I think of Asia and I think of food. Do you remember the time you went back to Malaysia just to eat more roti canai? And the mango dessert you took like three combis and drove through Jakarta for? And the salt bread from the Philippines, please, that bread. But what about the pad thai they prepared for you at the train station in Bangkok? Uff, the best of my life and only for 20 baht (0.50 usd, at that time).
And the communal meals in China? That tofu, my goodness. Since I traveled alone, these conversations I have with myself. Don’t worry I’m fine. Bah, more or less, every time I see pictures of Asian food I consider the serious possibility of going back, settling down and dedicating myself to being a taste tester.
When I was told, before traveling, that the best thing about Asia was the food, I felt that this was not going to be a very relevant aspect of my trip. Before Asia I didn’t eat anything spicy, I hardly used pepper and the variety of food I had tasted was not too wide. I always liked to eat, but I didn’t think I could do it with as much fanaticism and enthusiasm as in Southeast Asia: every day was an opportunity to try a different dish. “It’s all about food here,” I was told by Malaysians, Filipinos, Indonesians, Thais, Chinese. It’s all about food.
And it’s true: any excuse is a good one to get together with friends or family to eat. Food is cooked on the street and there are stalls everywhere, so it’s impossible not to be tempted. I spent almost a year and a half living and traveling in Asia, so I tried more dishes than I can remember. These are some of the ones I miss the most. I almost can’t look at these photos: my mouth is watering.
Thai chicken with baby corn (Thailand)
I don’t know if the one in the picture is the original and complete version of this dish. The Gai Pad Yod Khao Pod or chicken thai with baby corn is a simple and quick dish: in a wok sauté the chicken and add onion and garlic, then, with the fire a little lower, put the baby corn (the mini-cocci), mushrooms, fish sauce (or oyster sauce), sugar and pepper. Serve with rice.
Char Kway Teow (Malaysia and Singapore)
This is one of my favorite and one of the most popular dishes in Malaysia, although it is also prepared in Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia. Char kway teow comes from Hokkien – a dialect spoken by Chinese immigrants in many parts of Southeast Asia – and means “stir-fried rice cake strips”. The ingredients: rice noodles, soy sauce, chili, shrimp, cockles, bean sprouts, Chinese onion and eggs. It is a cheap dish and you can get it everywhere. If I have eaten it.
Oh my goodness the soups. Oh my goodness the noodles. I took this photo in Singapore, but the origin of the dish is Malay and it is one of the most popular dishes of the Peranakan cuisine -the fusion of Malay and Chinese cuisine-. It has a lot of variations, but roughly speaking there are three types:
- curry laksa: curry soup with coconut milk, tofu, fish sticks, prawns, cockles and noodles. It is served with a spoonful of sambal -chili paste- and coriander leaves.
- Asam Laksa: fish-based soup with tamarind, fish, vegetables, mint, ginger, fine rice noodles and shrimp paste.
Sarawak Laksa: soup without curry with tamarind, garlic, lemon, coconut milk, chicken strips, shrimp, coriander and lime. This version comes from Sarawak, on the island of Borneo.
Roti canai (Malaysia)
I must have eaten two, sometimes three, a day while in Malaysia, and I’m not exaggerating. I could live on this. It is pronounced roti chanai and is served at all mamak stalls in Malaysia-the mamak are the Malay Muslim Tamils, descendants of Indians who migrated from the south. It is a type of Indian bread served with dhal -a lentil sauce- and other types of curry. It is eaten by hand and is ideal for breakfast or as a late-night snack. I would eat it all day long.
The Indian dish of the day, served on banana plant leaves.
Speaking of eating with my hand, I miss the Indian eateries in Malaysia -I don’t say India because I haven’t been there yet- where for a few ringgits they served you the vegetables of the day and let you repeat as many times as you wanted. Sometimes the sauces were so spicy that I had tears in my eyes while eating and that made me want to eat more and more. It must have happened to them.
Bah, any Indian dish will do for me
Like this one I ate in Singapore. There is a reason why it is one of my favorite cuisines.
Padang food and vegan food (Indonesia)
I had a hard time adapting to Indonesian food: at first I found it too spicy and not as varied as Malaysian food. Little by little I found my gastronomic niche. If you are in Indonesia, I recommend you to try the Padang food: it is the one that appears on a pyramid of dishes in the restaurant’s window.
They are usually buffets, you can serve yourself whatever you want and there are several ranges of spiciness. If you go to Yogyakarta and want to try something different from the usual -or you are vegetarian- ask for the vegan food stalls.
Tofu in all its forms
I became fond of tofu, and they cook it so well over there. Tofu is something like a cheese made from soy milk. It has a firm texture, although softer than cheese, is cream-colored and usually appears on the plate in cubes.
It is originally from China although it is also widely used in Japan and Korea, has very few calories, enough protein and iron and almost no fat: it is a very healthy food and a good substitute for meat. Nowhere in the world have I tasted it cooked as well as in Chinese restaurants.