An epicurean retrospective

I’ve been back in New York for over a week, and I have finally adjusted to the time difference and to the fact that everything I eat is not nose-running eyes-tearing mouth-numbing spicy. I’ve been catching up with all my family and friends and the first-ish question I am asked is, “What was your favorite part of the trip?” It’s a question I’m having a difficult time answering and when my grandmother saw me pause, she rephrased the question to something more in line with the bulk of my blog posts. “What was your favorite thing that you ate on the trip?”

Well, I still can’t entirely figure out how to answer that either. (I have often been accused of being indecisive.) But that question provides a much better launch point for my reflections of our voyage.

We ate a lot of food. I think that much is clear from the blog, not to mention the hundreds upon hundreds of photos. I think there were probably a few wagers going as to what size we would return as, and I am happy to say that our eating adventure did not take a lasting toll. (We did a lot of walking and Asian portions are small.) But all the food was intended for more than just gustatory pleasure. There is no better way to understand a culture than through the way people cook, shop for, obsess over and eat their food.

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Two years ago, I spent a semester living in Barcelona. While I was there, I was swept up in the romance of the three-hour lunch and the afternoon tapa. A couple weeks in, I had forsaken all cooking implements other than a frying pan and a bottle of olive oil. In Spain, food is inherently linked to family. The lengthy afternoon meal is meant to be enjoyed at home, and all business stops for it to happen. Coffee to-go is hard to find because you should linger over your morning cup and conversation. We don’t do “fast coffee,” I was once told by a native.

From these culinary traditions, it was possible to learn so much about the people and their values. Granted, I had four months to figure it out. But the way the Spaniards eat — and especially the Catalan people of Barcelona — speaks tremendous volumes about their temperament and lifestyle.

Though I did not have the luxury of four months of discovering Southeast Asian food, I think I got a pretty good taste (literally) in our four weeks there. Keeping this blog and focusing on food really kept us on task. At every meal, I felt compelled to analyze all aspects of my dish, whereas normally I might have just gobbled it up. Likewise, the blog kept us from straying too far away from the native cuisines. I can count on one hand the number of times we ate something non-local: chopped salads and tuna sandwiches in Hong Kong, Middle Eastern fare at Jerusalem Falafel in Chiang Mai, German-themed cuisine in Singapore and some Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies leftover from the plane.

Even without the blog we would have eaten quite a bit of Asian food, but there was a sense of imposed focus and a heightened eye for detail. (Often as we were typing away, we would comment out loud, “Who died and made me a food critic?”)

IMG_0936We really did not try to disguise the fact that we were tourists.

All of the cuisines we enjoyed shared ingredients and seasonings, but the results were so different. And it was not just the foods that struck me in each country, but also the ways in which they were served and enjoyed.

In Hong Kong, where evidence of British colonialism is still so clear, traditional Chinese restaurants where no English is spoken are found on the same blocks as settings for the imported tradition of high tea. Both are frequented, but I suspect overlap in clientele is limited. Dining out is a experience to be had by all on the little island. Property is expensive in Hong Kong, and so people rarely entertain in their homes, we learned. Instead, families and friends gather for rituals like the Sunday dim sum, where they fight for their food with the best of them.

Dim sum

Just miles away in Macau, the evidence of another western colonizer is still strong. Though Hong Kong and Macau are both now technically part of China, they have maintained their individuality. For Hong Kong, a strong and highly developed economy sets it apart from its motherland. Macau has casinos and historic Catholic churches, but they also have a cuisine unlike anything else in Asia. Where else can you find Portuguese egg tarts and pulled piglet jerky side by side? Though there are very few Portuguese speakers left in Macau, those who speak only Cantonese still know what vinho verde is.

In Thailand, tradition reigns strong too, but here, it is the traditions cultivated internally. Thailand prides itself on having been the only nation in the region to never have been colonized. As a result, the food lacks the European influence that we saw elsewhere. Thai food gets its strength from its ingredients because the recipes that have developed over time are based solely upon ingredients that can be grown and raised in the country itself. As we reflected while there, this gives the cuisine a beautiful consistency and simplicity. The same dish that can be found in the most expensive restaurants in Bangkok can also be found on a street corner in a back alley market.

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Betel leaf wraps at Cabbages and Condoms, and the do-it-yourself version at a street market (for $1)

Overall, food in Thailand was my favorite of the cuisines we sampled on our trip. It’s not really a fair fight; Thai food came into the ring with a strong preexisting bias. Of the foods we ate on our trip, I had the most previous experience eating Thai food. The way in which the Thai people cook also aligns with my preferences. All Thai dishes work to achieve a balance between four things: spicy, sour, sweet and salty. The inherent inclination toward citrus, chili and nuts fits exactly with how I like my food. Plus, the Thai build many of their dishes around chicken, shrimp or tofu (or all three) as opposed to the mystery meats found in Chinese cuisine.

I haven’t had Thai food since being back in the states, and I’m almost nervous to. With all the emphasis we’ve put on ingredients, how can a papaya salad on Long Island even begin to compare to one built from the markets of Thailand?

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On our first day in Bangkok, as we walked and tried to navigate the traffic, we came upon a series of picnic tables obstructing about 80 percent of the sidewalk. Each of the tables had condiments, a bowl of chili peppers, a bowl of greens and other typical toppings. As we continued, we saw more of the same tables, crowded with locals who were being served from a makeshift kitchen in what appeared to be the breakdown lane of the major road we were walking next to. “Wait,” we turned to each other. “This is a restaurant?”

IMG_2271It became a running joke, as we weaved our way through crowded streets and sidewalks, to point out a satay stand and its seated customers and remark, “Look! A restaurant.” But they really were all restaurants, and that is how the locals live. In the U.S., we view eating out as a treat — it often involves formality and you wind up taking more time and spending more money than if you had just eaten at home. But when the pad thai is less than a dollar, is fresh and piping hot, and you can catch up with a few neighbors while you eat it, isn’t that better than trying to gather the ingredients yourself?

When I told friends and family back home that we were eating tons of street food, I think they pictured Manhattan’s hot dog carts. We think of street food as something to be inhaled on the go, probably filled with chemicals and God-knows-what-else, and likely to be kind of dirty. I’m not going to suggest that Bangkok’s street stalls are about to earn full points for atmosphere and cleanliness, but it wasn’t a grungy experience. We couldn’t round a corner without finding an impromptu cafe or two, and the system functioned pretty flawlessly. And while, yes, we may not have been the most cautious traveler-eaters (though I promise we only drank bottled water), we never had a problem. These Thai women, who each specialize in a particular dish or two, know exactly what they are doing.

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My allegiances are still to the Thai people and their delicious cooking, but I will be the first to admit that I had never given Vietnamese food a fair try before. I’ve only eaten Vietnamese a handful of times, and I’ve never really known what to order. I either copied the people I was with or ordered something that sounded vaguely familiar. The former strategy sometimes works; the latter was always a failure, because if I recognized a dish, that probably meant it came from Thai food and had made it onto the menu because restaurants in the states tend more toward Asian fusion than authenticity, and as a result, these dishes are usually the weakest.

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But I went into Vietnam eager to try and experiment. The many noodle and soup dishes we had were good, but after the spicy noodles of Thailand, I found the experience almost bland sometimes. (I just don’t get pho, I’m sorry.) But while in Vietnam I discovered a reason to love the local food: do-it-yourself rice paper wraps.

I often gravitate toward composed dishes, where the spices and the flavors are already mixed together. But on our first day in Hanoi, I ordered a lunch deconstructed and instantly found a new favorite. We’ve waxed poetic on and on about the importance of ingredients, but it is so true. Put fresh fish, pineapple, mint, chili sauce and peanuts together and — voila — delicious. There’s more to Vietnamese food than I gave it credit pho. (Haha.)

Singapore is a country I would never have thought to visit if I didn’t know someone who lives there, and we would never have experienced it in the way that we did were it not for the Chia family.

IMG_0887Throughout our trip, we relied heavily on the advice of guidebooks to tell us where to eat. We were meticulous and obsessive, combing through our library of trusty resources — Lonely Planet, the country specific editions and “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring”; Let’s Go, which previously helped me eat my way around Europe; Nancy Chandlerwhile in Thailand; the New York Times’ 36 Hours feature and whatever other sources we happened to come across on days when our Internet was functioning particularly well. We had some truly stellar meals entirely thanks to the guidebooks. But we also had some mediocre meals at restaurants chosen solely because they had appeared in a guidebook. I don’t blame the guidebooks, because in countries where we could barely communicate, I don’t think we could have done a whole lot better on our own. But the difference between our dining experiences as tourists and our dining experiences traveling alongside a native were like night and day.

For the bulk of our trip, we alternated between street eating and fine dining. In the former category we found ourselves among locals, but in the latter, we were often in a room entirely composed of white people. With Vernie, we ate at establishments of all different kinds, but the consistent trend was that we were surrounded by Singaporeans. We ate in restaurants that did not appear in a single guidebook and that we could never have found on our own, even with the best of maps. I admittedly did not love every single item we tried, but the whole time we were traipsing around, I felt like we were doing Singapore right. I learned an extraordinary amount about the food and the customs, far more than in the other countries, because we heard it from the mouths of those who know it and ate it from their tables.

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The second-most informative experience, in terms of food and culture, was at cooking school. This brings me — finally — to the long-winded conclusion of my thoughts and the long-awaited answer to the question that started this all.

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What was my favorite moment of the trip? Cooking school.

It wasn’t until we attended cooking school that I really started to understand why exactly I liked the food in Thailand so much. There was something almost magical about visiting a market filled with Thai women doing their morning shopping, taking our ingredients back to a stove and learning to create a dish that every single one of those Thai women could have made. Being a part of the process, and not just on the receiving end at a restaurant, provided more of an inside lens into the food, how it developed and how it all came together.

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It’s one thing to order your food three-star spicy. It’s another thing entirely to see learn what that actually means, that if you add the red curry paste it will only get a little bit spicier, but that if you put a whole red birds-eye chili in the mix, the dish will come close to exploding. It made me appreciate it all more. When I started comparing my eighth papaya salad in Thailand to my third, I could begin to understand why one was straight-up fiery and one was spicy, disguised as sweet.

I do not mean to suggest I suddenly became a Thai cooking master. (I apologize to my roommates, who I think were hoping for mastery by now.) But what I’m trying to get at is that while eating is a terrific way to understand the role of food in a local culture, partaking in the culinary process from step one teaches you so much more. After all, my obsession with the Spanish diet really only blossomed once I got to work in my own Spanish kitchen.

My trip to Southeast Asia was only the tip of the food-discovery iceberg in that part of the world. So, I think we all know what that means. I now need to go on a cooking vacation.