Recently, I was lucky enough to travel to Asia on behalf of Ketchum, both as a global scholar and as a trainer of our planning process, RISC. In a whirlwind of a month, I went through Singapore, Mumbai, Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. When people ask about the experience, I point to the photos, which are mostly of food, naturally. Food is important within all cultures but it takes new heights in Asia. There, food is a manifestation of your persona – your heritage, your hometown, your ability to provide for your family, your graciousness towards a guest in your care. In India alone, I was astounded at the nuances of completely different cuisine belonging to certain regions of India – never again will I order “Indian” and not question if it’s North Indian or Gujarati, to name just two of many.
Here, I take you through my top food experiences, as seen through a selection of my personal photos.
Conveyor Belt Sushi: Though this has certainly hit the US before as a novelty thing, the complete normalcy of this experience in a Singapore mall is what struck me. Why wouldn’t one endlessly grab new dishes off a fast moving belt? For variety-addicts like me, this was one exciting meal (and one that could’ve gone on forever).
Hawker Centers: Admittedly, much of my Asia prep was watching Anthony Bourdain hit up each of the destinations on my itinerary. So I knew that going to a Singapore hawker center was going to be a highlight before I even set foot on the plane. Hawker centers are semi-enclosed buildings housing rows and rows of small food stalls that serve a variety of food and desserts, almost always prepared to order. It can feel overwhelming, crowded, and cramped, but hawker centers offer some of the best local delicacies the country has to offer, in one location. One of my favorites (seen at the top of the photo above) was “carrot cake”, which is a dish of addictive, stir-fried radish cubes, known to locals as “chai tow kway.”
Lo Hei: I was lucky enough to be in Asia during the Chinese New Year, which afforded me some special opportunities in terms of traditional food experiences. This “prosperity toss” entails families and friends gathering around the dining table and tossing shredded ingredients into the air with chopsticks, while saying auspicious wishes out loud to mark the start of a prosperous new year. I did this with our Ketchum ICON office in Singapore as we all yelled out things like “money” and “love”. Ingredients generally include thin slices of fresh, raw salmon, shredded white radish, shredded carrots, ground peanuts, toasted sesame seeds…and a bunch of other stuff I couldn’t identify. Apparently the higher you toss, the better your luck! Permission to play with your food, granted.
Paan: I had been told about Paan from Joe Becker, my fellow Ketchum global scholar who stumbled upon this street treat in India. Paan is chewed as a palate cleanser, digestive, and breath freshener, especially after a heavy meal (which was 99% of the meals I ate in India). Don’t be alarmed; shoving a folded up Betel leaf in your mouth can be pleasing to the palate. Fillings vary from candied fruit and raisins, to cardamom, saffron, roasted coconut, Areca nut, slaked lime paste and even edible silver leaf or tobacco.
Vegetarian Sushi: In India, vegetarian options aren’t just a polite consideration – it’s a necessity for many people based on their religion. Thus, eating high-end sushi was a pretty different experience than it typically is back in the United States. Vegetarian sushi took on new heights at Wasabi, a Japanese restaurant by Chef Morimoto within the Taj Palace hotel in Mumbai. Interesting varieties like corn struck my fancy, not only in taste, but in aesthetics as well.
Dim Sum: Eating dumplings in China was something I had anticipated the entire trip. I even held out in Beijing knowing that soup dumplings were the local treasure in Shanghai. Never mind that when I got to Shanghai, the dumpling place my lovely host, Corrie, took me to was actually run by Taiwanese owners. These soup dumplings were little jewels of broth, dough, and filling. Yes, in case you were wondering, they do taste better coming straight from the source.
Crazy Gum Flavors: Some might not consider this “local food” but I’m always interested in crazy flavors of mass market products, especially chewing gum. You can imagine my delight then when buying up grapefruit- and cantaloupe-flavored gum at local 7-Elevens in Beijing and Shanghai. But I really hit the jackpot when I stumbled upon sunflower-flavored gum. And guess what it tasted like? Flowers! A strong floral flavor; sort of like chewing room spray. So, it was not necessarily something I enjoyed, but the novelty of it all was well worth the taste.
Chicken Feet: While in Hong Kong, our lovely brand team bestowed upon me a plate of chicken feet during my very first lunch in the city. Boy, did I feel lucky. This truly is considered a tasty snack if you’re willing to bite off the toes to get to the meat of the foot (of which there is very little to begin with). I had been brave enough to order these once before in NYC’s Chinatown establishment, Nom Wah Tea Parlor, but I couldn’t bring myself to dive in at the time. For Ketchum Hong Kong colleagues, eating chicken feet is apparently a rite of passage. I can’t say I really went to town with this dish, but I did try them. Of course, our Ketchum Hong Kong brand guru, Jane Morgan, telling me that she thought they looked like “babies’ feet” made the experience even more…special. For some reason, this was harder for me to eat than cows intestine and pig’s ovaries, which were some other “comfort foods” I sampled from Hong Kong street vendors, under the watch of Ketchumites.
What’s the strangest food you’ve eaten while traveling? Tell us in the comments!