Getting to know the ASEAN region through food

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In celebration of ASEAN's 50th anniversary, Nicco Santos of Hey Handsome cooks up reimaginings of five well-loved Southeast Asian dishes. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Chef Nicco Santos of Southeast Asian joint Hey Handsome believes that when you talk about food, the discourse should be about collaboration, and not authenticity. This applies all the more when you talk about food in Southeast Asia, a region with eclectic tastes and overlapping flavors, with one country’s traditions both familiar with and distinct from the other.

For the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), CNN Philippines Life asked Santos to cook five dishes to commemorate the cuisines for which the region is well-known. From the Malaysian beef rendang to the Thai nam tok, to the Indonesian lamb buah keluak, Hong Kong white chicken, to the Singaporean ho fan, nothing in Santos’ concoctions are authentic — and he’s proud of it.

Santos believes that if you try to be faithful to a cuisine, it should not be because you’re aiming for authenticity. It should be because one respects the culture enough to know which part of the cuisine can be modified or adapted, and which cannot. “We need to respect … some things are original, and must remain that way. But we must also know how to evolve,” he adds.

All dishes are made from local ingredients, except for the chicken, which was shipped from Hong Kong. The same spirit that keeps Hey Handsome a consistent favorite in the restaurant scene is what animates the five dishes exclusively prepared by Santos. The lamb buah keluak is a playful take on an Indonesian ingredient — the buah keluak nut — juxtaposed with a challenging local ingredient, the durian, made into a sambal alongside the dish. The Singaporean ho fan was light and fresh, the noodles made from scratch and tossed with clams, shrimps, and bean sprouts, before it was served hot.

Laid out on the table, the five dishes are one chef’s reimagination of what Southeast Asia’s cuisines taste and look like, and is a striking example of how a region’s diversity can be one of its greatest strengths.

Nicco Santos For the ASEAN tribute, Hey Handsome's Nicco Santos prepared dishes that highlight the best from the ASEAN region. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Beef rendang - ASEAN x Hey Handsome Beef rendang with coconut milk, another Indonesian dish that’s popular also in Malaysia. Photo by JL JAVIER

LAMB BUAH KELUAK - ASEAN x Hey Handsome Small lamb buah keluak, with durian sambal and squid and prawn cracker, a dish with peranakan flavors of Indonesian cuisine. Photo by JL JAVIER

prep - ASEAN x Hey Handsome These dishes have flavors similar to Filipino dishes. Photo by JL JAVIER

Beef nam tok - ASEAN x Hey Handsome Beef nam tok, a steak dish from Thailand. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Ho fan - ASEAN x Hey Handsome Stir-fried fresh hofan noodles, tossed with shrimp, clams, and bean sprout, inspired by Singaporean cuisine. Photo by JL JAVIER

Hong Kong poached white chicken - ASEAN x Hey Handsome Hong Kong poached white chicken, a melting pot of flavors from all over Southeast Asia, with a texture similar to Hainanese chicken. Photo by JL JAVIER