As our Great Asian Journey comes to a close, it’s time to look back and take stock.
So much of this trip was about food. We knows our food. (I’m refraining from saying, “We’re Foodies” here, but we’re Foodies.) On this go-round, we’ve had the sublime, the ridiculous, the downright nasty, and the unforgettably delicious.
A note about individual tastes… Peter will eat just about anything, but when it comes right down to it, he’s a meat-and potatoes man. His palate is omniversal. But a good steak is his reset button.
Mom likes what she’s comfortable with, and there were many things I was suprised to find her shying away from: She can’t mix fish and meat. She doesn’t care for sushi or overly herbaceous dishes or heavily spiced foods like curries. Her weakness? Crispy things (Me too). And things that require picking at (Me too). Like crab. It satisfies a deep need for that “picking” MO that I’ve inherited from her. Oh, and gooey desserts. Follow up the crab with something made of glutinous rice and she’s your girl 4EVA.
As for me… well there’s a reason I had my stomach removed. Fat + sugar or fat + salt? You had me at hello. Umami is my thing. Funkiness, cheesiness, meatiness, earthiness, I’m all over that. And I love the slow food and nose-to-tail movements. I think if you’re gonna kill something, you should be willing to 1) look it in the eye and kill it yourself if you have to, and 2) eat every bit of it that you can. Offal? Yes, please. Blood? Sure. Feet braised to collageny goodness? You bet.
Our biggest failing is that none of the three of us has a taste for spicy food. It’s embarrassing, and it occasionally proved problematic. While Pete and I will slog through a very mild meal VERY lightly flavored with Thai chiles, my mother will take one bite and proclaim that MY MOUTH is on FIRE! She will suffer vocally this way throughout the evening, though the surrounding tables are happily putting away large meals made with hot coals, boiled in lava and garnished with Satan’s toenail clippings. Mom has a deep aversion to even the slightest discomfort. I inherited that from her. It makes traveling with us FUN FUN FUN!)
The Philippines: It was all home-cooking. Great home cooking. And it was all about the pork. Lechon, lechon, lechon. And the fish. It’s also about the sour soups and stews, sinigang with fish and dinuguan blood stew. We had lots of seafood but absolutely none better than the crab, tuna belly and lobster-sized shrimp prepared by Cousin Mary Ann.
Dessert-wise, flans are my favorite (but not one matched my mother’s, natch) I’ve also come to be a big fan of arroz caldo for breakfast: Filipino rice gruel, also called puspas (or, elsewhere, congee or jook) flavored with scallions, garlic and ginger, and other condiments: eggs, fried shallots, crunchy dried fish, fish sauce, etc.
My mother has an… interesting habit of tasting things in California, wrinkling her face, and saying, “Not like back home.” Until I tasted a real Philippine mango, I thought that she was just grousing. Not so. Philippine (yellow) mangos, at their best, are like rich, mango custard. No fibrousness. A wonderment.
Bangkok: Eat it, especaly if it seems popular with locals. At least two of the best meals of the trip were here. And seafood? Superfresh mud crab and mantis prawns, blisteringly fried fresh whole fish, sautéed water spinach (kangkong). Condiments, condiments, condiments. Recs?
For haute cuisine, Bo.Lan, a cozy fine-dining establishment with beautiful atmosphere and delicious, unexpected flavor combinations. Fabulous, both for atmosphere and suprise. For seafood, Baan Klang Nam is at the end of Soi 14 off Rama III road south of the Rama III bridge. Your cab driver will not know where it is. The Soi looks impassable. Make him drive all the way to the end. It will appear like Brigadoon and you’ll love it. Our best streety lunch was at Suda, on Soi 14 off Sukhumvit.
Singapore is meant to be an epicurean’s dream, with Malay, Cantonese, Indian and Indonesian influences all coming together at the table. The hawker stalls are the greatest evidence of this. The trouble with all this is that I find it rather hard to stomach in 90° heat.
Durian. I now understand its reputation. Entering an establishment that features Durian prodigiously is immediately apparent. The air smells like Satan’s farts. “Tastes like heaven, smells like hell.” It does neither. It both tastes and smells like Purgatory. (The flavor is like a gooey, eggy custard made with old cocktail onions.) And it… uh… repeats on you. For hours.
Don’t go to a western restaurant and expect western standards. That’s just silly. For example, ordering escargot at a French restaurant in Bangkok (Artur’s) should be a lovely thing. But in this case (perhaps because they hadn’t been purged properly), they tasted like they’d been attached to an Oil Tanker not 10 minutes ago.
Also: why does every rum drink in Southeast Asia taste like it’s made with sewer water? And it’s worse in high-end bars. Am I missing something? Is rum supposed to have a Turd Bouquet?
Hati Babi Bungkus. Actually lack of Hati Babi Bungkus I has wanted to try this ever since I saw it featured on TV. The closest Singapore has to an indigenous race are the Peranakans, descendents of the Malayans and the southern Chinese. Hati Babi Bungkus is a dish made of pork and pork liver, shaped into little balls and wrapped (to braise) in caul fat. To me, that sounds like heaven. And it seems to be rather hard to find. We shlepped to a Paranakan restaurant across town just to try it. And they had run out. On or last night in Singapore, we got… wait for it… Hati Babi Bubkes.
It was actually lovely having real drinks again for the first time in many years. In addition to learning to drink beer, as I said above, I got to revisit some old favorites that I’ve missed: Prosecco before dinner. Port after dinner. Champagne at midnight on New Year’s Eve! (Oh, I’ve missed that.)
And above all, Stupid Girl Drinks. I’ve always been a big fan of Stupid Girl Drinks, and busting through some Singapore Slings and Mai Tais and Piña Coladas was really fun. But above all, I have missed my favorite, my old standby: the Grasshopper. For me, it’s the ultimate Stupid Girl Drink. It’s worth ordering just to see the look on the waiter’s face. One evening, I had three. I’ve never had a hangover before, but I think this came close. The next morning, I felt put-upon if people even breathed near me.
Quik-dry nylon clothing is a godsend. I bought a bunch before the trip, and as Pete and I share all our clothes (except undies and shoes), we ended up looking like the Adidas Twins. It was a little goofy.
Travel pants. Our dear friend Robert Love once recommended the kind of pants whose lower legs zip off to turn them into shorts. To be honest, at the time, I thought, “Oh yeah. Old Guy Pants. What should we wear with them? Black socks and sandals?
Cut to one month later: We’re in southeast Asia with the legs zipped off, wearing black socks and sandals. The man is WISE.
Lastly, an observation: When I wear a stingy-brimmed fedora, I look like a pathetic, wannabe hipster. When Pete wears a stingy-brimmed fedora, he looks like he’s in the Zapruder film. See?
They suck. We all know they suck. But it really didn’t get bad until we re-entered the US.
I mean, Philippine airports treat you like cattle, but they’re also strangely expedient. The Bangkok and Singapore airports are actually pretty fantastic. But Honolulu? Awful! The whole airport seems to be run by Gorgons in blue Aloha shirts who exude a distinctly Polynesian-Nurse-Ratched air. These are the kind of women who smile at you at a sleazy bar and then drug you and white-slave you. The kind of women who entice you to hire a launch to an enchanted island and then entrap you into marrying their underage daughter.
Okay, maybe I’m just living too much in overdramatic musical theater metaphor land.
It’s just embarrassing that the US should offer worse airport service than the Third World. I mean, just because a bunch of assholes attacked the US eleven years ago doesn’t mean you’re no longer in the hospitality industry. Pull the stick out yo’ ass and get with the frickin’ Aloha spirit, bitches! (And where’s my fucking lei?) Mahalo.
The Untold Story:
Here are some things we never shared with you all.
The gastrointestinal distress. I was the only one not to come down with White Man’s Tummy over the course of the trip. Mom had some Revenge issues in BKK and Singapore. But Pete probably got the worst of it in the Philippines. The prevailing opinion seems to be that it was an oyster he ate at a buffet lunch.
RAW SHELLFISH. BUFFET. THIRD-WORLD NATION.
Oh, husband. What will I do with you?
In the interest of remaining discreet, let me put it this way: I had never actually witnessed projectile vomiting outside of repeated viewings of The Exorcist. But if I’d had Max von Sydow and a copy of the Roman Ritual with me on The Night of the Oyster, I would have felt a bit more at ease.
Rest assured, after that 24-hour difficulty, the rest of the trip was hunky-dory for the Budinger gut. (And, yes, we did leave a HUGE tip for housekeeping.)
As for my own little oven, it’s always tetchy, but it managed pretty damned well, I must say. (The liberal lashings of belladonna and phenobarbital didn’t hurt, either. Just sayin’…)
The Occasional Friction. When asked for a decision, Peter repeats the question right back at you. “Where do you want to go today?” “Where do YOU want to go today?” Sometimes, he’ll rephrase it, just for variety. “Did YOU have a place in mind to go today?
When asked the same question, my mother says, “I don’t know. Whatever.” and then vetoes all the things she doesn’t want to do.
My response to this is to preempt it by giving concrete options. “Do you want to sightsee or relax? Something cultural or something scenic?” If I present these with a slight warning edge to my voice, Peter will take the hint and choose. (If he’s not too busy having conversations with the wee pixies in his head.) My mother will say, “I don’t know. Whatever.” And then she’ll grumble through the day if you’ve made the wrong choice.
Which left lot of decisions to me. One of my biggest fears is becoming that Horrible Middle Sister who constantly acts put-upon and passive-aggressive and says things like “Well SOMEBODY HAS TO DO IT!!!” about trivial things like buying tickets or doing laundry. Or breathing. You know that Middle Sister. We all know her. A lot of us HAVE her.
So my watchcry throughout this trip has been “Just chill out. It will all be okay.” Which, if pressed, is amended to “CAN WE ALL PLEASE FOR CHRISSAKES CHILL. THE FUCK. OUT?!??!?!!?!?!”
And then, if I’m getting blindly angry, I take a Valium. Works wonders. Esp. with the Belladonna colloid I mentioned earlier. Social lubricant? Fuck, this shit is 40-weight motor oil.
I’ve only gotten blindly angry a couple of times on the trip. Oh, I’ve gotten grumpy. And I’ve gotten a bit snitty. But only two things make me angry: Thoughtlessness (and willfully “not being there” — not listening to what the other person has to say) — or downright rudeness. That doesn’t make me angry, it makes me explode.
At the aforementioned Honolulu airport, for example, we were treated terribly. The porter left my mother waiting alone in her wheelchair with no explanation. Peter was yelled at when HE tried to move her. And then she was unceremoniously pushed to the side because she was in the way. Excuse me?
Few of you have ever seen me go ballistic. I explode. Mind you, I don’t get irrational. On the contrary, I get SUPER-rational. I take names and numbers and I tear people new assholes:
“Excuse me, did you just move my mother aside?”
“She was blocking the aisle.”
“I don’t see anyone behind us, and I didn’t notice you asking her if you could move her. She’s a person.”
“Excuse me, sir, I have to keep the pathway clear.”
“And is that the ALOHA SPIRIT I hear so much about? You’re a disgrace to your state. What’s your name?”
“MY name? What’s YOUR name?”
“My name is The Traveler You’re Here to Serve. And yours, I see, is Sharon Won. To whom do I write to file a report about you, Sharon Won?”
“That’s it, I’m calling security. You three are waiting right here.”
“But aren’t we blocking your passageway, Sharon Won?”
“You really want to make something of this? You want to start something about your lack of skills to do your basic administrative job? Because I will be MORE than happy to discuss our Honolulu airport experience COMPLETELY candidly with your supervisor, a TSA official, or whomever you want to include in this discussion. Bring it on. BRING. IT. ON. SHARON WON.“
No shit. Actually said this. Like Sigourney Weaver.
Brief discussion with friendly TSA official ensues, with apologies from him. I ask him the full method for registering a complaint about Ms. Won’s performance. And then we leave, with her giving us the stinkeye the whole way out.
And I SHOUT from across the baggage claim area, “THANKS FOR THE ALOHA SPIRIT, SHARON WON! WELCOME TO HAWAI’I!!!!”
Was that psychotic? That’s where four weeks of travel gets me to. Out my way, bitch!
And then, of course, it was totally time for me to tell myself to
CHILL. THE FUCK. OUT.
1) Don’t do the touristy stuff. See if you can hunt out stuff that’s new and weird. (And, in our case, accessible to Mom).
2) Do the semi-touristy stuff. Go ahead and be guided by Tony Bourdain and Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor and That Fat Guy Who Eats Weird Shit on the Travel Channel. (Yeah, I know: Andrew Zimmern. But we call him “Tubby” at our house. I just love him!)
3) Okay, do the touristy stuff. Of course you need to do the touristy stuff. Guess what? You’re a tourist. To pretend otherwise is both folly and poseurish. If you’re gonna hunt out hawker stalls in Singapore and holes in the wall in Bangkok, you gotta also tour the palaces and have a Singapore Sling at Raffles. If only to see this foxy chick on the tiger rug hanging behind the Long Bar:
That’s it. We had a blast. And now we’re home, happily being attacked by our cats and surveying the newly-demolished kitchen. (If you can plan to be away for at least part of a kitchen remodel, do it!!!)
We’re really grateful that we had the chance for this trip (thanks for winning an award, Mom!) And we’ll remember it forever.
And I hope it’s not another near-decade before we go abroad again.
And if you’ve actually spent the time to read this WHOLE blog, you are super-fucking-amazing and we love you beyond measure.
Kob kun mak man.