There’s a transformation that occurs when I get on an overseas flight, pack everything I need for months into a backpack, say goodbye to loved ones and head out to begin a completely unknown chapter in another place. It’s a subtle and ineffable change, but after traveling so much since childhood, it feels like putting on a great-fitting old jacket. One that I haven’t worn in years perhaps, but that smells and fits just the way I remember it.
The weeks preceding my trip were packed with transitions and heart-heavy goodbyes, and by the time I settled into my seat on the ten hour flight from Seattle to Tokyo, my body was already shifting into travel mode, my mind simplifying into the familiar cadence of meandering without plans (ironically something I’m actually not very good at), and I was (again) thinking about what culinary treasures lie undiscovered to me on the other side of the world.
There is very much on this trip so far that is familiar to me. The smells, the soundscape, the pace, the light…from traveling in Asian countries in the past, I know these things well. There is something about the heavy, sweet, humidity that combines with the aroma of grilling meat, honeysuckle trees, diesel engines and garbage that is comforting and thrilling at the same time. When I spent three months in India years ago, mostly in the city of Calcutta, that smell suffocated me. Granted, in Calcutta the scent is tainted by the throbbing metro area of fourteen million people and astonishing poverty, so it’s vastly different than any of the cities I’ve visited thus far and it smells that way, too. The smells here are alive, stimulating and pungent.
And the food here, my god! This cuisine, not whatever parasite-infested gruel I ate in India that gave me parasites four bajillion times, is what I was born to eat! My delicate, historically white-food eating Swedish ancestors may disagree but I protest. As soon as the scent of kaffir lime, cilantro, fresh fish, grilled pork and lemongrass registered in my jet lag-slogged brain, I knew I had migrated to the right corner of the world.
A week ago I left Cambodia from traveling with my parents to meet a friend in Malaysia. From Cambodia into Malaysia there is a world of difference. The cuisine, the people, the languages overheard, the level of infrastructure – everything is different. My friend Dana and I arrived in KL determined to explore the city, sure, but really to seek out a few dishes we had read about and drooled over on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations…
(NECESSARY TANGENT: he’s a well known fan of southeast Asian cuisine, so naturally I’ll be expecting to run into him on this trip. We’re really not that far apart in age, and anyway I would make a great addition to his show. Dishy, successful, cynical chef/god pairs with young, sarcastic food obsessor and conquer the world one exotic, street-food dish at a time? I mean really. Perfect. Call me, Tony!)
…and as far as I’m concerned, we were successful in our search. Some of the best food I’ve had (until arriving in Chiang Mai…) was in Kuala Lumpur, the peak of which was a dish called nasi lemak, which is coconut-infused jasmine rice and a variety of self-serve curries and stews, a fried egg, pickled vegetables, and sambal chile sauce. My good god. Sambal is going on my list of dishes to master before I die. That or, dishes to eat so much of that I puke. Or both. But really, sweet, spicy, garlicky, tamarindy perfection, you amaze me! We had heaping plates of nasi lemak at a street joint called RA Nasi Lemak (maybe the name’s more creative in the Malay language…?) and it was one damn fine experience, through and through.
From Malaysia to Thailand. Mm, is there any place on earth that can compete with the cuisine of Thailand? I have yet to find one, and I’ve been here for 3 days. After landing in Chiang Mai and feeling the fatigue of travel a bit, Dana took me straight to a food cart that I was almost certain I had pulled out of the depths of my tastebuds’ imagination: stacks of freshly fried meat (chicken, mixed sausages, pork, unidentifiable awesome things) lined next to fried kaffir lime leaves mixed with shallots and garlic, bags of green chile sauce with cilantro and baggies of steamed kale and fresh cucumber, and of course a vat of succulent sticky rice.
We got a bag of everything (she ordered in Thai, thank god) paid our $2, and proceeded to enjoy complete food-bliss, digging our hands into each bag, standing on a side street. This is my kind of eating.
This evening I’m off to wander the Sunday street market in the old town, encountering whatever foodie things I find, reveling in the shaky thrill of being in a new place, almost entirely away from familiarity. I’m finding much to my own pleasant surprise that unlike my time in India, where I felt defensive and exhausted at being in such a foreign culture, I am inspired and propelled forward by the adventure and the unknown before me. My feet are firmly planted this time not in a place or in people, but in myself. And that (in addition to my appetite) I can take anywhere!