We left the United States in February, 2011 and over the course of the almost two years we’ve been in Asia we’ve eaten a lot of things. It’s basically impossible to try and pick a favorite for each place we’ve been, but I’m going to try and do that right now to let you imagine what our taste buds have experienced over the past couple of years. A few of these are staple foods that the local people in each locale eat all the time
because they’re damn cheap and tasty, and I think that’s always a good place to start when exploring a cuisine.
Korea: Doenjang Jjigae (soybean paste stew)
My pick for Korea is doenjang jjigae, a cheap, hearty stew of fermented soybean paste, tofu, cucumber, and probably kimchi. Why not the awesome super fun Korean Barbecue you might have imagined? Well, because when we go out for Korean barbecue the thing we enjoy the most is the doenjang jjigae they serve when our meat is halfway gone. It’s spicy, it has a deep flavor with a hint of acid, and it’s what I crave on those Korean winter nights. It’s delicious, spicy, and something you can only get in Korea, or maybe in a Korean restaurant at home (we’re sure as hell going to find a place to get it or figure out how to make it after we get home.)
Indonesia: Nasi Goreng
Indonesia screams nasi goreng to me. It’s simple, hearty, dirt cheap, and tastes great. Imagine if you will fried rice, sambal, and bok choi stir fried together, perhaps with prawns or an egg, and served with shrimp crackers. Using the shrimp cracker, you scoop up as much rice as the cracker can hold, and put the whole thing in your mouth. It’s a satisfying way to eat (you know, with your hands), and this is a dish I’ve only had in Indonesia. Just thinking about how it tasted right now I’m imagining the cool breeze blowing through the palm trees and the fields of rice making that beautiful “whooosh” sound as the blades slap together. Damn. Now I want some Nasi Goreng and a bintang beer.
Thailand: Penang Curry
My choice for Thailand is kind of ironic, since it’s named for an island in Malaysia. Oops. Penang Curry is basically a Thai Red Curry with peanuts. You wouldn’t imagine that a few peanuts could change the flavor of a curry so much, I mean, there’s more strong flavors swimming around in a curry than you can count on one hand. Lemongrass, red chili, galangal, and Thai shallot aren’t weak flavors by any means, you wouldn’t think that peanuts would make a difference, but they really, really change the hell out of the profile of the dish. Thinking of a curry like this and the smell of the fresh slices of red chili on top sharply focusing your olfactory system on the mess of flavors you’re about to slop over some rice makes me want to lay down on a beach like you wouldn’t believe. I’d take any beach in Southern Thailand right now, thank you very much.
Malaysia: Assam Laksa
According to Anthony Bourdain’s wonderful television program, Laksa comes from Kuching, Malaysia, but I’ve only had it just outside the airport in Kuala Lumpur. I’m not really sure what was in it. I’m guessing there was beef, fish sauce, chilis, and I really have no clue what else. This is a dish that made me feel dirty, but in a good way, because my taste buds were horrified at first, then submitted to the dark magic in the hell broth that was dark as night. Before leaving the U.S. I would have simply been too afraid to try it. Boy am I happy we did. If we go to Malaysia this winter I’m going to eat the shit out of some Laksa.
I bet you thought I’d pick sushi for Japan, didn’t you? Well, no. The most magical thing I ate in Japan wasn’t the beautiful, beautiful sushi we had in Osaka. It wasn’t the amazing yakitori we purchased from a street vendor in Kyoto. It wasn’t the fresh takoyaki pulled off of the grill on Dotonbori. It was a bowl of ramen we had across the street from the place we would later get takoyaki on Dotonbori. This was the most amazing soup of any kind I’ve ever had in or around my mouth. It was stunning. The depth of its savory, porky flavor was unreachable. I felt like my brain was being sucked into the bowl with every sip of broth. The noodles were fresh, and the whole thing was hearty. You could probably cut the broth with a knife, it was that thick. I’m afraid that barring a return to Dotonbori, I will never have a bowl of ramen so amazing again.
There you have it, five countries, and five foods. For me these will always be the flavors of their respective countries, some pungent, some mild, some perfectly balanced, some so far out of balance that they take you on a trip to a place you’ve never been before. Food is pretty magical like that.