Lip-smacking South East Asia

| July 31, 2011 | 0 Comments
southeast4 Lip smacking South East Asia

Photo by John Yavuz Can.

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South East Asia offers fantastic experiences for all the senses—and it’s what keeps me going back for more. The mystical aroma of incense in the Golden Temple in Bangkok, the sound of waves crashing on the shore at Kuta Beach in Bali, the view from the top of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the kiss of fat raindrops on your skin at the onset of a tropical downpour. And the tastes – so many of them, so hot, spicy, sweet and appetite-inducing. Here are some of my favourite lip-smacking flavours from three of my favourite destinations—Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

Salad Days in Thailand

For most people it’s the curries and soups that first come to mind when they talk about food they encountered on Thailand holidays. I must have eaten gallons of Tom Yum soup. The wonderful juxtaposition of hot, sweet and sour flavours is what Thai cuisine is all about. Perhaps the best bowl of the stuff I ever sampled was in a backpacker bungalow resort just north of Krabbi on the west coast.

southeast1 Lip smacking South East Asia

Photo by David Smith.

It was full to overflowing with squid, prawns and fish, freshly landed by the husband of the cook. On a daily basis she’d ask us in the morning what we fancied eating for dinner—snapper maybe or grouper? Her husband would then go pluck dinner from the waves for us. But perhaps an even bigger revelation for me was the salads in Thailand. For me the classic Thai salad known as Som Tam remains the best. Its main constituent is shredded green papaya. The dressing is hot and sweet with a touch of acidity from lime juice – that classic juxtaposition of different flavours so enamoured of Thais and so exciting to Western tastebuds.

Going (Pea)Nuts in Indonesia

Indonesia is a vast country numbering some 6000 islands and 200 million people, but holidays to Bali tend to be the main draw for tourists. The classic Indonesian traditional dish is satay, and you find it everywhere—Bali being no exception. It’s a rich, sweet peanut sauce usually served alongside small skewers of chicken or beef that have been barbecued to give them a really smoky flavour.

southeast2 Lip smacking South East Asia

Photo by David Smith.

What’s most interesting about satay is you don’t tend to find it much elsewhere in South East Asia. It’s a very Indonesian thing. Sometimes there’s a hint of chili fire in the satay mix too. Another sauce that’s very Indonesian is sambal—a firey hot condiment made from crushed chillis that features alongside pretty much everything. You find it in Malaysia too, but for me at least it’s classic Indonesia. Gado gado is the other big favourite you come across everywhere and it’s particularly handy for veggies as it’s meat-free—a plate of fried rice with vegetables crowned with a fried egg on top. Cheap, tasty and filling—with of course a dish of satay alongside to give it extra flavour, its perfect accompaniment is a cold local Bintang beer.

Curry flavour in Malaysia

Is Tom Yum the king of South East Asian soups? I’m not sure, much as I like it. The serious contender is Laksa which you encounter frequently in Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore. It comes in several variants; one is hot and sour, a close cousin of Tom Yum, but my favourite is curry laksa which has that slightly sour edge to it but it’s tempered with coconut milk which gives it richer consistency. A complete meal in a bowl it’s usually chock-full of chicken, vegetables and noodles too. I think it’s perhaps the best hangover cure invented, deeply satisfying stuff.

southeast3 Lip smacking South East Asia

Photo by David Smith.

The other Malaysian dish that makes my mouth water uses coconut too—it’s called Rendang (some people say it actually originates from Indonesia, but oddly I have never eaten it there). Meat—usually beef—is simmered gently for several hours in coconut milk with spices. When most of the liquid has evaporated it’s then fried. Chilli is also part of the mix, but the heat of the dish can vary from gentle warmth to mouth-burning sharpness—which can be a bit of a surprise. Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine is more mixed up with other influences than food elsewhere in South East Asia. This is due in part to the British colonial influence which prompted influxes of people from other parts of the Empire, like India. Roti Canai is a breakfast staple of flaky flatbread with mild curry dipping sauce alongside. It’s delicious and you can really taste and smell the Indian influence in the spices.

What’s your favourite South East Asian dish? Something with Durian, perhaps? Get us drooling—let us know in the comment stream below!


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About the Author ()

Jeremy Head is a familiar name in the UK travel press, as he has written for many of the industry's leading newspapers and magazines. You can also read more about him on his blog, Travelblather. Over the past decade or so, his travel writing and photographs have appeared in most of the UK's national newspapers and specialist travel magazines. He also recently spent a summer wearing covert camera gear as an undercover reporter for ITV's Holidays Undercover.

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