What’s the Best Country In Asia For Eating?

From the 17th to 19th century, Grand Tourists (usually from England) would set out on a journey of discovery. This excursion had a near-cemented itinerary, a list of places a young man (it was almost always a man) would have to visit to have a well-rounded education. Paris, Geneva, Venice, Bologna Rome, Vienna were all must-sees. The travelers weren’t really traveling to eat or try new foods but we could guess they probably ate well.

If there was a grand tour of eating in the 21st century and we had to corner it to one continent only, it probably wouldn’t be Europe. It would most likely be Asia, which has a tremendous diversity of flavors and ingredients and seems more and more clear that 21st-century eating habits are adopting Asian cuisine as its own.

There was no better place to explore this idea than at the annual Lucky Rice Festival. At the Grand Feast, housed in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City, I asked a slew of well-known chefs what the best country in Asia is for eating.

Here’s what they had to say:DANIELLE CHANG
Founder and organizer of the Lucky Rice Festival
Taipei. There are so many great places to go. I’ve actually had better Japanese food in Taipei than in Japan. Just as I’ve had better Szechuan food there than in China.

CHRIS CHEUNG
Chef at Cherrywood Kitchen, New York City
Taishan, China. It’s where the first wave of immigrants in New York came from. There’s a fish and pork sausage there that is really great. My grandma made it especially well.

BRAD FARMERIE
Chef at Public, New York City
Singapore or Vietnam. I’ve been to both places and they’re both the highlights of any trip to Asia, in terms of eating. Singapore does all Asian cuisine very well. Vietnam is especially great for freshness and seaside deliciousness.

HUNG HUYNH
Chef at Catch and The General, New York City
Vietnam. Specifically, Saigon. We have the finest and freshest flavors there. It’s not too sour, not too sweet. Just right.

SUSUR LEE
Chef at Lee, Toronto
Chengdu. I ate so well there. The food is robust. The people are robust. The best thing I ate there was this hot and sour glass noodle dish. The balance of sweet and sour was so good. I just couldn’t stop eating it. I also ate an entire rack of lamb. It was six years ago and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

JEHANGIR MEHTA
Chef at Mehtaphor, New York City
Bombay. I know it well because I grew up there. But also have to say Tokyo is great, too. My sister worked there for a long time and I would often visit and eat everything I saw.

MASAHARU MORIMOTO
Chef at Morimoto, New York City and Philadelphia
I don’t know.

HONG THAIMEE
Chef at Ngam, New York City
Chiang Mai. It’s my heart and soul. I often crave kanom jeen from the Warorot Market at night. It’s a fermented rice noodle with gravy on top. The sauces are variations on curry.

DORON WONG
Chef at Toy, New York City
Singapore. It’s so diverse. You’ve got Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Indian. Plus, the local cuisine. And the weather is so great there, too.

CEDRIC VONGERICHTEN
Chef at Perry St., New York City
Tokyo. I was there four years ago and was blown away by the high quality of everything I ate. The flavor combinations of the food are amazing there. If I get the chance, I really want to go to Singapore, as well.

ANDY YANG
Chef at Rhong-Tiam, New York City
Hong Kong. I really love the Asian flavors blended with a French and English influence. There are such exotic ingredients there. I’d specifically eat a lot of street food there.

Intrepid Travel Offering 20 Percent Off All Food-Centric Trips Through August 31

vietnam
Melbourne-based Intrepid Travel – known for its cultural and food-focused trips to remote corners of the planet – is now offering 20 percent off over 350 of their trips, including the newly-launched Food Adventures. The discount is good for all trips departing before August 31, 2013.

Last fall, Intrepid partnered up with The Perennial Plate, which documents these culinary adventures in bi-weekly video clips. If that’s not inspiration enough, check out these “Summer of Adventure” trips on offer: Northern Spain (Barcelona to San Sebastian), India (Delhi to Goa), and Vietnam (Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City).

The trips run from four to 14 days, and have been designed in collaboration with renowned chefs, cookbook authors and other food experts, including Susan Feniger and Tracey Lister. Trip prices include accommodation, ground transportation, a local guide, activities listed on the itinerary and, in many cases, cooking classes, meals with locals and trips to local markets.

[Photo credit: Intrepid Travel]

Souvenir Of The Week: Snake Wine In Vietnam

Reportedly, it tastes like envelope glue. And there might be a gecko or lizard floating around, like a hair in the soup du jour. But who cares? You’re not actually going to swirl and sip the snake wine you bring back from this Southeast Asian nation. You’re going to casually set it on the table at your next dinner party and freak everyone out and give them yet another reason to use a camera phone at mealtime. Bottles of rice wine with a preserved reptile coiled inside (scorpions are another variation) are popular souvenirs from Vietnam, where the dissolved poison is said to be used for medicinal purposes, and they make fantastic conversation pieces - if you can get them through Customs. Bottles are subject to U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service prohibitions on importing certain reptiles.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Niko si]

Fire-Breathing Bridge, A Determined New Jersey Effort, In Vietnam

Fire-breathing dragons are nothing new. We saw one of those briefly over Disney World not long ago, celebrating the opening of new Fantasyland, Disney’s largest expansion in 41 years.

Interesting bridges are more of a permanent attraction, and we took a look at the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, a Gadling Photo of the Day, just last week.

But what about a bridge that is also a fire-breathing dragon? Now that’s something different.

Modeled after a bridge from the Ly Dynasty, Vietnam recently unveiled a new 1,864-foot bridge that is shaped like a dragon and illuminated by 2,500 LED lights. Better yet, the bridge shoots fire from its mouth along with giant plumes of water.

Unveiled in Da Nang on the 38th anniversary of capturing the city near the end of the Vietnam War, the six-lane bridge, built by a New Jersey-based firm, cost about $85 million.

“This achievement is the result of the determination of Da Nang’s leaders and the consensus of the local people,” Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said at an unveiling ceremony in March, reports YahooNews. “The government always supports Da Nang to become the center of economic, cultural and economic development in the central and Central Highlands region as well as the country.”

How To Eat Bolivian Street Food (Without Shame)

street foodThere’s a certain breed of traveler who will, often to their detriment, go to extreme lengths to avoid looking like a tourist. I know, because I’m one of them. Whatever spawned this phobia is anyone’s guess, but I really, really, really dislike standing out in a crowd, especially if that crowd is foreign, and I’m eating.

While I also sneak looks at maps and guidebooks on the DL when I’m lost, the thing that really troubles me is being clueless about local or national etiquette while dining, especially when it comes to street food (my raison d’être). I always research beforehand – learning, for example, that in Thailand the spoon is the primary eating utensil; it’s abhorrent to insert a fork into your mouth and chopsticks are only used for noodle dishes and primarily in the North. But it’s sometimes impossible to know local custom until you’re actually in the moment (above, Bolivian lustrabotas, or shoe shine men, eat on the street)

I’m pretty sure it was a long-ago trip to Vietnam that scarred me. I’d been in the country all of a couple of hours, and was eating my first meal. I was sitting at a miniscule table on the sidewalk in coastal Nha Trang, happily wolfing down báhn cuon. That is, until the young Vietnamese guy next to me, who unfortunately spoke some English, informed me that I was eating it the wrong way, and making something of an ass of myself (yet providing entertainment for our less vocal tablemates). I was mortified, and sure enough, I noticed the snickers and giggles due to how the silly round-eye was eating her rice noodle roll. To be honest, I can’t even remember how to eat bánh cuon, but at the time, it was clearly emotionally challenging.saltenaWhile I appreciated the advice, I didn’t particularly feel it was given so much to be helpful as it was to make me feel stupid. Or maybe that’s just how I interpreted it. But ever since, my policy regarding street food in vastly different cultures has been to adopt a watch-and-wait policy.

When I arrived in Bolivia two weeks ago, I leapt of out bed my first morning to head to the Mercado Lanza to try some salteñas and tucumanas– two Bolivian street specialties that are variations on the ubiquitous empanada. Empanadas are my Kryptonite, so I was ready to do some damage. Best of all, there’s no learning curve. Insert in mouth; enjoy. I naively assumed their Bolivian cousins are just as easy to gobble.

Salteñas (right) are baked pastries formed into domed half-moons. They’re usually filled with a spiced meat and egg mixture, but their essential purpose is to be full of juice. I knew this, but grossly underestimated just how much they’re the Shanghai soup dumplings of pastry. The proper way to eat them is not to simply purchase and take a huge bite (note to self), because that will result in a.) scalding, meaty juice exploding in your mouth and singing its way down your esophagus, and b.) greasy, aromatic, meaty juice squirting all over your clothes (like, say, your really expensive microlight down jacket that you use for backpacking). You’ll also attract the attention of passerby, who will smirk at the idiot gringa who just had a salteña explode in her face.

I later learned, from a menu photo at a salteñeria, that one is supposed to eat them with a spoon. I’m not sure how that applies to the street, but let’s just say my second go was much more successful, and less humiliating. That said, I’m not a big salteña fan, as it turns out.
Tucumanas are basically the same shape as empanadas, except they’re always fried. They’re often filled with a mixture of chicken and potato, and my first taste occurred about 15 minutes after my unfortunate salteña encounter.
street food
Determined not to be the same fool twice, I watched a crazy-busy street vendor (right) frying and serving tucumanas at warp speed. My street food credo is to only purchase from stalls or carts that are doing a rapid business, to ensure a fresh product (plus, it’s a sign that the food is good, if not great). I observed the various patrons eating their tucumanas, and when I felt ready, I ordered one.

It was rapturous – light as air, yet fragrant and savory. I stood hovering next to the cart, squirting a bit of mayonnaise-based salsa into the tucumana after each bite. I hunched, so as not to dribble any bits of filling. I shared the salsa squeeze bottle. I wiped my mouth with the square of paper it had been wrapped in. Then I ordered another. You know you’ve achieved street food nirvana when the vendor doesn’t demand money until you’ve eaten your fill. Bless you, Bolivia.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]