of coconuts were used in cooking long before the arrival of Europeans. In addition, the husk provides coir for rope, and the shell is both employed as a utensil and made into charcoal. Different parts of the coconut at different development stages are used in pregnancy, in childbirth, and in magical rites (Burkill 1966). The immature inflorescence of the tree is bound in anticipation of later tapping for toddy production.

The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) (Burkill 1966) was brought to Southeast Asia from West Africa as a plantation crop in the nineteenth century by colonial powers, and new plantations have continued to be planted. Most production goes into oil for commercial export to make soap and margarine as well as cooking oil. Palm oil is chemically similar to coconut oil. Other vegetable oils, such as that of the soybean, are imported from China and India.


The most important beverages for early humans in Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, were water from rain, streams, ponds, and lakes, and liquids that could be obtained from fresh fruits (Robson 1978). All other drinkables are introductions, although tea (Camellia sinensis) is grown in the region. Anderson (1988) indicates that tea probably originated somewhere in the Burma-India border country and was taken to China by Buddhist monks, to become a passion there before the middle of the first millennium A.D. Burkill (1966), however, relying on earlier writers, suggests that tea did not reach western Asia before the thirteenth century. The Dutch and British independently established a sea trade in green tea, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the plant was introduced to India and to various locales in Southeast Asia. Basic tea flavors come from postharvest processing of the leaves. Green tea is dried and rolled; black tea is fermented before drying (Burkill 1966).

Coffee originated around the Red Sea (Heiser 1990), where it still grows wild (Burkill 1966). As its Latin name, Coffea arabica, suggests, the Arabs were the first to use it as a drink (in the thirteenth century), but whether this was done before or after the technique of roasting (to enhance the flavor and aroma) was developed is unclear. Coffee beans (like some tea leaves) are fermented before roasting. Use of the beverage spread, with the drink reaching Europe in the seventeenth century. The first planting of coffee outside Arabia was in Java in 1696, under Dutch direction. In the next century, the plant radiated to all parts of the world’s tropics and had become an industry in Java by the 1800s. Early in that century, Dutch administrators enforced greater cultivation of the shrub, particularly at higher elevations in Java, and entire forest ecosystems were replaced in the process (Hefner 1990).

Smaller plantations in other countries of the region were begun at about this time. A number of species have been cultivated in Southeast Asia, with some, including C. arabica, susceptible to the fungus Hemileia vastatrix, which spread from Ceylon in the mid-nineteenth century (Burkill 1966). The fungus drove some planters to Malaya, and one resistant species, Coffea liberica, was introduced at that time. Coffee (like tea) has generally been drunk hot, often with sugar and sweetened condensed milk.

Adoption of both tea and coffee no doubt owes much to their stimulating effects (Heiser 1990), but how this became recognized is not known, for processing is needed to make their action noticeable. The alkaloids causing the effects are caffeine and similar compounds. Cocoa, another beverage containing a related substance, theobromine, is much less used in Southeast Asia, although the tree, Theobroma cacao, was introduced in several locales by planters as a replacement for coffee destroyed by the fungus. Originating in the New World, cacoa trees were in the Philippines by the seventeenth century and in Malacca during the following centur y. Thus, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Dutch all took part in its dissemination. The cocoa bean is fermented and roasted (like coffee) to produce the powdered material from which the drink is made.

Commercial bottled or tinned beverages are recent introductions. Rosemary Firth (1966) has commented that soft drinks and sweetened condensed milk were considered luxuries in Kelantan, Malaya, in 1963, and prior to World War II were largely unknown. By the late 1960s, however, colas and other carbonated beverages had reached remote villages and, by the mid-1980s, advertisements for well-known brands were common. Local or regional industries produced bottled soy milk for adult consumption. By then, bovine milk processed to remain fresh without refrigeration, and packaged in cardboard containers, had reached village shops, as had similarly processed and packaged fruit drinks. Instant coffee and juice powders, for reconstitution with water, also became available.

Alcoholic Beverages

Muslims are forbidden alcohol-containing beverages, but non-Islamic Southeast Asians have produced local beers and wines as well as toddy. Early dwellers probably sampled sap and other fermentable products and learned how to encourage the process (Burkill 1966). Toddy, the most common of old Southeast Asian drinks, is made from palm sap. Fermented glutinous rice (tapai) produces wine during processing that is 3 percent alcohol (ICNND 1964). Spirits had become familiar in Southeast Asia before the end of the sixteenth century, when the Chinese began distilling alcohol in Java (Burkill 1966).

Nonnutritive Ingestants and Inhalants

Oral activity may take place for behavioral or physiological reasons not related to nutrition (Oswald, Merrington, and Lewis 1970). Southeast Asians’ most common nonnourishing oral activities involve the substances betel nut and tobacco, which are often chewed together (Burkill 1966; Reid 1985).

Areca nut (Areca catechu) is the seed of a native Malaysian palm (called the betel palm) that spread to India and East Africa between A.D. 1000 and 1400. Betel is also the name of the leaf of the pepper (Piper betel),also Malaysian, in which the quid is wrapped (Burkill 1966). The nuts are sun- or heat-dried, split, and cut into pieces for the chew. The active principles are alkaloids affecting the nervous system, as does nicotine (Burkill 1966). The quid usually includes lime (calcium carbonate from seashells) that helps to release the stimulants. When these substances came into use in Southeast Asia is unclear, but their oral use was known in southern China by the fourth century A.D. (Anderson 1988). Ash of the nut has been used as tooth powder, and the nut itself is used medicinally, magically, and ceremonially (Wilson 1970).