'Snapshots from Asia' on Serious Eats

Snapshots from Vietnam: The Best Things I Ate

Vietnam was the second leg of our trip (see the first leg featuring Hong Kong, Chengdu, and Shanghai here). The food, the hospitality, the landscape, and the sheer energy of the two cities we visited—Hanoi (the north) and Nha Trang (southeast coast)—blew me away. From red dragon to banh cuon with pork-cinnamon sausage, check out the best things I ate. More

Snapshots from Asia: Pineapple Buns and Mandarin Duck 'Yuan Yang' Tea

Ahhh, a nice cuppa tea and a sit down. The sky may be falling in, but there's always time for a break, especially the kind that gives you a minute or two to yourself and something sweet to nibble on. Some people "forget to eat" when they're stressed (what a concept!). I forget lots of things (like the ironing, or a looming paper deadline), but I've not quite found a way to ignore a rumbling belly. A good thing, given I'm always left restored and better able to take on the world post-break. You'll have your own perfect tea-and-munchie combination, of course. But to my belly, nothing beats a piping hot pineapple bun, fresh from the oven, accompanied by... More

Snapshots from Asia: Will the Real Shaved Ice Please Stand Up?

Scoff at my tenderfoot nature if you will, but can you think of anything else that's icy and flaky and good at the same time? Icy is never an adjective you want handy when it comes to ice cream or gelato (in fact, it is the veritable death knell for most frozen concoctions). Snow ice is cool but not brain-freeze frosty, and sweet enough to be satisfying without the cloying sugary-ness of the "frozen cotton candy" it has been compared to. To steal from the Philly cream cheese commercial, it's probably what angels would eat for dessert. More

Snapshots from Asia: Seeking Perfection in Rice Flour Rolls and Oil-Fried Devils

Crisp, golden Chinese crullers enrobed in silken, barely-there rice flour rolls, then lightly drizzled with your choice of sauces—a savory-sweet, fermented flour paste (a lot more approachable than it sounds), nutty, roasted sesame, seasoned soy, and a vinegary chile. Zhar leung is a dish so simple that hardly anyone gets it right. A thin sheet of batter is ladled over a steamer. First, the steamed rice flour rolls have to be so thin as to be translucent, yet be strong enough not to tear when picked up with chopsticks. Good rice flour rolls will boast a glossy sheen and a pleasingly elastic “bite,” which will then yield to a dreamy, melt-away texture. The only way to achieve this is... More

Snapshots from Asia: Why Are Italian Noodles So Much Pricier than Chinese Ones?

Wandering the streets of Hong Kong, I stumbled upon a sight I’d usually expect to see at a farmers’ market—a fresh noodle store. Unlike the oftentimes too-pricey-for-a-grad student handmade pasta, these noodles were much more affordable. At an average of four nests of noodles for sixty-five cents (each nest feeds one!) it made me wonder: what makes Italian pasta so much more expensive? Is it the ingredients? Or could it be that pasta-making is far more laborious than Chinese noodle-making? Are the two processes very different? History is littered with stories of how the string-like food made from unleavened dough came about. Some claim that Marco Polo introduced noodles to the Italians on his return from China (now debunked),... More

Snapshots from Asia: Hong Kong’s Outdoor Fish Markets and the Asian Reverence for Fish

Fish is a big deal in Asia. The older generations can tell, at a taste, if the fish presented to them was wild caught or farm-raised. More remarkably, they can tell if the fish had been gaily swimming just prior to being cooked, or if it had been bottom-up for hours. This super palate can be quite the annoyance, especially when everyone else around the table is starving. A highly exacting uncle of mine has a reputation for sending fish that’s not screamingly fresh back to the kitchen with a caustic “Please, have some.” I love him dearly, but I make it a point of having a pre-meal meal before dining with him. My stomach has rumbled through one... More

Snapshots from Asia: Hakka Thunder Tea Rice

If you were on the run and had no access to electricity, what food would you pack? Field rations, space food, and/or squeeze packs of Nutella? (This last option gets my housemates’ unanimous vote.) 400 years ago, the Hakkas—an ethnic Chinese group fleeing South from the constant warfare in North China—invented "lei cha" or thunder tea rice to sustain them over the long, hazardous journey. With no means of heating water and limited resources, the original dish consisted of a handful of grains and beans ground to a fine powder and mixed with cold water. The “thunder” in the dish refers to the racket made as the ingredients were crushed with a traditional wood pestle in a coarse-surfaced clay... More

Snapshots from Asia: I’d Like a Michael Jackson, Please

In Singapore, it is not uncommon for my grandparents' generation to speak numerous dialects, but only a smattering of English. So imagine my surprise when I heard a grandfatherly type holler at a coffee shop, "Lao ban, lai yi bei Michael Jackson." ("Boss, give me a glass of Michael Jackson.") Michael Jackson? What is this, a new type of beer? I stay to look and it turns out a Michael Jackson is no alcoholic drink, but a virtuous concoction of creamy soy milk and squiggles of immortal jelly. I haven't a clue why the black jelly is considered "immortal" (I suspect ad man involvement), but it is also known locally as chin chow, or grass jelly. Made by boiling... More

Snapshots from Asia: Tropical Fruit Feast, the Jackfruit

My great grandmother (who was illiterate and never attended a day of school) had an interesting yardstick for the heft of large objects. Things were classed as: If I throw it at a man, he’ll die; If I throw it at a man, he’ll be out cold; or simply, “mosquito fart.” I did not get to spend much time with this feisty old lady but the survival-esque nature of her wisdom constantly pops up in my head—particularly when I’m faced with ginormous things. The jackfruit, the largest treeborne fruit known to man, would most certainly fall in the man-killing category. Averaging the size of a grown man’s trunk, they can weigh up to 110 pounds and remind me of... More

Snapshots from Asia: Tropical Fruit Feast, Pulasans and Rambutans

Pulasans. Venomous animals and insects are often strikingly colored and marked to warn off predators or just plain nosey folks – evolutionary cues for survival and a quiet life. Maybe that’s why the rambutan and it’s close cousin, the pulasan, look so forbidding. With their threatening spikes and crimson armor, both look like accessories to violent crime. Yet, pick them up and you’ll find both soft and almost cuddly. The pulasan’s spikes are thick and rubbery, while the rambutan’s are thin and pliant – like a shock of hair (“rambut” means “hairy” in Malay). Rambutans. What is dangerous though, are the swarms of fire ants that live in rambutan trees. The fruit is so sweet that people with the... More

Snapshots from Asia: Tropical Fruit Feast: The Starfruit

I am a bad daughter. My dad, an aircraft engineer who keeps planes in the air for a living, forwards every piece of email he receives that carries “useful” information: “What to do if you’re being followed down a dark alley; Beware of poisonous spiders lurking in restrooms; Don’t eat red and blue foods together lest your bowels explode.” Being ungrateful, I tend to mock the information, convinced that if an email claims that drinking tomato juice while skipping will prevent disease, Dad will stockpile tomato juice while skipping ropes in earnest. So when I read Dad’s latest email, entitled: “Starfruit can be deadly,” I was ready to dismiss it. How could such a pretty little thing cause harm?... More

Snapshots from Asia: Tropical Fruit Feast: Dried Dragon Eyes Kick Raisin Ass

Meet the longan. Its name literally translates to “dragon’s eye," which I can only assume stems from the way its translucent, off-white flesh resembles the eye's sclera, with a pupil-like black seed within. I was tempted to take a picture of all their beady little eyes exposed and peering out, but it’s impossible to eat just half a longan. Like biting into a plump cherry tomato or succulent grape, cramming the whole thing in your mouth is almost a matter of principle. With a sweet, almost-crisp bite, the longan’s flavor is very much that of a subtle, floral honey. Lychees and longans are often compared to each other—probably because these two fruits come into season at the same time.... More

Snapshots from Asia: Tropical Fruit Feast: The Lychee is Not a Nut!

At a gelati stand, I remember being thoroughly confused when my friend asked, “So what kind of nut is the lychee?” “Huh?” I exclaimed. The friend fairly thumped the counter pane with his finger, indicating the near-empty tub of Lychee Nut Sorbet. “The lychee isn’t a nut… it’s a fruit!” I said. “Bet?” challenged the friend. He knew two things: 1) that I would be dying to rush home to consult the google gods; and 2) that I had an afternoon of appointments far away from civilization. This fiend-friend delights in tormenting me. But he soon owed me dessert. As it turns out, this whole lychee nut business stems from a mistake. Lychees deteriorate quickly once picked and dry... More

Snapshots from Asia: Tropical Fruit Feast, Red-Fleshed Dragon Fruit

I write with trepidation. I know if I casually toss out a claim that, “Red-fleshed dragon fruit are always sweet,” someone, somewhere, will run up and toss a bland, sickly, red-fleshed dragon fruit in my face. So I proceed cautiously: I’ve yet to stumble upon a stingy sourpuss of a red-fleshed dragon fruit. All the ones I’ve had have been glorious. More

Snapshots from Asia: Traditional Kuih Muih for the Gluten-Free Dessert Fiend

There’s a saying that a girl’s father is her first true love. The first man who loves her—and whom she loves—wholeheartedly. My dad has a sweet tooth, which is probably why I find men who enjoy dessert so appealing. I once had a date who gave me the bleeding heart routine, telling me with a soulful, faraway look in his eyes that he avoided all things sweet. Why? "Because life is hard," he said. His family struggled for years to make ends meet. Denying himself sweetness was his way of reminding himself not to take things for granted. It was a touching story, but I dodged a kiss and was quick to offer my hand in friendship at the... More

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