Make 2016 a food trip year

Six tips on how to be a smart gastro-traveler

Text & Photos by Noel S. Villaflor

 

WHO was it who said that to eat what the locals eat is to understand their culture and history? Unless your sole aim in traveling is to take the perfect Instagramable shots of food, sites and selfies, then feasting on the local fare — food that regular locals partake of day in and out — should be a must in your travel itinerary.

PAD THAI, ANYONE? A street vendor cooks ups some really good Pad Thai on Khaosan Road in Bangkok.
PAD THAI, ANYONE? A street vendor cooks ups some really good Pad Thai on Khaosan Road in Bangkok.

There’s nothing wrong with following what the Michelin guide book says to the letter, but if you thumb your nose at street food or holes-in-the-wall in foreign land, then you definitely are missing something. There’s a reason revered foodies like Anthony Bourdain go beyond the “hermetically sealed” restos and cafes of culinary destinations, and prod their followers “to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head.”

Now if you’re a pungko-pungko regular or a gastro-tourist who has at least tried making tusok-tusok the ubiquitous fishballs in some street corner and survived, then you won’t have any problems enjoying cheap, delicious eats in travel destinations where street food culture is highly evolved.

If it’s your first time to indulge in street food havens like Jalan Alor in Kuala Lumpur, the Ben Thanh Night Market in Saigon, or Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok, the experience can be overwhelming. And if you’ve been there and done than, well, we’re pretty sure you’d want to go back there and do it all over again. It’s hard to explain really, so you must experience it yourself: the endless stream of customers, the diversity of food offerings, the divine taste of freshly cooked street food, melting pots of cultures in the truest sense.

TAKE YOUR PICK. Roadside Ban Mhi stations can be found all over Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon.
TAKE YOUR PICK. Roadside Ban Mhi stations can be found all over Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon.
TAKE YOUR PICK. From chicken feet to offal, take your pick of on-the-go street food in Shilin Night Market in Taiwan.
TAKE YOUR PICK. From chicken feet to offal, take your pick of on-the-go street food in Shilin Night Market in Taiwan.
Roti and Tea Tarik at an Indian eatery in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Roti and Tea Tarik at an Indian eatery in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
Plump fishball noodles and milk tea at a roadside Chinese eatery in Kota Marudu, Sabah
Plump fishball noodles and milk tea at a roadside Chinese eatery in Kota Marudu, Sabah

So, if you’re planning to travel in neighboring countries in 2016 and wish to make it a more enriching experience, then we’ll help you summon the gastro-tourist in you with these food travel tips:

Succulent beef with greens topped on rice at a low-key streetside noodle house in Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong
Succulent beef with greens topped on rice at a low-key streetside noodle house in Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong.

1. Include street food havens in your itinerary. For Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia try Jalan Alor Food Street, while in Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, there’s the Ben Thanh Night Market. In Bangkok, Thailand, check out either Chatuchak Weekend Market or Khao San Road. In Siem Reap, Cambodia, there’s Pub Street, and in Hong Kong, there’s Temple Street Night Market in Tsim Sha Tsui.

2. Explore inner roads. While many street food havens offer local fare, many of these are prepared and seasoned to suit the diverse tastes of tourists. So, if you wan’t to try what locals in an area eat on a daily basis, meander into nearby roads where you’re sure to find street food vendors or holes-in-the-wall that residents patronize. For the more daring, alleys may offer food surprises.

3. Be mindful. The rule of thumb when dining anywhere is to find places that locals patronize. That’s a sign that the food tastes good and food preparation is okay. Observe how the locals eat and what they order. And be mindful of local customs and your manners, as well. When ordering and paying for food, you’d be surprised that sign language works pretty well almost all the time.

4. Don’t compare apples with oranges. Or ramen with pho, tom yum with laksa, banh mi with roti, or worse, foreign food with Filipino cuisine. Travel is a celebration of diversity, not a competition. So, take pleasure when you discover that the dimsum in Hong Kong has differences with popular dimsum in Cebu, and enjoy when you find similiraties, which brings us to the next tip…

Tourists converge at the Ben Thanh Night Market in Saigon
Tourists converge at the Ben Thanh Night Market in Saigon.
Pork cutlets with dumplings, rice noodles, veggies and fermented fish sauce dip at an alley hole-in-the-wall in Hanoi.
Pork cutlets with dumplings, rice noodles, veggies and fermented fish sauce dip at an alley hole-in-the-wall in Hanoi.
Dumplings, sausages and eggs at a street food stall in Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok
Dumplings, sausages and eggs at a street food stall in Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok
Stir-fried noodles, Cambodian style, in Pub Street, Siem Reap
Stir-fried noodles, Cambodian style, in Pub Street, Siem Reap

5. Celebrate similarities. While it’s not a good idea to compare, finding similarites between dishes here and there can be enjoyable, as it will allow you a glimpse of food history, noodles and rice, for instance, and how it they became staples all over Asia, or why a country prefers one over the other. Did you know that the famous tagaktak in Mandaue City is a Badjau delicacy in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia?

Beef noodles, or Pho, with milk tea at Pho Quunh
Beef noodles, or Pho, with milk tea at Pho Quunh
Pho Quunh, a noodle place in the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao in Saigon.
Pho Quunh, a noodle place in the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao in Saigon.
Thit Nuong, or grilled pork, served on a roadside in Saigon
Thit Nuong, or grilled pork, served on a roadside in Saigon

6. Be open-minded, enjoy the moment. What’s more unfortunate than Filipino tourists looking for Filipino restaurants in foreign land? Of course, foreign food will be prepared and seasoned differently. Remember, when you’re in foreign land, you’re there as a guest, not a critic. We suggest to do your analysis long after the trip is over. That’s one of the secrets to food travel happiness.

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