Savory Flavors of Southeast Asia

Asian Food: Ingredients for Asian Cooking Still LIfe

This area of the world covers a large geographical area and many unique cultures that have some commonality of herbs and spices in their cuisine style. Southeast Asia actually includes 11 countries: Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Though there are important differences between all of these countries, and cultures within each as well, common culinary threads can be found in the food. This is a hot and humid part of the world and so lightly prepared dishes made of vegetables, rice and broth are staples. Flavors like citrus, mint, and other herbs offer aromatic properties to the savory dishes found in the region.

ASHITABA-Angelica keiskei

Ashitaba Leaves
Used medicinally to help treat gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ashitaba leaves may also help with peptic ulcers, high blood pressure, constipation, and to promote lactation. Find ashitaba leaves used with other flavors like mint, lemongrass, and pandan and incorporated into water as an infusion or tea. These leaves are also added to salads and consumed fresh or cooked.

Fresh coriander, cilantro leaves on basket

Cilantro is the leaves of the coriander plant and is used to remove heavy metals from the body to aid in detoxification, as well as to treat toothaches, measles, and some cancers in traditional medicine. It is a flavorful herb used as a garnish for savory broths or soups as well as blended into sauces or dressings in Southeast Asia. Known for its aromatic qualities, don’t get cilantro confused with Vietnamese coriander, called Rau Ram, which is milder than cilantro but used in similar ways.

spicy chili sauce, ketchup

Chile Paste
Made from chile peppers, this paste may be used medically to help treat pain as the peppers contain a chemical called capsaicin which helps release endorphins from the brain. Known as Sambal Oelek, chili paste is used as a condiment, mixed into soups, in sauces or marinades. This recipe staple originated in Indonesia but is used commonly in Malaysia and Singapore as well.

Aromaric garlic

This potent herb has been used in natural medicine for years and is helpful to treat the common cold and flu, as well as diabetes and hypertension/high blood pressure. Known for its beneficial cardiovascular properties, it is also an important flavor in Southeast Asian cuisine. Find it commonly combined with ginger where it serves as a flavor base for noodle dishes, soups, and fried rice in all Southeast Asian countries.

ginger on black background

Ginger is most known in natural medicine to help soothe the stomach. It can help to reduce feelings of nausea, as well as vomiting, stomach pains, and flatulence. Ginger is native to Southeast Asia and serves as a staple of the cuisine there. Ginger is used as a base in broths and soups, in stir-fry, as a marinade for meat, and as a flavorful garnish in many dishes in the region. Its mild yet bright, spicy flavor complement many dishes.

Lemongrass leaf and fresh pandan leaves on wooden tabel

Lemongrass is used medicinally for its antimicrobial effects and potential to fight against bacteria that cause skin and respiratory infections. Lemongrass is also an antifungal and can help to treat athlete’s foot. With its herbal, citrus flavor, lemongrass is commonly used in Thai, Malaysian, and Vietnamese cuisine. Find lemongrass stalks boiled in soups for flavor and also used in both noodle and meat dishes.

Fresh mint on a wooden table

Mint Leaves
This soothing herb may be used in natural medicine to help treat indigestion, gas, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), as well as help to calm sore throats due to coughing. Grown throughout many Southeast Asian countries, it is a staple in Vietnamese dishes, added to fresh rolls, in marinades and dressings, and as a garnish in soup.

Moringa Powder

Moringa Leaves
Moringa leaves have been used for years as a treatment for a number of diseases from anemia, arthritis and rheumatism, a variety of cancers, diabetes, epilepsy and seizures, stomachaches, diarrhea, ulcers and constipation, headaches, heart problems including high blood pressure and kidney stones as well as bacterial, fungal, viral, and parasitic infections. Commonly used in the Philippines, Dahon ng malunggay serve as a healthful foundation to both soups and broths. The leaves are slightly bitter and slightly sweet.

Pandan leaves

Pandan Leaves
This fragrant plant is often used in traditional medicine and may help to lower blood pressure and provide pain relief to headaches and menstrual cramps. Extract of the leaf is mixed into a Malaysian dish called nasi lemak, steamed rice and coconut milk. The whole leaves impart a unique vanilla/coconut flavor to meats or fish when they’re used as a wrap for steam cooking.

Thai basil put on dish with black table background

Thai Basil
Thai basil is used medicinally to treat a wide range of conditions including headaches, gas, diarrhea, constipation, colds, and may be used topically to treat acne and migraines. It has a unique anise flavor, slightly different from basil, and is used in stir fries, in noodles dishes and on meat in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.


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Spruce Eats. Hot Chile Pepper. Updated 9/20/19. Accessed 5/17/21.
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Natural Medicines Database. Japanese Mint.,-herbs-supplements/professional.aspx?productid=616. Updated 08/24/20. Accessed 5/17/21.
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About Ginger Hultin, MS RDN CSO

Ginger Hultin, MS, RD, CSO, LDN, is a health writer and owner of Champagne Nutrition specializing in integrative health and whole food-based nutrition. She serves as Immediate Past President for the Chicago Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Chair-Elect of the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group and is a Media Representative for the Illinois Academy. Read Ginger's blog, Champagne Nutrition, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. Ginger Hultin MS RD CSO LDN | @GingerHultinRD Chair-Elect, Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group  
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