A suitably mixed result for a suitably mixed up city.
We arrived in Chang Mai on Sunday, just in time for the wonderful Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market. The Market takes over the entire main street of the old town, and features a wide variety of the usual jewelry, fans, lamps, souvenirs etc.
And food. I’d heard that the Thais love to eat, but this literally blew me away. The market is home to the most diverse and well executed street food I’ve yet to encounter on this trip – think London’s Borough Market without the gentrification.
Even in a month of Sundays I wouldn’t have been able to tackle everything I wanted too. Here’s a quickfire machine gun round-up of what I did.
All aboard the good ship omlette. These little banana leaf boats held a precious cargo of egg and slivers of red onion. The omlette was cut into chopstick friendly cubes and nicely salted, if a little cold.
Fried quails eggs take me back to Xi’an. In Xian, Quails eggs are cooked on skewers then rolled in cumin and chili powder. Here, they simply pop them in a Styrofoam box and sprinkle with pepper and soy sauce. Either way, its hard to find fault in these little mouthfuls of rich yolky goodness.
I did and this happened. Although it’s not going to win any beauty contests anytime soon, this was a tray of pure awesomeness. Crushed peanuts and noodles is a killer partnership, and those sliced pickled chillies brought a delicious vinegary kick to the table.
The obligatory pork skewer. These ones had been coated with a sweet glaze. By the time I got there they were cold. OK-ish is probably a suitably non-committal way to express my almost complete lack of an opinion.
The styrofoam container it came in probably had more nutritional value than this deep fried chicken skin. Glasgow’s deep fried mars bar have nothing on this stuff. I had to stop eating halfway through to give my arteries a fighting chance. I also had to finish the lot.
Finally. German sausage and mashed potato. Yet another example of the multiculturalism of Chiang Mai’s street food. A little on the pricey side for what you got (around 50p) but a good end to a great wander.
We’ve spent the last week or so in Luang Prabang doing a whole lot of nothing. We’ve met some people, gone bowling a few times, and nursed a couple of Beer Lao hangovers. We’ve read alot, eaten four times at an Indian restaurant, and generally passed our days ambling around the small town drinking fruit shakes and eating Laughing Cow cheese baguettes.
We’ve also discovered papaya salad. This stuff packs a heavy punch. Papaya shavings are pounded in a huge pestle and mortar along with birds eye chillies, cherry tomatoes, mini aubergines and something loosely translated into English as “hot plums.” Citrus juice, salt, sugar and prawn paste are then added and tested to create a precise balance of flavours. The salad also comes with a side plate of cabbage and some other vegetables of weird and wonderful provenance.
I’ve been accused of wolfing down my food at times, but in papaya salad I’ve met my match. The hot, sour, sweet, fermented combination is simply too much to tackle full bore. Luckily, however, the crunchy, fresh papaya, and side plate of veg work as the perfect foils to this assault on the senses. With a steady, measured approach, the flavours unfold like oil in a puddle.
I can see why the vendor found it necessary to taste each batch as she went along. Without careful balancing this type of thing could seriously blow up in your face. The chili, citrus and prawn paste were all combustible flavours that both complemented each other and wrestled for control of the taste buds.
This was Laos food done for Laos people and made absolutely no concessions to the western palate. I think I’ll wait a while before tackling another papaya salad – I need some time to let my mouth acclimatise!
You just can’t beat a good burger. There’s something elemental about the combination of meat, bread and sauce that, when done properly, leaves most other meals eating dust. I know it, the Americans know it, and apparently at least one Luang Prabang street vendor knows it now too.
Since the start of our trip I’ve frequently run the burger gauntlet. Sometimes, such as at My Burger My, in Hanoi, this has paid off. More frequently however, my Asian burger experience has been one of disappointment and self-reproach.
Like street food, burgers are something I feel very strongly about. That’s why when I spied this street burger stand at the corner of Luang Prabang’s main street I was a little concerned. A bad experience here could leave me doubly wounded, and bump the town down a couple of notches in my esteem.
In the end I needn’t have worried.
The burger turned out to be a decent all-rounder. The beef had a bit of a cheapo twang to it but was reasonably tasty nonetheless. Most importantly, it had been hand formed. This suggested a little thought had been put into the sandwich and instantly elevated it above the overpriced monstrosities that are the mainstay of most UK chip vans.
Re toppings, I always leave burger dressing to the pros. This particular burgermeister opted for a standard lettuce/tomato/raw onion salad. She also slapped the lower bun with a layer of mayonnaise, and squeezed a few expressionist dashes of ketchup and American mustard on the upper bun. Although a bit of the local hot sauce wouldn’t have gone amiss, the classic combo gave the burger a saucy, juicy appeal that cut straight to the heart of the genre. This was burgerdom in its simplest, most unadulterated form.
The best bit about the burger, however, was the bun. It was large, soft, and speckled with sesame seeds. The bun was advertised as locally made and this freshness shone through. No-one in Asia does bread like the South East Asians, and in Lunag Prabang they’ve got the burger bun down.
Although by no means the best burger I’ve had in Asia so far, the LP street burger definitely makes the top ten. What it lacks in local flare, it makes up for in straightforward-back-to-basics charm. As such, my faith in burgers and street food remain intact, and I will continue to regard Luang Prabang as one of my favourite spots on the planet!
Sarah discovered this Halva (a popular Middle Eastern sweet) outside Dongzhimen Subway Station in Beijing at rush hour. Dozens of Uighur men were selling massive blocks of it from the back of tricycles, and the lure of all that sugar proved too much for her sweet tooth to resist.
Resembling an over sized breakfast bar, the Halva consisted of masses of cashew nuts, almonds, peanuts, goji berries and dried apricot – all held together with a luxurious honey cement and carved into bricks to order.
Soft, chewy and pliable to begin with, the Halva set like concrete over the next few days. The fear of losing a tooth, however, was nothing compared to the pleasure of biting off a hunk and chewing furiously until our mouths were full of sweet, nutty goodness. Sarah and I spent several happy days gnawing through our breeze block, then spent the rest of our time in China on an (ultimately fruitless) lookout for more.
I find it hard to get excited about noodle soup these days. Almost everywhere we’ve been there is a local variation on the basic noodle, broth and veg routine, and for me it’s getting a little old. There are indeed some great versions around, but I find that most are basically a cheap and moderately tasty way to eek out another few hours of activity until your next meal.
The noodles I recently ate on the street in Vientiane fell into this category. They were standard issue fare: thin rice noodles in broth with chopped green onions and a range of veg and spicy sauces on the side. Filling and endlessly customizable, but nothing to (over) write home about.
What really interested me about this place was its location. Along with a few other street vendors and an outdoor barbershop, the stall was situated under the awnings of an abandoned old cinema. The awning itself still retained a wire mesh style billing board and the skeletal remains of a sign. The face of the building was corrugated like a fan and looked like the board for some complicated almagation of bridge and majong. Oversized scrabble letters of various scripts protruded from the roof like antennae, further adding to the board game look.
Back home this is the type of place that would be turned into apartments quicker than you can say Carole Smilie. Not so in Vientiane. Here, it simply decayed elegantly whilst remaining of some use to the citizens by virtue of its cool and expansive shade. Its most glamorous days may have been over, but at least it was still somewhere you could go to grab a bite and watch the world go by.
This reminded me of one of the things I like most about street food. While I find the phrase “authentic experience” more than a little absurd, I do think that eating on the streets can help you cut to the core of a place in a way that most restaurants don’t offer. For me, the cinema and its rice noodles summed up Vientiane’s languid, post-colonial, South East Asian charm.
That’s worth a bowl of mediocore noodles any day.
Much more entertaining however is the Alan Partridge clip that inspired the title for this post.
He must have a foot like a traction engine!
I don’t mean to defile such a wicked Dead Kennedys song by the use of inverted commas, but I don’t want to leave any ambiguity about how I feel about my time in the Kingdom.
The thing is, this place has killed my appetite, and I don’t just mean metaphorically. For the last week or so I’ve hardly felt like eating, especially the street food. It’s not just that all the meat is unrefrigerated and the streets are covered in rubbish, everytime I pull out my wallet I have to worry about who is driving past on a motorbike ready to snatch it off me.
More than that, alot of the stuff that goes on here frankly puts me off. There isn’t one decent hospital in the country, and despite massacring around one quarter of the population more than thirty years ago, the Khmer Rouge still remain largely unpunished. Life literally bursts from every nook and cranny in the the land, yet somehow half the population is underfed and underdeveloped.
And Lexus 4x4s are as common a sight on the streets as 6 year olds selling flowers at 2am!
Justice obviously isn’t a concept that translates to whatever form of Khmer the elite are currently speaking.
Many of the Westerners here are no better. The older ones lounge around the riverfront in Phnom Penh in their Hawaii shirts drinking happy hour cocktails with bored looking prostitutes like they’re some sort of big deal. These sad, fat arseholes would do the world a favour if they could just waddle over to the Mekong with bricks in their pockets and jump in.
Many backpackers meanwhile treat the country like a massive dollar vodka playground. Sure, you can drink beer in hammocks on the beach until your wallet’s empty, but there’s no point running to the teacher if anything goes wrong – they’ll probably be worse than the bullies.
As long as its part of the South East Asia Experience however no-one seems to care.
But there are slivers of light. More than anywhere else i’ve been, Cambodia abounds in the sort of self help civil society organisations that neo-liberals love to argue make up for the State actually giving a damn for the people it’s supposed to protect.
One of these is the Sisters Cafe in Kampot. The proprietress there is an orphan who was saved from being sold into sexual slavery in Thailand by having her leg destroyed by a passing motorbike when she was twelve. She now runs an orphanage in the town, teaching the kids how to cook and screen print t-shirts.
Another one is Friends in Phnom Penh. There, former street kids prepare and serve massive portions of tapas that, though somewhat clunky and unrefined, have more soul than all of Phnom Penh’s fine dining restaurants put together.
The country is beautiful and the majority of Cambodians are the nicest people you’ll ever meet, but I think the country has a long way to go before it’s anything like a good place to visit.
Sure, the food is nice, but what difference does that make when hell is raging just outside the restaurant door?