In 2013, we committed to making a food-inspired return to Southeast Asia in 2014.
Our obsession with Asian food was cemented when we visited Thailand for the first time nearly a decade ago. Armed with the knowledge gained from cooking classes in Chang Mai, we’ve whipped up some killer Thai dishes in the years since visiting. However, nothing compares to eating Thai food in Thailand, so we’ve been longing to get back, well, ever since leaving.
Wanting to broaden our culinary horizons, we thought, “What the heck,” and expanded our itinerary to include a few other hot foodie destinations. Armed with adventurous attitudes and an iPad full of ideas, we jumped on an Emirates A380 bound for the other half of the world. First stop? Mumbai, India.
Mumbai’s popular pav bhaji
We knew we weren’t about to tame our zeal for trying anything and everything in the eats department, but we were most worried about what we might get ourselves into in India. While we wanted to fulfill our stomachs’ every request, we didn’t want our bravery to land either of us in the hospital with some kind of nasty, trip-ending bug.
It turns out that our preparation paid off. We dove headfirst into Mumbai’s food scene. One of the highlights included pav bhaji, which originated in Mumbai. It’s a spicy, tomato-based concoction with butter plopped on top and bread, onions, and citrus on the side. Another favorite was sev puri, which is a plate full of puri (fried crisps) topped with a concoction of potato, onion, tamarind, garlic, and citrus. It’s then sprinkled with sev (crunchy noodles). Were it in season, mango would adorn the top.
Viewfinder Tip: Don’t be shy about trying street food in southeast Asia; it’s some of the richest and most delicious food you’ll find.
Our best advice for India would be to get yourself in on a street food tour. One evening, we went on a foodie walkabout with the spectacular Reality Tours, and were treated to one of the most special street food adventures of our entire journey. They’ve taken great care to curate an expansive tour that showcases the influence of the diverse local culture.
Next on the agenda was our old friend, Bangkok, Thailand, a foodie haven. Highlights here included the basics: phad Thai, tom ka gai, spring rolls, and pad see ew.
Cambodia, our next country, had a couple of really big surprises in store. In addition to sampling many dishes that fused Cambodian staples with flavors from neighboring Thailand or Vietnam (some of our favorite meals!), we also tried some French cuisine.
Our most memorable find was Khmer red curry. Cambodia’s version typically includes beef, fish, or chicken, as well as eggplant, potatoes, lemongrass, and beans. The coconut milk—and lack of intense spiciness—actually gives this dish a slightly sweet flavor. Thanks to the heavy French influence in the region, we were often treated to chunks of bread with this signature curry.
Cambodia’s red curry
The food that will get us back to Asia yet again, though, is the cuisine we found in Vietnam, our last stop. Benefiting from having friends in the region, including one that offers top-notch street food tours, we sampled a bit of everything in Ho Chi Minh City—bun thit nuong cha gio (grilled pork over rice noodles with fried spring rolls), banh mi, fresh fruit smoothies, sugarcane juice, coconut water. We could have stayed for weeks.
We couldn’t get over the abundance of creative street food options to choose from and the region’s liberal use of vegetables and herbs. Vietnamese food is known for successfully meshing all five taste senses—sweet, spicy, sour, bitter, salty—in a single dish. We fell in love with the dynamic bursts of flavors produced in a single bite. So much so, that we almost forgot we were sitting on those impossibly tiny chairs.
Sweet, robust Vietnamese coffee was our constant companion during our days in Vietnam. If all the delicious food and refreshing beverages don’t bring us back, the java certainly will. Maybe in 2015!
Where will you travel for food?