For 3 years now I’ve been traipsing across the global food trail, following my stomach and tasting the road less traveled. While there are many sides to travel, all the adventures taken, learning experiences and people met and more all in between meals, my focus still tends to often gravitate on my next meal. Every country, whether new or familiar, there is always a new taste to discover hidden somewhere. Down a hidden alley, behind a drawn curtain or sometimes right where you thought you’ve looked before. I’m always hunting for my next morsel as I doubt I will ever satiate this hunger, but 2016… my stomach will not forget you.
Japanese is a cuisine I’d become drawn to, fascinated with way back in culinary school. I read books and ate anything related to it. I became addicted to sushi, I craved for ramen. At the end of the day, I still only introduced myself. It was time though. A reintroduction of sorts. I had an overnight layover in Tokyo and an empty stomach. I didn’t try to necessarily discover something new, but rediscover what I thought I knew. Receiving a recommendation for a tucked away ramen joint, ‘Ichiran’, I knew where I was headed first. Speechless. Not finished yet though, it was directly into the busiest sushi bar I came across. Divine. I was on a high, floating through the streets, staring at the bright neon lights almost laughing maniacally at myself. Have I lost it, is this a dream? How could this be so good? What have I been deprived of my whole life? I would be back.
Filipino cuisine was more or less a blank slate, a missing page in my culinary book. A whole two things crossed my mind when I booked my trip. Adobo of which I’d previously only had a very poor version sadly by a fellow Filipino student way back and secondly, Balut, which I had tasted in Vietnam. My palate was open and my stomach empty. The Philippines introduced me to some obscure, insanely fresh and exquisitely prepared grub. Good eats just seemed to appear around me. Step out of a boat onto Virgin Island and be greeted with the fresh subtleness of abalone and the brininess of sea urchin. Attend a festival and see whole Lechon (covered below) disassembled by the street side.
Soup #5 leans to the more obscure side of things, so much it’s falling. What’s in this numbered soup you may ask? Just some genitalia… no big deal. So as usual eaten primarily by men to make you ‘strong’ (stiff arm motion made when describing the ‘benefits’), the main ingredients are bull’s penis/testicle and mine had a surprise chicken foot. Now I bet Soup #5 makes sense. I mean what else would you call this?
Visiting Indonesia followed by my second tour of the Philippines, it was back to back, a sudden death match between suckling pigs. Babi Guling (Indonesian) versus Lechon (Filipino). It got messy, greasy, acts of savage gluttony were committed. With that said, it is a heavenly meal. The recipes passed down from their gods. Babi Guling, most commonly found throughout Bali is more of a combo pack. I say this in regards to the serving style where there is rice, maybe fried pork and/or blood sausage, urap (vegetable dish), sambal and of course the roast flesh as well as the piece de resistance, the toffee-like skin. It’s a package deal, one that I took multiple times. Lechon, the version of the Philippines from what I’ve experienced is more special occasion or festival fare. I wish I had a definitive decision as to which is better, but ultimately just go eat heaps of both. Who said too much of a good thing is bad?!
When I went above 66 degrees north into the Arctic Circle for my first time, I got the pleasure of trying raw seal, both liver and rib meat. With this came a tease of the ‘best part’ which is nearly always eaten on the ice right after the kill. The brain or as I was told Inuit ‘ice cream’ or ‘yogurt’, depending on the community was cherished. I ran like a giddy schoolboy when I was waved over and caught sight of the blood. Seal brain tartar, still warm, creamy and nutty. It doesn’t get much better. Another favorite of the Inuit that I got a taste of this past year was muktuk or the raw blubber of the narwhal. Not really hearing any good reviews on narwhal other than from the locals, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It looked appetizing, the appearance of sushi pulled out of an anime. While the texture might leave something to be desired or just getting used to, the flavour was that of a subtle fish.
The majority of 2016 was spent here primarily working to fund the rest of my traveling. Having a typical western diet and my lack of deep exploration while here I didn’t eat as well or as abstract as I usually would throughout my travels. That in mind, tasting kangaroo spun my top. It was a game changer. Similar to the ‘oh so’ plentiful deer in Canada, it was a deeper colour, richer, mild gamey flavour and a leaner meat. The price is right, it’s perfect to toss on the Barbie and just like deer at home they litter the sides of the road.
Taking a culinary pilgrimage through Penang guarantees good food. This should be known, this should be remembered. On that note, I shan’t reiterate since I’ve written much more extensively about it previously, but I will go as far as saying… Laksa. Eat laksa. Lots of it. At least one bowl from Penang Road Famous Laksa.
Instead of a Thai dish that stuck out above the others, it was a restaurant I stumbled upon in Chiang Mai. Aimlessly wandering the streets, which is probably the best way to find a new local spot, Huen Phen stood in front of me (I later noticed it was in guidebooks, but I’m taking this one for myself). Authentic northern style Thai food and as far as restaurants go, one of the better on the block (Old City). Frequenting this establishment a number of times upon discovery it was always ninety percent local clientele. Opened for an almost tapas style lunch until 4:00pm, they close for an hour and reopen in the more secluded dining area tucked away from the street. And, while I’m at it of course there was a dish that stuck out amongst their incredible menu. Pickled pork with egg eaten with sticky rice. This was a reoccurring dish each time on my table. Location – 112 Ratchamanka Rd.
Over the past few years I have been primarily focused on the cuisines of Asia. Returning time and time again, I still always find something new, something that stills blows my mind each time. While Asia has sunk its teeth in deeply, a few places in particular and as much as you will be missed, I don’t think I will be back in 2017. I’m still not sure where this year will bring me in my never ending pursuit of global eats, but wherever it takes me and whatever ends up in front of me, I’m ready and hungry.
What was a favorite eat from one of your travels this year, new or obscure?