by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
Before we started traveling, we often went out to eat Chinese food. Even in Europe, we usually visited Chinese restaurants. We liked Indian and Thai dishes, too. Now we were in Asia, and face-to-face with the real thing. Foods in restaurants are altered to appeal to local tastes and often the real thing is quite different.
The hotel provided several new fruits in a lovely basket. Strange round fruits with lots of fingers (rambutan), and lychee. We liked the lychee, rambutans, and even the strange ragon fruit, which comes in white or deep red, and is peppered with little black seeds.
All through Asia and Central America the star fruit is common; I never learned to like it. In some places they put slices of it into iced tea.
In Indonesia we had the opportunity to eat a mango on the island of Flores. It was about eight inches in diameter and was the best mango we have ever eaten. That particular strain is only grown on a few islands.
In the elevator we saw a brass plaque with this message: NO DURIAN ALLOWED ANYWHERE IN THE HOTEL.
We soon found out why. Durian, which is related to breadfruit, has a strong sulfur stench which makes rotten eggs smell like roses. I asked our landlord how it is supposed to be eaten. He bought a small piece, told me to hold my nose and eat. I did, but I won’t again. The smell permeates every nook and cranny. Hotels have had to close whole floors until they can get the smell out. That’s why they won’t allow it. However, for those who like the fruit, once-a-year buyers converge on Bangkok for the durian harvest and buy them by the thousands.
At first, I could smell them in the grocery stores and it was almost enough to make me gag. The longer we stayed, the less they bothered me. I think if I stayed ten years I might be able to eat a piece.
Going grocery shopping is a very pleasant but confusing pastime. The market is under a canvas roof, and about a hundred people have stalls piled high with produce, eggs, or meat. The market covers a city block. Most of the green produce looked like the weeds I had pulled from my garden years before. Not knowing what it was or how it was fixed, I would take a sample into the class I was teaching and ask. They would rattle off a name that I could never understand and no one knew how to write in English. “Sauté it with butter and garlic” was the standard answer for preparing all the strange green things we bought.
It didn’t take long for the people in the stalls to learn what we were looking for and bring out the best when we shopped. It was amazingly cheap to buy one week’s worth of groceries. We would purchase all kinds of vegetables: okra, baby corn, lettuce, tomatoes, all kinds of mushrooms, broccoli, beets, carrots, bean sprouts, etc., and fill two very large shopping bags for about five U.S. dollars. The people at the meat markets would bring out pork roasts or steaks for us to choose. Sometimes we would pick out a live fish and they would kill and clean it. I don’t like to see what I’m going to eat staring back at me, so would ask them to cut the heads off. They always looked at me as if I was crazy, but my cats loved the parts I didn’t want.
We found that they love corn kernels and use them as a topping for ice cream, mixed in yogurt, and on anything else they can think of. As a topping, they are delicious.
Many Asians do not cook at home. On every block, there are stalls on the street cooking food. Apartments are listed as “Western” if they contain a hot plate, refrigerator, and sink.
We tried eating from the street stalls in Thailand, and found that their use of chilies makes almost everything inedible. Some things we saw made us sad. Shark fin soup is boiling on every block. Pans piled high with fried grasshoppers, crickets, and cockroaches are favorites all over Asia. In several countries we found that if a restaurant had a picture of a dog on the outside wall, it was not a place for us.
Pork is a favorite and usually a good choice. Roasted corn on the cob is also featured everywhere. On Sundays, the downtown area in Chaing Mai, Thailand, is closed to traffic and opened to local crafts. The temples within the Old City area host large open food courts with many different vendors cooking up delicious things to eat. One of our favorites was a type of omelet with lots of vegetables and mushrooms fried in a large wok and served on paper plates. We loved to walk the streets each week, buying dinner from here and there, and getting an extra ear of corn for our dog, Sherman, who loved it.
In Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam we found that all the restaurants had large menus covering about eight pages of mouth-watering descriptions. When we would order, we often were told they were “finish.” What was still available was usually actually four or five items. Once we realized this, when the menu was brought to the table, we asked what they were still serving. No sense in agonizing about what we wanted when it wasn’t there.
In China, it isn’t called Chinese food, of course, but during the month we spent there, we ate very well. There is a real difference between the local foods and the American or English version of dishes, and differences in different areas of the country.
In Vietnam one morning I wanted a cup of black coffee and went from stall to stall before I could find someone to hand the coffee to me before pouring one-third of a cup of sugar into it. The vendor only gave it to me when I yelled at her to give it to me as it was. Everyone thought I was crazy.
Asians usually don’t like dairy products because of a gene most of them don’t have. However, in Vietnam, they have cheese, wine and baguettes, thanks to the French.
All in all, eating in Asia was wonderful. We learned to avoid chilies and bypassed fried insects. The variety of fruits and vegetables is more abundant than anywhere else and we had no problem eating very well. I do miss the varieties and of course, the very low prices.