Eating my way through Southeast Asia

In Food, travel on August 22, 2010 at 6:19 am

You know that saying “A woman’s heart is through her stomach”? I don’t know about you but it fits me like a glove. For me it’s all about getting to know a culture through it’s food while making my stomach happy.

Eating is a culture in itself – full of rituals, behaviors and mannerisms that are unique to every city or even town and that’s what makes it fascinating. You can really learn about culture, history, and people’s behaviors through their food.

In fact, most of the cities I have ever visited remind me of some kind of delicious meal, or treat I had while there. For example the most delicious hot chocolate and beignets was in the winter of ’01 in New Orleans, the best conch salad was in the Bahamas, and the first time I tried turtle was in Cuba.  And that’s pretty much what I did in both Vietnam and the Philippines.

Luckily in Vietnam my husband and I had the chance of exploring that country like the locals do, with the help of two great friends who live there. From restaurants to street kiosks we tried all kinds of delicious meals, from Pho (noodle soup) to Ga nuong sa (grilled chicken with lemongrass). All the ingredients like coriander, mint, lots of herbs, and ginger made the dishes seem very fresh and healthy.

Just by eating a variety of dishes in just one week I was able to learn more about the history of Vietnam than if I tried to communicate with the non-English speaking locals. For example, I learned all about the French influence that still exists with their bahn mi sandwiches and even flan as they once conquered Vietnam before it became a communist country.

Having a meal on little seats and chairs

I also learned a ton about people. In Vietnam for example, it’s custom to sit in small tables and chairs when having a meal. I’m talking about the little chairs that kindergartners use in school.

Everything is fresh and organic

They use chopsticks, they squat in the street or anywhere even when eating but mostly when they want to rest. Plates are more like small bowls and treats belong in a stick.

I tried squid on a stick which they call the bubble gum of Vietnam because of its rubbery texture. I had shrimp on a stick and the usual beef and chicken.

You want it on a stick, you got it!

Noodles are also a huge part of Vietnamese dishes and that’s why you can have them in every width- from the thickest to the thinnest and in a variety of ingredients such as rice, vermicelli and even egg. What I liked the most was the communal way of eating where a variety of dishes are ordered with the purpose of being shared.

In the Philippines on the other hand, eating is a completely different experience. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, food is eaten with a fork and spoon and even sometimes with your hands.

mmm...banana cue

No chopsticks, like in Vietnam. In this country the Spanish influence is what’s evident…they have meriendas, carne and puerco (just like in Spanish, some provinces such as Bicol have more words in Spanish than in Tagalog) and they obviously eat everything with rice.

Treats on a stick are also common such as banana cues (which is literally a fried banana on a skewer), squid, and fish are others. Some of my favorite dishes are pancit (moist noodles with any protein – chicken, beef, pork, shrimp), turron (fried banana wrapped in a spring roll type wrap and topped with brown sugar) and ube ice cream (pronounced ooh bay) which is purple ice cream derived from the taro plant…mmmm so good.

I miss you UBE!

I also really enjoyed the kaldereta (stew in a delicious sauce with beef, pork or goat).In Colombia I love eating green mango with salt and lemon so it was really easy to become addicted to green mango with shrimp paste called

mango with shrimp paste

bagoong alamang. Yes, it might sound odd…but because the shrimp paste is salty, it is delicious and serves the same purpose that salt and lemon do!

It’s amazing how food is such a universal language – even more than music, food doesn’t need actual words or lyrics to be understood…you just open your mouth and the look of happiness speaks more than a thousand words could ever accomplish!


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