Extreme food vacation: Southeast Asia

A universe apart from the ethnic mom-and-pop eateries stateside, a first encounter with Asia can stagger even sophisticated food professionals. “Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo is a life-changing moment for any chef,” declares Anthony Bourdain, author of the irreverent “Kitchen Confidential,” whose wanderlust has spawned TV series such as “A Cook's Tour” for the Food Network and “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” for the Travel Channel. "Nothing ever rocked my world like that. I didn’t know there was so much fish in the sea."

A universe apart from the ethnic mom-and-pop eateries stateside, a first encounter with Asia can stagger even sophisticated food professionals. "Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo is a life-changing moment for any chef," declares Anthony Bourdain, author of the irreverent "Kitchen Confidential," whose wanderlust has spawned TV series such as "A Cook's Tour" for the Food Network and "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations" for the Travel Channel.

Nothing ever rocked my world like that. I didn’t know there was so much fish in the sea. I’d never seen color like that before. Mario Batali had a similar experience.”

Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose international restaurant empire stretches from New York’s three-Michelin-star Jean-Georges to Europe to Shanghai, was equally overwhelmed. “When the door of the plane first opened in Bangkok the air was so different from Paris,” he recalls, “a mixture of lemongrass, Nam Pla, incense, curries, jasmine—I knew I was someplace very different.”

“My first trip to Asia shook things to the core,” says James Oseland, executive editor of Saveur and author of the forthcoming “Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.” “It changed how I viewed food; maybe even how I viewed taste. In the West we don’t encounter the layering upon layering of flavors and textures that you find in a really sophisticated curry. And by ‘sophisticated’ I don’t mean from a fancy hotel, it could come from a bamboo hut. You think you understand food,” he admits, “then it all gets blown out of order.

“Stay at a swank hotel if you like,” Oseland advises, “but get out there and eat from the street vendors. If you see a crowd of locals you’ll be fine.”

{mosimage}For those with a passion for food, a visit to almost anyplace on the Asian continent can be life changing. Yet, few experiences can rival a journey through Southeast Asia, where eateries from simple food stalls to posh restaurants spin vivid, home-grown ingredients into dishes with countless layers of flavor.

Greg Drescher, senior director for strategic initiatives at the Culinary Institute of America, which runs food tours to Southeast Asia, contends this region holds the future of American cuisine. “Thai and Vietnamese cooking have tremendous appeal because of their perceived healthfulness,” he maintains. “Many chefs grew up when the culinary world was simpler, and the exercise was to visit two- or three-star restaurants in France. But Asia is going to be a big part of our future, and people need to benchmark their work against the real deal, or they’re going to be at a competitive disadvantage.”

A working knowledge of Asian street food is essential, Drescher feels, since vendors who have practiced their craft for decades become “master chefs of a given dish. It’s their only shot at the customer, so it all has to happen in one bowl.”

Saigon-born restaurateur and cookbook author Mai Pham—one of several experts with contacts to local food artisans who accompany CIA groups—connects American chefs with her favorite food stall cooks and food producers all over Vietnam. Pham takes travelers to a Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) sticky rice vendor, usually parked two blocks from the Park Hyatt, who cooks over a wood fire, which gives the dish a satisfying smoky taste. Then she adds roasted peanuts, sesame seeds, sugar and a little bit of salt, and lays it out on a wrapper of toasted sweet rice paper—the crunchy part—and tops it with mung bean paste—the creamy part.

“She only makes three kinds—plain, yellow with turmeric and black—so she has an extraordinary level of expertise,” says Pham.

{mosimage}Pham also leads groups to Saigon’s Ben Thanh Market for bun thit nuong—grilled lemongrass pork with cool rice noodles—where her favorite vendor adds spring roll, fried shallots, roasted peanuts, pickled vegetables and a douse of Vietnamese fish sauce.

“You can have the dish in the U.S.,” Pham says, “but you don’t really understand it until you go there and see how it’s done.”

Professional chefs have to grasp the flavors, the techniques, “and perhaps most important, the culture of Vietnam,” Pham avows, “which for us means going to people’s houses.”

Her groups visit a family that has been making rice paper for generations in the village of Trang Bang.

“We have people sit down at an earthenware pot under a thatch roof and make rice paper with the mother and grandmother, who explain how some pieces are taken out at midnight to absorb the dew. It’s transforming for a chef. It allows you to embrace the ingredient; to have greater respect for it. I know I reach a much higher level when I learn something from a person. Cookbooks are great, but there’s no substitute for the real experience.”

Personal experience is especially crucial in understanding Asian cuisines that haven’t reached North America—yet. Sometimes that’s because the ingredients are outside our comfort zone, like the fried crickets from Myanmar and northeast Thailand’s Isan region. 

Other cuisines are unfamiliar because their creators rarely emigrate to the United States, like the elaborate Peranakan fare found in homey restaurants wedged between Singapore’s office towers. These complex dishes, such as vibrantly colored curries and sweet, salty, sour stews, evolved on the Malay Peninsula in the 19th century.

It is a cuisine of the wealthy, with labor-intensive techniques, such as wringing milk from grated coconut, hollowing nuts, and chopping vegetables into minuscule pieces, which requires the hands of many servants.

{mosimage}Some foods are new even to big cities in Asia: recent visitors to Bangkok, such as Vongerichten, see a wave of Muslim Thai street vendors. “Curries like I’ve never tasted before, with a lot of lamb and cumin seeds,” he reports.

The Chinese have that too, on the eastern border near Tibet.”

Asia also has provincial distinctions that are rarely seen in North America.

“There are regional differences in Vietnam and Thailand, where my wife is from,” explains Charles Phan, chef and owner of the San Francisco restaurant The Slanted Door. “The food in Chiang Mai is very different from the food in Bangkok—just like Italian food is not all meatballs and spaghetti—but you don’t see those nuances in the United States.”

Innovative chefs like Phan are intrigued by artisan Asian products such as elegant rice paper that needs so little soaking, “you just touch it with a little water and it comes back alive,” he observes.

“But staples—like shellfish, clams and vegetables—are different in Vietnam. You don’t see a lot of the simple dishes in the United States because the ingredients need to be amazing. They’ll do pork belly balanced with a dipping sauce, or tomatoes stir fried with onions, rice wine and fried tofu, which I can do in summer when I get really, really good tomatoes. But we don’t have the craftsmanship for great tofu because there are probably 10 times more tofu makers in Vietnam.

“Every time I go home to Vietnam I end up giving away half my clothes and filling my suitcase with food.”

Vongerichten sees the future in fresh Asian spices. “In provinces around Shanghai I discovered fresh green star anise, fresh Szechwan pepper, cinnamon with the bark still wet,” which he finds work completely differently from the dried versions.

“They have nothing to do with one another,” Vongerichten says.

{mosimage}Didier Corlou, the French-born executive chef at Hanoi’s Métropole Hotel, is inspired by the seafood and produce, like plump Dalat strawberries, from the city’s ancient markets. He travels tirelessly to find the best nuóc mam, Vietnam’s potent fish sauce, which is fermented for a year in earthenware jars and tapped off in first, second and third distillations like olive oil. He has isolated three main types: a salty version from Cat Hai in the north, best for seasoning before cooking; Nha Trang and Quy Nhon nuóc mam of the central regions; and his favorite from Phu Quoc in the south, made of anchovies that are 40 percent protein, which he uses as a sauce or for finishing. 

Corlou says he admires the Vietnamese grasp of temperature, honed by cooking over embers or open flames with no thermostats, switches or timers. And he frequently shares his passion for this cuisine in cooking courses for enthusiasts and professionals.

“The Vietnamese don’t like too sweet a taste, so they do things like put chili on their pineapple,” notes Corlou as he leads a class I attended through the 1912 Market, a tangle of squawking ducks, pyramids of fecund fruit and the local breakfast crowd slurping pho hunkered low over blue plastic stools. He hoists a struggling crab to check its gender.

“My wife tells me females give more flavor,” he smiles.

While his newest classes, geared largely toward culinary professionals, encompass his own spin on Vietnamese cuisine, Corlou clearly respects the country’s—and its people’s—traditions.

“No butter, olive oil or cream. I use a lot of herbs. Tea in place of stock. And I do reductions with fruits,” he explains. “It’s like giving a subtle makeover to a beautiful Vietnamese woman.”

Meanwhile, in Laos, where much of the land is still devoted to agriculture, an ecotourism industry has sprung up. 

At Kamu Lodge, two hours by boat from the temple town of Luang Prabang, I participate in tasks most travelers only see through a telephoto lens, like panning for gold and planting rice. (Field Note: The hardest part of planting rice is staying upright in the slippery mud. And it isn’t easy getting the rows straight, either.) My reward is a village-style meal under a pavilion in the rice paddies: fire-charred river fish with lemongrass, curried pork wrapped in kaffir lime leaves spooned from hand pounded silver tureens, and earthy black sticky rice.
Farther north is The Boat Landing, a string of bamboo and thatch cottages along the Namtha River. This is where Hmong women still trade vegetables at dawn while men haul troll-faced catfish onto long-tailed boats. 

At this particular eco-lodge the owner’s wife cooks market stall dishes like “mokes”—fish or meat steamed in banana leaf with local basil, lemongrass and dill. She does this in a village-style kitchen where meats roast over hot charcoal fires, women pound garlic and shallots into forest nuts with their very well-used mortars and pestles, and sticky rice steams in bamboo baskets.

{mosimage}Asia’s authentic cuisine is not limited to food stalls and home cooks, however, and high-end establishments can also offer surprises. Herbal medicine restaurants like Singapore’s Imperial have homeopathic doctors on the premises, who can prescribe foods to “balance” your system, and Bangkok’s Seafood Market works like a fishing village where shoppers first buy seafood from a vendor, then take it to a cook stall for grilling or steaming. Even dishes at prosaic-looking establishments can be a revelation, like the Black Pepper Crab at Singapore’s banquet-hall-style East Coast Seafood, which according to John Gottfried, co-founder of New York’s foodie supermarket, Gourmet Garage, starts off with an “analgesic numbing of the tongue.”

“Southeast Asian cuisines can be so exuberantly flavorful. You get an immediate boom, boom, boom of nutmeg! Clove! Lime leaves!” declares Saveur’s Oseland. “Not so much information that it cancels itself out, but glorious and joyful, where you can taste the earth or the jungle or the Java Sea. Everybody goes on about terroirs. I want to bring people to Southeast Asia where it’s still really going on. I suspect that if Americans were exposed to this they’d never look back.”

Old Asia hands also know that hostilities toward American travelers faded long ago.

“I’ve never been treated with such open generosity by anyone,” Bourdain avows.

“I was hosted by a group of former V.C. soldiers, and when I asked, ‘Aren’t you guys pissed off?’ they laughed in my face. ‘That’s ridiculous,’ they told me. ‘We’ve been fighting for 600 years—the Chinese, the French—you’re just the last in a long line.

“So shut up and eat and drink.’”                

Hidden Gems Worth Seeking Out

Seafood Market: Restaurant. 89 Sukhumvit Soi 24. Admittedly touristy, but fun. Shop for fish; then take what you buy to a cook stand for grilling or steaming.

Chiang Mai
Khrua Som Pong: Restaurant. Mae Rim area, near the Four Seasons Resort. Try a plate of 20 quick-fried frog legs and a Singha beer.

Kuaytiaw Kai Tun Coke: Restaurant. Th Kamphaenj Din. Opposite Imperial Mae Ping Hotel. Chicken marinated overnight in cola and spices, steamed and served with rice noodles.

Khao Soi Prince: Restaurant. Near Prince Royal’s College. Locals’ choice for the indigenous noodle dish Khao Sawy.

Huen Phen: Restaurant. 112 Ratchamankha Road. Hidden behind foliage in the old city, specializing in traditional Northern Thai cuisine such as laab-minced meat salad.

House of Palm: Restaurant. 162/6 Moo 5, Luangnua, Doi Saket. Crisp lima-like setaw beans in astringent tamarind, scallops in mint, shrimp and pork stuffed wontons tied in a packet of pandam leaves. The chef ran the celebrated L.A. restaurant Jitlada.

Ho Chi Minh City
Kim Luong: Food stall. At the Ben Thanh market stall. Grilled lemongrass pork with noodles.

Sticky rice vendor: Food stall. Cooking over a wood fire, usually parked two blocks west of the Park Hyatt.

Quan Banh Xeo: Food stall.
Stall #46A Dinh Cong Trang Street. Banh Xeo-Sizzling pancakes.

Quan Anh Thu: Food stall.
#49A Dinh Cong Trang Street. Specializes in beef dishes.

Pho Pasteur: Food stall. 260 Pasteur. Pho with standout broth.

Quan An Ngon: Restaurant. 138 Nam Ky Khoi Kghia. “Street food” stalls set up in a restaurant.

Cha Ca La Vong: Restaurant. 14 Cha Ca Street. Serves only the dish they invented in the 1940s: chunks of boneless white fish fried with rice noodles, dill, spring onions and coriander.

Hoi An
Sandwich shop: Food stall. In the central market. Facing the market from the big well, it’s the sandwich shop on the left. Soft, wet sandwiches with cho fat (pork belly) roasted to perfection.

Sin Huat Eating House: Restaurant. In Geylang, Singapore’s red light district, at the junction of Lorong 35. The fish is as good as New York’s Le Bernardin and not as expensive. Signature dish: crab beehoon.

Xiu Ji Cooked Food Yong Tauhu Ikan Bilis: Food stall. Chinatown Complex, Block 335, Smith Street, Stall 02-99. Serves a forcemeat of fish—often flavored with pepper and sesame—inside tofu, okra or bitter melon, cooked in a delicate stock.

Imperial Herbal: Restaurant. Metropole Hotel, 3rd Floor, 41 Seah St. Herbal healing foods with a homeopathic doctor on the premises.

East Coast Seafood: Restau-rant. Block 1202 East Coast Pkwy. Black Pepper Crab made from meaty Sri Lankan Mud Crab.

Luang Prabang 
Maly: Restaurant. On the outskirts of town near the five-star Pansea Hotel. The fish soup is akin to a lemongrass bouillabaisse with field mushrooms.

Sack: Restaurant. In a rocky garden near 3 Nagas boutique hotel, with oilcloth-covered tables. Rich iced coffee with milk, and stews that run to wild boar and deer.

Three Nagas: Restaurant. www.3nagas.com, Sakhalin Rd, Ban Vat Nong. At the sidewalk café of this boutique hotel chefs prepare local ingredients in classic Gallic style.

L’Elephant: Restaurant. www.elephant-restau.com. On the peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, opposite Nong Temple. Wild boar fricassee with local forest mushrooms. House wine is crisp and well kept.

Hot Wok Peranakan: Restaurant. 3H, Jalan Pantai Molek, Tanjong Tokong. Perut Ikan (dry fish stew), Curry Kapitan (dry chicken curry).

Our Roving Gastronomes
Anthony Bourdain, Michael Coon, Paul Ehrlich, Janet Forman, John Gottfried, James Oseland, Mai Pham, Charles Phan, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten

How to Act Like a Local

Each country in Asia has its unique eating and socializing customs and what’s acceptable in one may be frowned upon in another. When in doubt, observe the locals and mimic their behavior.

  • Use your hands. Southeast Asians eat many foods with their hands. These include sticky rice (formed into a ball and dipped in “sambal” or sauce), filled crepes, roll-your-own lettuce packets, pork patties and all types of skewers, buns and spring rolls.
  • Know your utensils. Chopsticks are used throughout Southeast Asia EXCEPT in Thailand. The Thais use forks and spoons but never knives. An American who requests chopsticks in Thailand is immediately labeled “uninformed tourist.”
  • Table etiquette. Many meals are served family-style with dishes placed in the center of the table. When serving food from a platter into your own bowl, use the opposite end of your chopsticks (not the part that touched your mouth).
  • Don’t expect courses. Most restaurants serve all the food at once. The American progression of appetizer, salad, entrée, etc. is not followed in Asia.
  • Know when to bargain. There’s no need to bargain at stalls selling street food. Most dishes are very inexpensive and the most you can save is a few pennies. But it does pay to smile and ask for a taste before you make a purchase. (Bargaining is acceptable for crafts and souvenirs.)
  • Prepare for the unusual. Be sensitive to vendors’ and cooks’ customs. Asians eat almost anything that moves or grows, including insects and rodents. A simple game of charades is the best way to get past the language barrier and figure out what’s being served.
  • Plastic costs more. Don’t be surprised to find a 3 percent surcharge for using a credit card in a restaurant or shop.
  • Watch your heads and feet. In general, don’t pat or touch children (or adults) on top of the head—this is a sacred spot. And do not reveal the sole of your foot in public or in front of others.
  • Keep your cool. Getting angry means “losing face” and will encourage disrespect. A smile, on the other hand, will smooth over almost any dilemma and reveal good intentions.

Before You Go...

Do your homework. Research the Internet, read travel blogs and guidebooks and ask seasoned travelers to learn the traditions and quirks of the countries you plan to visit, weather conditions, can’t-miss sights and restaurants, etc.

  • What to pack. Dress for hot, steamy weather year round; March and April are the hottest. Bring loose-fitting, light-colored clothing, a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen and mosquito repellent. Locals may be offended by scanty garments so dress on the conservative side. And if you’re traveling to the mountains, bring a sweater or jacket.
  • About your meds. Bring medications and written prescriptions. Most medications are available in pharmacies under their Latin names.
  • What about shots? Inoculations are usually not necessary if you are visiting major cities. If you plan to venture into the jungle, however, a malaria pill may be recommended by your doctor. And a hepatitis vaccine is a good idea if you enjoy fresh seafood—which is plentiful wherever you go.
  • Careful what you drink. Drink bottled water only, making sure the seal is intact and tightly closed when you purchase it.
  • Phone service. Bring (or buy in Asia) an unlocked GSM cell phone. Landlines are unreliable and $10 to $25 will buy you about 90 local minutes. Incoming calls are free.
  • Getting around. Hire a driver to get you around and take a little time to inspect the car to make sure it’s in good condition (not all are). Do not attempt to drive yourself.
  • Pack your ATM card. Terminals are conveniently located and provide the easiest way to change money.
  • Carry local contact info. Take along a business card from your hotel whenever you go out to explore. The cards are usually printed in English on one side and the native language on the other, and they come in awfully handy for taxi rides and excursions on foot.
  • Use your fingers. Pointing is the surest way to get what you want, whether it be in a shop or on the street. If you’re unsure of the price, most vendors have calculators and you can ask to see the figure.
  • Know the local holidays. Check on the Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu holidays and celebrations. The holy period during Ramadan, for example, might not be the best time to visit. Ditto for monsoon season (late summer, early autumn). Best to avoid planning a trip during those months.

Food Tours Where You Can Learn A Lot

The Culinary Institute of America
What it’s about: Destinations include Mexico, the Mediterranean, India, Southeast Asia and the American South. You’ll be accompanied by experts in local culture and cuisine. What it costs: $4,950 per person/double occupancy, not including international airfare. 

Chef Didier Corlou
What it’s about: Cooking classes and market tours at the Sofitel Métropole Hanoi for professionals and enthusiasts. What it costs: Professional class $500 for three days, includes one meal per day, market tours and cooking lessons. Half-day enthusiast classes, $55 to $60.

Globetrotting Gourmet
What it’s about: Morrison Polkinghorne and Robert Carmack take groups to their favorite international places and explore out-of-the-way culinary spots. What it costs: Prices begin at around $3,500 per person, which includes airfare within the country but not airfare to the destination.

Chef Robert Danhi
What it's about: Robert guides culinary professionals through the cultures and cuisines of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, including market tours, cooking classes, spice garden explorations and restaurant and manufacturing plant visitations. What it costs: $2,500 to $4,000 double occupancy including air fare, lodging, food, tours and classes.

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