After arriving back in the UK, I’ve been missing the SE Asian food. Even though towards the end of the 6 weeks Leia was getting tired of rice and noodles, she text me craving pad thai.
So I thought I’d put some musings about the food on here, and some things that we loved, including types of eateries and how they hold up against each other in terms of taste/price.
As we started off in Thailand we’ll look at the dishes we had there, starting with spicy basil and chilli with your choice of (mostly) chicken or pork mince and rice. I ended up having this quite a few times as it tasted so good and really hit my spicy spot. I knew it wasn’t overbearing spice do could have it without fear of feeling it the next day. The best I had was on a beach bar in Koh Samet for 80baht, the worst I had was in a restaurant in Bangkok for 125baht.
This will be a common theme and something people who have travelled will already know. Don’t get me wrong, some street food or cheaper stuff wasn’t great, but generally the best food we had was from places I wouldn’t dream of eating in back in the UK. My Mum calls them ‘plastic cafes’ due to the plastic chairs that often dominate the space.
The second dish is pad thai, a common and consistently different dish depending where you have it. I think the worst we had was on khao san road in a bar, but one of the best was from a small cart on the same road. It’s a dish that shouldn’t go too wrong, consisting of noodles, bean sprouts, egg, sometimes tofu, sometimes meat, spring onion and peanuts. It’s so nice and the best we had was on koh samet from a little cart where we had it for brunch several days.
There was a beautiful yellow curry with crab that we all tried on the same night, plenty of that great claw meat and just the right balance of coconut, chilli and lemongrass. This again was from the same cart in koh samet. It was a nice part of being somewhere for more than 2/3 days, we could find our favourite little place and revisit. Also watch out for expat westerners advertising each other’s businesses, we were told certain places were ‘the best’ but you soon realise they’re mates helping each other out. Fair enough if you’re happy with sub par western food but explore and take risks if you want to experience amazing flavours.
Another dish we enjoyed was so simple, just chicken or pork fried with lots of garlic, it was great when you got crunchy and soft bits of garlic in amongst the meat. You always got rice with it too. These dishes were all regular members on menus everywhere we went.
Once we made it to Laos it was baguette time, because of it’s past as a French colony bread and cakes are everywhere. In Vang Vieng there were stalls lining the streets at night offering about 30 different filling combinations. I had hotdog, egg and cheese, diet starts tomorrow!
There were also crepe carts next to all the baguette carts to satisfy your sweet tooth needs. Other than that we were poor at finding any typical Laos foods. Although Luang Prabang night market is filled with buffet style vendors offering a plate for a pound, you walk along and fill your plate as much or as little as you like. Bear in mind it’s only a one off and you can’t go back like a pizza hut or breakfast buffet!
They also had beautiful cake stalls selling all manner of sponges,brownies, cinnamon twists and flapjacks. It was amazing and a nice taste of home in a far off world.
Sorry Laos, we were only there for a few days so maybe we didn’t experience the traditional food.
Next up was Vietnam, in my opinion far and away the best of the bunch, they just have so much variety and it was always very fresh and full of flavour.
A few days into the trip we found a video extolling the virtues of different Vietnamese dishes, we wrote down the ones that sounded good on a piece of paper. Then when we were out and about we could point to the paper and someone would always help us in the right direction. It was fun because you almost let the person you’re asking decide what you’ll be having. It worked great and I wish we had done it more often.
One of the highlights was Tamarind crab from a little place at An Bang beach. The sweet and sour flavours were incredible and it was fun (and time consuming) tearing the crab open to find all the meat. It was a very messy dish but the sticky sauce was good enough to lick off your fingers.
In Hanoi we had some amazing Banh Mi, a baguette filled with pork and asian salad with a spicy or not so spicy sauce. It was the best lunch ever and we got an even better one from a random cart on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh. I think the one in Ho Chi cost about 40p! People say they lose weight in Asia, but I’m not so sure with all that bread.
Leia wasn’t a fan of noodle soup, difficult in a nation that eats Pho (noodle soup) from am to pm. However on our list was bun mam, something we found in a market in Danang. We were laughed at for asking after Banh xeo (more on that soon) but were led to the usual plastic stools and served amazing noodles and meat with just a spoonful of broth and sauce. We were served by the smallest old lady ever, and she couldn’t stop smiling at us as we wolfed it down.
As for Banh xeo, this is the most random dish, it’s based around an eggy type pancake with maybe shrimp or pork cooked into it. You then get a plate of greens, some kind of spicy sauce, maybe with peanuts. Finally you get rice paper which you proceed to wrap everything else up in. It was super tasty and I love anything that you can eat without cutlery. Probably some leftover Neanderthal blood, that or I’m just gross.
I imagine everyone has tried spring rolls, but possibly not Vietnamese spring rolls, they have similar fillings but are wrapped in gooey rice paper and taste about ten times fresher than deep fried versions (which you still get in Vietnam).
There are too many dishes in Vietnam to get through, one of many reasons I’ll be back there. The final dish we loved was similar to banh xeo only instead of pancakes it was pork skewers that you wrapped up. In fact we struck lucky with a restaurant called Ba Le Well in Hoi An, where we got pancakes and pork! Along with a form of kimchi, you got platefuls of the stuff but we were too reserved to ask for more when offered.
The pork skewer version is called Nem Nuong and came with a delicious satay type sauce.
One of the best dishes we had was from a tiny little place in Ho Chi Minh. It was just a few plastic kids chairs and a cart, we didn’t know Vietnamese so just pointed to the cart and shrugged. We soon had egg, rice, sauce, salad, tofu and some kind of processed meat square. It was literally amazing and a good example of how just sitting down somewhere and asking for the staple dish works.
It’s not all plain sailing however, and again in Ho Chi Minh we stopped at a place because we couldn’t be bothered walking anymore and it was gross, a big fat guy served us and walked away before we had even finished ordering. The first and last time anyone is Asia was rude to us in a shop or restaurant.
Cambodia was last on the trip, and everywhere had BBQ. We tried it in Phnom Penh and it was so good, you get a portable camping stove topped with a dish that has a hill in the middle of it. We were disappointed we didn’t get to take charge but the young waiter was very good. Firstly a chunk of pork fat and some butter goes on the hill and broth goes around it. This is a good thing, as the fats slide down into the broth adding flavour. You then add the various meats to the hill, we got pork, chicken, beef, fish, squid and frog. The vegetables and noodles go in the broth and you spoon bowlfuls of it out. Eating the meat as it cooks through, it’s fun, social and very tasty! Everything you want in food.
The other thing we had in Cambodia was bugs! We did it the posh way and went to a place called Bugs Cafe in Siem Reap. Owned by a Frenchman they do posh bug dishes such as burgers, skewers, spring rolls and Mediterranean styles. We went for a platter and it was great, once you get past the fact you’re eating bugs the flavours are really good. We had tarantula donut, fire ant spring rolls, silkworm larvae and crickets in Mediterranean veg and a skewer with spider, waterbug and crickets on it. All washed down with a jug of beer, it was a fun and worthwhile experience. A very controlled way of trying bugs for the first time, and it makes a good story!
The food in Asia is so tasty, fresh, and satisfying that I couldn’t get enough of it. I think I had western food 3 times or so in the 6 weeks we were there. Even simple fried rice or noodle dishes were great and there was so much more to try. Unfortunately when on a budget it’s hard to go for the more expensive £3-4 dishes when you can get a main for 50p, but I wish we had tried some more things! Three is always next time though ;).