Monday, January 17, 2011

Unforgettable Meals from Across Asia

Isaan barbecue: Heaven on earth
1.  Isaan Barbecue Restaurant, Thung Song, Thailand 
I like my food high in spice and low in pretension, and I think the fact that my favorite restaurant in the world is beside a filthy khlong really attests to that. I spent 6 months teaching English in this southern Thai town and this restaurant was the town’s most redeeming feature – I’ve gone back largely for the purpose of eating here. As far as I ever figured out it does not have a name, I would just direct motorbike taxis there using my limited Thai (straight ahead, right, left, stop here).  

Isaan barbecue is fantastic. I really think it would take off in the USA/Canada if a Thai restaurant went that direction instead of focusing on lousy green curries. The meat (chicken, pork, beef) is marinated in lime juice, fish sauce and sugar, grilled, and then served with baskets of sticky rice and raw veggies.  Rip off a chunk of sticky rice and some meat, add a fresh leaf of Thai basil, dip in the the sauce, and pop it in your mouth.  Add some som tam and a bottle of Leo Beer, and life doesn’t get much better than that. I’ve had lots of great Isaan food, but what really elevates this place to the top of my list is their dipping sauce.  It’s got that uniquely Thai thing going for it where it strikes a balance between intensely sweet, sour, and spicy. It’s so good I enlisted the help of a translator so I could get a bottle to take with me when I left Thung Song. The staff were so sweet they wouldn’t let me pay for it. It’s in my fridge right now and no, I will not share it with you.

Pork action shot!

Where the magic happens.

Breakfast in Sri Lanka
     2. Rice & Curry at Rawana Holiday Resort, Ella, Sri Lanka

Ella is my perfect idea of a holiday. The main attractions are long walks through the verdant tea plantations, enjoying the view, and eating home-cooked meals. I absolutely loved Sri Lankan food; it’s noticeably different from North Indian food and tends to be lighter with lots of veggies and fresh coconut sambal. Lonely Planet specifically recommended ordering the ice and curry at Rawana Holiday Resort even if you’re not staying there and to give them 3 hours notice for dinner. At the time I thought this seemed excessive, but it made more sense when I learned that the majority of Sri Lankans cook over an open fire. 

The meal was certainly worth the wait. Modest-sounding ‘rice and curry’ was a spread of 7 curries plus rice, papadam, and condiments.  Most of the dishes in this pure-veg meal were pretty standard like lentils and cumin potatoes, but my boyfriend and I still rave about the sweet and sour eggplant and garlic curry. I don’t know if it was blanched or roasted, but the whole cloves of garlic just melted in your mouth with no acrid aftertaste. Nowhere else in Sri Lanka did we even see garlic curry on a menu.  I’ve scoured the internet trying to find a recipe that sounds at all similar, but no success yet.  I guess I’ll just have to go back to Ella and take a cooking class!  

Rice and Curry
Tea plantation, Ella, Sri Lanka

Where's the rest of the duck?

3. Peking Roast Duck at Quanjude Restaurant, Beijing, China
I've never understood the appeal of duck. It’s fatty and slimy and if my trip to China had been a solo one I probably would have foregone the experience of eating Peking duck in Beijing altogether. Good thing my trip to China was not an independent one – I was tagging along on a business trip and my boyfriend’s Chinese colleagues insisted on taking us to one of the most famous duck restaurant in Beijing. Our duck was so prestigious it came with a certificate of authenticity and serial number.

Peking duck is delicious. Considering it’s crispy duck skin, scallions, and sweet bean sauce rolled up in a little pancake, how could it not be?  What I want to know is what happens to the rest of the duck? There’s just a small layer of meat served with the skin, and all the other duck dishes on the menu use the non-muscle parts of the bird – duck tongues, intestine salad (the center dish in the photo), feet. We asked our Mandarin-speaking dining companions to order something using the duck breast, but all we got was soup broth!

#1 duck!
A mouthful of Myanmar

     4. Tea Leaf Salad, Myanmar

      Anyone who’s been to Myanmar yet says they were underwhelmed by the food did not get a good tea leaf salad. I can understand why Burmese food gets a bad rap with travelers  – most of it is a mediocre half-way between Indian and Thai flavors with waaay too much oil – but tea leaf salad is something special. I tend to be a fussy eater and don’t like to eat something if I can’t identify exactly what’s in it, but tea leaf salad is such a crazy mix of flavors and textures that I happily resign and shovel it in. It’s garlicky, it’s crunchy (dried beans), it’s juicy (tomato), it’s sour (pickled tea leaves), but beyond that I don’t know and don’t care. It’s that good.  

     You can get a pretty authentic tea leaf salad at the restaurants in the basement of Peninsula Plaza, Singapore.

5. Khao sawy noodle soup, Laos 

People compare khao sawy to Vietnamese pho, but that’s unfair to Lao food. For starters, take a look at that chili sauce! Khao sawy is lighter, superior in flavor, and I’ve never been unknowingly served a bowl with beef tendons or tripe in it. Khao sawy as a vegetarian dish is excellent. After a month in Vietam I really resented pho, but I’d gladly start every morning slurping down a bowl of khao sawy. This bowl came from a street vendor on Sisavangvong Road in Luang Prabang and cost about USD $1.


  1. those all sound incredibly awesome. maybe i should travel more...

  2. Great write-up, T. I'm glad I made a really nice spiced basmati stir fry (weird combo?) for leftovers. Hope to try some/all of this with you!


  3. J - that could be good. Did you add anything to the basmati? I'm thinking fried basmati rice with chickpeas.

  4. Nice article... garlic curry is reasonably common and I agree very delicious. Good sl food can be tricky to track down as there is bi restaurant culture. It is all made at home. i'll email someone to get recipe if you like.

  5. Hi Sam! I would *love* a recipe for garlic curry if you can find one for me :)

    I see you run a Sri Lanka travel site... do you know much about whale-watching in the South?

  6. o.m.g. Nice food porn, Tanya. I can practically taste those dishes. I'm thinking of trying that Issan bbq when it dips below -30 around here. So June/July. Maybe you can help with the prep, like by cutting up the goods and cooking it on our bbq.


  7. We tried DIY Isaan bbq last summer in Canada. It was well-received.

  8. You're right Tanya. The Issan BBQ in Thung Song was the saving grace. I still make the pilgrimage there every time I get close to the old stomping grounds. Seven years in Northern Thailand and six years here in the south and never have I had as good an Issan BBQ as this. Got the sauce did ya? Think I’ll be doing the same next time I go. Or maybe have some sent up. Let me know if you need a restock and I’ll send some down. We should be bottling and selling that “nam jeem prik” all over the world. It’s heaven on Earth! - David

  9. Thanks for introducing it to us, Dave! We got the cook to fill an empty water bottle with the sauce for us and smuggled it back to Singapore.

  10. I always saw the "Inner Smuggler" in you. Happy dipping with the illicit sauce! For those of you whom have never eaten Thai Isaan BBQ, your lives remain incomplete and your palates have yet to sore. It is an essential life experience.

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