by Janet Forman
After thirty years of Khao Pad Naem, Gaeng Bawt and Curry Kapitan, my rulebook for eating in Asia has evolved into one simple dictum: Never set foot in a restaurant. At least not one with a roof or walls. While most gourmands analyze guidebooks and scrutinize blogs for the sleekest temples of haute cuisine, I follow the scent of ginger and mint to hunt down the most compelling food stalls. When I come upon a diminutive granny manning the brazier, sternly commanding her minions to dice tinier shards for the bitter melon stew or press a deeper char on the gai yang chicken, I feel like Henri Mouhot stumbling upon the ruins of Angkor Wat. In fact, I feel better: This is a cultural artifact I can eat.
That’s how I’ve come to be sandwiched between local farmers on the rough planks of a northern Lao food stall, the embers of a cooking fire toasting my face against the dawn chill. Absorbed in topping my bowl of chewy Khao Soi noodles with handfuls of cabbage and attempting to stealthily raid the communal condiment bowl for last few leaves of mint, I grasp the flask of soy sauce and pull back in surprise: the bottle is hot. Hundreds of miles from the nearest supermarket, this flavor enhancer is brewed fresh before dawn. As I slurp, a heady mix of fragrances and flavors bombard my senses: a fierce bite of garlic piercing the vegetal tang of fresh coriander, the acrid aroma of wood smoke perfuming my hair. Even the sounds are alien: an oxen’s snort etched against a babble of Hmong and Akha, tongues so foreign I can’t separate one syllable from the next. A few stalls down, the hill tribe woman in a black headdress weighted with silver coins is snipping a tangle of rough noodles with tiny blunt shears. When her betel smeared lips beckon me to buy ingredients for a loamy forest stew, I eagerly fill plastic bags with banana flowers, pumpkin shoots and pepperwood (which to my admittedly untrained eye looks suspiciously like kindling.) Then it dawns on me that my guesthouse room lacks a kitchen. So I settle on the local version of takeaway: a sheaf of crispy black chips made from sun dried rock algae, and a thick palm full of sticky rice squeezed around a bit of meat. As always, I surrender to the siren song of ‘jeow,’ the local fermented soybean paste, with full knowledge that the garlic and chili will remain my faithful companions for hours.
Asian food markets are a sensory circus that can stagger even world-wise celebrity chefs. For American TV personality Anthony Bourdain, who cooked brasserie French-style at New York’s Les Halles, “Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo was a life changing moment. It rocked my world,” he confesses. “I’d never seen color like that before; I didn’t know there was so much fish in the sea.”
Michelin three star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose restaurant empire now rings the globe, was equally overwhelmed on his first visit to Asia: “When the door of the plane opened in Bangkok,” he recalls, “the air was so different from Paris - a mixture of lemongrass, incense, jasmine and pollution - I knew I was someplace very different.” Vongerichten looks for street food near the temples, “because people go to temple every day,” he reasons. After a few sticks of nutty sate, he’ll likely head toward the nearest schoolyard for sweets like gooey roasted banana with condensed milk, tuiles with the savory sweet spin of grated coconut and salt, and lollipops spiked with lip puckering tamarind. There’s always something to learn. He closely observes the vendor of tiny crisp-crusted cakes to discover the secret of their pillowy center: twice-poured batter in a cast iron pan.
To chef and author Mai Pham, the sticky rice vendor cooking over a wood fire near the Saigon Hyatt is working on the highest culinary plane. After a lifetime making only three varieties of one dish - plain, turmeric and black sticky rice - Pham maintains this street cook is a master at balancing the crunch of roasted peanuts and sesame seeds against toasty rice paper, before topping the dish with creamy mung bean paste. Her stand is a ritual stop on Pham’s forays sponsored by the Culinary Institute of America, leading small groups to iconic dishes the casual traveler might miss. She’ll happily accompany food aficionados to the center of Saigon’s boisterous Ben Thanh Market for the best bun thit nuong : a flavor riot of grilled lemongrass pork and cool rice noodles with a reckless mix of sliced spring roll, fried shallots, roasted peanuts and pickled vegetables doused in Vietnamese fish sauce. “You can have this dish in other parts of the world,” Pham observes, “but you don’t really understand it until you come here and see how it’s done.”
Vongerichten agrees. “When you eat them here, all the dishes make sense. In Koh Samui, Thailand, when I saw anchovies for Nam Pla drying on wood racks, I suddenly understood how in the old days with no refrigeration they had to salt, dry, and take juice from the fish as soon as it was caught.”***
To help visitors understand how these foods evolve from Vietnamese culture, Pham takes them to the homes of countryside cooks and artisans like the rice paper producers of Trang Bang village. “We sit down at an earthenware pot under a thatch roof and make rice paper with the grandmother, who explains the origin of local traditions such as taking the paper outdoors at midnight to absorb the dew,” says Pham. “Cookbooks are great, but there’s no substitute for the real experience,” she admits. “And you ought to come soon,” she warns, “because the authorities are trying to clean up the streets and send the vendors inside,” where she fears some of the most authentic dishes may perish.***
Accomplished international chefs like Vietnamese-born Charles Phan, owner of San Francisco’s Slanted Door, pine for artisanal products such as delicate rice paper and silky tofu, which they find only in Asia. “The U.S. doesn’t have Vietnam’s superb tofu craftsmanship, or certain indigenous shellfish, clams and vegetables,” acknowledges this chef whose stylish home cooking has made him a celebrity in America. “That’s why you don’t see many of the simplest dishes outside the country,” he observes, the ones that depend on ingredients alone, like pork belly balanced with a dipping sauce. “So every time I go home to Vietnam I end up giving away half my clothes and filling my suitcase with food,” he laughs.
Not far away in rural Laos, a new raft of eco-lodges are giving travelers hands on experience with culinary and agricultural tasks most of us have only seen through a telephoto lens, like planting rice. At Kamu Lodge, a three-hour boat journey up the Mekong from the temple town of Luang Prabang, the hardest part of my rice farming apprenticeship is staying upright in the slippery mud, and it isn’t so easy getting the rows straight, either. My reward for laying in a few lopsided plants — which the farmer doubtless pulled out the moment I left — is a village style meal under a pavilion deep in the paddies: chunks of fire charred river fish shot through with lemongrass, pork curry with grace notes of kefir lime, and mounds of inky sticky rice spooned from a hand pounded silver tureen.
Traveling north to The Boat Landing eco-lodge, a string of bamboo and thatch cottages along the Namtha River, I enter a remote province where Akha and Hmong women still trade vegetables at dawn while men haul troll-faced catfish onto long tailed boats. The kitchen recalls a village hearth, with meat roasting over charcoal fires and women pounding garlic and forest nuts with mortar and pestles. A stream of complex village specialties issue from this simple cookhouse such as ‘mokes,’ fish or meat steamed in banana leaf with pungent local basil and gingery galangal, and Black Thai Stew with rattan shoots and mak ken , a forest spice that tingles the tongue.
The fare along Asia’s city streets can be just as rustic. On a throbbing soi near Bangkok’s Klong Toey market, I hand over a few bills for what looks like plump golden fries. Grasping the paper cone, I blink: these ‘chips’ have legs and wings. The preferred snack in this part of town is crickets. These days, rural dishes like the arthropod offerings of northeast Thailand’s Isan region are arriving in Asian cities with migrant labor. Singapore is another metropolis with a singular cuisine: the elaborate nineteenth century dishes of the Peranakans, wealthy Chinese traders who married local Nyonya women. At homey shop houses wedged between the soaring office towers, cooks prepare the vibrantly colored curries and intricate sweet, salt and sour stews that evolved in their ancestors’ well-staffed kitchens, where the hands of many servants could wring milk from grated coconut, hollow out hundreds of nuts and chop vegetables into minuscule pieces.
In Hanoi, French-born Didier Corlou, until recently executive chef at the Métropole Hotel, has a passion for Vietnam’s potent fish sauce, nuóc mam, which is fermented for a year in earthenware jars and tapped off in first, second and third distillations like olive oil. He goes to the northern Nha Trang region for salty Cat Hai, best for seasoning a dish before cooking; to central Vietnam for the version known as Quy Nhon; and to the south for his favorite, Phu Quoc, made from anchovies and ideal as a finishing sauce. After more than a decade in the country, Corlou still revels in Hanoi’s ancient markets, a cacophony of squawking ducks and hawkers cries amid pyramids of fecund fruit, where the local breakfast crowd devours Pho - creamy rice noodles bathed in coriander-scented broth - hunkered low over blue plastic stools. He admires Vietnamese chefs’ intimate feel for temperature, honed by cooking over embers or open flames with no thermostats, switches or timers. Corlou also understands the local flavor profile: “The Vietnamese don’t like too sweet a taste, so they do things like put chili on their pineapple,” he notes. On a morning shopping trip to the 1912 Market, Corlou hoists a struggling crab to check its gender. “My wife, who was born here, tells me the females give more flavor,” he confides. Yet while Corlou respects Vietnamese tradition, eschewing butter, olive oil and cream, and using tea in place of stock, he has no qualms about giving local food his personal spin, placing caviar atop a banh cuon pancake, or perfuming crème brûlée with cardamom. “It’s like giving a subtle makeover to a beautiful Vietnamese woman,” he winks.
It’s hard to go wrong almost anywhere in the region, maintains James Oseland, Editor in Chief of U.S. “Saveur” magazine and author of this year’s James Beard Award winning book, Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. “My first trip to Asia shook things to the core,” he avows. “The layering upon layering of flavors and textures that you find in a really sophisticated curry changed how I view food,” he flatly states. “Maybe even how I viewed taste. And by ’sophisticated,’ I don’t mean from a fancy hotel, it could come from a bamboo hut. Southeast Asian cuisines are so exuberantly flavorful,” he declares, “you get an immediate BOOM of Nutmeg! Clove! Lime leaves! Not so much information that it cancels itself out, but glorious and joyful, where you can taste the earth or the jungle or the Java Sea. Stay at a swank hotel if you like,” Oseland advises, “but get out there and eat from the street vendors. If you see a crowd of locals you’ll be fine.”