• Thailand Travels: Snapshots from the Markets of Isaan

    I’ve spent the past week traveling through Isaan, the northeast region of Thailand, the agricultural heartland of the country. Few tourists make it up this way—Isaan is a long way from Bangkok and the tropical beaches to the west, and there’s little in the way of mainstream attractions in most of the industrial cities and Mekong border towns.

    But the region is a great place to experience a more traditional side of Thai culture—homestays are more common here than hotels—and the food is some of the most complex and intriguing in the whole country.

    The town of Nong Khai, in the northernmost province of Isaan, is best known as a gateway to Laos, which is visible across the Mekong River and accessible via the well-traveled Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. Despite its proximity to Laos, the food in Nong Khai is uniquely influenced by the Vietnamese community that settled in the area following the Indochina war in 1950s. The morning market downtown has a huge array of Viet-flavored prepared foods—miniature banh mis, lacy banh xeos and freshly steamed rice flour rolls—mixed in with the bounty of local produce on offer. Here’s a look at some choice picks from the Nong Khai market.*

    * Major thanks to my Thai guide, Tip of Trikaya Tours. Apologies for any transliteration misspellings!

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  • Snapshots from Vietnam: A Guide To Hanoi’s Best Street Food

    [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar]

    Hanoi is a street food paradise. The mazelike alleys of the tourist-heavy Old Quarter and the more traditional Truc Bach lake area are crammed with stalls and makeshift storefronts, all bearing toy-sized plastic stools and advertising what they sell with bold signs out front. Many vendors sell only one or two dishes, and since Vietnamese uses a Roman script, it’s easy to tell what they are, provided you know the some basic street food vocabulary.

    Pleasantly overwhelmed and short on Vietnamese language skills, I turned to Aussie expat Mark Lowerson, aka Sticky in Hanoi, who, along with his partner Tu (aka Vietnamese God), runs street food tours of the city. The tours are very small, very personal, and ideal for intrepid eaters looking to branch out beyond pho and banh mi (no offense, pho and banh mi). I was particularly interested in seeking out regional Hanoi specialties, so Mark cherry-picked a few stops for dishes I didn’t find elsewhere in the country.

    Armed with a clearer culinary understanding and some shiny new food phrases post-tour, I continued eating my way across the streets of Hanoi with a newfound appreciation for what I was actually chewing. Here’s a look at some of the fare that makes Hanoi’s diverse street food scene so delicious.

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  • Snapshots From Thailand: The Markets of Krabi

    [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar]

    When I went to southern Thailand this winter, it was a reunion of sorts. Years ago, I spent a month in Trang, a small industrial city that few people outside of Thailand (and many within) have ever heard of. I was ostensibly there to teach English, but I spent every spare minute hanging around the staff cook, trying to absorb her secrets through some sort of language-defying osmosis.

    During a school holiday, I went shopping at the morning market with the cook, and I’ve never been so overwhelmed and overjoyed all at once: bushels of futuristic-looking exotic fruit, blood-soaked fishmongers dispatching fresh seafood, and clusters of noodle soup vendors perfuming the whole joint with their spicy bubbling broths.

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    Mmm, offal soup.

    My Trang tenure years ago set the stage for my three-month Southeast Asian adventure this winter, and I intentionally saved Southern Thailand for last. I based myself around Krabi, a low-key town on the Andaman coast that’s popular with tourists as a jumping-off point for several mind-bogglingly beautiful tropical islands offshore. Many visitors give Krabi short shrift, stopping only long enough to drag their backpacks off of a bus and onto a longtail boat, but I camped out in a dingy budget hotel for one reason: markets.

    Krabi’s morning meat/seafood/produce market (aka the “wet market,” named for the water that that keeps live seafood kicking, fresh produce sprightly, and sprays down the cement floors each day) is ginormous, while the two Krabi night markets have a reputation as a street food lover’s paradise.

    Curry!

    Southern Thai food is markedly spicy, even by Thai standards, and many dishes have a distinct sour kick. Due to its proximity to Malaysia and Indonesia, a Muslim beat runs through the cuisine, too: rich coconut milk curries like Massaman are popular, as is spiced biryani rice and roti flatbreads. Fresh seafood abounds, while pork is virtually absent (it’s kept in a totally separate building at the Krabi wet market); fresh herbs, leaves, and Indian-leaning spices like turmeric make frequent appearances. It’s a lush cuisine—bold and colorful and endlessly complex—seemingly designed to burn itself into your cerebral cortex, both figuratively and literally.

    Thai doughnuts

    Of course, certain street snacks know no regional boundaries: the “processed meats on sticks” phenomenon that seems to have all of Southeast Asia under its spell is in full effect here, complete with Angry Birds-shaped fishcakes on skewers. Orange-hued fried chicken confronted me at every turn, not that I mind meeting fried chicken in a dark alley at night. Fried dough balls have a place in every culture, it seems, and here they take the form of butterfly-shaped crullers, served with cups of sweetened condensed milk and pandan sauce.

    I spent two nights in Krabi, at the tail end of my trip. I’d been on the road, mostly by myself, in a very foreign part of the world for several months in a row. I wandered through the night market as it was gearing up for the crowds; the calm before the storm, with vendors wooing me with samples of cinnamon-laced massaman curry and eggy pad thai. At the morning market, I was the only tourist in sight, and I was rewarded with a breakfast of a singular steamed fish paste curry and a biryani so richly flavored I’m still ashamed for ever thinking rice was boring.

    At the tail end of my fact-gathering mission, I realized that as soon as I thought I had things figured out, something else would inevitably come along to blow my mind (and palate). And really, that’s what I had been looking for all along.

    Here’s a look at ten more market eats from Krabi that I’m still dreaming of today.

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  • Snapshots from the Mediterranean: The 25 Best Things I Ate in Cyprus

    [Photographs: Jamie Feldmar unless otherwise noted]

    When I told people I was going to Cyprus for Christmas vacation, I got a lot of blank looks. The small Mediterranean island is a popular summertime destination for European tourists and expats (particularly Brits), but few Yankees make it ashore, which is understandable given the time and expense it takes to get there. Still, I wanted to go someplace quiet, beautiful, and very far away from New York, which Cyprus in the off-season offered in spades. It wasn’t until after I’d booked my flight (with a layover in Moscow, of all places) that I got excited for the gastronomic component of the trip.

    Calling Cypriot cuisine a blend of Greek and Turkish oversimplifies things: yes, there are strong influences from both on either side of the island,* but look at a map, and you’ll notice that Cyprus is geographically quite close to the Middle East, whose flavors moonlight in many meals. Then there are the edible cameos from the country’s immigrant communities: a Filipino enclave in the capital, Nicosia/Lefkosia (the Greek/English name), and Eastern Europeans and Caucasians, too.

    *A brief lesson in Cypriot politics: Since 1974, Cyprus has been divided in two: the Greek-Cypriot Republic of Cyprus in the south, and the Turkish-Cypriot Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north. A UN-controlled “Green Line” maintains a buffer zone between the two areas, though residents and visitors are allowed to cross the border with a passport.

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    A typical mezze selection

    All this, combined with the country’s agricultural and coastal riches (think fields of citrus and carob and shores stocked with octopus, sea bream, and bass), and the genuine friendliness of literally every single person I broke bread with make Cyprus a very worthwhile destination for those who travel to eat. Cypriots take mealtime (and coffeetime) seriously—dinners often last for hours on end, with bottles of homegrown wine lubricating conversation. Most of the food is prepared simply, emphasizing the quality of ingredients, almost none of which are imported. Village life is still the norm in much of the country, but even in the cities, tavernas serving home-style dishes are still major gathering points.

    We road-tripped around the country for 10 days, staying in coastal cities and mountainside villages, meeting sincere, welcoming people all along the way. In recent years, Cyprus tourism officials have pushed an agrotourism program, in which traditional stone houses in historic villages are restored into guesthouses, often complete with a kitchen. We stayed in several of these houses around the country, most notably To Spitiko toy Archonta in Treis Elies, whose gregarious proprietor, Androula Christou, took us foraging for wild greens and invited us to her family’s Christmas dinner. And although we didn’t stay with her, Elena Savvides-Doghman of Orexi Catering in Droushia was an invaluable resource in helping us understand Cypriot culture and cuisine, and one of the instrumental forces in turning Cyprus into a food-lover’s paradise.

    I tried to narrow my list down to just a few of the best things I ate; in the end, that “few” turned out to be 25. Included were two—yes, two—of the definitive “best version of X I’ve ever had in my life, anywhere;” while many others were foods entirely new to me. Take a look through the slideshow to see them all.

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