The Mekong weaves through six countries on its way to the South China Sea, proving an irreplaceable lifeline for those who live on its banks. From the high plateaus of Tibet to the exotic swathe of the Mekong Delta, this great river is steeped in mystery, beauty and intrigue — perfectly showcasing authentic local life in South East Asia.
While temples, shrines and traditions have come to typify the Mekong, there’s more to discover on this timeless passageway than ancient customs and spirituality. With millions relying on the river’s life-giving flow, the Mekong can reveal much about the local way of life — including the colourful dishes and foods which have originated on its banks.
Staying true to a simple way of life thousands of years in the making, the people of the Mekong rely on recipes passed down through the generations. Most dishes comprise of ingredients locally sourced and produced, with meat, fish, fresh vegetables and spices dominating regional plates and delicacies.
The timeless dishes of the Mekong River can reveal much about the countries and regions the river flows through. Here, we offer five recipes which have come to embody the cuisine of this South East Asian waterway, so you can bring a taste of the exotic Mekong to your kitchen.
Cambodia has shrugged aside its turbulent past to become South East Asia’s most up-and-coming destination, with mystical temples, beautiful beaches and delicious cuisine helping the country flourish. Street food is popular across Cambodia, and a much-loved dish served up by local vendors is seafood amok — a sweet, spicy curry served in a bowl of banana leaves.
During the Khmer Rouge era of the 1970s, Cambodia’s recorded history of cooking was largely destroyed. When the regime fell at the end of the decade, a cookbook called From Spiders to Water Lilies emerged, detailing historic Cambodian recipes for future generations to enjoy. Seafood amok became one of the most popular of these new-generation dishes, and is now considered a national dish enjoyed by all.
Characterised by its custard-like consistency, seafood amok is a simple, inexpensive curry best enjoyed when steamed in banana leaves. For those who’d like to recreate the dish at home, here’s a recipe for authentic fish amok.
Serves 2-3. Prep Time: 15 Minutes. Cook Time: 20 Minutes.
2 fillets of white fish
Salt and black pepper to taste
2tsp olive oil or coconut oil
1 can of coconut milk
1 handful of chopped basil, mint and coriander
4 finely chopped sticks of lemongrass
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
2 kaffir lime leaves (*substitute 1tsp lime juice and ½tsp zest from one lime)
½tsp galangal, sliced (*substitute 3/4tsp fresh ginger, sliced fine)
1tsp fresh turmeric or 1/2tsp dried turmeric
½tbsp fish sauce
¼tsp palm sugar
Chilli flakes or fresh chilli to taste (optional)
- Dice the fish into chunks, add to a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. Set aside in the fridge while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
- Heat the oil in a saucepan before adding the herbs, kaffir lime, turmeric, garlic, galangal and chilli. Fry these together for around 30 seconds, until all the spices are combined.
- Add the coconut milk, palm sugar and fish sauce to the pan, stir and bring to a gentle simmer. Allow the sauce to reduce for 10 minutes.
- Add the fish to the sauce, stir and poach for around 4 minutes. Remember to cover the pan to lock in the steam and poach the fish thoroughly.
- Serve the curry with rice and a garnish of fresh herbs and coconut cream.
Vietnamese Prawn Pho
Nothing says Vietnamese cuisine like pho, a traditional noodle-based soup enjoyed throughout the country. Such is the popularity of this Vietnamese dish that it has been exported across the globe, with Asian restaurants serving up their version of this historic and delicious dish from the United States to Australia.
Pho is thought to have originated in Hanoi, with the dish only spreading to southern Vietnam when the two regions were unified by the revolution of 1954. While distinctly Asian in taste and appearance, the dish fuses elements of French cuisine, with traditional pho containing ingredients brought to Vietnam in the 19th century — including onions, garlic and carrots.
While traditionally made with pork or beef, the recipe we’ve chosen uses prawn and extra chilli, for a spicy Vietnamese dish that’s sure to impress your dinner party guests.
Serves 2. Prep Time: 20 Minutes. Cook Time: 40 Minutes.
4 bird’s eye chillies, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 stick of lemongrass, cracked with the side of a knife
2cm piece of ginger, squashed slightly
4 spring onions, trimmed and sliced diagonally
600ml of fish or vegetable stock
3tbsp of nam plah (Asian fish sauce)
Handful of coriander leaves
Handful of mint leaves
150g cooked king prawns
150g rice noodles
100g bean sprouts
1 lime, cut into wedges
- Add the stock, lemongrass, garlic, ginger and two of the chillies to a medium-sized saucepan and bring to the boil, allowing the broth to cook for 15 minutes. Taste the stock and add salt, pepper and chilli as necessary to taste. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer for a further 15 minutes.
- Add the prawns, fish sauce, spring onions and the remaining herbs to the broth, saving a few of the spring onions for garnish. Replace the lid and continue to simmer gently while you carry out the remaining steps below.
- Bring a pan of water to the boil and cook the beansprouts for 1-2 minutes until tender. Drain the sprouts and add them to the soup, being careful to retain the boiling water. Use the water to cook the rice noodles for 4-5 minutes. Then, carefully remove the whole lemongrass, ginger and garlic gloves from the broth.
- Separate the rice noodles into two deep bowls and pour the soup over the top. Garnish with fresh coriander, red chilli and spring onion.
Goi Cuon Salad Rolls
One of the most popular appetisers in the restaurants of Ho Chi Minh City, goi cuon salad rolls are similar in appearance to Chinese spring rolls. However, unlike their Chinese counterparts, goi cuon rolls aren’t deep fried — lending them a delicious lightness that’s perfectly complemented by hoisin sauce and fresh chilli.
Goi cuon rolls are made using banh trang, or rice paper, which is dipped in water and rolled around a small amount of filling. Traditionally, goi cuon rolls were filled with pork or shrimp and vegetables, but now many different variations exist, including lemongrass poached beef, tofu, grilled Nem Nuong sausages and fried egg.
For an authentic Vietnamese taste, our recipe comprises the traditional combination of pork, shrimp and vegetables — though feel free to swap out and add your own ingredients where you see fit. Here’s how to make goi cuon salad rolls.
Serves: 15 Rolls. Prep: 30 Minutes. Cook: 45 Minutes.
300g pork belly
200g vermicelli rice
15 pieces of rice paper
A handful of greens (lettuce, mint leaves, cucumber), finely chopped
1tbsp vegetable oil
1tbsp minced garlic
5tbsp hoisin sauce
5tbsp pork stock
1tbsp peanut butter
- Bring a saucepan of salted water to the boil and reduce the heat to a rolling simmer. Add the pork belly and cook for around 25-35 minutes, depending on the thickness of the meat. To check the meat has cooked, pierce with a chopstick; the juices should run clear, not pink. When cooked, remove the pork (retaining the broth it cooked in) and allow to rest in cold water. After 5 minutes, remove the pork and cut into thin slices.
- Fry the prawns in a pan without oil until pink. Allow to cool, before peeling and removing the vein. Set aside in a bowl while you continue preparing the dish.
- Cook the vermicelli rice noodles for 3 to 5 minutes, before rinsing under cold water and setting aside. To make the dipping sauce, heat the vegetable oil in a pan and fry the minced garlic until brown. Add the hoisin sauce, peanut butter, sugar and a little of the pork broth, before simmering on a low heat for around 2 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl for dipping.
- It’s now time to assemble each roll. Fill a bowl with lukewarm water and grab a clean, flat chopping board. Dip each piece of rice paper into the water until completely soaked, before transferring to the board. Top the paper with the ingredients, evenly distributing the shrimp, pork and vegetables so that there’s plenty of space for rolling. Carefully roll the rice paper, sealing the ingredients inside. Repeat until you have 15 rolls.
- Serve the goi cuon rolls with the dipping sauce as a delicious Vietnamese appetiser.
Bai Sach Chrouk
Simple, fresh and delicious, bai sach chrouk is one of Cambodia’s most widely-eaten dishes, and one of its most simple to prepare. Incredibly popular in Siem Reap, the dish is commonly served at breakfast time, and comprises of pork and rice served with fresh greens like cucumber and spring onion, as well as green and red chilli.
One of Cambodia’s favourite street eats, bai sach chrouk is made using thin slices of pork grilled over hot coals, with the meat often marinated in coconut milk or garlic. This is then added to a hearty portion of fragrant rice, and served with cucumber, radish, ginger and often a small bowl of chicken broth topped with fried onions and scallions.
Perfect for a healthy lunchtime meal, our recipe for bai sach chrouk uses pork marinated in coconut, though you can just use normal seasoned meat if you’d prefer.
Serves: 4. Prep: 1 hour (24 hours for marinating). Cook: 20 Minutes.
2 small pickling cucumbers
1 small carrot, chopped
60g radish, chopped
1 piece peeled fresh ginger, finely chopped
1 tsp salt
120ml rice vinegar
60ml light coconut milk
3tbsp soy sauce
1tbsp oyster sauce or hoisin sauce
1tbsp fresh lime juice
1/2tsp five-spice powder
1/4tsp freshly ground black pepper
3 garlic cloves, crushed
450g boneless pork shoulder trimmed and cut crosswise into 1-inch-thick steaks
1tbsp peanut oil
340g chopped green onion tops
450ml chicken stock
700g cooked white rice
- To marinate the vegetables — combine the pickling cucumbers, carrot, radish and ginger in a shallow baking dish. Then, add water, sugar and salt to a saucepan and simmer over a high heat before stirring in vinegar. Pour the mixture over the vegetables, cover and chill for 24 hours, stirring occasionally.
- To marinate the pork — combine coconut milk, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, honey, lime juice, five-spice, black pepper and garlic cloves in a large zip-lock bag. Add the pork slices, massaging to coat the meat, before refrigerating for 24 hours.
- Preheat the grill to a medium heat. Remove the pork from the marinating bag and grill for around 10 minutes on each side, until slightly pink. Baste the meat occasionally during cooking with the marinade. Leave to stand for 5 minutes.
- In a frying pan, sauté the onions until soft. Add the chicken stock to a small saucepan and simmer over a medium heat, before adding the onion and transferring to a small bowl for dipping. Serve alongside the rice and pork, and top with the marinated veg.
Vietnamese Banh Mi
No visit to Vietnam would be complete without sampling a delicious banh mi sandwich, which combines the aromatic spice of traditional Vietnamese cuisine with the hearty appeal of a classic French baguette.
The banh mi sandwich was developed in the 19th century, when the French brought their famous bread to Vietnam during the colonial period. Popular any time of the day, the banh mi has become a national dish of Vietnam despite its French origins, and is often served alongside crunchy vegetables and strips of marinated pork and beef.
As one of Vietnam’s most famous foodie exports, the banh mi has been adapted to suit all tastes, with popular fillings ranging from tofu and prawn to chicken and roasted squash. Our recipe uses turkey, but you could use chicken, pork or beef instead.
Serves: 4. Prep: 10 Minutes. Cook: 20 Minutes.
1tsp low-salt soy sauce
1tbsp white wine vinegar
4tbsp leftover chicken liver pate
1 fresh red chilli
190g leftover cooked turkey, preferably brown meat
2tbsp sweet chilli sauce
2 medium baguettes
1 clove of garlic
3cm piece of fresh ginger
Extra virgin olive oil
½ a small bunch of fresh coriander
½ a cucumber
¼ of a white cabbage
- Preheat the oven to 130°C. Add a splash of olive oil to a large frying pan over a medium heat. Shred the turkey and add it to the pan, warming gently for 2 to 3 minutes. Grate in the lime zest and add the chilli sauce, before frying for a further 3 minutes until crispy and caramelised.
- Add the baguettes to the oven to warm through. In a pestle and mortar, bash the garlic, ginger and salt into a smooth paste. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil, the mayonnaise, a drop of lime juice and coriander, before stirring to combine. Set aside.
- To make the pickle — coarsely grate the carrot, cucumber and cabbage into a bowl. Add the remaining ginger and salt and mix together with your hands. Then, fry the mixture in sesame oil, soy and vinegar.
- Remove the warm baguettes from the oven, open them up and spread the chicken liver pate onto one side. Heap with the turkey and pickled veg, top with chopped chilli (to taste), press down and tuck in.
If these recipes have left you with a taste for the Mekong, click here to browse our collection of river cruise itineraries through South East Asia. If you need any help planning your trip, call the Emerald Waterways team on 0808 271 3158.