A Culinary Tour of Asia

The very heart of your Asian vacation isn’t the exotic locale, the invigorating massages, the majestic ancient temples, or even the warm, friendly people. It’s the food. When you’re at home, food is a centerpiece of activity and fun-the backyard cookout, the Friday evenings with friends, or the romantic dinner. When you’re on vacation, it will be even more memorable if you keep food enjoyment high on your list of priorities.

Food is more than mere sustenance. It is a social experience, and a sensory treat that will be remembered long after you return home. Asia is well-known for its exotic cuisine, and no Asian vacation would be complete without thoroughly enjoying the food. In every major Asian city, you’ll find your usual array of the familiar favorites from back home: KFC, McDonalds, Sizzler, and so on-but why not enhance your foray into the unknown with something new on the menu?

The cuisine is as varied as the continent, ranging from the aromatic curries of India, to the fiery-hot tom yum goong of Thailand, to the European-influenced Macanese cuisine found in the Chinese autonomous region of Macau. Wherever you travel, you’ll find unique and fresh ingredients, presented delightfully in authentic surroundings and delivered by friendly, smiling staff.

You’ll find your environment as memorable as the food itself. You may find yourself sitting under a straw roof, sitting cross-legged and eating off of a banana leaf, or enjoying the most elegant, five-star posh surroundings you’ve ever witnessed. And don’t neglect the local specialties. A meal of dim sum (“yum cha” in Cantonese) in a Hong Kong tea house is an event unto itself that will never be forgotten. Take a boat cross the bay to Macau for a trip back to old Europe, where you can enjoy High Tea in the afternoon, and one of the country’s characteristic egg tart specialties. And when you tour Japan, you’ll discover that there are dozens of different varieties of sukiyaki, which is customarily cooked right at the table.

You’ll also find very informal street cafes throughout most of Asia, which are little more than a handful of plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk, overlooking a kitchen that consists of a propane tank and a wok. If you’re adventurous enough to try one of these places, you’re likely to find very local cuisine that you can’t find in the “normal” restaurants, including wild game, insects, and parts of animals that you never knew you could eat.

Desserts are not to be missed. Unlike the rich, gooey, chocolatey sweets of America, Asians tend towards the lighter, more delicate tastes in sweets. A Chinese sweet red bean bun is very tempting (and does not have the usual disagreeable side effect that beans often do). Japanese sweets (wa-gashi) also frequently use sweet bean paste and are quite delicate. In Thailand, you may enjoy bua loy naam qing (literally, “floating lotuses in ginger water”), which delivers an enjoyable contrast between the strong ginger tea and the delicate rice flour sesame balls floating within.

Often overlooked are the unusual tropical fruits found throughout Asia. If you think of fruit as apples and watermelons, think again-the taste of the lichi, mangosteen, and rambutan are incomparable and a sheer delight to the senses. Beware of the infamous durian though, the heavy, spiky “king of fruits” that has a decidedly foul, almost fishy smell and is definitely an acquired taste.

You’ll find that in most Asian countries, meals are very social, and are often served to your table communally, as opposed to the Western style of each person ordering individual dishes. Don’t be surprised if your host serves you and continues to refresh your drink throughout the meal. Bone up on how to use chopsticks. Here’s a chopstick etiquette tip: You’ll sometimes see diners at inexpensive restaurants rubbing together the chopsticks before eating. This is done when using the inexpensive, wooden disposable chopsticks, to make sure there are no splinters. Avoid rubbing your chopsticks together at somebody’s home or at an upscale restaurant, as it would be considered an insult-you’re saying that the chopsticks are inferior when you do that. But, not every Asian country uses them. Thais eat European-style with a fork and spoon. In China, you’ll use chopsticks, but will never see a knife at your place setting, because it is considered aggressive. In some very rural parts of Asia, such as in the Laotian countryside, you’ll eat with your fingers. But regardless of how you convey the food from plate to mouth, you’re in for a real treat.