Eating in Southeast Asia: The Most Memorable Foods I Tried

by Ekua on May 16, 2013 in Cambodia,eats and drinks,Laos,Thailand,Vietnam

I don’t think there was one aha! moment where I transformed from a picky eater to a more open one, but travel certainly expedited the transition. Over time, I found that new worlds opened up to me when I tried unfamiliar foods and that food was often an entryway into the history and psyche of a place.

Southeast Asia came at the right time in my food awakening and my newfound appreciation for Southeast Asian cuisine played a role in picking it as a destination. While I looped my way around the region, I didn’t strive to be Andrew Zimmern, but I made a concerted effort to be more adventurous with my meals. Of course, I could never get enough pad thai, but the foods that lingered on my taste buds long after my trip was over were the ones with new and unfamiliar flavors:

Durian and Assorted Fruit

I tried durian on my second night in Bangkok. After all the stories I’d heard about it, I didn’t think it was bad at all. It didn’t smell foul and it had a nutty and buttery flavor. It seems that Thai people prefer to eat their durian at a less ripe stage, so perhaps the one I tried was milder and less offensive. But I think durian is like cilantro— some people think it tastes repulsive like soap and others can’t imagine life without it. Beyond durian, any time I ordered a side of unspecified fruit, it was an adventure. Some of the new fruits I tried included longan, rambutan, sapodilla, and dragon fruit.

Amok in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Amok is fish mousse and that may not sound very appetizing, but it was one of the most delicious things I ate in Southeast Asia. For this dish, fish is mixed with coconut cream and spices and then steamed inside a banana leaf. The end result is a wonderful surprise; it’s delicate, full of flavor, and the coconut adds a wonderful creaminess that pairs well with the fish.

Cambodian BBQ in Siem Reap, Cambodia

The Cambodian BBQ has undertones of gimmickiness, but nevertheless, it’s a great place to sample meats you would not otherwise try. On a menu that also included snake and kangaroo, we chose crocodile and ostrich. As a backup, we also ordered chicken. Uncooked meat was brought to us in containers with a little picture of the animal so we would know what it was. We barbecued the meat ourselves on a dome-shaped contraption that had boiling broth at its base. We added noodles and veggies to the soup along with with the meat to complete our meal. In the end we loved the crocodile which tasted like a combination of chicken and fish and the ostrich which had a flavor akin to beef cooked in red wine. The chicken ended up being everyone’s least favorite because it tasted so boring compared to the other two.

Cao Lau in Hoi An

On my first day in Hoi An, I noticed that the menus had a few dishes I hadn’t seen in Southern Vietnam. I decided to try cao lau, a local specialty. It’s a noodle soup with a five spice flavored broth, pork, and greens and it’s topped off with bits of crispy fried dough. In Vietnam, I’d felt that flavors were muted and the eater was often expected to add his or her own spice, but this was flavorful and thoroughly enjoyable without having to dump a lot of chili sauce in it. Much of Hoi An’s unique vibe comes from its history as trading port, and the amalgamation of cultural influences in this soup make it a fitting dish for the city.

Lao Coffee in Luang Prabang, Laos

By the time I arrived in Laos, I had accepted the fact that I’d most likely find a pool of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom of my coffee as long as I was in Southeast Asia. But Laos was where I finally learned to enjoy it. In Laos, the coffee itself tasted different, it was thick and rustic. It made sense in the setting and Lao coffee kind of charms people in the same way that Laos does. Some of my fondest memories in Luang Prabang are of sitting on the sidewalk, drinking Lao coffee from a little glass cup, and chatting with locals and fellow travelers.

Khao Soi in Chang Mai, Thailand

When I arrived at a street food plaza in Chiang Mai, I was hungry and didn’t know what anything was, so I just pointed at a random dish on the menu. What I got turned out to be one of the top meals of my life. It took a lot of Googling when I got home to figure out what it was, but eventually I learned that it was called khao soi, a dish that is rarely on the menu at Thai restaurants in the States. It’s a noodle soup with a coconut curry broth and my bowl that night was served with shrimp and just the right amount of spice. Years later, I can still picture myself smiling widely as I slurped down that delicious soup at the night market.

Thai Wonton Soup in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Thailand

I’ve had wonton soup countless times at Chinese restaurants, but I was blown away by the Thai version. I tried it at street food stalls in both Chiang Mai and Bangkok and couldn’t pinpoint what exactly was different about the broth, but it was very, very tasty.

Non-profit restaurants run by local youth

Throughout Southeast Asia, there are several inviting restaurants that are operated by non-profit organizations which train and employ underserved youth or benefit the local community in some way. I enjoyed fresh salads, curries, my very first bahn mi sandwich, and many more tasty meals at these spots:

– Romdeng in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
Friends in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
Sozo in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Baguette & Chocolat in Hanoi, Vietnam
Organic Farm Cafe in Vang Vieng, Laos

 

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Carina May 16, 2013 at 8:12 am

I had durian in Singapore and it smelled wretched. I was certain I would hate it based solely on the smell, so I was very surprised to love it. I have only had bahn mi in the US since I haven’t been to Vietnam, but can’t wait to eat the original one day!

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Sojourner May 16, 2013 at 3:46 pm

I tried durian expecting it to be horrid because of its reputation, but I really liked it. I was also not too off-put by the odor. I suppose it affects everyone differently. Glad you enjoyed the food of Southeast Asia!

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Travel Geek May 18, 2013 at 7:11 pm

I love SEA tropical fruits also. They are so refreshing. I look forward to your review of Indonesian food

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Mindy and Ligeia May 18, 2013 at 10:04 pm

Very yummy post! We loved the fruit plate the best as we delight in the wide assortment of fruit offered in Thailand. Tried the durian but were not exactly fans.
Khao soy is very popular in the Lanna culture (northern Thai). If you want a vegan version of this dish, go to Taste From Heaven just outside Thae Pae Gate.
All this talk about food is making us hungry. 🙂

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Serina Patterson May 19, 2013 at 3:01 am

The Amok actually sounds really good, especially with some fresh spices! I’ve wanted to go to Laos for quite a long time — is their cuisine close to Thai or Vietnamese food?

Also, love, love, love Thai Wonton Soup!

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Katie Coakley May 26, 2013 at 6:29 pm

I loved the amok in Cambodia and the cao lau in Hoi An was one of my favorite tastes in Vietnam. I did a street food tour in Siem Reap and was able to try some crazy things like crickets and grilled eggs. I love eating my way through a country!

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