Romancing the food in Southeast Asia

Cultural Insights — By on May 8, 2008 at 7:37 am

Julie O’Hara recently went to Southeast Asia with her husband, where she fell in love with the foods of Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore. Along the way, she tried to learn as much as she could about the meals, although she knew she’d never be able to exactly recreate the dishes at home. She reported on her adventures for NPR’s Kitchen Window.

Thai food is probably the most accessible to an American cook. Curry paste, lemongrass, chilies and even kaffir lime leaves are widely available, and the techniques for making a slowly simmered curry or a lightning-fast noodle dish such as pad Thai are straightforward…

But go to Singapore and all bets are off. With a diverse assortment of high-quality Malaysian, Chinese, Indian and Singaporean dishes readily available at the city-wide food courts known as hawker centers, we were simultaneously flummoxed and delighted by new foods at every turn.

How about some “carrot cake,” rice flour cakes made with daikon and stir-fried with egg and dark soy sauce? (It’s called “carrot cake” in Singapore because the Chinese phrase for carrot and daikon — a type of white radish — are very similar.) Maybe you’d like a whole crab smothered in black pepper sauce and imbued with the spice’s surprisingly nuanced flavor. Or why not try a spicy bowl of curry laksa, the coconut-based soup with rice noodles, fried tofu, fish cakes and cockles (small bivalves)?

In Vietnam, I was in thrall of the delicately flavored soups, stir-fries and grilled dishes perfumed with aromatic elements such as lemongrass, mint and shallots. I loved the rich clay pot stews in which pungent fish sauce is balanced by a sweet element such as sugar or caramel syrup.

It’s a fascinating tour of Southeast Asian cuisine, complete with a few recipes. I especially liked her description of why she loves to eat local food when she travels:

Knowing so much of the local food we encountered couldn’t be reproduced at home made eating my top travel priority, above priceless art or one-of-a-kind monuments. To my mind, eating the food of a place is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not a lowly, sensual pursuit. You can never duplicate the soil, the water or the air that exists in a particular place at a particular time, not to mention the generations of experience that go into specialties prepared by local cooks.

This is why my pho will never approach the greatness of the bowl I ate in Ho Chi Minh City. This is why real authenticity in travel often comes down to that incredible plate of noodles you get from a street vendor.

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