Snake on a Stick

Silk Worm Salad

We’ve been pretty adventurous in our eating as we travelled round Asia. Deep-fried crickets haven’t defeated us. Nor have beetles, grubs, silk worms, bamboo worms or caterpillars. We’ve eaten frogs (curried and fried), fish heads, pig’s brain, chicken feet and pig’s ears.

I was determined not to chicken (sorry) out on this trip, because last time I travelled through South East Asia, my big regret was not being able to bring myself to try eating insects at the night market. Several times I set myself to do it, would walk purposefully up to the insect stall but, as I regarded the baskets of crisped-up insect bodies, something inside me would recoil and I’d find myself backing away.

My greatest surprise this time round was that, upon persuading my girls to try crickets in Koh Samui, they were soon begging to try all the other kinds. With exclamations of “yum, gooey inside!” and expert advice of “don’t forget to pull the sharp back legs off”, bags of critters were soon disappearing down their gullets. I thought they were adventurous eaters when their favourite food as babies was olives but this was something else.

Yesterday, as we explored downtown Siem Riep, we discovered a new challenge: a stall selling barbecued snake on a stick.

Once again, I feel my stomach revolting, the urge to back away mounting. But now I have to appear brave in front of my kids. I started off this whole “you’ve got to try everything once” resolution. So when we go out into town tonight, we’ll have to do it. Tonight, our evening’s ‘appetizer’ is going to be snake on a stick.

Wish me luck.

Food, Glorious Vietnamese Food

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After a month of eating “Indo”, arriving in Vietnam has been such a relief. A relief I can describe in just two words: vegetables and not-deep-fried.

Indonesian food had some pleasant surprises. Tempe – fermented soya beans – is delicious, a much tastier, meatier alternative to tofu; I don’t know why it’s not more well known.

But generally it was an much more extreme version of other SE Asian cuisines we’ve tried. The fried food was very, very fried, anything with shrimp paste used so much that your cheeks imploded, the chilli paste served with most meals (sambal) reduced your tongue to ashes, meat was prepared using Malaysian-style attack-it-madly-with-a-cleaver filleting techniques… but what got really tiring was how difficult it was to buy any food containing vegetables or that wasn’t battered and deep fried. It was like being in a tropical Scotland, and after a while mealtimes began to become something of a chore as we pounded the streets looking for something that wouldn’t make us sink like a brick if we went swimming afterwards. When we saw deep fried ice cream on our last day, not one of us was surprised.

And the fact that food hygiene doesn’t seemed to have reached much of Indonesia didn’t help. Oily meat and fish prepared who knows how many days earlier sitting in the baking sun in tin trays amid small troops of flies made even my hardened stomach wary.

But here in Vietnam we’ve had not only veges but salad! And there are noodles that haven’t been immersed in oil! And fresh, light, balanced flavours! And the cafés and street stalls look clean. It’s heaven.

Plus, Vietnamese coffee is amazing. I had no idea before we got here, but coffee is massive in Vietnam, and apparently it’s the world’s second biggest producer. Coffees I’ve bought on street corners here have been some of the best I’ve ever drunk: rich, chocolatey, dark.

We loved lots of things about Indonesia, but the hassle and food got rather wearing; travelling with children there is tough for everyone. We’re only three days into Vietnam and but we love how chilled out and delicious we’ve found it to be so far.

Picturesque Penang

Penang Island has a bit of everything: diverse culture, heritage buildings, wildlife and beaches. We only had 3 days here but we packed them full. Here’s a few of our highlights.

There’s a clear favorite pastime on Penang: eating. Pack the elasticated waist trousers and feast from dawn till dusk. We have now had to make a healthy eating vow to undo the foodie paradise indulgence of the last 3 days.

Dim Sum for breakfast; Nasi Goreng Ayam (fried rice with deep fried chicken); Nasi Kandar (rice with a selection of mouthwatering curries); Roti Canai (a butter-filled puffy pancake served with a curry dip); all topped off with Cendol (shaved ice covered in sweet treats…and kidney beans, yes, really) and a sugary iced drink…it’s not exactly the picture of health. And it shows; there are almost as many overweight people here as in the UK.

The architecture is stunning, even the kids appreciated the Penang Museum, the Khoo Kongsi and the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. (It helps if you turn it into a game where we are the first British settlers on the island, and the mansion belongs to us…). Georgetown has a fascinating history, although it’s tough to read about some the shameful behavior of our ancestors. There are stunning buildings on every street, some British colonial, and a lot of early wealthy Chinese and Indian merchant family mansions.

We spent a day visiting Penang Hill, where I really wanted to look around some of the British colonial houses that were built by the wealthiest settlers to escape the heat and bustle of the city. However, we instead spent 4 hours in the Owl Museum painting plaster cast owls. We had a lot of fun though! And the funicular ride up and down was truly memorable.

I think the top highlight has to be the ‘blow the budget’ 350 Ringgit (£60) splash out that we indulged in today. We had afternoon tea at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel. Founded in 1885, it’s everything you expect from a colonial high society hang out. From the perfect whitewash exterior to the valet’s starched shirts; the tiered cake stands to the delicate silver tea strainers; it was heavenly. The children were awed by the ‘poshness’ of everything (after some of the backpacker haunts they’ve endured, it’s no wonder).

The kids behaved perfectly. After many warnings and a herculean effort to arrive in clean clothing, we were delighted with how they sat up and took part like little ladies. Well, almost. At one point, Jemima dropped her knife on the floor. “It’s OK Mum,” she said, “I licked it first!”

You can take the girls out of Leeds…

NB – we are having trouble with our memory card reader…here’s a few pictures but more to follow

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Food Glorious Food

Last night we arrived in Penang, the Pearl of the Orient, and, according to our Lonely Planet, home to the best street food in Asia.

We sampled a little last night, in Chinatown where we’re staying. The savoury dishes — Mee Goreng, Char Koay Tiaw, steamed ginger chicken, deep-fried crispy duck — were yummy, but the kids were less than impressed with the traditional Chinese desserts we bought. It seems that bowls of watery, sweetish soya milk with a sludge of tofu and pearl barley at the bottom just doesn’t cut it with British 8-year olds.

Today the epicurean adventure continues with breakfast at a locally-famous dim sum restaurant, then we’re going on a walking tour of the city to see the sights… and maybe check out a street food stall or two. Or ten.