5 National Dishes of Asia and the Stories Behind Them

Here’s how to taste the nation.

This story is part of our OUT OF ASIA feature. Click HERE to read more from our deep dive into Milwaukee’s Asian dining scene.


Pad thai 


The spicy, sour, sweet noodle dish, a popular street food in Thailand, was created during a 1930s competition to create a dish that would define the identity and culture of Thailand, which had formerly gone by the name Siam. The dish was among the then-prime minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram’s efforts to modernize (and westernize) Thailand.

Photo by Getty Images


Peking duck 


The Chinese have roasted duck for many centuries, and this particular creation comes out of the imperial courts of the 1300s. It’s named after the city of Beijing (formerly romanized as Peking) and is denoted by its crispy skin – more skin than meat. The recipe calls for a specific breed of force-fed duck whose inactive life ensures tender meat.

Photo by Getty Images




One story posits that the dish was created in the early 1900s by Chinese cooks in Tokyo who added kansui (a sodium-carbonate mineral water) to their noodles, turning them yellow and elastic – in effect, making ramen noodles. Until the 1950s, the meat- or fish-based noodle soup was known by the name shina soba, which means Chinese soba.

Photo by Getty Images




The noodle-meat soup omnipresent in this Southeast Asian country dates to the late 19th century, a time of French colonization. The term pho is believed to come from the French feu (fire) and that Vietnamese cooks adapted pot au feu (French beef stew) to become the brothy, aromatic, delicately spiced soup it’s known as today.

Photo by Getty Images




The Spanish adobo cooking process reached the Philippines in the late 16th century. But Filipino cooks made the meat stew their own by using a marinade with many ingredients native to Southeast Asia – vinegar, soy sauce, bay leaves. Usually made with pork or chicken, it has variations across the Philippines, including one that uses coconut milk.

Photo by Getty Images



Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.