Sunday, July 6, 2014

Eating in... South East Asia

El Nido, Palawan, Phillipines

I decided early on during our travels through South East Asia (namely, Singapore, the Phillipines, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Laos and Vietnam) that I'd rather be enjoying the sights and sounds of the places around me, even when there was little to be seen and done but relax, than worrying about updating this blog. These things take time and I preferred the notion of doing it retrospectively when our trip had concluded.  This way, I could enjoy reflecting on our food experiences again, and indulge through recalling all of the amazing flavour sensations we encountered.

Sunset on the Mekong, Luang Prabang, Laos

We have been back in the West for a while now, enjoying the local delicacies of various European locations, but nonetheless I have been missing Asia. Maybe due to the affinity I have with the region, or more likely for the simple fact that, this part of Asia is home to some of the best food in the world.

And there's no doubt: we ate well. The novelty of needing to find something to eat every day for three months never wore thin and I cherished the opportunity to find something new, delicious, and even curious (chicken intestine, anyone?), to savour and enjoy. As you can expect, some meals were better than others, yet there were only two meals that I couldn't stomach (though I did choose not to eat balut, the Phillipines' delicacy of fertilised duck embryo...). But let's talk about the plethora of happy meals we did have.

Barbecue lunch of grilled whole fish and pork skewers, pork belly, salad and rice, followed by juicy pineapple, freshly prepared by our kayak tour guides in El Nido, Palawan, Phillipines
The most incredible baked BBQ pork buns from Tim Ho Wan, Hong Kong

It's difficult to pinpoint the best dish, meal and/or dining experience, for they were so diverse and special for different reasons. Was it the barbecue lunch prepared for us by our guides on a secluded beach as part of a kayaking tour near El Nido in Palawan, Phillipines... or, the Michelin-rated yum cha in Hong Kong that was so breathtakingly good, I don't think I will be able to enjoy yum cha elsewhere, as much, ever again... Or was it the feast of fresh crabs and tiger prawns with extended family in Sabah, Malaysia?  Maybe the home-made Luang Prabang noodle soup we had in Laos, miles away from the throng of tourists... or, the eleven-course meal we prepared with a group of strangers in an excellent cooking class in Hoi An, Vietnam?

A special homemade 'Luang Prabang-style' noodle soup and red curry with rice
Full 6-course welcome lunch to Mai Chau, Vietnam

Like picking a favourite child, it's impossible to make the distinction. However, even when our expectations were low (e.g. the buffet dinner at Laban Rata, after climbing to 3000m on Mount Kinabalu, or the meals included with our two day/one night trip to Mai Chau, Vietnam), we were often blown away by the food offerings.

Principally we stuck to eating with the locals as much as possible. Not only was it cheaper, but for us it was part of truly experiencing the culture. Fair enough to those who stick to the tourist-friendly restaurants, serving pizzas, steaks, burgers and fries at any hour (and we did say 'f*** it, let's have a burger' on a few occasions), but the majority of the time we wanted what they were having.

Eating Bún Ốc (snail noodle soup) on tiny stools in Hanoi

Luckily enough, we only had one instance each of getting ill and I'm pretty sure my 24-hour bug was thanks to eating our accommodation's 'included' breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast (sadly, there was no Filipino option available as I would never condone eating bacon in Asia - pork yes, bacon no!). Otherwise, wherever possible, we ate happily on the sides of the street, in markets, or from wherever had a bustling [local] crowd with a good turnover. The closest we got to the ground was sitting on 10cm-high stools in Hanoi, and with a woman who carried her stock pot of snail soup, fresh snails, seasonings, cutlery and bowls on her shoulder poles from street-side to street-side.

We were uncomfortably full every day and night while we were with my extended family in Malaysia (worth it) and everywhere else, I was scheming our day's activities around where I was hoping to eat. (Albeit, not much different to everyday life.) In the places I hadn't researched, which was more than usual, I was constantly excited at the thought of scouring the streets for our next meal, or mid-meal snack.

Because there is far too much to share in one post, I hope to share the food joy from each destination in individual, considered write-ups. Until then, we have been contemplating which country's food we most enjoyed. For me, it was a toss-up between Malaysia and Vietnam, and whether or not the former is due to bias or family loyalty is debatable.

Hoi An-style banh xeo made at our cooking class - after most of them had been eaten

I've always loved Vietnamese food as its always had a great sense of freshness, with a frequent abundance of fresh herbs (e.g. mint, coriander, basil), lively flavours (e.g. lime, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, turmeric), and rice or rice-something as a common base (e.g. noodles, wrappers, flour, etc). A certain lightness is achieved with this combination, and even so when fried or accompanied by meat.

 Prawn and fish noodles in gravy for breakfast in Kuching - if it lacks in looks, it makes up in flavour

Meanwhile, Malaysian food is in many ways incomparable for its diversity of influences (e.g. Malay, Chinese, and Indian). However, I find it typically heavier in nature. Food is often fried, stewed or yes steamed, too; and with strong, rounded and often spicy flavours, which I love. Greenery is almost always cooked - yet delightfully so. In fact, my partner probably enjoyed the vegetables best in Malaysia - always regional, and cooked just enough so they retained bite and flavour.

Yet, despite my love for the intensity of Malaysian food, we were always more invigorated, as opposed to so-so-full (not necessarily a bad thing), after our meals in Vietnam. In other words... if I had to choose, I'm 85% confident that I could eat Vietnamese food everyday for the rest of my life.

But... variety is the spice of life, right?


  1. Mmmmm all the food looks delicious!! Chels

    1. Yeah, I'd go back tomorrow and eat it all again if I could!!