When I was first offered the opportunity to go and work in Beirut back in 2009, it is safe to say that it was the Lebanese cuisine – not to mention the wine – that lured me there without so much as a second thought. Unsurprisingly for a country steeped in such rich history, many Lebanese dishes can be dated as far back as Phoenician times and share many common threads with other Levantine and Middle Eastern countries – you don’t want to be in the room when an Israeli, a Palestinian and a Lebanese cook are discussing the origins of hummus or tabbouleh, lets put it that way! Then of course you have the legendary Lebanese hospitality, no visit to someone’s house is complete without the ritual of cardamom scented, thick Turkish coffee and Lebanese sweets or fresh fruits, they truly are some of the most welcoming people on earth.
Most of Lebanon’s wines and fresh produce comes from the epically beautiful Bekaa Valley which offers a fantastic micro climate perfect for farming and growing all manner of fruits and vegetables. These play a huge part in Lebanese cuisine, being the basis for many of their much loved mezzes, salads and crunchy pickles, whilst the dairy produce like Arishe – a soft white cheese best enjoyed drizzled with honey and rolled up in a flat bread – rivals any I’ve tasted elsewhere.
My favourite restaurant in Beirut was “Souk el Tayeb” a real “Farm to Table” style restaurant (before that phrase got trendy and over used) which plays host to a different local cook each day, offering their take on some of Lebanon’s best loved regional cuisine. For just $30 you could sample a seemingly never ending array of fresh salads and mezze from velvety Hummus and tangy yogurt based Labneh drizzled with olive oil and earthy Za’taar to the Lebanese steak tartar Kibbeh Naiye with its rough cut chunks of raw lamb and glistening white fat sprinkled liberally with salt and pepper or the cooked version of Kibbeh – little croquettes of lamb and bulgur filled with minced lamb and pine nuts with just a few select main dishes to add bulk where needed. An afternoon here with a plate full of mezze and a glass of the national anis based drink Arak is about as perfect as eating gets and no self respecting food lover should consider missing out on an opportunity to eat here.
I’m not sure how many people have booked a weekend away somewhere simply on the strength how delicious their traditional breakfast looks but that was exactly what I did when I went to Sri Lanka earlier this year. Whilst Sri Lankan cuisine has some similarities to Indian – notably that of the region of Kerala – its location on an historic trade route means that it was also influenced by the many traders passing through, not to mention the influence of its colonial rulers, from the Portuguese, the Dutch and to a lesser extent, the British.
This was what welcomed us the first morning we woke up in our beautiful guest house in Galle Fort, I could happily eat breakfast like this every day for the rest of my life! Springy rice flour “string hoppers”, little coconut flat breads or “pol roti” made from whole meal flour, millet, coconut and chopped green chili’s make for the perfect vessel for scooping up the assorted curries and sambols or chutneys with
The national dish of Rice and Curry may sound simple but an afternoon spent learning to cook traditional Sri Lankan curries was a revelation – who would have thought that the humble beetroot could be transformed into a vibrant, spice filled curry so delicious that chicken or fish curries pale in comparison? We tried no less than 20 different curries with our rice over the course of just 2 meals, from a smoky dal made with roasted curry powder to a sambol of red onion, coconut and chopped chilli – every dish was a meal in its own right and when combined together, the resulting taste explosion was something that will stay with me for a long time.
Ok so let’s get one thing out of the way immediately – I managed to spend a food filled few days in Saigon without eating either Pho or Banh Mi! I know, I know, please don’t judge me but trust me when I tell you that Vietnamese cooking is so much more than the globalization that these two popular dishes might suggest.
Take Bánh canh cua a dish I had never heard of prior to visiting Saigon; a vibrant orange crab and pork both with thick translucent tapioca starch noodles and hunks of slow braised fatty pork knuckle. When I read about the little No-name Bánh Canh Cua stall run by three elderly sisters in the far corner of District 1, I knew I simply had to try it and although getting there was somewhat of an adventure, it could not have been more worthy of the effort. The small noodle shop was notable for its sense of order and control as it quickly filled up with hungry students and work men as we waited patiently, perched on bright red stools with another two stacked on top of each other in front of us in lieu of tables, an empty bowl for the bones to our side.
Once satisfied that everything is prepared to their liking, the first sister carefully rubs the inside of a sauce bowl with fresh lime before adding fish sauce and finely chopped chilli, distributing them amongst us whilst a second sister ladles the pork noodle soup into bowls ready for the third sister to serve to us eagerly awaiting guests. The combination of the pork and crab makes for a broth that is rich and deep in flavour, spiked with a good kick of chilli while the pork knuckle is so tender it slips off the bone with ease making it an extremely satisfying dish to eat.
I experienced a similar flavour revelation at “Hoa Ma Quan” with the only breakfast I have enjoyed to the point that it proves a worthy rival to those Sri Lanka curries; namely “Op La“. Unglamourously located next to a mechanics and metal works, this District 3 shop house has built up quite a following during its 40+ years of operation and by the time we arrived for breakfast at 8am people were spilling out of the shop and all down the neighbouring alleyway.
Perfectly cooked eggs with rich, gooey yolks and whites cooked “just so” are fried over an intense charcoal flame with a selection of livery home made sausages, slices of cured pork and crispy triangles of gluten and served in a little silver bowl with sides of sharp pickled vegetables, freshly baked baguette, creamy pate and home made mayonnaise – so rich and heavy it first had the appearance of butter.
As you cut into the eggs, the yolk oozes out all across the various sausages and is soaked up into the gluten, providing a delicious eggy base – perfect for dipping the fluffy white bread smeared with pate and mayonnaise into – the vegetable pickle also helps to cut through the richness and cleanse the palate before starting all over again with the next bite.
Whilst I ate more dishes than I care to mention on this trip, it is definitely those two that will stay with me forever and have certainly whetted my appetite for a return visit, not just to Saigon but Vietnam as a whole.
With its rich and varied history and ethnic blend of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Peranaken inhabitants, this little island in the Malacca straits offers what is undoubtedly some of the worlds best street food, leaving Singapore where I lived for 2 years, trailing in its wake.
I was delighted when I discovered that my hotel was located across the road from the famous Chulia road Char Kway Teow and naturally it was at the top of dishes I wanted to experience there. I watched, amazed as the stall holder first fried off the prawns in a vast wok filled with bubbling oil, then carefully removed them before draining out the oil (to be reused later on) and deftly frying an egg before throwing in a handful of thin rice noodles, a good glug of soya sauce, shrimp paste, chives and beansprouts before spooning out a generous portion for me to enjoy.
The finished dish bore literally no resemblance to the many versions of this dish I had tried in Singapore and had found on the whole to be too oily and heavy, instead it looked fresh and appetising and it was like I was truly experiencing the dish for the very first time.
Breakfast the next day was a bowl of spicy, coconutty Curry Noodles from the wet market at Pulau Tikos which certainly woke my tastebuds up pretty quickly for the day ahead, especially when I stirred in the additional chilli sauce for extra heat. Whilst I was impressed by these two dishes, the best was yet to come with my discovery of Assam Laksa – a local speciality – where mackerel and tamarind are used in perfect harmony as a soup base. It is a full on assault on the taste buds (in the best possible way) where the tangy tamarind works in perfect harmony with the oily mackerel with beautiful notes of lemongrass, chilli and galangal, not to mention the varied garnishes from pineapple to fresh red onion, mint leaves and torch ginger. I also tried a second version which was a mixture of the assam laksa and the more common Singaporean style laksa with a coconut base and whilst this may not be photogenic, it was one of the best dishes I have eaten on my travels.
I was really conflicted about what to put as my last destination but after spending a week in London late this summer I would be remiss not to mention the explosion of the restaurants that have opened since I was last there in 2012 when the city was suffering in the midst of the global recession.
I love the diversity of restaurants in London, there truly is something to suit all tastes, Samuel Johnsons quote “When you are bored of London, you are bored of life” springs to mind here. From spice laden, pomegranate studded Israeli cooking at Palomar to the beautifully seasonal Euro/English Lyles, my tastes buds danced with joy whether I was indulging in freshly baked Yemeni Pot Bread and Octopus with Chickpeas and Mulukhieyeh or Duck Hearts with Sweetcorn and Hazelnuts or Treacle Tart – I dare you to try and tell me London is not worthy of being a top 5 dining destination.
Other highlights included Duck and Waffles Korean Style Pig Head with Sriacha and a Middle Eastern Smoked Aubergine with Labneh all served to the stunning backdrop of the City’s ever changing skyline which can also be admired from nearby City Social where Chef Paul Walshs’ modern European cooking has seen food elevated to an art form with well thought out flavours and immaculate plating as you can see from this White Peach Parfait with Raspberries or the Warm Fruits of the Sea Linguine.
I was nominated to write this post on my five favourite food destinations by the lovely Serena of http://intothefworld.com/ as part of the “Booked.net – Top Destinations to Go There” competition and in return, nominate the following bloggers