Think chowing down on local eats and exploring history are mutually exclusive? Think again! We dug into five Asian dishes and drinks with a backstory as fascinating as its origin country.
Nearly every dish in every country has a little something to say about culture. Great food, after all, doesn’t happen without a big helping of local flavour. Food plays a big part in a country’s culture – but some dishes have a more surprising backstory than others!
Asia-bound foodies, listen up: These dishes will bring out your inner history buff with their surprising stories! Here are a few of our favourites.
Good luck leaving Hanoi, Vietnam without sampling its famous fresh brew: bia hoi. Meaning “fresh beer” in Vietnamese, bia hoi is the ubiquitous evening beverage for locals and visitors alike. So famous is the drink that entire eateries are dubbed “bia hois” for having it on tap.
What really makes bia hoi a worthwhile sampling of local culture is its backstory. Unsurprisingly, bia hoi draws its roots from Vietnam’s French colonial influences. In short, the French introduced beer brewing when they opened the Hommel Brewery in the early 20th Century in the capital city of Hanoi. They brewed up small batches of beer that was enjoyed mostly by the rich and aristocratic locals and their foreign counterparts.hommel brewery
When the French were ousted from Vietnam, Hommel Brewery transformed into Hanoi Brewery. It wasn’t long before the locals concocted a novel brewing style that did away with the expensive preservatives in order to create some competition with illegal rice wine production in local homes. It wasn’t long before this newly-cheap brew became the drink of choice for locals. In a bid to improve national unity, the government funded the building of “bia hois” where locals could congregate, drink and chat.
The result – a bustling bia hoi culture that continues to this day! There’s more to this story, too, if you want to dig into the details. Either way, next time you’re enjoying a tasty bia hoi brew in Hanoi, remember that you’re tasting a little bit of history while you’re at it.
Banh Mi Sot Vang
If you know anything about French fare, you’d take one look at banh mi sot vang and know there was a little bit of French influence into its creation. A pairing of crispy bread with a stew-like beef concoction, vanh mi sot vang simply doesn’t look purely Vietnamese. But make no mistake – this is a quintessential addition to the Vietnamese culinary scene, but that mostly comes down to where it came from!
Based on au vin or beef bourguignon, banh mi sot vang started out as a purely French dish enjoyed by diplomats and other French aristocrats. In classic Vietnamese style, it didn’t take long for local cooks to make a few choice adjustments to adapt the dish to Vietnamese tastebuds. Even after the French left, the dish stuck around thanks to its transformation.
The difference came with the addition parsley, rosemary and thyme (and spices like cinnamon and star anise for some classic Vietnamese bite) to its red wine sauce base. The eatery that does it best is Banh Mi Sot Vang Dinh Ngang, nestled on a corner on Cua Nam Street. Just next to another French eatery that serves up traditional French pastries (and has autographed photos of French movie stars on its walls) this is a favourite of the locals for good reason.
Nowadays, a whole host of traditional Japanese fare is accompanied by a healthy dose of fried batter, called ‘tempura’. Japanese culinary novices would be forgiven for thinking nearly everything is subject to a tempura treatment – everything from seafood to leaves are routinely fried up in a light, slightly-oily tempura.
What most don’t know (but could probably guess, given the rest of Japan’s food) is that tempura simply wasn’t a Japanese invention. Instead, tempura originated in the country in the mid-16th Century, when it had limited trading access with a handful of countries. Tempura came from the Portuguese and its culture of Catholicism. During the period of time that practicing Catholics refrained from eating meat, fried batter became a popular crunchy, savoury substitute. The Japanese locals caught on, and quickly included the batter treatment to their own dishes.
So loved was tempura that its well-known as the favourite dish of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo era. So when you’re chowing down on tempura, know that you’re following in the footsteps of one of Japan’s most celebrated historical figures!
Port towns seem to boast a disproportionate amount of fusion dishes, and that comes down to the fact that maritime trade has a way of trading flavours, too. One of the best examples of multi-cultural influence can have on local palettes is Hoi An’s famously tasty cao lau noodle, a dish you’ll only find in this UNESCO World Heritage recognised town.
The story goes that Japanese traders stopping here in the 17th Century longed for a familiar comfort food, and didn’t have much luck finding it among the city’s traditional Vietnamese fare. So, a local cook capitalised on the Japanese traders’ cravings and crafted a noodle that was thicker and chewier than other Vietnamese rice noodles – which looked and tasted just like Japan’s ‘soba’.
To make it, cooks must soak the rice in a special concoction of lye and Hoi An well water to give the noodles a special chewiness absent from other Vietnamese noodles. Thus, the noodle is almost impossible to replicate outside of Hoi An – and you simply can’t leave the Ancient Town without giving it a try!
Though it’s hard to imagine such an innocuous food causing such a raucous, ramen is at the centre of a bitter rivalry between two arch-enemy nations: China and Japan. In short, neither nation is willing to concede that it wasn’t the birthplace of the noodle now a staple of Asia’s diet – and that’s probably because ramen owes its existence a bit to both.
The story goes that after Japan dealt China a humiliating naval defeat in 1895, they began their expansion into former Chinese land and assimilated much of their culture. During that time, two Chinese chefs in a Tokyo restaurant created a signature dish of salty broth and noodles, called shina soba. It borrowed cooking styles from both Chinese and Japanese fare, blending a classic Japanese buckwheat noodle with some Chinese preparation styles.
Later a Japanese entrepreneur named Momofuku Ando introduced the noodle in a packaged instant form – and the Chinese-Japanese blend took the world by storm. Meanwhile, it’s still up in the air who was truly responsible for its creation. China because of the nationality of the creators, or Japan because of where they were when the did? We may never reach a conclusion, but in the meantime, it’s a lot more fun to eat up!
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