Ten Iconic Foods In Southeast Asia

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Ten Iconic Foods In Southeast Asia

“Food is our common ground- a universal experience.” James Beard

The rich variety of foods in Southeast Asia is one of the many memories I have from traveling there. It is both very affordable and different so you might want to ease your way into the cuisine. Don’t start with the spicy tarantula. The staple across the region is rice which is often served as a main dish. Second place is taken by a variety of noodles, which are boiled, fried, tossed, steamed or baked to form a part of a wide variety of dishes. You can’t drink the water in these countries which leads me to only eat cooked food. I have had some amazing meals and carefully ate in morning street markets when the food is fresh. If you going to eat street food (and you should) it is best to eat at the time locals do. If the stand is crowded, it is probably good.

Bahn Mi, Vietnam

The bánh mì is a French-style baguette, stuffed with an ever varying combination of meats, vegetables, and sauces. The bánh mì sandwich gets its origin from the French influence on Indochina. The baguette was introduced by the French, but appropriated by the Vietnamese in the 1950s when they started calling it the bánh mì or wheat bread. The traditional meats you find in bánh mì are pork, pâté, and cured ham. Typically, the vegetables are coriander, cucumber, carrot, slices, radish and more depending on what part of the country you are in. The best one I had I was at a roadside stand driving from Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta. Try them in Hoi An as well. Anthony Bourdain loved them there. Hoi An is one of my favorite places in Southeast Asia.

Mohinga, Myanmar

I watched as a street vendor in Yangon set up his food and put out a few small plastic tables and chairs. They were serving mohinga which is the most popular and also the national dish of Myanmar. It is a combination of rice noodles in a curry sauce with a base of fish combined with many flavorsome ingredients like ginger, garlic, onions, lemongrass, and a handful of dried spices as well. You can garnish it with chili and cilantro and if you spoke Burmese you could get a fried egg on top. It looked and smelled fresh and within minutes was crowded with people. I decided to try it. It tasted like something you would eat in Thailand or India which makes sense because Myanmar is between those countries. I watched as more and more tables were being set up and more street carts were appearing. It was quite good and cost about fifty cents.

Pad Thai, Thailand

Pad Thai was invented in the 1940’s as part of a set of cultural reforms to have a national Thai identity. Accounts vary but they say it was part of a national competition. It was given the name Pad Thai to distinguish it from the many similar Chinese noodle dishes. Pad Thai is not old or traditional but it is the most popular snack food in Thailand. There is not a lot of protein in it in Thailand but due to the popularity around the world, restaurants have added protein options to make it more of a meal.The dish usually combines tamarind, rice noodles, shallots, eggs, fish sauce, fresh bean sprouts, chives and miscellaneous fresh vegetables or protein. Chili pepper, Roasted peanuts and a wedge of lime are served on the side. I had it first in a restaurant near Ayuthaya which are the ruins of the old capital of Siam destroyed by the Burmese in the eighteenth century. In Thailand you eat it with a spoon and fork. The chopsticks are for the tourists.

Fish Amok, Cambodia

Cambodia’s most famous dish is fish amok. It is a steamed, mousse-like custard made of curry paste, with river fish and coconut milk and is served in a banana leaf cup. It probably started as an inland dish as the fish comes from a river or lake. Amok refers to the process of steaming food in a banana leaf. Sounds good right? It is so delicious. It was my first lunch in Siem Reap after visiting Angor Wat. This is eaten with chopsticks. Everything in Cambodia is eaten with rice. Having had so much starvation for so many years, it is odd for them to see people jogging to lose weight or not eat rice. I needed to eat some rice in Cambodia to understand the food. I felt a little of that first world privilege that I had a choice not to eat it.

Khao Piak Sen, Laos

Though I wanted to eat laap in Laos, (traditionally raw meat salad) which I saw many people eating, I stuck with cooked food. Rice noodle soup in Luang Prabang is the best way to start a busy day of sightseeing. It is a flavorful meat or chicken broth with thick handmade noodles and has a thicker consistency than watery soup. At the table setting you will usually find a small dish of fresh herbs, hot red peppers fried in oil, shrimp paste, and often some dried crushed peanuts as well. It is one of Lao’s oldest, most traditional dishes.

Samusas, Myanmar

Samusas are a popular snack throughout Myanmar.They are smaller than their Indian cousins and are served with a sauce unique to the Burmese region. Burmese are obsessed with frying – the more oil, the better.  In the tea shops in Yangon they chop them up and serve them in a salad. They are also served in a soup. I felt they were cooked enough to eat from a street cart when my blood sugar got low. I really wanted to try the raw sugar cane juice with it but I had green tea instead.

Bun Cha, Viet Nam

I ate bun cha when I arrived in Hanoi. It started in Hanoi and is their signature dish. Rice noodles are served on a separate plate (bun). Cha is pork cooked in two styles: cha vine (ground pork) and cha mieng cha (grilled thin sliced pork). It is served in the broth which  is made of fish sauce, vinegar and sugar. In the big basket of greens on the table, you will find fresh lettuce, Thai basil, cilantro, fish mint, banana flower, and coriander. There are two ways to eat it. You can wrap everything in lettuce and dip it in the broth or you can throw everything in like Hanoians do and eat it like soup with chopsticks. I did that to cook the lettuce a bit. It was fun to relive the experience watching President Obama and Anthony Bourdain eat bun cha in Hanoi.

Khao Niaow Ma Muang,Thailand
Mango with sticky rice is one of my favorite desserts. Mango is the most popular fruit in the world. Traditionally, sticky rice is made by being soaked in enough water to cover the rice, and then left overnight before being steamed and sweetened with sugar and coconut milk (it has a similar taste to rice pudding although it is not quite as moist). It is served to complement the sweet mango. There are many streets vendors in Bangkok that sell it in the summer months. You can also get it as a dessert in restaurants.

Chaa Angrong Sach Ko, Cambodia

Hunger is a legacy that lives on in Cambodia and everything is edible. This is not my first fried bug country but there are a lot of them here. Platters of fried tarantulas and spiders are common in the market. They told me the red ants that were biting my leg on the hammock were delicious when cooked with beef and fresh basil and they were right. The insects add a tangy, sour pop to the savory, fragrant medley of chili, basil, ginger, lemongrass, garlic, and shallots. As long as it is cooked, I’m willing to be adventurous. Anything fried in oil and salt tastes good and they add a pop of more protein to the dish.

Pho, Viet Nam

No matter what time of day or night, a steaming bowl of pho noodle soup is never hard to find in Vietnam. Pho consists of flat rice noodles in a light, meat-based broth. There are small amounts of meat or meat balls cooked separately and added. Fresh vegetable garnishes complete the ensemble, usually composed of Thai basil, green onions, cilantro, and bean sprouts. Bean Sprouts are for the tourists who get that in their own countries. The dish is usually accompanied by basil, lime, chili, and other extras on the side so that eaters can season the soup to their own taste. The balanced tastes of sweet, salty, spicy, and citrus are highly contagious; pho usually becomes an instant favorite. It is Viet Nam’s unofficial national dish and eaten all over the world now. The first pho I had in Viet Nam was on the way back from Halong Bay. Pho costs about two dollars. It is eaten with chopsticks in one hand and a spoon in the other. Slurping is encouraged.

 

Stay safe,

JAZ.

Countries I Have Been to With The Best Food So Far

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Countries I Have Been To With The Best Food So Far

“I was at this restaurant. The sign said “Breakfast Anytime.”So I ordered French toast n the Renaissance.” Steven Wright

My food experience when I am traveling totally impacts the experience I have  in the country. Sometimes I make trip destinations  based on food. Other times, it is a complete surprise how much I love the food. Here are my favorite countries for food so far.

Japan applies the same precision to their food as they do to their engineering. You can get a lavish multicourse kaiseki meal that presents the seasons in a spread of visual and culinary poetry..

I dream of the sushi bars in Tsukiji market and the tofu restaurants where everything is made from tofu.  You can eat something random in a train station or risk your life and try Fugu (poisonous blowfish – delicious). I love yuzu and green tea desserts. Cold soba noodles is my go to Japanese lunch. 

It is impossible to eat badly in Japan.  This country is officially one of the best culinary destinations in the world. 

Spain has long been characterized by eat, drink, sleep, work a little bit, eat, drink, sleep. They munch on snacks throughout the day (tapas, pinxtos) with intervals of big meals. The food is different from the Mediterranean sea to the Pyrenees. 

Paella, churros and chocolate, gazpacho and anything from the Basque region (pinxto bars to Michelin starred restaurants)  show how much the Spanish love good food.It ranges from the Medieval Jamon Iberica  to the insane molecular gastronomy of Feran Adria and his followers.

The food is timeless and modern.

It’s impossible to write a short list of Turkish food. It is a combination of Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Balkan cuisine and any other conquering nations. It was a big surprise to me that Turkey turned out to be one of my favorite countries to eat in. Turkish food is about the freshest ingredients and technique. There are meze – small dishes that start the meal based on seasons and locale.

Some of my favorite foods are pide (boat shaped flatbread with fillings), pastirma (ancestor of pastrami), borek (small filled pastries),kabob, hummus, eggplant cooked many different ways, any dessert made from semolina, fresh halvah, pomegranate juice, fish cooked with olive oil and lemon, simit (Turkish bagels), ayram (drink made with yogurt ice and salt), fresh cheese ( beyaz peynir) and honey, kofta (meatballs), (mincemeat pizza) and just about anything  I have eaten in Turkey

I’m not even a huge fan of lamb but in Turkey it is delicious.

 The food in Israel is reason enough to visit the country. Israel is a young country, but its food goes back thousands of years. The cuisine is a melting pot of North Africa, Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and its Middle Eastern neighbors.

It is healthy and delicious. There is freshly made hummus with hot pita bread, falafel (made from fava beans or chick peas), tahini, schwarma, kebob, shakshouka, salads, and labneh,(yogurt cheese.)

The food tastes so much fresher than anything that I’ve eaten at home.  Israeli breakfast is one of the best things about Israel. It is usually served buffet style with an array of European, Israeli and Mediterranean dishes.- They are the biggest breakfast buffets I have ever seen.

This is the country that gave us pizza and cappuccino. Italy’s simple comfort food  has become the food of every country. Each region has specialties that they are very proud of. The best pizza is found in Naples and Spaghetti Bolognese does come from Bologna.  Parma ham and Parmesan cheese come from Parma. Olive oil is the only real Italian condiment.Wine and coffee vie for being the national drink. Freshness of Ingredients is very important to the Italians.. Dining in Italy is always a delight for your taste buds. 

 Olive Oil is the most Greek of all the Greek food.  A Greek salad is very simple with feta, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and olives. It will never taste the same  way here. I have it every day in Greece and it is always amazing. Greeks do it better. There are many high quality ingredients to choose from in Greece that we don’t seem to be able to recreate here. I have spent a few summers here and figs, honey, olives, lamb, seafood, fava beans, tiropita (cheese pastry), tzatziki  (yogurt dip) Avgolemono soup  (lemon chicken soup) and baklava are always delicious. 

I love seafood and except for Iceland, no one in Europe eats more of it, than the people of Portugal. If you love tuna and sea bass, this is the place. The national dish is bacalhau – dried, salted cod. The Portuguese have been obsessed with it since the early 16th century.  Sardines, mackerel, lobsters, shrimp, oysters and crabs are plentiful. The ‘arroz de marisco” is a delicious seafood rice.

Other national dishes are “cozido à portuguesa,” a thick stew of vegetables with various kinds of meat, “leitão assado” Roast suckling pig and tripe with beans. young Portuguese chefs are making a name for themselves with their more modern approach to the classics.  Pasteis de nata is my favorite dessert – Small custard tarts with cinnamon are found all over Portugal The most original recipe comes from Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon a pastelaria that dates back to 1837. I was lucky enough to go there.

Portuguese cheeses are delicious and should be more well-known and for a small country, they  produce a number of varieties of very good wine. 

Mexico is a go to country for delicious cuisine. There are  moles, tacos, tamales, enchiladas, guacamole, tostadas, flan and Mexican chocolate.

Lime and salt go with everything. 

You will not get bored with the food in this country. It is a fiesta in your mouth. 

Cambodian food is delicious and often overlooked but should not be. Insects are always on the menu in Cambodia. Beef with red tree ants should not be missed.

Tarantula and deep-fried scorpion are not my thing but you see a lot of people eating them. 

Fish amok is a fish mousse with fresh coconut milk, Khmer  spices, turmeric, garlic and ginger,

It is served in a banana leaf and is my favorite lunch with fresh coconut juice served in the coconut.

Khmer beef salad, Khmer noodles,  Khmer curry, fried crab and grilled squid are a must try in Cambodia. There is always rice. Try the pork and rice which is only served for breakfast. 

Street food is the attraction in Thailand. The complex  combination of spices and flavors  can  make your favorite dish be spicy, sour, salty, sweet, chewy, crunchy and slippery. With influences from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, ,Myanmar and a royal culinary tradition, Thai cuisine is the best of many worlds.. Thai coffee with condensed milk and mango with sticky  rice is my favorite dessert. The various curries, soups,  noodle dishes, rice and salads encompass the unique flavors of Thailand.

The food in Viet Nam is insanely good.Traditional Vietnamese food is all about the balance of fresh ingredients, intense flavors, and ease of cooking and preparation.

.Many of the dishes have  a rich history and represent a regional specialty.

The most famous street food is pho which is a bit different in the North and South.  It is rice noodles and slices of beef cooked in   a beef bone broth with complex flavors. It is the most popular food for breakfast and lunch.

Banh Mi is my favorite street food. This sandwich can also be traced back to the French colonial period, even through the roots of the name; Banh is pronounced similarly to the French word for bread, pain.Today the typical Vietnamese banh mi consists of mayonnaise, pate, sliced ham and pork, pickled vegetables, coriander, and hot sauce.

Fly safe,

JAZ