This Southeast Asian pesto recipe makes a super easy Asian style Italian pesto that you can combine with pastas or noodles, use as a salad dressing (potato salad is perfect), serve with barbecue meats, or spread onto tapas, bruschetta, banh mi, and num pang. It’s deliciously fragrant and addictive.
My Southeast Asian pesto recipe makes an Asian inspired Italian pesto that’s perfect with a pasta – opt for a pasta traditionally served with an authentic Genovese pesto such as the Ligurian pastas trofie or trenette or otherwise a spaghetti, linguine or fettuccini – or combine it with noodles, such as Japanese soba.
My Southeast Asian pesto recipe is one of the many cooking projects we embarked upon while we stayed at home self-isolating in recent months, as the pandemic spread and we all started quarantine cooking to stretch ingredients and dishes over multiple meals to prolong the time between supermarket trips. I’ve also been dreaming up dried spice mixes; next up is my Cambodian inspired furikake.
This Southeast Asian pesto is the perfect quarantine cooking condiment, too, as it has so many applications. You can also use it as a condiment or dipping sauce, served alongside plates of barbecued meats and skewers as the Argentine’s do with chimichurri, as a spread on Vietnamese banh mi or Cambodian num pang or on Italian bruschetta or Spanish tapas. It also makes a fantastic salad dressing. Add it to a creamy potato salad and let me know what you think. It can also be tweaked in all kinds of ways.
If you like this Southeast Asian pesto, do browse our recipes, click through to our cooking projects post (link above), and if you’re a lover of Southeast Asian food and Cambodian food, check out our epic Cambodian cookbook and culinary history research project. The cookbook documents recipes by Cambodian cooks from around the country and shares their stories, portraits and kitchens, while the culinary history tells the long rich story of Cambodian food for the first time. We’re always looking for patrons and you can support that project for as little as US$2 or US$5 a month on Patreon.
Southeast Asian Pesto Recipe – How to Make a Super Easy Asian Style Pesto
If you’re in a hurry and want to make this Southeast Asian pesto recipe as quickly as you can or you just don’t want to spend much time in the kitchen, just follow the recipe below and use a food processor or blender. It will take 15 minutes max and then you can add it to your pasta or noodles and you have a delicious, hearty and healthy meal in 30 minutes.
If you want to make the best rendition of our Southeast Asian pesto recipe that you can then we recommend using a mortar and pestle to pound the ingredients, instead of a food processor. Pounding the ingredients is far kinder on the fresh ingredients and will result in a more fragrant and more flavoursome pesto, and the action of pounding is therapeutic.
Plus, it’s worth noting that ‘pesto’ comes from the Genoese verb ‘pestâ’ – in Italian, it’s pestare – which means ‘to pound’ or ‘to crush’, which refers to the original method of preparation, which involved crushing the ingredients in a circular motion using a wooden pestle in a marble mortar. Over time, pesto became a generic term for anything pounded, typically into a paste. But for Italian food lovers around the world when we hear the word ‘pesto’, it’s the much-loved green Genoese pesto that comes to mind.
When I decided to create a Southeast Asian pesto recipe, it was partly out of frustration at not being able to make the fragrant Genovese pesto from Genoa that I love so much. It’s my favourite Italian pesto and we have such delicious memories of eating the authentic Genoese pesto for the first time in the Northern Italian port city on our first trip to Italy 21 years ago.
In its most authentic form, pesto alla Genovese is made with just seven ingredients: extra virgin olive oil, fresh Genovese basil (traditionally, only the smaller leaves are used, which is why it’s such a vivid light green colour), garlic, pine nuts, salt, and cheese, ideally Parmigiano Reggiano (or Grana Padano), and Pecorino Sardo.
It’s a member of that family of cold, uncooked green sauces and pastes made from chopped fresh herbs that are found right around the world. Think: salsa verde in Italy and Spain, sauce verte in France, mint sauce in Britain, and chimichurri in Argentina. Green sauces in Europe date back 2,000 years to Ancient Rome.
The Roman cookbook, Apicius, which dates to the 1st century CE has a recipe for a Green Sauce for Fowl (Ius viride in avibus), made with a variety of fresh green herbs, pepper, caraway, spikenard, cumin, bay leaves, dates, honey, vinegar, wine, broth, and oil. Green sauces certainly weren’t as simple then as now! Interestingly, Genoa was actually rebuilt by the Romans after the Carthaginians destroyed the city in 209 BC.
We can’t get Italian basil, let alone Genovese basil, here in Siem Reap. We also can’t fine quality pine nuts and what we have bought before taste stale and are expensive. We also can’t get great quality Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano and, again, what’s stocked is expensive for the quality. So rather than make a half-hearted attempt at Genoese pesto, I decided that I just had to use what we had access to and create something new.
When I started to think about a Southeast Asian pesto recipe, I did some research but only spotted a few Asian pesto recipes. They were unnecessarily complicated with long lists of ingredients. One had well over a dozen ingredients. I thought about the simplicity of Genoese pesto, the diversity of green sauces, and of Cambodia’s pastes, which are more herbaceous than spicy, compared to, say, the Thai spice pastes.
The basis of Southeast Asian curries are the pounded spice pastes and of all the Southeast Asian curries, the most herbaceous are Cambodian curries made with the kroeung herb and spice pastes, particularly the yellow-green paste kroeung samlor machou, used as the basis for samlors (soups and stews), such as samlor machou kroeung sach ko. The ingredients are lemongrass stalks, galangal, kaffir lime zest, turmeric, shallots, and garlic – which is how I came to add lemongrass and kaffir lime to my Southeast Asian pesto recipe.
Coriander (cilantro) is used right across Southeast Asia. And sesame – well, sesame has been used in Cambodian cooking since at least the Khmer Empire (802-1431 CE), but was probably used during the older Funan civilization, established in the 1st century, whose capital was a cosmopolitan centre for trade – visited by the Indians, Chinese and the Romans.
Notes on Making this Southeast Asian Pesto Recipe
This Southeast Asian pesto recipe is super easy to make, so just a few tips to making and using it. When prepping your ingredients, leave the fresh herbs until last so they maintain their vibrant colour. The longer you leave them out they’ll darken due to oxidisation. Which is also why you should only pound or blend the pesto for as short a time as possible. Once you’ve reached the right texture, don’t continue as it will just go darker.
When you store the pesto, pour a little olive oil on the surface, again, to prevent that oxidisation. Use a tall narrow jar rather than a low wide jar, so the surface area is smaller and you don’t waste a lot of good olive oil. Only make as much as you need for a meal or two, as it will really only last a few days. It can be frozen if you find yourself with a lot of fresh herbs that you need to use, although frankly I think it’s best to make less and eat it fresh.
The Genoese pesto recipes often call for young basil leaves for a pale green colour. I can only get fully developed basil leaves here, which are dark green, hence the darker colour of my Southeast Asian pesto. An Italian cook also recommended refrigerating your food processor bowl and blades for an hour or so before using them to help maintain the light green colour.
I’ve used fish sauce, here, as we adore fish sauce, and this is a Southeast Asian take on Italian pesto after all, but do use good quality salt if you’re not a fan of fish sauce. We love the Thai fish sauce brand Megachef, which our Australian readers would be familiar with, although we know many of our American readers love the Vietnamese fish sauce brand Red Boat.
You can really tweak this Southeast Asian pesto recipe in all sorts of ways. Add other aromatic herbs, such as mint or dill or sawtooth coriander. Replace the sesame seeds with peanuts, cashew nuts or macadamias, or sourdough croutons. Or leave it as is, and add toasted sourdough crumbs or other bread crumbs on top of your pasta or noodles to add more texture, just as I did with grilled corn salad. You could also add thickened cream or coconut cream to make a richer, creamier sauce for your Asian-Italian fusion pasta or noodles and extend it even further.
Like other Italian pestos used in pastas, this Southeast Asian pesto can be spread onto bruschetta with tomato or layered with grilled vegetables such as eggplant and red capsicum between slices of focaccia. You could also try using this Southeast Asian pesto recipe in the same way you would Thai spice pastes or Cambodian kroeungs and try it in soups, stews, curries to a marinade for barbecued skewers. But eliminate the olive oil and stick with a neutral oil such as soya bean oil instead, and replace the sesame seeds with peanuts.
I’ll share more ideas for how to use this Southeast Asian pesto recipe in future posts. To give you an idea of how versatile this pesto recipe is, Terence is using it on the homemade pizza he’s making tonight!
Southeast Asian Pesto Recipe
- 1/4 cup olive oil extra virgin for a greener taste
- 1/4 cup neutral oil we use soybean oil
- 1 garlic clove peeled and crushed
- 3 kaffir lime leaves finely chopped
- 2 fresh lemongrass stalks finely chopped
- 2 cups Basil leaves Thai or Italian
- 2 cups coriander leaves fresh
- 1/3 cup white sesame seeds
- 1 tsp salt or to taste
- Finely chop the kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass stalks to ensure they break down completely when you blend them in the food processor.
- Wash your basil and coriander and remove the leaves from the stalks at the last minute.
- Mince the garlic first in the food processor, then stop it and add the fresh basil and coriander leaves, chopped kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass stalks, sesame seeds, oils, and fish sauce.
- Blend everything until you have a pesto consistency.
- Use immediately before it discolours or scoop it into a jar, pour a thin layer of oil on top to cover the pesto, then seal and refrigerate until ready for use.
- With oil on top it should last a week or so refrigerated.
Do let us know if you make our Southeast Asian pesto recipe. We’d love to know how it turns out for you.