Grand, theatrical feasts can resurrect the pomp and ceremony of vast historical empires while private meals can unlock a door into a quiet, spiritual way of life. So many of Asia’s rich cultures and traditions find their clearest manifestation in their cuisine. Ingredients and influences from across the world have been developed by generations of everyday people offering new memories to those who experience them afresh. A truly nourishing journey into the soul of this continent is incomplete without entering wholeheartedly into fascinating, varied – and, most importantly, delicious – dishes.
Words: David Taylor
Bright red lanterns rocking in the wind overhead. Street sellers working frantically in the warm evening heat. A passer-by biting into a crisp Yaowarat toast smothered in Thai pumpkin custard.One of the world’s favourite cuisines is at its most authentic, vibrant and experimental on the streets of Bangkok. The capital’s street food centre, Yaowarat, is a joyous assault on the senses, and an adventure through its narrow market lanes is an exercise
in vibrancy and freneticism. Daniel Fraser, TV host and Thai culture expert, knows the narrow alleys like the back of his hand.
Accompany him to places you won’t see in any travel guide, catching glimpses of dishes you’ll scarcely believe. Bubbling vats of guay jub noodle soup (with a side of crispy pork belly) and grills of fresh fish, mussel, prawn and crab will keep you entertained into the early hours of the morning.
In central Bhutan lies Khotokha. Unlike the 70% of Bhutan covered in dense, lush forest, this vast, sacred valley, in the enigmatic country’s Wangdue Phodrang district, is a wide wetland, home to black-necked cranes on their winter migration from Tibet. A stop here, in one of the valley’s monasteries, offers both a fascinating insight into monastic life and otherworldly views of this secretive, serene part of Asia.
It’s a true and rare privilege to share time with the monks of Khotohka: the meals they prepare, bless and serve are at once deeply comforting and utterly extraordinary. Share dishes such as Gondo Datsi (egg curry with spices and spring onions), Puta (a central Bhutanese favourite made of noodles, spices and Sichuan pepper) and Aema Kan Ezay (Bhutanese red chilli salad with cottage cheese).
There aren’t many cities whose food is more reflective of their past than Delhi, from the extravagant and rich cuisines of the 17th century Mughals to the revelatory tandoori ovens of the partition’s Punjabi refugees. Uncover these myriad influences through the smells and flavours of centuries and empires that
surround you down every backstreet, on every rickshaw ride and through every curried dish.
Following the knowledgeable footsteps of a local guide you can chronicle this chaotic mix of Delhi’s history through the most iconic delicacies – all in one day. Succulent eastern kebabs are narrated with stories of Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid; delectable southern chaat reignites New Delhi’s poignant India Gate; and the real Indian ‘desi’ is brought to life with warm chai and the customs of drinking it.
Stepping inside local resident Alvin Yapp’s home in Singapore is like walking into Aladdin’s cave, with treasures and stories piled high. Alvin has transformed his house into a museum dedicated to the Peranakan culture, a group descended from the first Chinese settlers in Southeast Asia.
Peranakan food is a heady hybrid of tastes and ingredients, influenced by ancient Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, Thai and Eurasian cooking styles. Dive into this rich heritage with a plate of indigo blue Bunga Telang (butterfly blue peas), make Bah Zhang dumplings under Alvin’s expert guidance and explore the nearby multicoloured Peranakan shophouses – all punctuated with Alvin’s stories of growing up here.
Any visit to old-meets-new, east-meets-west Hanoi needs to take in its bustling food scene with cultural influences as far-reaching as China and Europe. The epitome of this cultural mix is found in the food staple bánh mì. Inspired by the French, it is made up of a soft, airy baguette with a thin, crisp crust packed full with everything from shredded pork and pickled carrot to lemongrass and grilled beef.
To find the best bánh mì in Vietnam (read: the world) you need to see through the eyes of someone whose passion is Vietnamese cooking in all its forms. Dynamic writing duo Van Cong Tu (author of blog Vietnamese God) and Mark Lowerson (writer of Stickyrice) will guide you through Hanoi’s street stalls and fine dining establishments, skipping the queues to eat authentic sticky rice dumplings and taking in the architectural and cultural backstory of the city.
The ancient Javanese Majahapit kingdom ruled in Southeast Asia for almost 250 years, leaving behind an indelible influence on the region, from pendopo pavilions to a rich culinary catalogue. King Hayam Wuruk, widely seen as the greatest of the Majahapit rulers, regularly took royal expeditions with his entourage around his vast empire, enjoying the local treats offered to them by residents of his kingdom’s coastal villages.
Capture a taste of this lost imperial life through a theatrical dinner that tells his tale in full theatrical pomp, depicting the regal procession in lavish reality and laying on Majahapit Palace-era foods fit for the king himself. The feast reflects the coast’s rich bounty, from grilled lobster in kaffir lime and lemongrass butter, to 12-spiced slow-roasted duck in coconut and turmeric, and Balinese minced fish satay.
The traditions and food of the ancient Khmer are experiencing a rebirth in Cambodia, thanks to dedicated advocates like the passionate – and brilliant – chef Rotanak Ros. Travelling to Chef Nak’s stunning traditional wooden Khmer house means sailing the Mekong river, past houseboats and islands until reaching her riverside paradise.
Known as the defender of Cambodian cuisine, she and others have worked for 20 years to recover Cambodia’s cultural soul from its turbulent past. Get hands-on with this special cuisine, learning of its past and the country’s history through bartering at the local market and creating dishes like crispy golden fish with sweet and sour dip, pleah sach ko (lime and prahok-cured beef salad), and indulgent coconut cream bananas and tapioca. Play your part in saving Cambodian cuisine, one dish at a time.