On a trip to Southeast Asia, Julie O'Hara made eating her top priority. To her, eating the food of a place is a priceless opportunity and real authenticity in travel often boils down to a bowl of incredible noodles from a street vendor.
Food and Longing in Southeast Asia
Julie O'Hara for NPR
Food and Longing in Southeast Asia
Julie O'Hara for NPR
As I sat in a Bangkok restaurant, sipping and slurping the best green curry I'd ever eaten, panic crept into my mind just as the warm, aromatic stew spread through my stomach. I may never eat another curry like this again, I thought. I flagged down the waiter.
"Excuse me, what are these?" I asked, pointing at the marble-sized vegetables that looked like very large, firm peas floating in my curry.
"Eggplant," the waiter informed me, obligingly.
"These things are eggplant?" I asked again, hoping we were just having a communication gap despite his very good English.
With the waiter's confirmation that I was indeed eating some delicious Asian mini-eggplant, the hope I had of re-creating that curry was deflated. Sure, I thought, there is a possibility that this funky little eggplant thing is available in the United States, but I had never seen one in Fort Lauderdale, even at the expensive Thai restaurant where the waiters wear bowties. I was sunk.
Like the green curry, many of the meals I happily enjoyed on a recent trip to Southeast Asia were tinged with a sense of sadness. Every day, some new taste receptor that I didn't know I had lit up like a winning slot machine at Caesar's Palace. I ate things that had once existed only in my dreams — along with things I never even knew to dream about. As my husband and I dined our way through Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, I constantly sized up my chances of recreating our best meals.
Strange new vegetables notwithstanding, Thai food is probably the most accessible to an American cook. Curry paste, lemongrass, chilies and even kaffir lime leaves are widely available, and the techniques for making a slowly simmered curry or a lightning-fast noodle dish such as pad Thai are straightforward.
In Bangkok, we even took a cooking class that helped us connect the Thai flavors we love to the ingredients that create them. Pandan leaf extract, for example, adds a grassy, herbal note to mango sticky rice.
But go to Singapore and all bets are off. With a diverse assortment of high-quality Malaysian, Chinese, Indian and Singaporean dishes readily available at the city-wide food courts known as hawker centers, we were simultaneously flummoxed and delighted by new foods at every turn.
How about some "carrot cake," rice flour cakes made with daikon and stir-fried with egg and dark soy sauce? (It's called "carrot cake" in Singapore because the Chinese phrase for carrot and daikon — a type of white radish — are very similar.) Maybe you'd like a whole crab smothered in black pepper sauce and imbued with the spice's surprisingly nuanced flavor. Or why not try a spicy bowl of curry laksa, the coconut-based soup with rice noodles, fried tofu, fish cakes and cockles (small bivalves)?
In Vietnam, I was in thrall of the delicately flavored soups, stir-fries and grilled dishes perfumed with aromatic elements such as lemongrass, mint and shallots. I loved the rich clay pot stews in which pungent fish sauce is balanced by a sweet element such as sugar or caramel syrup.
Despite the ethereal lightness of everything we ate in that country, I was weighed down with thoughts of the culinary challenges I would face back home. I might cook a Vietnamese recipe perfectly, but without the local produce — such as the fat spring chives in one memorable stir-fry — it just wouldn't be the same. That stir-fry featured tender pieces of beef, too, but the meat was just an excuse for the crisp, onion-like herb.
Knowing so much of the local food we encountered couldn't be reproduced at home made eating my top travel priority, above priceless art or one-of-a-kind monuments. To my mind, eating the food of a place is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not a lowly, sensual pursuit. You can never duplicate the soil, the water or the air that exists in a particular place at a particular time, not to mention the generations of experience that go into specialties prepared by local cooks.
This is why my pho will never approach the greatness of the bowl I ate in Ho Chi Minh City. This is why real authenticity in travel often comes down to that incredible plate of noodles you get from a street vendor.
Back home, seeking out authentic recipes or cooking a dish based on taste memory became an adventure in itself. Trips to the Asian grocery store unearthed the jam-like Thai chili paste for spicy shrimp salad and an excellent green curry paste (now if only they would stock those mini-eggplants), as well as new foods I didn't even know I needed, like Chinese flowering cabbage (more like spinach than cabbage) and steamed fish cakes (good for some Vietnamese noodle dishes).
I may not be able to buy Vietnamese catfish in Florida, but I discovered that it isn't so hard to replicate the rich and unctuous, yet lightly aromatic, broths of Vietnamese fish stews. Shallots, garlic and scallions are a holy trinity of flavor, and oyster sauce is a culinary miracle worker when it comes to adding both sweetness and savory depth to Asian dishes. In my quest to taste the foods from our trip again, I've become a better cook, trusting my instincts more and experimenting with, well, everything.
My trip was not, however, a series of exotic meals consumed with a heavy heart. I didn't let my wistful thoughts take away the utter joy of traveling and eating in Southeast Asia. I was simply aware that I would spend the rest of my life longing for those wonderful dishes. Either that, or I would have to return.