One subject that I seem to brush by is food. Like every other American I love food. And like all of my social media compatriots, I take pictures of my food. But unlike a lot of them, I don’t often post “foodie” pictures of every single meal I eat. I have a few friends who do this, and I find myself peering into my phone, shaking my head. Hey Greg, I’m guessing your cholesterol level is through the roof. Seriously, I didn’t know people still ate Chicken in a Biscuit crackers with squeezy cheese. I didn’t know people ate squeezy cheese for that matter. We always used to buy it to shoot with our bb guns. But I am not allowed to be too critical because I’m notorious for posting coffee pictures. Having worked in a coffee shop and having an appreciation for gourmet coffee and latte art is, in my opinion, perfectly acceptable. Plus my Instagram profile clearly attests to my love of coffee, kittens, and comical ambiguity. Foodie debating aside, I’ve decided to fill this post with basic information about all of the food I’ve been sampling. I’ll give you some tips to tackling Asian cuisine. “Foodie” posters, stay put. “Selfie” posters, try to pay attention… this post isn’t about you.
Throw away everything you know about Asian cuisine.
Asian cuisine isn’t all the same… in case you didn’t already know that. Back home, I’m pretty open to all foods Asian, although I don’t care for Korean. But while I’m abroad, I take more caution. A lot of foreign foods that you have in the US have often been tweaked by the chef to better suit the American palette. So when you try a familiar Chinese dish in China, it can be very different, as it appeals to a Chinese palette. Even wording can lead you astray. In Greece, this girl ordered small fried fish. Instead of the plank of white fish she hoped for, she got a basket full of small fried minnows. I shared my calamari and we tag-teamed her basket, cutting off the heads and tails and stomaching the tiny bones. So my first rule for any traveler is to go in with a blank, but open mind, and remember that a disappointing meal isn’t the end of the world… unless you are allergic to the mystery ingredients. Then it might be the end of your world, and you can continue to complain.
Try the staple dishes.
The second thing that you can do is to ask around. Locals will be glad to tell you what staples you must try, and there’s nothing wrong with sticking to staples. As long as you’re not cowering in your hotel with a bulk sized jar of peanut butter that you brought with you from home, you’re off to a good start. If you fall in love with a single type of food and want to eat as much of it as possible, that’s cool too. You couldn’t pull me away from the pitas in Greece or Cassados in Costa Rica. In China, you can get dumplings almost everywhere, and they never get old. It’s the same with Pad Thai in Thailand. Pho Ga is a favorite in all Vietnamese restaurants. And Fried Rice and curry can be found practically everywhere!
Sample the regional cuisine.
While I say that it’s okay to try a staple dish, every area/city/state has a certain dish that they are known for. Venture out and try these too. In Kyoto, you can get Mako. It’s long strips of eel. It’s a Kyoto only staple. In Hong Kong, dim sum is very popular. In Penang, Malaysia, there is a huge variety of local foods that makes it a “World Food Destination.” Sometimes the regional dishes are something really unique. Other times, it’s just a twist on a national staple. Give them a try as well.
Being adventurous is optional.
You are not required to go to Thailand and do a shot of snake’s blood. Although your friends back home may think your a badass. On Khao San Road in Bangkok, you can eat crickets and scorpions and other bugs. My rule with this is that I’ll buy two: one for me and one for the vendor. If the vendor eats it, then it’s fair game. Otherwise I like to imagine the locals sitting around the house chatting, “Hey! Wenya caught a tarantula down by the river today. You know what’d be funny? Let’s go down to the tourist district and get one of those American jackasses to drunkenly eat it!” In Hanoi, Vietnam you can eat dog. Not for me. I want to do adventurous things, but leave the dog meat for Joe Rogan and the fear factor idiots.
Go where the people go.
If you can’t decide on a place to eat, look for the people. If it’s dinner time and there’s a line of locals around the corner of one restaurant, hop in line. That’ll be the best place to eat! Conversely that will probably be the most unwelcoming place as well. A foreigner is going to be difficult to wait on. They don’t speak the language. They don’t know what to order. They often have special instructions for their food preparations. Locals don’t want to waste time and good table space on you. Fight the rude attitudes and try anyways. In Japan, they are very territorial in terms of locals. You will see restaurants that have signs saying “No tourists.” But without a sign it’s fair game. In Harajuku, everyone was lined up outside of this one restaurant, waiting to try rainbow pancakes. They must have been the hot ticket food item that week.
It’s okay to eat western food now and then.
Sometimes the sanitary conditions in the little restaurants are questionable. And being American means that I’m a child of consistency, due to chain restaurants and brand loyalty. So sometimes I don’t want to search high and low for an acceptable restaurant where I have to try something new, when I can see the golden arches glowing down the street. I just walk in and say “Big Mac meal. Here. Coke.” And sure enough, it tastes like home. Especially in Asia, where everything is spiced to the nines, something blander is often all that is desired. I met two travelers who do two Asian meals and a western meal each day. I think this is even an acceptable balance. And also they have fusions restaurants that combine asian influences into western foods! I had the best wasabi egg salad sandwich in Japan!
Food is the easiest thing to get homesick over.
In the first paragraph of this post I confessed that I love kittens. But I would gladly punt a kitten if I would be rewarded with White Castle. The list of things that I want to eat when I get home grows almost daily. I haven’t had chips and salsa in three months! I don’t care if the government shuts down, so long as El Mundo doesn’t shut it’s doors before I return! I met an Irish girl in Vietnam, and we bonded over the foods we were homesick for. I also learned that I need to go to Ireland for something called a chicken box. There are things you just have to live without, but it’ll make them that much tastier when you get back. And food is always a great cross cultural conversation to have!
Pay attention to your eating habits.
I cannot say enough about this! Whenever you travel, you’ll watch your diet closer than you think. Whether your constipated or pissing out of your ass, you’re going to be saying, “What did I eat?” If you’re walking around in the hot sun and guzzling soda, you’re going to get dehydrated pretty quickly. If you eat a bunch of empty calories, you’re going to drain your wallet eating every two hours. If you aren’t eating protein and working out, you’re going to drop muscle mass. I used to swim before I left. Now I get most of my cardio from walking. My lower body is looking like Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s while my upper body is looking like McLovin’s. I miss swimming, but at least I’m getting a lot of exercise still. But without protein, I get wiped out by mid afternoon. I’m not saying to go out and eat giant portions of meat. You’re not a T-Rex. Just pay attention to your diet in relation to the food pyramid. Dairy is the one thing that I can’t seem to get enough of in Asia. I’ve got grains, proteins, vegetables, and fruits in spades.
Hopefully these tips will be helpful to anyone who is traveling and plans to eat… you kind of have no choice. If you’re a picky eater, you won’t be by the time you finish an Asian excursion. If you’re a vegetarian, you’ll be in heaven. If you’re a lover of beef, avoid India. If you like your pork, eat as much of it as you can before you get to an Islamic state like Malaysia. Here’s a list of foods that I have tried from various places. Not all staples, but favorites of mine.
- Tempura Udon/ Tempura Soba/ Anything Tempura
- Asahi beer
- Yoshinoya – Japanese fast food
- Kobe Beef (Splurge)
- Plum wine!
- 7-11 Delicious sandwich
- Peking Duck in Beijing
- Dumplings/Wontons fried or steamed or soup
- Dough Rice Balls with BBQ pork filling
- Sea cucumbers – delicacy
- Fried Rice
- Fried Chicken
- McDonald’s taro pie
- Rice wine
- Tsingtao beer
- Chinese tea
- Bubble Tea
- Dim sum in Hong Kong
- Street donuts
- Street Churro Things!
- Pho Ga
- Pho Bo
- Spring Rolls – fried or steamed
- Bahn Sandwich
- Egg coffee
- Fried morning glory
- Fresh Fruit Shake
- All different types of curry
- Foe Rice
- Tam Maak hung
- local bananas
- Tom Yam Spicy Soup
- Thai iced tea
- Chang beer
- Leo beer
- 7-11 footlong hotdogs
- Nasi lemak
- Nyonyan Cuisine
- Kopi from each of Malaysia’s 13 states
- White Kopi – coffee with condensed sweetened palm milk
- Roti Bread
- Nasi goring rice