Okay. We all enjoy good food. But in my experience, folks living in Asia take food to a whole new level.
In Canada, Toronto specifically, owners of mobile restaurants have had a horrible time trying to get a vibrant street truck culture going. By comparison, in Portland, Oregon, an entire city block has been designated as a Food Truck Zone where you can buy foods from around the world, any kind of grilled cheese you can imagine, sweets, meats and all sorts of gastronomic treats. Here, not so much.
In the countries we’ve visited recently – Korea, Cambodia, Thailand – food is where the people are.
In Seoul, Hub and I would stroll down the bustling streets in the evening, marveling at what was on offer. Our first night, in search of something that was not airplane food, we came across ‘chicken street’, where all the restaurants offered poultry dishes – braised, fried, grilled, steamed. You want chicken parts? Gizzards on skewers, feet in sweet and sour sauce, rice stir-fries, noodle soups. Koreans love fish and seafood, especially squid.
Deep frying was the norm. We say a hot dog encased on some sort of batter, into which was pressed french fries. I could feel my liver contracting. Another favourite was deep-fried spiral-cut potatoes on a stick. There were carts selling what looked like ‘toad in the hole’ – fluffy broiled egg whites surrounding a golden yolk on a slab of bread. Fun fact: in Korea, it’s illegal to offer plastic chopsticks. Diners carry their own metal chopsticks with them, like North Americans carry pens in their pockets.
Walking around with a drink in your hand is huge. In the night market, there were stalls pressing fresh juices – pomegranate, orange, coconut. And I’d never seen sugar candy whipped up into such lovely creations – flowers and birds almost to lovely to eat. All kinds of pastries and ice cream flavours.
During the day, the sidewalks around our hotel were busy, but sedate and quiet. Small restaurants with the longest lineups featured three middle-aged unsmiling ladies dishing out rice and meat dishes. Office workers lined up politely, scrolling their cell phones until a seat became available. Lingering was frowned upon – literally. One of the ladies would lurk by your table with a cleaning rag in her hand.
As night fell, the side streets came alive with vendors and throngs of people. Pop-up restaurants would appear: a cloth canopy, low metal tables and a handful of folding plastic chairs arranged around steaming hot pots of seafood. Do the proprietors have a licence? Who knows? Who cares? The ambiance was terrific.
What struck me most was how polite everyone was, despite the crowds. The patrons enjoyed themselves – men in suits coming straight from the office for a quick bite, crowds of young people, seniors, couples, families. There was so much energizing hustle and bustle but no sense of urgency or unease.
Bangkok is…Bangkok. Our favourite city. Street carts, high, broken sidewalks, insane traffic, narrow passageways leading into dimness, min temples draped with flowers. Massage shops ($10 for a bracing leg and foot massage) crammed next to tailor shops (I make you nice suit in one day, madam) in between the Hilton Hotel, a motorbike garage and a restaurant. In the aftermath of the temple bombing earlier this year, security was visible everywhere.
One morning, as we were walking to the Skytrain, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. When I looked down at a smoking brazier perched on broken bricks above the gutter, I glimpsed the distinctive tails of two fat rats scurrying away with a discarded hunk of chicken fat. No big deal.
Yup. That’s real life.