I have long believed that good food, good eating is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food, for me, has always been an adventure – Anthony Bourdain
One of the first questions Tommy and I were asked when we returned from our 5 month journey around SE Asia was, ‘what was the food like?!’ It is the one universal passion, the common experience that simultaneously binds us together and sets us apart from the rest of the world. Food is a force to be reckoned with- it can hypnotise you into an ecstasy in which you become submissive to its effects, or it can lambaste you with its stench and acridity that torments your body for days. Both of these effects were experienced on our trip, because without them both you’ll never truly understand the culture, passions and mentality of its country’s people.
Therefore, here is a list of our favorite and unusual food experiences:
- Tom Yum Kha Soup- The spiciest of all the soups in Thailand. Fresh chillies, coconut milk, lemongrass, tomatoes and fresh prawns. The absolute unrivalled Tom Yum we experienced was in Chiang Kong (border town with Laos) at a street stall which had us, literally, dripping in sweat!
- Kluay Buad Chee – An addiction we stumbled upon in Sangkhlaburi while staying at P Guesthouse. A typical Thai dessert of cooked bananas in bubblingly warm coconut milk, that we ate for breakfast as a sort of soupy porridge. This quickly became one of Tommy’s vices.
- Tournau- This curry dish still remains dear to my heart because of its authentic and local history. I first experienced this masterpiece while staying at John’s Cave Lodge Guesthouse in Tham Lot (Mae Hong Son Province). John’s wife is a Shan woman, indigenous tribal people, cooked a local dish using special disks to ferment soy beans, then added spices and eggplant. The smell was a tad curious but the taste was indescribably phenomenal. To this day I’ve contacted John for the recipe but he wasn’t able to give me a complete breakdown. If anyone manages to find it please contact me!
- Stir-fried Morning Glory w/garlic (Pad Pak Boon) – A bit like spinach but more sumptuous. Ubiquitous with Thais alongside main dishes and was said to be good for the eyes….also the belly!
- Phanaeng Curry- Our go to curry of choice made with seven dried chillies, lemongrass, spices, ground peanuts and coconut milk, eaten with a ton of rice. The first time we tasted this earthy delight was when we literally prepared it at Smart Cooking School, it’s better than Green and Red curry combined and remains my curry of choice.
- Laksa- A typically Malaysian dish that made its way to Koh Pangan, where we first sampled it at Mai Pen Rai Guesthouse on Thansadet Beach. Essentially an incredibly spicy curry soup (animation of ears turning red with steam fuming out spicy) with a wholesome clump of noodles that lurk at the bottom of the bowl. I think I ate Laksa three nights in a row while at the guesthouse and am currently trying to replicate it in the kitchen. A must try!
- Kway Teow Rhua- One of northern Thailand’s signature dishes containing ‘secret ingredients’ that are best kept unknown to Vegetarians. A noodle soup made with pork or beef, morning glory, bean sprouts and pork rinds. The special ingredient? Solid cubes of melting cow’s blood, sworn to elevate the taste to a much more exceptional level. Tommy loved it, so it made the list.
- Avocado Lassi (Sinh to Bo) – My one and only vice. Avocadoes were abundant in all of Asia but the locals don’t really enjoy its buttery richness on it’s own, so they mix condensed milk, yoghurt and water in a blender and serve with a drizzle of chocolate sauce. The drink’s velvety texture with earthy hints of creamy vegetable is unparalleled. The absolute top places to enjoy this delight are: Dada Kafe in Chiang Mai, Tararind Cafe in Hanoi and Warung Indonesia in Kuta (Bali). Luckily we have an avocado tree in our back garden!
- Fresh Tofu – Warm, creamy, nutty and holds enough protein to keep you walking through sweaty alleyways all day long. Bought straight off the streets, still steaming, this is a perfect daytime snack for locals and travellers alike. And it tastes nothing like the stuff you get from the market at home.
- Fried Calamari- Apart from the Costa del Sol, the fried squid that is served on the coast of Vietnam is out-of-this-world good. Minutes after being caught the locals fry the squids in a light batter with fresh chilli and lime and are best eaten with absolutely no guilt whatsoever, especially when you pay $2 for a plateful. The locals’ favourite eatery for exquisite calamari is Pho Bien restaurant on My Khe Beach with seating so close to the ocean you worry your meal might jump back home.
- Cao Lao- Special homemade rice noodles (comfortingly fat in size) with pork, meat fat, bean sprouts and pork crackling sprinkled on top. A Hoi An specialty that Tommy thoroughly enjoyed sat beside the locals on plastic stools, who ate the dish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Being a vegetarian I’m unable to comment on the meat, but the noodles got five stars.
- Moon Cake- Heavy Chinese influence in Cambodia means that the infamous Moon Cakes have made their way onto the streets and stores of the country, beckoning us to devour them. We decided to treat ourselves to a more upscale brand that was a whopping $5, but wholly worth the price. There were many different filling choices including: lotus seed, Durian, nut and fruit and I believe fish paste, but we chose sweet red bean paste with sugared egg yolk nestled warmly in the middle. Sounds rather unsavoury I know, but the honest truth is that it’s actually deliriously good. Planning to get myself to Chinatown very soon and get myself a box.
- Krolan- The local’s pride in Kratie village and has been produced for over fifty years. Sticky rice with coconut milk and red beans cooked inside a bamboo shoot. Best bought straight from the stalls and eaten immediately. While it tastes similar to sweet potato mash, the sticky, gooey consistency forces one to chew with their mouth open with a beaming smile. A perfect power snack while cycling down the Mekong Discovery Trail Route.
- Nhem – Another snack for the road that consists of pickled raw fish with chilli and parcel wrapped in banana leaves. A favourite with the locals and Tommy, who devoured an entire bag full and still couldn’t get enough. I stuck to Krolan.
- Amok- Cambodia’s national dish. A coconut milk based curry on rice mixed with fish, onions, spinach, chillies, and ‘Khmer’ spices served on banana leaves. It was quite delicious.
- Black Pepper- Cambodia is infamous for its fresh grown pepper. Not a dish in itself, but had to be mentioned because it was significantly better tasting than the black pepper any where else.
- Tempeh - An everyday Indonesian food of fermented soybean that would be sliced and fried in curry spices. Not just any meat analogue, this is significantly tastier. A staple and valued source of protein that is salty-nutty-spicy and extra delicious alongside traditional mie goreng -fried noodles! We couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
- Bolu Keju (Sponge cake) – Brace yourself….crumpet sponge pancake with butter, grated cheese, chocolate sprinkles and chopped peanuts. In short, a cardiac-arrest patient’s death sentence. This was devoured on the streets of Mataram post our Mount Rinjani climb and probably compensated for all the lost calories in our three days of hiking. All the good sweet things of the world bundled up in one giant crumpet. How or where the Indonesian people found this treat we don’t know, but it found a special place in Tommy’s heart ever since.
- Nasi Goreng - Very common, simple, and cheap. Fried rice, veggies, meat if desired, and a fried egg on top. Tommy could not stop going on about how similar the flavors were to Hawaiian cuisine, minus the pineapple and spam.
The memories that linger after sampling these delicacies are vivid even now. Each of these foods carry with them a story, which is what makes them so special for Tommy and I. Diving into the unusual opens up a whole new kind of Asia, one that you wouldn’t necessarily anticipate. And as you gradually become introduced to the strange and bizarre eats of SE Asia, you find yourself immersed in her everlasting exoticism, which you once thought, had been lost in time.