Eating in Asia

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After six weeks of solid eating in Asia, we satisfied our hunger for Asian food to be sure!

Satisfied it, and then some. Here are some highlights (and otherwise) of our culinary adventures:

This post was originally published in 2008. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

Street Food in Asia: Are You Brave?

Eating street food in Asia

For those with an iron constitution and a little courage, the street food in Asia is not only cheap and cheerful, but also a staple for many residents. Usually for under a dollar, you can help yourself to a serving of your favourite meal, cooked right in front of you. Pad Thai, curries, sweet roti, fried rice, green papaya salad, fried meats and fish, and yes – even insects, are available for sampling.

Some of the best places to enjoy a street-food-meal are at the local markets, where in between shopping for local crafts and souvenirs, you can stop off for a meal or drink.

We enjoyed the street food of Asia, and had no incidents of digestive distress to speak of (as many people worry about). I will say though, that after many weeks of this type of eating (ie: eating while standing or walking through thick crowds, and typically shoveling the food down whilst in search of our next street-food course), we found that our ability to sit down and enjoy a meal is now hindered. But at restaurants they tend to look at us funny if we say we want to eat standing up, so we sit down, try to slow down, and not rush off to another restaurant as soon as we’re finished.

“To Go, Please”

Asian people also don’t like to eat while standing and walking, so when they choose to eat street food, they often get it to go. And when you order this way, you can expect your meal to be served up…in a plastic bag.

animal hoofs for sale at a market in Thailand; eating in asia is an adventure!

Order curry, and you’ll get a small bag of rice, another with curry in it, and maybe a third with various condiments. They have a great way of tying the bags with an elastic so they are full of air and securely fastened, and yet easy to open. I tried and tried to emulate their bag-tying prowess, but to no avail.

It was when I saw people getting drinks to go – also in plastic bags – that I realized fast food is an art form in Asia.

I guess it is a good thing – plastic in general isn’t good, but a few plastic bags is less wasteful and harmful for the environment than hard plastic cups, or Styrofoam.
See also: My Zero Waste Kit for Travel

Food Court?

While in Chiang Mai, we had one of the best food court experiences of all time. In a temple courtyard on the night of a weekly local market, dozens of street food stalls set up along the perimeter of the square. In the middle were some beautiful thick rich-coloured wood picnic tables and benches. And typical of so many public eating establishments in Thailand, we found it to be impeccably clean.

What capped off the experience and made it memorable for us was the accompaniment: monks chanting. The hum and low lull of their voices in unison provided all the ambience we needed for an incredible experience.

Mongolian Grill?

One night in search of a new set of street food stalls, we passed by what appeared to be a Mongolian Grill. We had dined at such establishments many times back home in Toronto; a large round grill occupies the middle of your table, and you are brought trays of various meats, fish, and vegetables to cook up and dip in a variety of delicious sauces.

“Sweet”! We said, as we excitedly took our places at a table. What fun this will be.

When we looked around at the other customers, we were pleased to discover that the place was not only packed (a good sign), but we were the only white people there (also a good sign).

eating in Asia at a "mongolian grill" but not

The server spoke absolutely no English (this evening was full of good signs), so she basically brought us the standard fare for this restaurant. We immediately recognized the little plastic trays as they were brought to our table. Via sign language the server asked if we knew what we were doing, to which we casually indicated that we were old pros at this form of dining. She filled the perimeter of the grill with water (our first sign that maybe we were in over our heads), and walked away with what in retrospect I can only imagine was a slight smirk.

Still sure we knew what we were doing, but wanting to confirm our knowledge, we stole glances at the couples and families enjoying their meals near to us. Lettuce and fish went into the water (which was now boiling), and the meat went on the grill.

“Okay, this is no problem. It’s a little different, but still a Mongolian Grill, just as we thought,” we said with a sigh of relief.

Then, we took a look at the meat in front of us. Something fatty – bacon? Something pink. Something resembling ribs. Something else shiny, something that looks like liver, and two more trays of bacon-looking meat. It appeared that instead of getting a selection of different meats, we got a selection of different parts of a pig.

menu at a street food stand in Thailand

It was the intestine/colon that got to me. I won’t go into specifics, but suffice it to say that from the overly chewy consistency to whatever it was that squirted out when I bit down on it, I had discovered a culinary limit. The entire time, I couldn’t get out of my head an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, where he was relegated to eating wild boar colon over a fire in the African bush. What was in my mouth could well have been something relatively innocuous; but there was no convincing me that it wasn’t pig ass.

We muscled our way through the rest of the meal, noticing that we weren’t as smoothly getting through the dinner as our neighbouring tables were. We had huge amounts of meat charred and stuck to the grill, and we certainly did not ask for seconds, like most of the other diners were so eagerly doing. They seemed to be having a gay old time of it – we seemed to want to puke.

And sadly, I don’t think I will ever look at a Mongolian grill the same way again.

Although we don’t expect as many culinary adventures, anomalies, and street food stalls in Australia, we look forward to trying new foods, and even grilling up a thing or two…on the “Barbie” kind of grill, not Mongolian kind!

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3 thoughts on “Eating in Asia”

  1. “What was in my mouth could well have been something relatively innocuous; but there was no convincing me that it wasn’t pig ass.”

    This line made choke on the soda I was drinking at the time, as I was laughing so hard. I only recently discovered the show “Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations,” but I’ve quickly fallen in love with it. This episode of yours certainly reminded me of that show, and I salute your adventurousness. Maybe you should produce a food-travel show and call it “Nora and Kelly’s No Pig Ass.”

    This is why I usually go vegetarian (or at least fish-etarian, or sometimes, when I’m desperate, Big Mac-etarian) while traveling in Asia.

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  2. I’ve just discovered your blog and enjoy reading it!
    My two cents worth on street food, as a Thai, would be to recommend travellers to look for a food stall with either:
    a) many Mercedes cars parked nearby or
    b) many battered taxis parked nearby (battered as in “old”, not deep fried!)
    This will generally mean that the food is good and clean!

    Of course, numerous foodstalls in Thailand sell excellent, genuine food, but for the visitor with a slightly weaker stomach, following their noses to the stalls mentioned above should assure them of locating places where the food is consistently good and has developed a reputation over time. Eating in tourist destiantions or places frequented by huge crowds is less likely to be as rewarding, as volume plays a greater role than quality in such outlets.

    And I must make a plug for Isaan or Northeastern Thai food. Do try it – it’s excellent: spicy, fresh and full of aromatic flavours. The chances are that if you go to the taxi stalls mentioned above, the food will be from the Northeast. Ask for a “Laarp neua” and “Khor Moo Yang” and “Som Tam”, then enjoy the giggling vendors’ reactions!

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