In the first of a series, Sandy reviews our food experiences. We start with Asia.
May 22, 2012
One of the great pleasures of traveling is the food. During our time in Asia we have eaten a variety of food in the countries we have visited. Some of it was very different. While there have been times during the past two months that things did not agree with us, we have stayed relatively healthy. Here is a country by country summary of our food experiences to date:
This city-state is known for its diversity and the food reflects that. We ate regional food in Little India, Arab Street and Chinatown. Our favorite food experience was the night time satay market. Here in a parking lot underneath a sea of 50 + story buildings, a series of satay stalls are set up each night. As you walk into the area vendors from each stall call out to try to get your business. There are about 15 stalls, all numbered, but with some type of adjective in front to differentiate one place from another. For instance, we passed by Great Satay #1, Best Satay #3, World’s Best Satay #6.
We sat down on plastic chairs with a plastic table and ordered 20 combination (chicken and beef) satay pieces. It was so crowded that we had to wait about 30 minutes for our food. When it came it was accompanied by peanut sauce and was really good!
Malaysia has both Chinese and Indian roots and the food is a reflection of this. The curries were especially intense and good, although it took some getting used to at breakfast. At our hotel we requested local breakfast and had a feast each morning. One day we had Hong Kong noodles, pancakes mixed with eggs and curry sauce, spring rolls and fresh papaya. The coffee was very dark and strong.
We went to the night market in Penang to eat dinner. Here, we tried to follow our rules for street food: the food on the plate needs to be recognizable to us, it needs to be cooked to order and the establishment needs to be crowded. We actually only found one place out of the scores of stalls that met that criteria, but the fried rice was so good that we actually ordered a second plate!
Thai food is popular in other countries and is one of our favorite cuisines. It is similar to what you might eat at home but the Pad Thai is not as sweet. We also had several green curries that were amazing. Even on the overnight train in Southern Thailand we enjoyed a great meal for about $7 per person. In Chiang Mai we ate at the night market and had our favorite dessert, mango with sticky rice. When we ordered it, the mango was sliced right before our eyes and placed on top of rice mixed with sweetened coconut milk. It was so good that we went back the next night and had it again! At 40 Thai Baht (about $1.30) it was also a great bargain.
We had a variety of food experiences in this country. The Lao dishes are unique and we enjoyed trying them. One national dish is called laap. It is a spicy mixture of marinated meat with a variety of herbs, greens, and spices. We tried laap several times and tasted lemon grass, cilantro and mint mixed in with the meat. Another staple here is sticky rice. It is a type of rice cooked by soaking it for several hours and then steaming it in a small bamboo pot, which is then brought to your table. The result is a sticky rice that actually stays together. It is eaten with your hands as a complement to the other items in the meal. Sandy liked it and ordered it where ever we ate. Darren preferred steamed rice and ordered that as an option.
Water buffalo meat is also popular. Darren ate a stew one night with this meat. It was chewy but good. We also had fried buffalo skin as part of a lunch we ate in the Phongsali trekking office. In the Phinoi village we were served a dinner consisting of eggs, noodles, sticky rice, fowl (we were told “not chicken” but “bird”) and fish.
Probably the strangest thing we ate in Laos was fried river weed. It was stiff to the touch and actually tasted like a potato chip if you could get past the looks of it. Tea consisted of a handful of leaves placed in a glass and hot water poured over them. When ordering coffee you had to be careful because if you didn’t specifically ask for black coffee, the drink you received had a layer of condensed milk on the bottom and the coffee poured on top of that.
Laos is where we had food challenges for a different reason. As we moved north and away from tourist areas, we actually had trouble finding food. Most people are farmers and eat what they grow. There were some restaurants but they were only open during the day. The markets featured items that were not fresh, such as canned meats or noodles, so there were no fruits and vegetables, no milk or yogurt or cheese.
For several nights we ate cup of noodles for dinner, using the hot water thermos provided by our hotel until it blew up when the shut off mechanism malfunctioned. We kept a steady supply of other snacks that we could find. However, these were generally crackers, cookies, or potato chips from the market. As we were less than 50 miles from the border, many items came directly from China. We didn’t starve, but it wasn’t the best food to eat day after day.
For Sandy, the hardest meal was breakfast. Generally whatever restaurants we could find featured noodle soup or fired rice. She couldn’t bring herself to eat hot noodle soup for breakfast so ate fried rice. Darren, on the other hand, grew to like the noodles for breakfast. “Sticks to your ribs”, he said.
Our adventure with food in Asia has been great so far and we are looking forward to the trying dishes in Nepal and Central Asia. We will be sure to pass on our pictures and impressions.