Friday, 13 July 2012

Asia 101

We’re back at it.

After the first world comfort of Australia and New Zealand (and Chile and Argentina, for that matter) and the privacy and freedom of camping, we are back to backpacking in the developing world, with all of the craziness that goes with it.

And, even better, we’re in Asia.

I’ve been ridiculously excited about going to Asia since we started planning this trip. It was the last continent that I’d never been to (except Antarctica, but I’ll get there one of these days) and the culture is of course unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t wait to experience the people, the colors, the religions, all of it.

But there was one reason above all others that made the continent particularly enticing; a reason that can be summed up in two words:

Street Food.

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while (and if so, thank you!), you know just how much I adore street food. I love that food is the only focus, unimpaired by the rest of the stuff that usually comes with a dining experience. At a food stall on the sidewalk, there are no decorations, no mood music, no friendly wait staff to distract you. There is nothing for the food to hide behind, which is why street food is often the best food. I would even go as far as to say that often the best dishes you can find while travelling will be eaten either standing up or sitting on a plastic stool on a sidewalk. When you see someone, usually an older someone, making their living serving only one dish that they have probably been serving for years, you know it’s not going to suck.

Illustrating just how deeply I adhere to this belief, you should know that we were in Singapore and Malaysia for six days and did not step foot in a restaurant even once.

We started our Asian adventure in Singapore, which, I think I can now safely say, is one of the best places to eat in the world. Singapore’s vast mix of cultures- Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and so on- make it the perfect introduction to Asia, and, of course, Asian cuisine.

Singapore is a country, a city and an island all in one, and its cultural diversity is evidenced everywhere you look. While it remains very Asian, its official language is English (a throw-back to the old days of the British Empire) and it’s an international economic powerhouse. The country is very clean and famously rigid with its rules: drug smuggling carries a mandatory death penalty and chewing gum is outlawed. There are bustling cultural enclaves- Chinatown, Little India, Arab Street and the like- but its cosmopolitan culture extends beyond the East. American and European chain stores crowd out local shops in the giant air-conditioned shopping malls that seem to be on every corner and skyscrapers tower over the city in every direction.

Just a few of Singapore's many rules on its Metro. No stinky durians is my personal fave.
Really? The root of ALL evils???

Yet despite its obvious globalization and modernity, Singapore was a delight to visit.

And by visit, I mean eat in.

Years ago, as in the rest of Asia, Singapore’s food vendors operated out of carts on the streets. Then, in a stroke of visionary genius, the city officials moved all of the vendors, or hawkers, into indoor food courts called hawker centers. With this one controversial move, the city managed to clean up the congested streets, raise the level of food hygiene among the hawker stalls and create temples of eating where you can find any food your heart desires. From experience, I can say that the result is glorious.

Imagine walking into a food court with immeasurable eating options, only instead of McDonalds, Taco Bell and Sparro’s, you have stall after stall of specialty dishes from the best cooks in the area. Everything is fresh and flavorful and made by someone who has been perfecting those dishes for decades. And since it is all in the same place, you can mix and match as you please to create a diverse, delicious multi-course meal without ever leaving the food court. And lest you be thinking that the hawker centers are just sterilized, colorless bastardizations of real eating communities, please see below.

Hawker center in Little India with people lining up 10-deep for delicious Mutton Biryani
No chance of getting our own table in the busy centers, so we needed to share
Can you spot the white guy who is super excited about his chicken rice?
My wonton noodle stand

I was a hawker center convert. That is, until we went to Malaysia.

While one can find a food court here and there, Malaysia’s food vendors are still in the streets with their carts, and, as we found out, are still making awesome food. I could go on and on describing all of the incredible things we have been eating in the past six days, but this is a travel blog, not a food blog, so I’ll restrain myself. If you do like to dabble in food porn every once in a while, visit our Eating page to get your fix.

I may have spared you the food play by play, but I won’t stop myself from indulging in pictures of the places we have been eating and the people who have been feeding us in Singapore and the Malaysian cities of Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown in Penang.

Waiting patiently for my coconut curry grilled corn
Durians, the famously stinky SE Asian fruit. They are so smelly that they are banned from confined public spaces!
The adorable little lady who made our rojak, a salad of fried tofu, cucumbers and pineapple tossed in a sweet soy and shrimp sauce and topped with crushed peanuts, lime juice and scallions.
The chef of an amazing fish dish we had with spicy black bean, chili, garlic and ginger sauce.
328 Katong Laksa, home of the best laksa in Singapore (and that's our rojak lady behind the stall to the left!)
Loving his hawker stall mutton biryani.

Malaysia, like Singapore, is extremely ethnically diverse: only about 55% of the population is Malay, while the rest is Chinese, Indian and others. The result is a crazy cohabitation of religion, culture and cuisine.

In both Singapore and Malaysia, Buddhist and Hindu temples sit side by side on the same street, as if competing for the architectural awe of passersby. An adhan, or Islamic call to prayer, rings out from the loud speaker of a minaret, while across the street, I kid you not, a Thai streetwalker shimmies to the melodic chanting. 

Apart from the occasional blaspheming hooker, all of these cultures coexist in a fascinating, colorful, mashed-up harmony. It's incredible.

We awkwardly stumbled into a Buddhist ceremony at a temple in Singapore
A wall of the Buddhist temple lined with hundreds of Buddha statues, all of them unique.

The temple's exterior
Dried sea creatures at the Chinatown market in Singapore
A dance group at a Malay heritage celebration in Singapore
A Hindu temple in Singapore
The heavily-adorned roof of a Hindu temple
  More Hindu deities
A mosque in Singapore

Despite the undeniable Asian-ness of both countries, Singapore and Malaysia remain very modern, developed and Westernized. There are 7/11’s on the corners and KFC’s in the shopping malls. This is still Asia 101.

Next up, Intermediate Asia.

From Penang, we took an overnight train to Bangkok, which, as long as you stay well away from the tourist ghetto, is much more of a culture shock than any of the Asian cities we've been to so far. After Bangkok, we hope to head to Advanced Asia: Myanmar (formerly Burma), Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, pending visas and monsoons.

Now if you would excuse me, there’s some street food outside with my name on it.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing post & very much interesting am sure your blog will be popular in 2013

    Desert safari dubai