Southeast Asia One Bite at a TimeMay 29, 2019 12:37PM ● By Tim Maides
Travel is not a new experience for me. I was born and raised in Switzerland and identify as Swiss. My mom learned all her cooking from watching her mother at a young age. Vegetables came from the garden out front, milk from the cows in the barn, and bread from the wood-fired oven. Food is expensive in Switzerland, especially meat, so we ate mostly vegetarian. When we did have meat we all saved it on the plate to eat last so we could fully relish in its flavors.
Whenever I travel, food constructs the framework for my trip. I like to plot out a list of places I want to try on the map and then construct a tour based on what sights there are to see on the way to the food. In most cities this means you have to walk, because if you do not, you will not have worked up enough of an appetite between spots. The only city where I gave up on walking everywhere was Bangkok—it is just too massive. Since food is so ingrained in the culture of a country, this also helps me decide which countries to visit. My endless recreations of the two most known Vietnamese staples, phó and banh mi, made this southeast Asian country a must-see.
Ryan Cook, one of my longest-time friends and the original founder of Benson Soap Mill, has been living and working in Shenzhen, China, and ever since coming to visit him in Beijing six years ago, I knew that I would make it a point to see him. The premise of our trip was based around his Chinese New Year holiday coinciding with the end of my busy winter season at the Gasthaus Kröne in Germany (where I had been working). This allowed us to check Vietnam off both our bucket lists. We originally discussed traveling to Thailand together, but I could reach out to a couple of friends living in Thailand to guide me, while in Vietnam we would both be out of our element.
We had only about two weeks to make it from Hanoi in north Vietnam to Saigon in the south. We would not have gotten far without the help of “Snowy,” our concierge at See You At Lily's Hostel in Hanoi. We landed at 3 a.m. in Hanoi without a single thing planned other than a driver to take us to our hostel. Snowy sat us down the next morning and forced us to make plans since it was Vietnamese New Year, which would cause logistical issues and increase the prices of any tours. Within 30 minutes we had forged a week’s worth of non-stop adventure that would consume our time in the north.
We set out on foot to the Hanoi French Quarter while adjusting to what can only be described as a scooter swarm that moves like a school of fish in one giant entity, ducking and weaving to allow the random pedestrian or vehicle through. The best tactic to maneuver the throng is to pick a direction and walk confidently in a steady pace. It takes some practice, but becomes natural before you know it. We decided to celebrate our first day of vacation by getting actual buckets of gin and tonic, and rubbing it in our friends’ faces that we were wearing T-shirts in the middle of winter.
Karma found us later that evening after eating dinner on the noted Ly Van Phuc Street, otherwise known as barbecue chicken street. Ly Van Phuc is packed with vendors on both sides selling different cuts of chicken on wooden skewers that is then grilled to order and served with a honey-brushed baguette or sweet potatoes. We ordered a few chicken legs and bread, which came with sliced cucumbers and a fiery, tangy barbecue sauce. Everything was delicious and we thought we had a successful entry into Vietnamese culture.
A short time later we started feeling the effects of what we can only describe as being “Hanoi’d.” We started feeling a little funny in our bowels. Flash forward to the middle of the night, and I suffered a fever, sweating, and vomiting. We were forced to abandon our first tour of the trip to Ninh Binh, but it seemed to be a 24-hour bug, and we were able to restore our health with some rest and a bowl of phó (broth, noodles, and vegetables only) for breakfast that cost us $0.86. Once we were traveling again, we continued our culinary journey of Vietnam by eating a banh mi for lunch and eventually mustering up the courage to eat a fancy dinner spread in which we sat on the floor.
As my travels with Ryan came to an end, I prepared for the next leg of my journey in Thailand. I never really grasped why Thai food was so well-known around the globe. The reason why food is so deeply rooted with Thai culture is because a) they eat all the time (food is never out of reach) and b) the flavors and ingredients they are surrounded by stumps even some of the most refined palates. Food exists everywhere you look...in little stalls or pushcarts on the street, people walking down roads holding bags of goodies out for traffic-jammed vehicles, random grills cooking skewered meats, giant courtyards full of people on tiny stools drinking beer with ice while their food is being prepared.
Every Thai person I met cares deeply about food and its flavors, explaining every new and bizarre ingredient to me excitedly and with a deep sense of pride. It's a magnificent balancing act. Virtually every table has a little caddy with a variety of condiments on it to help balance the flavor of one's dish.
Some of the dishes I remember best I ate after I first landed in Chiang Mai and my friends took me to their favorite restaurant outside of the city. I told them I would eat whatever typical Thai food they thought was best. We ordered a feast of dishes including beef labb, papaya salad with fermented crab legs, ground pork and green beans, herb-fried fish, and more. It was incredible, and I ate until the spices made my eyebrows sweat. Bold and bright flavors complemented each other wonderfully, such as Kaffir lime leaves punctuating through sharp ginger notes and spicy chilies balancing out a funky fish sauce. It was certainly a welcome change of pace from the rustic German cuisine I had been cooking for the last few months.
Being from smaller places (Switzerland or Nebraska) has its perks because it is a small demographic, and when I do meet people from the same area, we become fast friends. While sitting on the rooftop bar at my hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I met a traveler from Iowa, so I mentioned that I am a chef in Omaha. We clicked immediately. A couple of travelers overheard us and asked if we had mentioned Nebraska. It turned out the two of them had lived in Omaha and had mutual friends. One selfie later, one of my best friends was completely baffled as to why I was in Thailand drinking with his friend Drew.
As I write this, I'm waiting for my connecting flight to Bangkok, my final stop on this southeast Asia adventure. Luckily I won't have to say goodbye to the Thai cuisine. I have been holding off eating the classic dessert of mango and sweet sticky rice, since I believe March is mango season and I want to eat it as fresh as possible.
My month in southeast Asia was, without a doubt, one of the most culinarily stimulating adventures of my life. The intense Vietnamese and diverse Thai flavors will forever affect how I combine flavors.