South-east Asian cuisine is linked together by common underlying food philosophies, ingredients, flavours and preparations, although it can vary widely. It is comparable to the idea of Mediterranean food: the countries surrounding the Mediterranean seem to dip into the same culinary resources and philosophy while at the same time the dishes of countries such as Italy, Lebanon and Morocco can seem worlds apart. As the countries of the Mediterranean rely heavily on the bounties of this sea, so south-east Asian countries (Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia) share the aquatic life and the rice of the river deltas.

The basic components of south-east Asian food are hot, sour, sweet, salty and sometimes bitter. This is reflected throughout a meal, with one salty dish playing off another sweet dish, and also within the flavours of individual dishes. Take for example pad thai, stir-fried noodles: tamarind and/or lime add a taste of sour, palm sugar gives sweetness, fish sauce adds a salty flavour and chili pepper lends spice. This idea of balance is also exhibited in the variety of colour, texture and temperature of the various components of a south-east Asian meal. The cool crunch of raw vegetables complements the softness of stir-fried rice noodles or the warmth of a soup, as a spicy, creamy curry is matched with neutral jasmine rice. Herbs like fresh coriander and mint awaken dishes prepared with earthy spices, and tropical fruit pairs nicely with meat, vegetable and fish to give savoury dishes a unique, sweet-tart flavour. 

To use the south-east Asian cooking philosophy here in Rome is the tricky part. The best place to go for international ingredients is the Piazza Vittorio area. The market itself, housed in a former barracks off the square, is a bustling centre for international food vendors, and many of the staple Asian ingredients can be found there. Though most of the Asian food vendors are Chinese, they often sell south-east Asian items such as jasmine rice, rice noodles for dishes like pad thai, glass noodles for the many Thai and Vietnamese noodle salads, tamarind, coconut milk and the requisite fish sauce (nuoc mam in Vietnamese and nam pla in Thai) that is used instead of salt. A variety of fresh, vacuum-packed curry pastes can also be found to form the base of the various curries for which Vietnam, and more famously Thailand, are known. Fresh coriander (cilantro), peanuts, lime, lemongrass, and Chinese scallions a long, thin version of the spring onion or scallion (cipollotta) are some of the fresh staples found in and around Piazza Vittorio.

With a dearth of restaurants specialising in south-east Asian fare, ones choices in Rome are limited. For Thai food, there are a few options. Try the Thai Inn in Monteverde Nuovo, specializing in Thai food with a few Malaysian and Indonesian dishes thrown in for a taste of the area south of Thailand. A fiery green curry, or one of the spicy soups on offer, reflects the abundant use of chili in the cuisine of the southern part of south-east Asia. Isola Phuket, near Villa Ada, also offers a well-prepared range of traditional staple Thai dishes (and healthy portions), as does Sawasdee, in Via XXI Aprile. For Vietnamese food there is Thien Kim near Campo de Fiori, which offers some of the native flavours of Vietnam, but unfortunately lacks the variety of dishes featuring fresh vegetables and herbs one finds so readily in this cuisine. There is also Court Delicati, a restaurant favoured by international employees of the nearby Food and Agriculture Organization, not just for its interesting Chinese menu but also for its south-east Asian dishes, from spicy Thai lemongrass soup to Indonesian specialties.

South-east Asia is a popular destination for travellers around the world, including many Italians, with Thailand drawing 9.7 million visitors a year (second after Malaysia in all of south-east Asia), and Vietnam (becoming more tourist-friendly recently) attracting almost 2.5 million visitors per year. The climate in much of the area is sub-tropical, the people are friendly, the history is compelling, the travel expenses are low, and the food is in itself a reason to trek to that part of the world.

Thai Inn Via Federico Ozanam 94, 0658203145.

Isola Phuket Via di Villa Chigi 91, 0686212664.

Sawasdee Via XXI Aprile 13, 068611036.

Thien Kim Via Giulia 201, 0668307832.

Court Delicati Viale Aventino 39-43, 065746108.

Sweet corn patties

The delicate spicy flavour and interesting texture of these patties is enhanced by the accompanying sweet chili sauce.

Ingredients for 6

3 fresh corn cobs (or 2 x 425 ml cans corn kernels)

2 tbsp rice flour

3 tbsp plain flour

1 tsp curry powder

2 tbsp light soy sauce

1 tbsp fresh coriander leaves

Peanut oil for frying

For serving: sweet chili sauce (Sauce Phrik Wan)

Cut corn from the cobs with a sharp knife. If using canned corn, drain well. Place all ingredients into a food processor; process until they are well blended but not too finely chopped. The texture is better if the corn kernels are still discernible.

Heat oil in a frying pan and slip in spoonfuls of the corn mixture, a few at a time, cooking over a moderate heat until the patties are golden and crisp on both sides.

Drain well on absorbent paper and serve warm or at room temperature garnished with coriander leaves and accompanied by sweet chili sauce.

For the ingredients, try Nuovo Oriente, Via Ricasoli 20, and Exotic Foods, Via Napoleone III 95 (both near Piazza Vittorio).

This recipe was supplied by home economist Wendy Aulsebrook.

For further information on her Thai cooking lessons tel. 338/7207870 or email: wendyit@libero.it.

Dana Klitzberg