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Author: A Potato in a Rice Field
Wanderlust Travel Blog of the Year ’13
Hi, I’m Allan. That’s me, the grumbly looking fella, eating all sorts of weirdness below, while wearing traditional Japanese clobber. Look further down again and you’ll see me with a face full of unusual burgers in Xi’an China. Next to that I’m banging shots of potent moonshine palm toddy in remote parts of Myanmar. Despite my somewhat miserable demeanor this is me at my happiest. I like to eat and drink weird stuff, in weird places, surrounded by weirdness. For a while now, roughly 3 years, I’ve been doing just this, while farting around in Asia. It’s been great. So I don’t have time to share everything which has been forced through my piehole over the past 3 years so instead I will just share my Top 50 Foods of Asia. The Must-Eats which every person should try when travelling in these parts of the world. If you missed any then you have to go back. I know this is a longer post than usual so I’ve added in an fancier looking eBook over there >>> on the right hand sidebar. This will give you access to all my free eBooks and guides which, of course, are all awesome.
Stir-fried crab in a tomato based, sweet, savoury and slightly hot chilli sauce. Break into its claws with crab crackers and suck at the flesh. The popular crab choice in Singapore is the mud crab but expect all sorts of shapes and sizes. While having lost its lustre of late the chilli Crab will always be a must-eat when in Singapore.
A traditional Northern Thai feast showcasing many of the region’s Lanna food favourites. Bites include chilli dips, spicy sausage, Northern style curries and the staple rice. “Khantoke” refers to the haunch height, round tables in which diners feast around and dinners generally come with traditional dance, performances and local liquor.
Laced with chunks of cinnamon, curry leaves and other local spices, a curry feast on the Island of Spice is not to be missed. In Sri Lanka curries rarely come served alone and are often matched with sides (condiments) of bean curry, cabbage curry, dhal curry… all sorts of curry. Eat with rice, spicy sambals and popadoms.
With obvious Chinese influences these Himalayan meat and / or veg dumplings make a great fast food snack to-go. While best known for Nepali origins momos are now common on all sides of Himalayan borders through Tibet, Bhutan and India. Momos are served with an optional hot chilli sauce, dark soy and a side of soup.
Like mini candy apples with a sharp sour bite. Candied haws known locally as Bing Tanghulu are a popular street food snack made from local Chinese Hawthorns skewered, dipped in sugar syrup and left to harden. While haws are the most common sweet, there are variations with deseeded and stuffed haws or varying candied fruits.
Accompanying almost every Korean meal these spicy, fermented vegetables are like the ketchup of Korea. While the most common Kimchi is of pickled napa cabbage (baechu kimchi) there is in fact seemingly endless variations of vegetables and seasonings. To make a meal of it try Kimchi fried rice (Kimchi Bokumbap).
Quintessential barbecue food with tender meat pieces, marinated, skewered and grilled over flaming hot charcoals. Satay comes served with a fiery, hot peanut sauce and while replicated elsewhere in Asia regional interpretations can be less spicy and more sweet. Satay is no doubt found best at its origins in Java Indonesia.
Better known for origins in India this humble pan-fried flatbread followed old colonial trade routes to Singapore, my new favourite city to share this simple food staple. Roti Prata is found best at Indian Muslim shop house restaurants in Singapore, try Little India or Geylang. Best served with curry sides and Tiger Beer.
Shaved ice is common with Asian desserts but for me it is best found in Malaysia with AIS Kacang, a mix of shaved ice and variations of fruit, beans, icecreams and syrups. Ingredients do vary but the traditional mix comes with red beans, sweet corn, grass jelly and cubes of agar jelly. Also popular in Singapore and Brunei.
I find an exciting new world of noodle soups in China with meaty toppings and fascinating local flavours. Some of the more memorable bowls include toppings of sausage or even chicken drumsticks and flavourings of pickled long-bean and mouth numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Variations can be endless.
This popular street food and tea house snack is served as thin rice noodles, topped with spiced meat and, more than not, with the soup broth on the side. Mix together and slurp it up. Popular sides include beansprouts, deep fried pork skins and triangles of tofu fritters (napyan gyaw). Perfected with chilli and lime.
Beef stewed in coconut milk with a spice paste mix of ginger, turmeric and fiery chillies. With slow cooking times and impatient waits I find beef dishes to be out of favour in Asia. Beef Rendang makes up for this and following hours of perfecting, the resulting Rendang is a dry, rich and caramelised beef masterpiece.
Bite-sized dumplings, steam cooked and served as either an appetizer or together as a feast. Dim Sum dumplings come with various flavours and fillings and are traditionally served in bamboo steaming baskets. In Hong Kong ‘Yum Cha’ is an eating experience hard to beat where Dim Sum joins local tea tasting.
Sushi is ‘cooked vinegared rice, topped with ingredients’. Some of the popular ingredients in the bright and beautiful world of sushi includes thin cuts of fresh fish, caviar and fish eggs and wraps of seaweed. If the delicate tastes of sushi fail to excite then dabs of soy sauce, wasabi or pickled ginger will liven it up.
A uniquely Singapore dish reflecting both Indian and Chinese cultures of this food obsessed city. A hot South-Indian style curry brought together with the Chinese obsession for red snapper fish head. The result is curry perfection. If the full curry is too filling, smaller offerings can be found at Singapore’s precooked hawker stalls.
Often better known from logoed backpacker t-shirts this iconic Beer brand is one of the most sought after beers in Southeast Asia and with 99% share of Laos’ beer market it can often be hard to see past. If bored of the regular Beerlao try the Beerlao Black or Gold alternatives. Perfect with sunsets on the Mekong River.
Canteen style curry buffets serving hot pre-cooked dishes and other sides. Grab a plate, pile on the rice and take your pick. Nasi Campur (mixed rice) canteens can offer 10s to 100s of curry options and work well as an introduction to Malaysia’s eating. In North Malaysia Nasi Kandar is a similar, more Indian inspired alternative.
Korean Barbecues are hands-on eating where diners cook their own meats over built-in charcoal grills at restaurant tables. Eat with a hot chilli dipping sauce (ssamjang) and share with Kimchis and other popular Korean side dishes (banchan). The big favourite at Korean barbecues is bulgogi, a rich marinated beef.
Fatty grilled pork (Cha) served with rice noodles (Bun), fresh picks of herbs and a salty, sweet and slightly hot dipping sauce (nuoc cham). This popular Hanoian dish offers an unhealthy escape from the green and goodness of Vietnamese cuisine. It is also a ‘lunch-time’ food and is best found around midday.
The signature Macau egg tart comes with a crisp and flaky pastry, a caramelized sugar top, and a smooth, creamy egg custard centre. While many foods in Macau are Chinese influenced the egg tart originates from the Portuguese Colonial era. To this date it is the best known, and easiest to find ‘Macanese’ treat. Eat warm.
Slow stewed beef, simmered in beef broth and served with Chinese noodles and happy additions of greens. This rich and hearty noodle dish is common to Taiwan’s famous night markets and with its revered reputation in Taipei it has been celebrated annually with its own Festival (Taipei Beef Noodles Festival).
The best known of Thai desserts and one to make up for the Kingdom’s lack of choice. While fresh mango alone is delicious enough; when matched with coconut sticky rice, drizzles of coconut syrup and sprinkles of toasted mung beans this sweet treat is unstoppable. Sweet, slightly salty and all round delicious.
Chinese food isn’t all stir-fries and rice dishes and this is illustrated best through street food where flatbreads and grilled meats are more the staple. My favourite street snack has to be Jianbing a thin egg crepe with scatters of scallions, a smudge of rich chilli sauce, lettuce leaf filling and a crunchy centre of crisp fried dough.
While Biryani is common to much of South Asia in Sri Lanka it comes hotter, spicier and ultimately better. For those new to Biryani (known as Buryani in Sri Lanka) it is a layered rice dish which fuses an aromatic and flavoursome sauce of local spices. While Buryani can be a meal to itself it does match well with tandoori chicken.
Green, Red, Yellow… should all bow to Massaman, the King of Curries. This revered Thai curry comes best slow cooked with beef and potatoes and topped with pan fried peanuts before serving. While uniquely Thai the Massaman does have a South Asian kick with occasional spices of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
In South East Asia the Durian is both feared and revered as the formidable ‘King of Fruits’. For those who brave past the alien-esque shell and pungent smell, expect a lifelong obsession for the sweet, creamy and perfect fruit inside. The Durian is a seasonal fruit with harvests best found between June and October.
This fiery stewed pork dish is flavoured with garlic, chili, ginger and shrimp paste before simmering to perfection in coconut milk. As a sucker for coconut and chili kicks the Bicol Express is a personal favourite for the Philippines as few dishes come close on chilli heat. Bicol Express is rumoured to be even hotter at its origins of Bicol.
Gulab Jamun are spongy dough-like dumplings made from the deep frying of curdled milk solids and flavourings of cardamom and a rosewater sugar syrup. A favourite dessert throughout the South Asian subcontinent Gulab Jamun are sweet, sugary and undeniably delicious. Serve either hot or cold.
Eating in Myanmar can be intimidating with a somewhat rough and ready reputation. A good start is no doubt at the local curry canteens where choice of meat comes with a mix of sides. Expect maybe a veg soup, a watercress salad, tomato curry and my personal favourite bean curry. Eat with rice, veg and fish paste (ngapi).
Pronounced ‘Fu’ as in ‘Furby’ Pho is an aromatic, broth-based noodle soup full of healthy herbs and local spice. It is also hard to miss in Vietnam being found all day, every day, everywhere. Note don’t let soup exploration end here, Vietnam must be the soup mecca of the world with seemingly endless soup bowls to slurp on.
Known globally as ‘Peking Duck’ the perfect oven roast duck comes served with thin crisp skin and moist tender meat. Eat wrapped in pancakes with the cool crunch of cucumber, a bite of scallions and a rich swab of hoisin sauce. It is fair to say ‘the best Beijing Duck can be found in Beijing’ and I find it hard to disagree.
Fresh local herbs, vermicelli (rice) noodles, and choice of meat (fresh prawns please) all tightly wrapped in rice paper. Fresh spring rolls, or summer rolls, are easily my favourite snack option in Vietnam and come perfectly matched with a rich peanut sauce (Nuoc Leo). How something so green and healthy tastes this good is beyond me.
Noodles are a staple in Japanese eating and for the best of them it is hard to look past Ramen. As with most noodle bowls Ramen come in three parts; the noodles, the broth and the meaty topping. The popular Ramen bowl would be with a thick pork bone soup (tonkotsu) and toppings of braised pork belly (chashumen). Oishii Oishii!
Golden fried potatoes, sautéed onions cooked in a perfectly spiced tomato gravy. While often mistaken as a Nepali dish, the origins of Dum Aloo trace back to the Kashmiri region of India. Now it has been adopted by restaurants throughout the Himalayan ranges; Nepal, Tibet and even Bhutan. My favourite vegetarian dish.
Rujak mixes the sweets and sours of regional fruits with the spicy and hot of a rich chilli and tamarind fused dressing. While fruits will vary through regions and seasons the common bites include water apple, pineapple and sour unripe mangoes. Rujak or Rojak is also common to Singapore and Malaysia.
In this world few things beat roast pig, and few roast pigs can compete with that of Bali, Indonesia. Cooked whole hog on a spit roast the resulting meat comes tender, and the skin thin and crisp. The dish can only be perfected by the quintessential spice mix. Suckling pig is a popular breakfast bite but can be found day round.
Colonial French influences don’t come more obvious? While fillings are potentially limitless with this street food staple, the popular Lao baguette comes with pork liver pate, steamed pork (moo yor), shreds of carrot and radish and cuts of cucumber. Perfect with a squeeze of mayo and swab of fiery chilli sauce.
Savoury octopus dough balls filled with tempura scraps and flavourings of spring onions and pickled ginger. Serve in a ‘boat’ and top with mayonnaise and a soy-like sauce (often compared to Worcester sauce). While popular as a side dish on restaurant menus Takoyaki are found best piping hot from street food, still gooey. They are one of the most common street food snacks in Japan.
Providing an easy introduction to Indian food is the Thali plate a set meal of pretty much anything. Each Thali comes served with various dishes which often include flatbreads, grilled meats, flavoured rices and selections of meat and veg curries. Eat with sides of chutneys, pickles, spiced dips and popadoms.
With extreme heat of chillies and the numb of Sichuan peppercorns the Hot Pot experience hits like a punch in the face.. and it’s a punch you’ll keep coming back for. Hot Pots are hands-on eating where diners cook their own meats in built-in soup pots at restaurant tables. Eat as a soup and share with various condiments.
While various meats can be used in preparation the fish amok (amok trey) is no doubt the local favourite in Cambodia. Steamed in banana leaves fresh fish is fused with thick coconut cream and a fiery khmer curry paste to create a simple snack with a somewhat mousselike texture. Best described as “steamed curry fish”.
One of Singapore’s most common and sought after hawker foods is Hainanese Chicken rice where a whole chicken is cooked by boiling and served over rice cooked in chicken stock. Chicken perfection is said to have oily skin, tender meat and an all-important gelatin layer between. Add optional drizzles of dark soy or chilli.
This unlikely Japanese staple can be best found in Katsu Curry served with a pork cutlet and garnishings of red pickled daikon. But curry in no means ends here as I find many weird and wonderful combinations on offer. My favourite to date (pictured) served over a beef burger with a crisp mozzarrela topping.
Chicken pieces are first marinated in spices and left overnight to soak in the flavour. The next day the chicken is skewered and cooked wihin a giant earthenware oven. On goes the lid and the chicken is smoked to perfection. Tender on the inside, crisp and flavoursome on the out. The tandoor oven was no doubt a blessing from Vishnu.
If Massaman is the King of Curries then Khao Soi is King of the North. Presiding in Northern Thailand Khao Soi is a coconut based curry, well spiced and comes served over soft egg noodles, topped with crisp egg noodles. Flavour with lime, onion, chilli and pickled cabbage. While relatively mild in heat it is no doubt full in flavour.
A fiery minced pork salad stir-fried with shallots, coriander and mint leaves and plenty of chilli heat. While famous in Thailand’s Northeast Region (Isaan) this much loved salad originated in Laos where it comes well matched with the Lao staple of sticky rice. A chewy alternative is ‘Nam Tok Moo’ with grilled pieces of pork.
This spicy, coconut-based curry soup comes served over egg noodles, with fried tofu, crunchy additions of beansprouts and occasional cubes of congealed pigs blood. Curry Mee is my preferred eggy alternative to the better known ‘Curry Laksa’, the difference being ‘Mee’ are egg noodles while laksa are thick rice noodles.
Adobo is the unofficial National Dish of the Philippines and with origins in the Spanish colonial era Adobo translates to ‘Marinade’ from Spanish. This marinated meat dish comes with flavourings of local palm vinegar (suka), garlic, black pepper and soy sauce. Comes best slow cooked with chicken or pork or both (CPA).
Sake is in fact a generic term which means no more than ‘alcohol’ in Japan. The Sake many of us know is in fact ‘Nihonshu’ a Japanese rice wine with standard strength of around 14% or so. If you want a tipple with more of a kick try Shochu (25%-ish). While Sake comes best chilled it is often served heated in Japan’s colder months.
There are few quicker routes to local immersion than boozing with locals, and the harder the liquor, the quicker you get there. Many moonshine liquors are made through the fermentation and distillation of local staples and common examples include rice husks for rice whiskys or palm sap for palm wines. Bottoms up.
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