Growing up in the Caribbean, there are certain flavors I am very familiar with. Salty and sweet are the mainstays of my palate. The more I travel the more my palate has to evolve. Although, I grew up with Indian and Chinese flavors, Asia has always been daunting. Asian-American food is not what you get in Asia. Thai and Japanese flavors are kept very similar, but most other flavors are adapted. On this trip I visited the Philippines, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Nepal and India. Nepal and India were first time visits.
The first thing I learnt was that Asian flavors are complex. Each country has a different flavor and different regions in a country may have completely different cuisines. When I like a dish I tend to look for different versions of it. This helps to challenge why I like a dish and give different perspectives on it. A curry in Singapore is very different from a curry in India. Ordering it in both places helps you to see the potential in the dish and that there is no one way to do something. A dish isn’t Asian just because you dip it in soy sauce. Asian cuisine can be spicy, bitter and even sour. More often than not, it is a combination of these things. On this trip I had Laksa for the first time. Laksa is a spicy noodle soup, very popular in South- East Asia. The one I had was from a popular place and it was okay, but when I broke it down, I had a realization. Laksa is the culmination of a lot of things I do not particularly like. However, all together, for some reason, it worked. I was surprised I didn’t hate it more. That is precisely what I learnt on this trip, Asian flavors are unfamiliar but that isn’t always a bad thing.
Variations to a dish brings us to the next big thing I learnt. It is okay to get a dish wrong. On this trip I ate a lot of great food and A LOT of not so great food. At that point it was about the experience. Some of the bad food came from popular sources. It wasn’t bad because they boiled it in dishwashing liquid, it was bad because I didn’t appreciate it and that’s okay. Everyone’s palate is unique. Don’t pretend to like something because it is exotic. I’m a firm believer in trying different things but that does not mean you have to like everything you eat. Soy sauce eggs smell funny, oysters are slimy and gizzards are chewy. Whenever I cook I always feel this pressure to get everything perfect. That is hard because in that case you live and die by your last dish, which is hazardous to your mood especially if you are experimenting. Trying a dish and it not turning out perfect is ok, sometimes food is bad, it isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes it is the recipe, sometimes it is a mistake, sometimes it is just you. Whatever it is, it isn’t the end of the world because in about six hours you are going to have another meal and the last one can be completely forgotten, if you want it to be. Food doesn’t have to always be perfect, sometimes edible is perfectly fine. I made an effort to step out of my comfort zone on this trip and purposefully chose dishes I knew I wasn’t going to like. In those cases it was important for me to ask why. That way at least the dish wasn’t a total loss. You can learn from bad experiences.
Furthermore, I learnt that intersecting flavors interest me the most. Cuisines that come out of the mixture of cultures are my favorites. Probably because of my Caribbean upbringing, where food was always a melting pot of different cultures. I love foods that take influences from different places. It isn’t necessarily ‘fusion’ food because you aren’t intentionally mixing two different cuisines such as Italian and Japanese, it is just the way their culture is, being influenced by different places. A good example is Nepal. Found between India and China (Tibet). Nepal has their own culture and that culture is definitely influenced by both India and China, and it shows in their food. In Nepal I had Momos for the first time. Momos are dumplings. They look exactly like Chinese dumplings, the difference is when you bite into them, you are instantly hit with Indian spices. I’ve never tasted anything like that. Chinese dumplings filled with Indian seasonings, it was an absolute revelation. I never thought about it much but there is no reason why it shouldn’t work. I say Chinese dumplings and Indian spices to get across the way I saw them, but in reality this wasn’t Chinese or Indian, it was just Nepali. A perfect balance of cultures to yield something unique and beautiful. That was exactly the type of experience that I cherished the most.
I will admit, these revelations are things I knew already to some degree. However, this trip felt like a Master Class in these exercises. Much like learning math in primary school versus studying it in university. Same subject, completely different comprehension. Travel (if done right) should always challenge some concept you have about the world. I really appreciate that I was able to go to places that made me question my ideas about food. Moreover, I value having the time to try fully understand the experience. Asia is a crazy place and if you give it a chance there is a lot you can learn about food.