From Lazy Eating to Food Nirvana: A SE Asian Odyssey
With our trip to SE Asia nearly over, it’s finally time to address some of most intense and controversial issues that haven't been discussed yet. Clearly, I'm talking about food. When planning a trip anywhere, you should always be excited about the food (otherwise you shouldn't be going where you're going) and I was very much anticipating some amazing food in both Vietnam and Cambodia. After two weeks of eating out for two meals a day, I have not been disappointed. For those wary of eating new and street foods, Vietnam and Cambodia will test your willpower. The smells wafting across my path from food carts and roadside restaurants were enticing, but not because they reminded me of something from back home. Instead, I encountered original takes on familiar dishes and some things altogether new. This may not be too out of the ordinary, but I consumed multiple fish whose heads were still attached to their bodies. Back in America, I live a life where I order fish and it is brought to me as a nicely cooked filet with no bones and no trace of it ever having been a living creature. I think this speakis more about my own privilege than it is about America being more sophisticated than SE Asia. My eating experiences in SE Asia were delightful and forced me to be a little less lazy when eating. Especially when it came to eating fruits that have pits in them. Back home, I avoid any fruit with pits because it prevents me from enjoying my fruit as quickly as I would like. However, the smells and tastes of some of these fruits compelled me to overcome my deep seated hatred for pits and to try something unique and wonderful. In addition to fighting laziness, another aspect of eating in SE Asia that fascinated me was that I played a significant role in the taste of my entrée. With many of my meals, different supplements were placed on the table so that you could refine the taste of the entrée to meet your preferences. Various herbs and spices were available to modify the taste as well as peppers. It went well beyond the salt and pepper found at every American restaurant.
If you’re growing weary with lack of specifics, let me hit you with some truth. Order anything that ends with the phrase “…in a clay pot.” Albeit chicken, pork, or seafood, do it! I don't know what kind of magic happens in the clay pot, but I don't care. Eat it and accept the sumptuous results. In fact, at one restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City I ordered pork in a clay pot and it came out in a metal pot. It didn't matter. It was still delicious. If you see those magical words, say yes. Also, every curry I’ve had in Cambodia has been superb so try them all (go spicy…don't fear the intestinal repercussions). The most interesting dish I tried was elephant ear fish in the Mekong Delta. We were shown them earlier in the day and I thought “why not!” I split the fish with two other members of the group and we were taken aback as it was placed on the table in front of us, its eyes peering into my soul. Then, the waitress proceeded to tear into the fish for meat and using rice paper, construct spring rolls for us. We dipped the rolls in an incredible tamarind sauce and I knew I was in love…with the elephant ear fish.
One of the most interesting things I've learned while eating in Vietnam and Cambodia is that you east as son as your food is on the table and you don't feel bad about it. In America, most often every one’s meal is brought out simultaneously or if one or two are late, you wait patiently for the last few meals to arrive. In SE Asia, just eat. The food is fresh and you're only letting it get cold. Why diminish your food satisfaction in the name of forced politeness. This also got me thinking about how long my food waits underneath heat lamps before the rest of my party’s meals are ready. So eat away and don't feel bad about it.