Southeast Asia is truly the home to the dishes of my dreams. It's the fresh ingredients, the simple balance of sweet and sour flavours and the punch of chillies that we just can't achieve in our Thai restaurants at home. Even the simplest street stalls across Asia do it better.
I waited three weeks to try Cambodia's national dish, amok curry (I know, I know). This coconut cream based fish (or chicken) curry has an egg added and spooned into pockets made from banana leaves and steamed. The result is a thick custard-like curry sauce with incredibly tender meat.
This dish was so beautiful I ate it every day I had left in Cambodia. I have vivid memories of sitting in a little bamboo restaurant on the side of a hill, eating amok curry and watching the lightning strike out at sea every evening. I was on Koh Rong Island and it was the wet season.
Sadly, I have yet to see a Cambodian restaurant outside of that smiling little nation.
I really struggled with picking a single dish in Thailand. So I stuck with what really made Thai food sing. The street stalls.
The tastiest Pad Thai I've ever eaten was fried up by a woman in a spotless white silk blouse (not my first choice in cooking attire). She served up a giant plate of steaming noodles, with plenty of lime wedges (I loved seeing limes handed out so generously with meals) for only $2.
The mango coconut sticky rice pudding was surprisingly light and sweet.
The Penang curry left me in tears because it was so deliciously god damn spicy regardless of how mild I requested it.
Then I discovered Massaman curry and I began making it at home, swapping out potatoes with kumara (sweet potato), which adds a sweet element to a rather rich curry (plus I'm a kumara fiend).
Usually I would find a whole street lined with stalls and stop at each one, eating a little here and there. Seriously, I ate so often that one meal seemed to blend into the next.
The most pleasant surprise about Vietnamese food was the green papaya pork salad. The papayas were unripe and firm, and perfect for shredding. The sauce is sweet, the papayas sour, the peanuts salty and tossed with a heap of fragrant coriander leaves. Can you practically taste it? I'm salivating as I write this. A perfect combination of components that only the Asian nations have truly mastered.
I pretty much lived in hawker markets in Singapore, at $2-3 a meal they helped keep my budget down after shopping. (So. Much. Shopping.)
Singapore's cuisine is so heavily influenced by its surrounding countries that I don't believe there is a truly Singaporean dish (except perhaps the Singapore Sling - does that count?).
While there for ten days I ate Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, and Korean dishes, often eating alone, so the my book would be stained by dribbled food. (Yes, I'm that elegant).
Ah, Laos. French/Asian cuisine fusion. Baguettes with spicy pork floss. Yes, floss. Kind of like biting into delicious dryer lint. The pork is stewed and shredded, oven dried and fried in a wok. Great with a heap of mayonnaise and avocados.
Then there was noodle soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not as spicy as Thailand but earthy in flavour and topped with a handful of fresh herbs,
I suffered culture shock in Malaysia. It was my first visit to a developing country and I was really homesick. So I ate Subway Sandwiches every day for a week. Once I went into a KFC and saw they had fried chicken in rice porridge on the menu and I couldn't believe it. It's actually KFC's version of congee.
Note: unfortunately, these pictures aren't mine. I wished I'd taken photographs of these dishes while I was there, but all I could think about at the time was how hungry I was after sweating and sight-seeing all day.
It would usually occur to me halfway through the meal that I should have taken a photo - but nobody wants to see my violated, half eaten dish. So I would vow to photograph the next meal.
And all-consuming thoughts of eating would erase it.
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