Jason Yeoh had a eureka moment while eating noodles in the Philippines. The TV host, popularly known as Axian, realised that while “pancit” means noodles in that country, the similar-sounding “pangsit” refers to wantan, or dumplings, in Indonesia.
“In Malaysia, we just call them ‘wantan’. I figured that there must be a (food) connection that links the three countries,” said Yeoh, in a telephone interview.
Yeoh’s research showed that most Chinese people in the Philippines originate from the Fujian province in China. There, the Cantonese refer to the dumplings as wantan, while the Hokkiens call it “pien sit”.
“Malaysians are more influenced by the Cantonese, so we call them wantan. The Indonesians are influenced by the Hokkiens, hence the term pangsit, and the Filipinos… well, pien sit and noodles often go together, and over time, pancit became a term for the noodles instead,” he explained.
It is this type of connection that Yeoh is in search of in his latest TV series Jason Tastes Asia, in which he goes on a journey to uncover the history behind South-East Asia’s unique culinary scene.
Yeoh embarked on a trek across the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, uncovering the region’s multi-ethnic cultures and heritage the best way he knows how – through its food and people.
He visited markets, engaged with the locals and tried the traditional cooking methods and ingredients that have stood the test of time. Yeoh co-produced and hosted the 13-episode series, currently showing on Asian Food Channel (AFC).
“This is a discovery of the connection of food in the three countries, and how it also links to Malaysia. I feel that when you venture out of your own country, eat the food outside, then you can easily find the link back home. I know more about my own roots after doing this show,” said Yeoh.
Born in Penang, Yeoh grew up helping his mother at her curry laksa stall.
He has a degree in Electronics and Telecommunications, but decided that broadcasting was where he wanted to be. Yeoh produced several food shows here, including Axian’s Food Adventures and Taste With Jason before deciding to explore the tastes outside of Malaysia.
“Time and again, when doing my other shows in Malaysia, I would find out how our food is closely related to regional cuisine. Satay is not just ours. You can find it in Indonesia, and variations of it in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Our kerabu here is influenced by the Thais.
“I really wanted to venture out of Malaysia and see for myself how satay is made in Indonesia, to understand more about the dish,” he said.
The travel series began in Vietnam, where Yeoh explored the variations of Vietnamese banh dishes, including banh chung (rice cakes made from glutinous rice and mung beans), banh buon (steamed rice rolls), banh lai fun (thick noodles made from tapioca), and banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches made with baguettes).
“Basically, anything that is made using flour is known as ‘banh’ in Vietnam. The banh can be harder, like bread, or soft like rice rolls. Our kway teow is known as banh po there,” said Yeoh.
After reading about the history of China, Yeoh found out that the country had ruled Vietnam, especially in the northern region, for about 10 decades in the past.
“In ancient China, they used to refer to noodles as ‘soup biscuits’. The old language they used was very similar to Vietnamese. I realised that Vietnam retains the old Chinese ways to make and name food.
“They have their steamed rice rolls, which are very similar to our chee cheong fun. They make these right in front of you. Funnily enough, you can’t find this dish in China nowadays,” he explained.
Each episode of Jason Tastes Asia focuses on a single dish, popular in a particular country. “I found the common, everyday food in every country and talked to the older citizens, asking them how the food has changed over the years, and what they believe caused such changes,” said Yeoh.
In the Philippines, where Yeoh spent a month filming and doing research, he visited the world’s oldest Chinatown, Binondo in Manila. Here he tried popular Chinese-Filipino dishes such as machang (sticky rice parcels filled with mung beans, chicken and chestnuts) and kikiam (meat and vegetable sausages).
“I spoke to people who prepare the food, on the street and in restaurants, to find out their memories of the dishes and how the recipes were passed through the generations,” said Yeoh, who believes that these stories are truly the backbone of the show.
“I hope that people who love food can discover the stories behind each dish. When you understand something, you can appreciate it better,” he said.
Jason Tastes Asia airs on Thursdays at 10pm on AFC (Astro Ch 703).