Food and Longing in Southeast Asia On a trip to Southeast Asia, Julie O'Hara made eating her top priority. To her, eating the food of a place is a priceless opportunity and real authenticity in travel often boils down to a bowl of incredible noodles from a street vendor.

Food and Longing in Southeast Asia

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Ingredients such as fish sauce, mint and red chilies help re-create Southeast Asian meals. Julie O'Hara for NPR hide caption

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Julie O'Hara for NPR

Ingredients such as fish sauce, mint and red chilies help re-create Southeast Asian meals.

Julie O'Hara for NPR

About the Author

Julie O'Hara is a freelance writer and recipe developer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who covers food and travel for national publications and blogs at A Mingling of Tastes. She hopes to return to Asia soon, but will settle for Spain ... or Turkey ... or Argentina.

As I sat in a Bangkok restaurant, sipping and slurping the best green curry I'd ever eaten, panic crept into my mind just as the warm, aromatic stew spread through my stomach. I may never eat another curry like this again, I thought. I flagged down the waiter.

"Excuse me, what are these?" I asked, pointing at the marble-sized vegetables that looked like very large, firm peas floating in my curry.

"Eggplant," the waiter informed me, obligingly.

"These things are eggplant?" I asked again, hoping we were just having a communication gap despite his very good English.

With the waiter's confirmation that I was indeed eating some delicious Asian mini-eggplant, the hope I had of re-creating that curry was deflated. Sure, I thought, there is a possibility that this funky little eggplant thing is available in the United States, but I had never seen one in Fort Lauderdale, even at the expensive Thai restaurant where the waiters wear bowties. I was sunk.

Like the green curry, many of the meals I happily enjoyed on a recent trip to Southeast Asia were tinged with a sense of sadness. Every day, some new taste receptor that I didn't know I had lit up like a winning slot machine at Caesar's Palace. I ate things that had once existed only in my dreams — along with things I never even knew to dream about. As my husband and I dined our way through Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, I constantly sized up my chances of recreating our best meals.

Strange new vegetables notwithstanding, Thai food is probably the most accessible to an American cook. Curry paste, lemongrass, chilies and even kaffir lime leaves are widely available, and the techniques for making a slowly simmered curry or a lightning-fast noodle dish such as pad Thai are straightforward.

In Bangkok, we even took a cooking class that helped us connect the Thai flavors we love to the ingredients that create them. Pandan leaf extract, for example, adds a grassy, herbal note to mango sticky rice.

But go to Singapore and all bets are off. With a diverse assortment of high-quality Malaysian, Chinese, Indian and Singaporean dishes readily available at the city-wide food courts known as hawker centers, we were simultaneously flummoxed and delighted by new foods at every turn.

How about some "carrot cake," rice flour cakes made with daikon and stir-fried with egg and dark soy sauce? (It's called "carrot cake" in Singapore because the Chinese phrase for carrot and daikon — a type of white radish — are very similar.) Maybe you'd like a whole crab smothered in black pepper sauce and imbued with the spice's surprisingly nuanced flavor. Or why not try a spicy bowl of curry laksa, the coconut-based soup with rice noodles, fried tofu, fish cakes and cockles (small bivalves)?

In Vietnam, I was in thrall of the delicately flavored soups, stir-fries and grilled dishes perfumed with aromatic elements such as lemongrass, mint and shallots. I loved the rich clay pot stews in which pungent fish sauce is balanced by a sweet element such as sugar or caramel syrup.

Despite the ethereal lightness of everything we ate in that country, I was weighed down with thoughts of the culinary challenges I would face back home. I might cook a Vietnamese recipe perfectly, but without the local produce — such as the fat spring chives in one memorable stir-fry — it just wouldn't be the same. That stir-fry featured tender pieces of beef, too, but the meat was just an excuse for the crisp, onion-like herb.

Knowing so much of the local food we encountered couldn't be reproduced at home made eating my top travel priority, above priceless art or one-of-a-kind monuments. To my mind, eating the food of a place is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not a lowly, sensual pursuit. You can never duplicate the soil, the water or the air that exists in a particular place at a particular time, not to mention the generations of experience that go into specialties prepared by local cooks.

This is why my pho will never approach the greatness of the bowl I ate in Ho Chi Minh City. This is why real authenticity in travel often comes down to that incredible plate of noodles you get from a street vendor.

Back home, seeking out authentic recipes or cooking a dish based on taste memory became an adventure in itself. Trips to the Asian grocery store unearthed the jam-like Thai chili paste for spicy shrimp salad and an excellent green curry paste (now if only they would stock those mini-eggplants), as well as new foods I didn't even know I needed, like Chinese flowering cabbage (more like spinach than cabbage) and steamed fish cakes (good for some Vietnamese noodle dishes).

I may not be able to buy Vietnamese catfish in Florida, but I discovered that it isn't so hard to replicate the rich and unctuous, yet lightly aromatic, broths of Vietnamese fish stews. Shallots, garlic and scallions are a holy trinity of flavor, and oyster sauce is a culinary miracle worker when it comes to adding both sweetness and savory depth to Asian dishes. In my quest to taste the foods from our trip again, I've become a better cook, trusting my instincts more and experimenting with, well, everything.

My trip was not, however, a series of exotic meals consumed with a heavy heart. I didn't let my wistful thoughts take away the utter joy of traveling and eating in Southeast Asia. I was simply aware that I would spend the rest of my life longing for those wonderful dishes. Either that, or I would have to return.

Thai Spicy Shrimp Salad

Julie O'Hara for NPR
Thai Spicy Shrimp Salad
Julie O'Hara for NPR

Salads in Thailand are often the spiciest dishes on the menu because they use fresh, hot chilies. The chili paste is comparatively mild and contributes a distinctive sweet flavor. You can find the Mae Pranom brand in Asian grocery stores or online. Fresh lemongrass is traditionally used, but unless you are very careful about using only the tender inner core, it may have a woody texture. I like the lemongrass paste by the Gourmet Garden brand sold in tubes in the produce sections of many supermarkets because it has all the flavor without the prep work.

Makes 4 servings

2 large shallots, finely chopped (about 1/4 cup)

1/4 cup chopped cilantro, loosely packed

1/4 cup chopped mint, loosely packed

2 red Thai chilies or other small, hot chilies such as serrano, seeded and finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)

4 teaspoons sugar

4 teaspoons Thai chili paste (or substitute 2 teaspoons chili sauce, such as Heinz)

2 tablespoons lemongrass paste (or substitute 1 stalk fresh lemongrass, tender inner stalk only, chopped fine)

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons fish sauce

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons lime juice (from 2 to 3 limes)

1 tablespoon peanut or canola oil

16 large shrimp, peeled and deveined

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 large green leaf or romaine lettuce leaves for serving

4 mint sprigs for serving (optional)

In a small bowl, combine the shallots, cilantro and mint. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the chilies, sugar, chili paste, lemongrass paste, fish sauce and lime juice. Mix well and set aside.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shrimp, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring often until just opaque and cooked through, about 4 minutes. Add the shrimp to the bowl with the chili mixture. Add the shallot-herb mixture and toss well. Arrange a lettuce leaf on each of 4 plates. Spoon 4 shrimp along with their dressing over each leaf and drizzle with additional dressing (you will have some left over). Garnish with a mint spring if you like and serve.

Vietnamese Seafood Stew in a Clay Pot

Julie O'Hara for NPR
Vietnamese Seafood Stew in a Clay Pot
Julie O'Hara for NPR

In Vietnam, we adopted the motto, "If it's in a clay pot, it's going to be good." Simple to put together, the flavors of this stew develop as it simmers slowly in the oven. Vietnamese cooks often use caramel syrup to sweeten dishes like this, but I find that oyster sauce, a deeply flavored, sweet condiment, works just as well without the hassle of making caramel. Any earthenware baking dish can be used here, but an oven-safe Dutch oven or heavy skillet will also work. This recipe does not call for salt because the broth, fish sauce and oyster sauce contain enough salt to season the dish, but taste the finished stew and add seasoning if you wish. Serve with steamed white rice.

Makes 4 servings

1 1/2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil

3 to 4 large shallots, thinly sliced (about 1/2 cup)

3 to 4 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)

1 to 1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1/4 cup fish sauce

3 tablespoons oyster sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

1 pound skinless tilapia fillets, or other firm white fish such as cod or catfish

16 large shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 (15-ounce) can straw mushrooms, drained

2 large beefsteak tomatoes, cut into 8 wedges each

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

5 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

2 small, hot chilies such as Thai or serrano, thinly sliced (about 2 tablespoons), for serving

4 lime wedges for serving

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over low heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and very lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring continuously for 2 minutes more. Transfer to a 10-inch round, 11-inch-by-17-inch rectangular (or similar size) clay or earthenware baking dish.

Add 1 cup of the chicken broth, fish sauce, oyster sauce and sugar to the baking dish. Stir gently to combine. Add the fish fillets, shrimp, mushrooms and tomatoes to the baking dish (don't worry if the ingredients nearly fill the entire pot). Season with black pepper to taste. The seafood should be mostly submerged in the liquid, so add a bit more chicken broth if needed.

Bake for 1 hour, gently stirring once about halfway through the cooking time. Sprinkle with scallions and cilantro and serve the stew family-style in its baking dish. Offer sliced chilies and lime wedges at the table and accompany with steamed white rice.

Sauteed Greens with Chili and Garlic

Julie O'Hara for NPR
Sauteed Greens with Chile and Garlic
Julie O'Hara for NPR

Wherever we went in Thailand and Singapore, some version of spicy sauteed greens was available. Typically made with water spinach or Chinese broccoli, this recipe is delicious with any tender, leafy greens with a mild to slightly bitter flavor. Seek out unfamiliar greens like Chinese flowering cabbage (or gai lan) in Asian markets. Spinach and Swiss chard are delicious, too.

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil

3 to 4 medium cloves garlic, thinly sliced (about 2 tablespoons)

1 pound tender leafy greens such as Chinese flowering cabbage, spinach or Swiss chard, thick stems removed, large leaves roughly chopped

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 teaspoons fish sauce

2 teaspoons sugar

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 small, hot red chilies such as Thai or Fresno, thinly sliced and seeded if desired

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add a few handfuls of the greens, allow them to wilt slightly, then add more greens in the same manner. Toss well to coat with oil.

Add the soy sauce, fish sauce and sugar; toss to combine.

Raise the heat to medium-high and cook until the water released by the greens mostly evaporates, about 5 minutes. The greens are done when a little liquid still clings to the leaves and the stems are tender. Season with salt and black pepper to taste, sprinkle with chilies and serve.