Let’s Talk About Asian Food

Whenever I travel, I have found that the one thing that everyone wants to know about is the food (followed by the weather). So I solicited a few questions about my experiences with food during my summer travels in Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China. The variety of food in Asia was amazing, and I had the opportunity to try dozens of new foods.

Where was the best food?

Lotus root is a common dish popular in the Jinhua area and was my favorite in China.
Lotus root is a common dish popular in the Jinhua area and was my favorite in China.

This is a tough question since the cuisine in every place I visited was delicious. Overall, I would say that Vietnam and Singapore had the best food. I didn’t eat anything in either place I didn’t like. In Singapore, my favorite was laksa, a spicy noodle soup made with coconut milk. The food courts in Singapore were amazing, filled with all varieties of food available for cheap. In Vietnam, I would say my favorite was banh mi, which is a sandwich that combines both French and Vietnamese influences. The French contribute the baguette, the mayo, and the pate; while the Vietnamese contribute the cilantro, hot peppers, and Vietnamese cold cuts (usually pork). Technically, banh mi is the bread that it is served on, a Vietnamese baguette made with rice flour and wheat flour, but for my purposes I will use to describe the delicious sandwich. Each banh mi is different, made with a different blend of ingredients – sometimes more, sometimes less, but almost always amazing. In Thailand, it was the pad Thai and spring rolls with Thai chili sauce, prepared in front of us and served hot from the cart that sticks out most for me. In Cambodia, the Khmer curry and its unique blend of spices added flavor to the meal and the experience. In China, we were served a huge variety of dishes at every meal. My favorite was the lotus root (pictured) that was seasoned with chili and garlic. Lotus root is similar to other root vegetables (probably most similar to turnip or parsnip) in terms of texture and taste. We also had the opportunity to try new and different tofu-based dishes, some better than others.

What food did you eat that surprised you the most? Was it good or bad?

Angel and me with our scorpions in Bangkok
Angel and me with our scorpions in Bangkok

In both Thailand and Cambodia, I ate bugs (and they were pretty tasty). I wasn’t surprised to see them being sold, but I was surprised at how available they were – there were plenty of opportunities to buy scorpions, crickets, and other insects, at both local markets and being sold to tourists. The scorpions I had in Thailand weren’t bad, they were mostly just crunchy with not a lot of flavor. In Cambodia, we went to the Bugs Cafe and had French-Cambodian cuisine made out of bugs. Again, it wasn’t too bad, if you can get over the psychological aspect of eating bugs and spiders.

What food did you eat that you will be trying to duplicate?

I would love to try to make some of the soups I had (laksa (Singapore), pho (Vietnam), tom yum (Thailand)). However, the tricky part is finding some of the ingredients. If I can track down some lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and some seasonings, I will be in business. I did buy a tom yum kit with the seasonings but I need to find some of the fresh ingredients to go with it. I will definitely try my hand at making pad Thai.

Was food cheaper or more expensive than the US?

This is what a $50 chili crab in Singapore looks like
This is what a $50 chili crab in Singapore looks like

Food, especially prepared food, was cheaper than in the US for the most part. It wasn’t hard to buy a whole meal for less than $5. Of course, there is a wide price range, but as a general rule, I stayed on the lower end of things (and it was still delicious!). Most items from a street vendor ranged from $1-$5. The most expensive thing I ate (by far!) was the chili crab in Singapore. Fresh fruit was readily available for cheap, and it was all delicious.

What did you eat that you really wish you wouldn’t have?

I was very lucky that I didn’t get sick at all. I have a pretty strong stomach and was careful about drinking bottled or boiled/filtered water everywhere I was (though I did brush my teeth with regular water). There was nothing that was truly awful, just a few things that were only okay. I did try the chicken feet in China, and while I’m glad I tried them, it is something I won’t pursue again. There isn’t much meat on them, and they are flavorless and a little chewy. I also tried pig ears which were pretty similar in being chewy and not flavorful. I avoided the pigs feet and duck heads that we were served in China.

What American food did you see that surprised you? 

The flavors in China are a bit different...
The flavors in China are a bit different…

I think I was most surprised at how prevalent American fast food chains were, including McDonalds, Subway, KFC, and Burger King. American brands in stores were common, although often things were changed a little for the local market. For example, Lay’s potato chips were a common sight, but the flavors in China included roasted squid, yogurt, curry lamb, seaweed, and cucumber. I was also surprised at how prevalent 7-11 was, especially in Thailand and China.

Is durian really that bad?

Durian is a fruit that is super popular throughout Southeast Asia and China. It is infamous for its strong smell. This strong smell has resulted in it being banned in several public places, including hotels and taxis. I tried durian and durian-flavored things in several places, and I found it enjoyable. I didn’t notice that the smell was too awful. A lot of people compare it to hot garbage or something rotten, but I didn’t notice this with any of the cultivars I tried. The flavor of the fruit itself is pretty mild, and the texture is firm. It does leave a lingering taste, though. I enjoyed a durian milkshake in Singapore and tried a durian cheesecake in China. Durian is very popular and could be found at almost every market I visited. I actually really liked durian.