As you’ll be well aware, …in Shanghai has been rather quiet over the past few months. The main reason for this is that I’ve been spending more time this summer in front of a bowl of the above and other Southeast Asian delicacies than I have a computer screen. After a brief spell trudging through a few of Yunnan’s more touristy spots (I sadly didn’t get as far as Shangri-La…), I hitched a plane down to Hanoi, Vietnam, where I spent the better part of a lazy week drinking local coffee and eating pho (noodle soup), before travelling south through this vibrant country and finishing up in Cambodia 6 weeks later.
I’m not usually a believer in ‘love at first sight’, but Southeast Asia managed to prove me wrong. I became enamoured with this part of the world during a 10-day trip to Malaysia at the start of the year; be it the lush green landscapes or the rainbow of architecture, from the welcoming warmth of the locals to the ubiquitous street cuisine (for me, the tipping point, which I’ll get to in a second), the infectious energy I felt in Penang and Kuala Lumpur greeted me again as I landed in Hanoi, and followed me all the way down to Phnom Penh. That such gorgeous countries as Vietnam and Cambodia could also be tinged with such painful recent histories and visible poverty (Cambodia was a particular heartbreaker) made the imprint they left on me all the more poignant.
Being a girl who follows her taste buds rather than her heart or her head, it was the intricately-flavoured food of this region that immediately won my fidelity. Anyone who has travelled to the area will remember the local, hole-in-the-wall noodle houses that litter the streets, with small plastic chairs and tables spilling out on to the road, providing the chaotic melody to the street traffic. I needed no further encouragement: I drank my weight in Vietnamese iced coffee with lashings of condensed milk, lunched on enormous bowls of pho bo (chicken) and pho ga (beef), very indelicately rolled and devoured fresh vegetable spring rolls, gorged on all types of banh (baked goods), and dived into any hawker stall I could eat more in. In Cambodia, I finished my trip with a cooking class in Phnom Penh, where I was scolded by the Khmer Oliver Twist (a former street kid-turned chef extraordinaire, known as Lucky Heng) for cutting vegetables too thickly, though my fish amok and banana flower salad were still tasty.
Thai food seems to still dominate the spectrum of Southeast Asian cuisine offered back home, though Vietnamese eateries are rapidly spreading, particularly in London’s Kingsland Road. Cambodian cuisine, however, remains the underdog. This is a shame: while not as much a stalwart on the street food side of things as its Vietnamese neighbour, Cambodian food has a far greater deal of complex flavours at play. Its dishes mixed the spicy kick of Thai food with the fragrant blend of Vietnamese tastes and felt all the more intricate for it. Indian-style curries were also a frequent feature, alongside the French influences found in the ubiquitous baguettes sold on the road (a trait also shared, evidently, with Vietnam).
My forage through these beautiful countries rekindled an old, adolescent desire of mine to be a food writer; meticulously researching, eating and documenting cuisines as my taste buds play the role of the compass. That desire might not go further than this blog, but it certainly made me re-appreciate perhaps one of the most fundamental things China has to offer: food. I came to China hungry, and have not had my fill of anything just yet. And now that I am living in the French Concession, on a road with several stalls selling baozi, zhu rou yue bing, huentuen, fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as local and Cantonese food, I am in the prime indulgence position.
Now quickly to matters of housekeeping: since I’m back in the ‘Hai, what next for this blog? I am currently finding my feet in an intensive Mandarin Chinese course, and within the next month or so I hope to be blogging more frequently with news related to Chinese society and politics. I am also looking to do more original features. Watch this space.
Thanks for your patience and for reading. Expect more blog posts in the near future.
…and, no doubt, several about food.