A round-up of the good (and not so good) dishes to sample when travelling in Asia
27 June 2011
Getting to know the food culture, local dishes, ingredients and customs is one of the surest paths to understanding the local people. Every country has a few black sheep dishes – that’s all part of the charm. Generally, though, Southeast Asian fare is a feast for the senses.
From street-food Shangri-la to fine-dining feasts, here’s a list of nearby destinations with a foodie focus.
Roughly 5,000 kilometres in area, there’s no doubt that China's four main regional cuisines – fiery Szechuan, lighter Cantonese, sweet Shanghainese and wheat-heavy foods from Beijing – offer up a huge variety of palate pleasers. What would Chinese restaurants in the West do without Beijing’s finger-licking Peking duck? We dread to think.
2. Hong Kong
Of the top 20 restaurants listed in the Miele Guide, six can be found in Hong Kong, making this city a gastronome's delight. But what really shoots Hong Kong to the top five is the wonderful abundance of Cantonese dim sum (small steamed, baked or fried dumplings and other delicacies) and yum cha (tea drinking). The old-style trolley service dim sum is worth seeking out.
Crusty baguettes with chilli, mint and sweet barbecued pork, phó noodle soup topped with handfuls of coriander, and fresh rice-paper rolls bursting with prawns are just some of the delicious street dishes in Vietnam. The use of fresh herbs and chilli, coupled with surprising French elements, gives this destination a myriad of delightful flavours. Try Hoi An, a foodie haven with a slower pace.
Slivers of yellowtail sashimi, soft, vinegary sushi rolls topped with roe and prawn, clams in miso soup, barbecued skewers of shitake, asparagus wrapped in bacon, crispy tempura and Wagyu, Wagyu everywhere. Visit Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market for a breakfast bowl of rice topped with a rainbow of sashimi or explore beautiful Kyoto for food adventures and temple touring to walk off all those California rolls.
Thailand has a smorgasbord of delicious dishes that play on the five pinnacles of flavour: sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter. While it’s hard to beat a good pad thai or green curry, reward your taste buds by ordering a few items from farther afield, such as papaya salad or khao soi. Where better to start than Bangkok, where locals greet each other with “Kin khao rue yang?” (or “Have you eaten yet?”). Three hours north of Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao offers northern delicacies like banana blossom salad and Shan pork stew.
The Bad and the Ugly
Singapore has a few delights that push the uninitiated to the limit, such as durian, birds’ nest and pig’s organ soup. Here are some of the region’s more challenging delicacies.
1. Fried Rats and Bats
Fried rats are part of the native cuisine in remote areas of Thailand, while fried bats, served whole, are a common street food in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Though they're considered by some as disease-infested pests, if you can look past their morbid, toothy grins, we’re told these critters make an economical and tasty snack.
2. Dog Meat
To some, man’s best friend – to others, dinner. Dog meat is consumed in many parts of Asia, either openly where it’s socially acceptable or through the black market. In countries such as China, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, the line between pet and livestock is clearly subjective.
3. Snake Heart & Wine
Snake wine (a heady mixture of rice wine, preserved whole snake and venom) is considered a delicacy in Vietnam and China, where this brew is thought to have healing properties. For VIP guests, the chef's special can include a shot of rice wine mixed with snake blood drained from a freshly slit snake’s belly, sometimes with a dash of snake bile for added oomph. If you’re lucky, you may be offered the snake’s still-beating heart. How could you refuse?
4. How would you like your eggs – fertilised?
Balut is a popular dish commonly found as a street-side snack in the Philippines. The egg, which contains a partially formed duck foetus (bones, feathers, beak and all), is usually eaten softly boiled or raw by cracking open the egg, drinking the fluid, then seasoning the foetus with salt.
5. X-rated and served raw
Our most daring “delicacy” is an ingredient that is rather X-rated. So we’ll be cryptic here. Found in a dedicated restaurant in Beijing but thought to be eaten elsewhere in China, this X-rated animal part from ox, donkey, horse and deer is eaten pickled, boiled and even raw. It is thought to aid the libido. In case you need another clue, it rhymes with Venus. Need we say more?
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