The thing that sets Asian food apart for me is how much emphasis each country puts on the importance of cooking. Often presented in a kaleidoscopic palette of colors, the preparation of much of Asia’s offerings can be time-consuming, and the subtle and imaginative flavors, therefore, are to be savored, appreciated, and enjoyed. Food is not just celebrated, but is an essential part of celebrations. Religion, spirituality, and myth play a larger role in Asian food than in Western cooking, and uncovering the beliefs that make each dish unique made for a fascinating gastronomical journey.
As I traveled I pushed myself to learn about eating etiquette, perfected the art of chopsticks and learnt to eat with my hands. I found that talking about food is an excellent icebreaker with locals and discovered it is also a wonderful way to find out more about the culture and history of each place. With every mouthful I felt connected to the countries I visited. And that’s the great thing about food – it connects us all.
So here is the list of my favorite food from a year of traveling. I’m pretty sure that you won’t have heard of all of these before, but if you have do let me know in the comments box! Or simply tell me which one is your favorite and why – I love to talk about food!
1.오징어 순대오징어 순대 (Squid Sundae) – South Korea
Squid sundae is basically fried squid stuffed with baked squid, and is a specialty of Gangwon-do province in South Korea. I visited Gangwon-do to go to Sockho (one of Korea’s best seaside cities) just a few weeks before I left the country. It was freezing cold and my friends and I packed into a tiny cafe where we sat down cross-legged on the heated floor and gripped onto our metal chopsticks with frosty fingers. From every corner of the room dazed fish stared out of green tanks, and plumes of steam rose in steady waves from the kitchen. A kind Korean waitress came over and recommended that we start our meal with squid sundae. My only regret on taking her up on this offer was that I was utterly miserable to have discovered such an amazing dish just before I left Korea.
2.Cendol – Malaysia
Strolling along a canal in Melaka’s Chinatown one sunny afternoon, a Chinese woman pulled me into her shop and insisted that I try Cendol. “It taste best” was her only description of it. I pulled up a chair on the balcony which backed out over the water and enjoyed the cool breeze as I waited for her to prepare my food. When it arrived I thought that there were actual worms in my meal. “What is the green stuff?” I asked in horror. “It good, try” she said. As she watched, I brought the large Chinese soup spoon to my lips and took a rather nervous first bite. I was relieved to discover that the green bits were actually made of gelatin, and the creamy brown bit was sweet chunks of shaved ice mixed with brown sugar and coconut milk. I was hooked from the first bite.
3.String Hoppers Kottu – Sri Lanka
String Hoppers Kottu is not a typical Sri Lankan dish. Normally it would be two different dishes – string hoppers, or kottu. But some entrepreneurial person in Colombo decided to combine these two national favorites and he came up with this hybrid dish. The creation itself is a blend of rice flour noodles, chili, vegetables, and meat, all cut up, cooked, and mixed together on a large metal hot plate. I found this delicious dish at a roadside shack on the way back from a night out in Sri Lanka’s capital. At 2am I think it probably tasted a little better than it would have at any other time, but sadly I was never able to find it again to put this theory to the test.
4.Rice and curry with elephant leaves – Sri Lanka
Whilst camping (some would say glamping) in Yala National Park, I was amazed to find that the quality of food cooked up in the bush was among some of the best I’d had during my time in Sri Lanka. This delicious rice and curry was beautifully complemented by the tart pickles, tangy beetroot, and fried “elephant leaves” – a leaf only found in this part of Sri Lanka that is as popular with the elephants as it is with the guests to the park. The leaves were crisp, salty, and wonderfully flavorsome. They were like nothing I’d ever tried before (or since).
5.Crab Curry – Sri Lanka
This meal was every bit as delicious as it looks! One night in Colombo a few friends and I decided to treat ourselves to dinner in one of the capital’s most talked about restaurants, Ministry Of Crab. Famed for sourcing its cooking techniques from Japan, and its crabs freshly from Lankan seas, dining at the restaurant was a rather over-the-top affair with crab aprons to be worn, a range of crab flesh-plucking utensils to choose from, and a slightly pretentious atmosphere to chew on – although that all added to the experience. Half way through eating, the owner of the restaurant came to join us, bringing a few bottles of top quality wine with him. The evening is a blur from then on, but I remember that the crab was juicy, spicy, and just wonderful. Thoroughly worth the $30 or so I forked out for it.
6.Milkrice, mung beans, and coconut sambol – Sri Lanka
You can’t get many breakfasts better than this. Milkrice is a sweet blend of coconut milk and rice that is often served during special occasions such as new year, birthdays and weddings in Sri Lanka. Mung beans – a type of green bean mixed with grated coconut – are typically served for breakfast in the home, but are extremely hard to find in cafes and restaurants. And finally the meal is rounded off by my favorite thing of all time, coconut sambol, which is crushed onions, red chili, and grated coconut.
7.Thali – India
Thalis are one of the best ways to sample the unique flavors of Indian cuisine if you are on a tight budget! For around $2-$3 you get a plethora of different dishes, all rich in taste and wonderfully spiced. It is also common to get a pile of rice or bread, popadoms, sambols, salad and sometimes even a desert. Thalis are best eaten with the hands, and you can use the bread to scoop up the last bits of curry once you are done. Usually a waiter will even refill your dishes as soon as they empty for no extra cost.
8.Goan curry – India
Everyone raved about Goan curries whilst I was there, but for the most part I found them bland and westernized That was until I visited the spice garden in the South of Goa where I was served up one of the most fiery curries I have ever eaten, and I loved it! The rice was scented with jasmine and herbs, the pickled cabbage and large portion of lime pickle was sharp and sour, and the curries were creamy and thick.