Innovation, Tourism, and Scaling: 3 Lessons from Southeast Asia

Prior to the Second World War, large portions of Southeast Asia were occupied or controlled by countries in the West.  In some countries, they were dominated by an entirely alien culture for over 100 years.  While at the time, the occupied may have found little merit in the invasion of their nations, today their cities are rich with colonial architecture, fascinating history and an ever-changing food culture.

Cureate Food Marketing and Research Associate, Paige Delany, took around 2 months to tour several countries around Southeast Asia and found a whole new brand of “glocal” – the kind that transcends time and reaches into the past to combine native food culture with Western food culture to create the cuisines we know today.  

Let’s see what Paige found out along her journey…

1. Innovative Cuisine from Colonial Tradition | Vietnam

On a trip to HaLong Bay, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, our smiling and delightful tour guide, Chris, told us the story of Vietnamese coffee — a delicious combination of Vietnamese robusta coffee and sweetened condensed milk on the bottom.

According to urban legend, Chris told us, the traditional Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk and Vietnamese “egg milk coffee” (adds a whipped egg white to traditional Vietnamese coffee) came about from Vietnam’s inability to provide French colonists with espresso drinks like lattes or cappuccinos.  Instead, they added sweetened condensed milk to their already strong coffee to create the Vietnamese coffee we know and love today.  

Although I later discovered, thanks to Lonely Planet, that the addition of the condensed milk was actually due to the fact that there was limited fresh milk available in colonial-era Indochina (modern-day Vietnam), I was still very fascinated by how Vietnam had to adapt to their colonists and how these elements continue to be a part of daily life today.

Another prime example of how global food became local food in Vietnam is seen in the use of the Vietnamese baguette.  Note that I make a distinction between a traditional French baguette and the Vietnamese version; Vietnamese baguette is shorter, chewier and used in every meal.  At our hostels we were given Vietnamese baguettes to scoop up running egg yolks or to make scrambled eggs with a Vietnamese flare more portable. The famous Vietnamese sandwich, banh mi, is incomplete without the chewy baguette. Although in different regions of the country a banh mi might have different meats or veggie fillings, one thing always remains the same: the bread that holds it all together.

Despite their rough history with colonialism, French food culture has made Vietnamese food culture what it is today. Through adapting and moulding foods the French brought from Europe, Vietnam has created their own “glocal” food culture that celebrates their history in a unique way. 

2. Using Food Tourism to Improve Local Economies | Cambodia  

Never before have I been in somewhere where the people seem so incredibly happy.  Although we were only able to stop in Siem Reap, Cambodia for 2 days, there was never a moment where we felt unwelcome; on a bike ride out of Siem Reap toward the countryside we high-fived children coming home from school, we stopped to join in on traditional wedding celebrations and we were greeted with big smiles wherever we went.  Despite the happiness that permeates every part of the Cambodian psyche, in the last 100 years Cambodia has had a bloody history as different countries, ethnic groups and political parties have fought for control over the nation.  Yet, the country has now embraced the different parts of their history and has become an international tourist destination — using tourism to improve their local economy for the better.  

Perhaps as a testimony to the struggles and international influence that has captured Cambodia over the years, Siem Reap has a larger variety of different cuisines then I saw throughout my entire journey through Southeast Asia. From Indian to Western and Chinese, Siem Reap catered to all types of palates while also staying true to their traditional cuisines.  At each restaurant we encountered the delicious flavors of Cambodian food that permeated even Western dishes to create a lovely combination of food cultures.  However, there was one spot that struck me most while in Siem Reap.

On our first day in Siem Reap, our group of six stopped at a spot near our hotel called Genevieve’s.  The small restaurant was owned by a former math teacher from Australia named Phil, who opened it in memory of his late wife, Genevieve, who lost the battle to cancer before her time.  Genevieve’s offers both traditional Khmer food (Khmer is the predominant ethnic group in Cambodia) as well as some Western dishes for guests who are missing a taste of home.  During our time there, Phil stopped by our table to help us select the best dishes of the day, telling us which were his favorite.  To our delight, there wasn’t a single thing we had that disappointed.  But what impressed us most wasn’t the food, but Genevieve’s mission: to serve the local community by hiring anyone who wants to work so long as they work hard, to donate a portion of their profits to local causes, with the ultimate goal of being run by an entirely Cambodian staff someday in the future.  Through his mission at Genevieve’s, Phil embraced the “glocal” concept by enlisting tourists from around the world to engage with the local community through his food and ever-attentive and friendly staff.   

3. Scaling Local Delicacies | Myanmar –

Like Cambodia, Myanmar (sometimes referred to as Burma, its former name) also has a somewhat rocky history: after 100 years of British colonial rule, followed by a military dictatorship which led to the nation being closed to the rest of the world until 2011, the nation now appears to be moving forward.  Today, they are beginning to allow more and more tourists in to see beautiful sights such as Shwe Dagon, the world’s largest gold pagoda and the historical ruins of Bagan, the expansive remnants of ancient Buddhist temples.  While the public image of Myanmar is still shifting, the tea house culture combines the best of the old and new, while certain tea houses are beginning to make the culture more accessible to tourists.  

While we were in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), a fellow foreigner who lives in Myanmar recommended we stop for lunch at the Rangoon Tea House.  Although the tea house primarily caters to foreigners living in or visiting the city, it serves to continue to celebrate the traditional tea house culture.  On their menu they have a full page covering the different ways to make and serve tea in the Myanmar culture.  From illustrations and pronunciations, visitors can get a better feel for how to order tea when they leave the comfort of the tea house and venture into local joints.  The tea house also serves a traditional Myanmar dish known as green tea leaf salad, which incorporates pickled tea leaves with a variety of crunchy beans to make for a refreshing and filling salad. 

Although there is very little literature on the tea house culture in Myanmar, one might speculate that the tea culture affected and was affected by British occupation.  Certainly the modern tea house, such as Rangoon Tea House, reflects how the Burmese would have adapted local culture to make it accessible to their British colonizers.  However, according to one of the only pieces of literature I was able to find on Burmese cuisine, their food culture is most greatly affected by immigration from China and India, both of which have very large tea cultures.  Taking these three distinct food cultures and melding them into one allowed the Burmese to create the food culture that we see today.  In such a way, the Myanmar people have adapted their food culture over the years to meet the needs of their traditional culture as well as those of their influencers.  

Vietnam has taken French cuisine and made it their own; Cambodia has embraced using tourism and foreign influence to improve their local economy; Myanmar has found ways to introduce its tea culture in a way that is accessible to foreigners.  Although each reflects a completely different definition of “glocal,” they have found ways in which the old has mixed with modern and traditional has mixed with Western, to influence food culture for the better.  

GLOCALKim Bryden