….And Why It’s Often Okay to Go Off-Menu When Travelling
Many years ago we were excitedly choosing all sorts of delicacies at the breakfast buffet at our hotel in Yerevan, Armenia, when another guest glanced at our plates, shrivelled their noses in a very patronising manner and exclaimed, “Ugh! Salad? For breakfast?”
It’s widely considered to be most important meal of the day but so many people seem to be set in their ways when it comes to eating a hearty breakfast. So much that hotels all over the world seem to offer pretty much the same fare. Western visitors are often offered fried food such as bacon, sausage and eggs with bread-based accompaniments and Eastern visitors are usually offered rice or noodle dishes. All these dishes are generally familiar to the tourist and often don’t reflect the traditional breakfasts of the country they are visiting.
Maybe it’s because people don’t feel so adventurous first thing in the morning, and that’s fair enough, but they may be missing out. Thing is, we’re British and can have bacon and eggs any time we like. (Although, to be honest, we haven’t cooked a fry-up for years as it’s quite a lot of effort.) We’d much rather eat a typical breakfast using local ingredients from the country that we are visiting.
It’s quite common for hotels to ask their guests to pre-order breakfast. It makes sense, they know what they need to order in beforehand and this can help minimise food waste. There is usually a form with tick boxes and you can choose from a variety of typical breakfast offerings. But if you do want to eat like a local, we’ve learned that many hotel restaurants are happy to cook you a regional breakfast. We’ve discovered that very often it’s absolutely okay to go off menu.
It all started in Uganda when we breakfasted at a lodge with a local guide. We were eating standard fare but our curiosity was piqued when something entirely different was brought out for him. On asking, we learned that it was a rolex – a chapati with a layer of omelette on top, then rolled into a spiral cylinder, perfect for munching on. So the next day we asked the lodge staff if it would be possible for us to have a rolex for brekkie and they were happy to oblige. It’s great – tasty and filling – a good start to the day.
In Nepal we were given a standard pre-order form to complete (eggs, bacon, sausage, toast…) to pre-order breakfast for the following morning. We politely asked whether it was possible to have a local breakfast instead. We didn’t specify any dish – just asked for local food. They were delighted. The following morning we were served a marsala omelette accompanied by a joyous curry and roti with home-made yoghurt. It was delicious.
Gallo pinto is a typical breakfast in Costa Rica. It’s so popular it is often eaten for lunch and dinner as well. Which is just as well because it tastes great and is also really healthy. It comprises rice and beans and is usually accompanied by a fried egg at breakfast. Other accompaniments to start the morning include sausage, fried potatoes and some salad.
A dosa for breakfast in South India is an absolute joy. This is a pancake traditionally made from rice and dal (lentils) which are ground to form a batter and then fermented. The batter is cooked on a hot plate to form a large pancake and served with chutney – coriander, coconut and tomato are particularly popular.
In Vietnam breakfast usually took a buffet form but often there were chefs on-hand to cook some food to order. We were always offered Pho – a tangle of noodles, freshly cooked and served in a yummy broth, topped with meat and vegetables. You pick up a side plate and add herbs, chilli, limes and other delicious items so that you can create your own personalised taste sensation. The liquid of the broth also ensured that we were thoroughly hydrated for the day ahead.
In Japan, breakfast often comprises grilled fish, vegetables and pickles, maybe with tofu, dumpling and an omelette.
These are accompanied with a bowl of rice, into which you could crack a raw egg mixed with shoyu (soy sauce) – the egg sort of cooks in the heat of the rice – or that famous smelly fermented soybean concoction, natto, maybe with some sliced negi (similar to spring onion). Just grab a slice of nori (dried seaweed), place it over the rice, then using a pincer movement with your chopsticks grab a portion of rice with the nori. Scrumptious. (It’s worth noting that if you are at a breakfast buffet in Japan the eggs on offer may well be raw – be careful when cracking them.)
And, of course, whenever we are staying away from home in the UK, we’ll always have an honest-to-goodness fry-up. Sausage, bacon, egg (usually fried, poached or scrambled), black pudding, mushroom, tomato, beans and sometime a hash brown are the usual components.
We recently discovered that the best possible place for a full English breakfast that we’ve ever eaten is actually in our home town. While many top breakfast establishments boast locally sourced food (which is, of course, delicious), The Gourmet Food Kitchen in Fargo Village, Coventry go one step further and actually cure their own bacon and make their own sausages and black pudding. And that’s just the start: The hash brown (never the most fabulous component of breakfasts) is a home-made bubble and squeak, a glorious blend of fried potato and cabbage. The beans have never seen a tin – they are home-made baked beans in a rich tomato sauce. Chef Tony even makes his own rich, tangy and utterly delicious brown sauce to accompany the feast.
Moo Larb is the perfect dish for a hot summer’s day. It’s incredibly easy to make and really refreshing. It’s kind of a meat salad which hails from South East Asia; we first tried it in Lao but have also eaten it in Thailand, and quickly became hooked. Even better, all the ingredients are really easy to find in our home country. There’s a tiny bit of preparation needed prior to assembling the dish, so worth thinking about making it ahead of time. The following recipe will easily feed four as a starter or two hungry people.
300g pork mince. Chicken mince also works really well and quorn mince provides a nice vegetarian alternative. Lamb isn’t recommended as it’s quite fatty and the fat tends to congeal a little which doesn’t provide a very nice texture.
1 large red onion (or 2 small)
Generous handful of fresh mint
Generous handful of fresh coriander
Freshly milled black pepper
Generous splash of fish sauce (vegetarians can use veggie fish sauce or a combination of soy sauce and vinegar) – around half a tablespoon
Optional: chilli flakes, toasted rice, teaspoon of sugar, Thai basil leaves for garnish
You need to allow enough time for the mince to cook and cool before assembling the dish. Its’ the perfect ‘make in advance’ dish.
Cook the mince. Pour a little oil into a pan and fry until the meat is cooked through. Allow it to cool.
Finely chop the onion, coriander and mint.
Add the fish sauce, lime juice and black pepper to taste. We really like coarsely ground black pepper so grind ours in a pestle and mortar. This is really where you can adapt the flavour to your personal taste.
Mix well. Serve with steamed rice and a salad garnish.
There are some variations. If you like heat, add chilli flakes (flakes are better than fresh chilli). This was one of the dishes we had in Lao that wasn’t searingly hot, the spice coming from the pepper rather than chilli, but it’s fine to add more heat if you like it. If you’d like to add some sweetness, sprinkle in a little sugar and mix in. There is also a variation where you can add roasted ground rice powder for an additional nutty complexity to the flavour and texture. It’s very simple: place a handful of uncooked Thai rice in a dry frying pan and roast the rice for 10 minutes or so, until the rice is brown. Then transfer to a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder and grind to a powder.
(You can actually toast more rice to make a greater quantity of this powder; it will keep for a couple of months in an airtight container.)
As the mighty Mekong reaches Vietnam and approaches the South China Sea the main waterway splits into a maze of rivers that form the Mekong Delta. The region is known locally as Cuu Long, or “Nine Dragons”, representing the nine main tributaries.
Three to four hours’ drive away from the relentlessly loud and energetic Ho Chi Minh City, the hectic hubbub of the city slowly transitions to rural rice fields. It is possible to undertake a river cruise from a number of locations in the area; there are plenty of choices and each offers various levels of indulgence. It’s a lovely way to see the country from a very different perspective and at a pace that is much more laid back. We made the journey from Cần Thơ to Cái Bè starting along the Sông Hậu branch of the river and sailing into the Mekong.
Depending on budget there are different boats available. Some are rather splendid – compact, but with all the facilities you might want.
All have decks with seating so that you can enjoy the view.
Many of the boat trips offer excursions to various attractions along the way. These include floating markets and factories that produce rice paper, whiskey or sweets. It is also possible to visit some of the onshore villages in the area and to explore them on foot, visiting local farmers and learning about the food that’s produced there.
The area is extremely fertile and rice is the major crop grown. Due to the climate in South Vietnam it is possible to achieve three crops per year.
There are no cemeteries in Vietnam so families set up graveyards in the fields.
There are also a number of fruit trees that grow in the delta. Some are familiar.
Wild limes also grow in the area.
Jackfruit has become hugely popular in recent years as a ‘meat substitute’. Its texture and ability to absorb flavours make it incredibly versatile for vegetarians and vegans – mock ‘pulled pork’ is a particular favourite. But actually it is very tasty as a fruit in its own right.
Tapioca is the starch derived from the roots of the cassava trees and often used in puddings (which are far more delicious than school dinners).
Some of the residents are happy to open up their houses and it is possible to do home stays with local families. If you’re just on a day trip, visitors are sometimes offered some of the amazing fruits grown on the island.
This platter was exceptional. It may seem strange but there is an order to eating the fruit to gain maximum enjoyment: Always start with the sour flavours and finish with the sweet.
One plate that was a particular revelation was the pineapple. Of course fresh pineapple is utterly scrumptious, especially when it hasn’t travelled half-way around the globe, but it was served by sprinkling a little chilli and salt on each piece and was a taste sensation. It makes sense: like a lot of Vietnamese food it includes sweet and sour flavours (which the pineapple provides) plus an additional salty dimension and a good dose of heat from the chilli. Delicious!
Banana leaves are not only functional, they can also be decorative – just look at this lovely banana leaf ‘origami’ grasshopper.
It was late afternoon by the time we returned to our boat.
Time for a delicious, decadent dinner.
Then after-dinner drinks watching the sun set over the Mekong.
One of the most striking things that the first time visitor to Vietnam will notice, from the moment you exit the airport arrivals area, is the sheer number of scooters. Motorcycles are the preferred means of transportation for local people – they are cheap, convenient and can carry entire families if needed. It is estimated that there are around 45 million scooters on the road in a country of around 92 million people. It is impossible to visit any city in Vietnam without seeing – and hearing – masses of motorbikes at all times of the day and night.
While they are clearly a hugely convenient mode of transport they do present something of a challenge for tourists who want to cross the road. And most tourists do want to cross the road at some point, otherwise they would only be able to turn left and walk around the block. Or turn right and walk around the block the other way. Which would be sad as there are so many amazing sights in Vietnamese cities it would be a shame only to see the sights of a single block of buildings.
There are two possible courses of action.
Option 1: See if you can spot a local person who wants to cross the road at roughly the same point on the street that you do. Saunter up to them (without appearing to be creepy, of course), get as close as you can (definitely without appearing to be creepy) alongside them whilst maintaining an appropriate distance and preferably downstream of the traffic direction. Follow them. Try to appear nonchalant.
Option 2: Go it alone. You can do it. There is a convention to crossing the road:
Try to find a suitable crossing point. There are zebra crossings. Be aware that even though there is a crossing, the traffic won’t actually stop. Look purposeful. Develop an expression that says you REALLY want to cross the road. Hold your arm out and wave it slowly up and down. This will signal to the motorcyclists that you are planning to cross.
Take a deep breath, wait for the most appropriate gap in the traffic and step out slowly. Walk forward with arm outstretched. You might need to stop as a scooter goes past in front of you, but that’s fine.
THE GOLDEN RULE IS: NEVER STEP BACK. EVER.
Once you are committed, you have to cross. If you are in the middle of the road, there will be motorcyclists riding behind you. If you step backwards you have a very good chance of hitting one or being hit.
Just keep calm and keep crossing. The traffic will just carry on around you.
Here’s a video to show the full road-crossing experience. Please note that the camerawork won’t be winning any awards, we felt that staying alive whilst crossing took priority.
Pho is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. Its pronunciation is like the French word, feu (fire), which is appropriate because it’s thought that the name derives from the term ‘pot au feu’, or French beef stew. It’s so good that you can have it for breakfast, lunch or dinner, or indeed breakfast, lunch and dinner if you feel so inclined. Yes, we did. In Vietnam it is primarily a breakfast dish – healthy and hearty – it truly sets you up for the day ahead.
Vietnam is a country of contrasts. Hanoi in the north could not be more different than Ho Chi Min City (still frequently referred to as Saigon) in the south.
The cuisine of the north and south reflects this difference as well. Food from northern Vietnam is subtle with a balance of flavours, whereas southern dishes are often more spicy. And even though regional variations exist, pho can be found all over the country. Pho is a noodle soup – soft rice noodles served in a warm, very slightly spicy, bone broth with thin slices of meat such as beef (pho bo) and chicken (pho ga) – and is the ultimate comfort food.
The soup is meant to be drunk. Like Japanese ramen the broth is absolutely key to the flavour. The best broths will have been simmered for hours. A beef stock will use the bones, a chicken stock often uses an entire chicken. Spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and cloves may add a subtle heat in addition to flavour. The soup should be clear.
The noodles are soft but with a bit of bite. They are cooked separately inside a wire basket that is plunged into boiling water for a few minutes. These are then added to the serving bowl before the broth and meat are added.
One of the best things about pho is that you can flavour it to your own taste. Alongside each nourishing bowl of pho a plate containing all sorts of potential flavours and textures will be served. Want heat? Add chilli (the smaller the chilli, the hotter the spice). Like sour flavours? Squeeze in some lime juice.
Texture and crunch? Add beansprouts or spring onion. More flavour? You’ll be offered a variety of aromatic herbs, commonly coriander, holy basil and mint which can be added in whichever ratio you desire.
But the key is making sure that you taste the broth before you start wading in with additional garnishes. And, while Vietnamese pho restaurants in other countries often offer sauces such as hoisin or chilli to add to the soup, it is unlikely that you would ever see this in Vietnam. It would be a shame to add sauce which detracts from the delicate flavour of the broth.
You eat pho using chopsticks to pick up the meat and noodles. There is usually a spoon available to sip the broth. Actually, it’s okay to bring the bowl to your lips and drink directly from it. Slurping is fine. For British people who were brought up to believe that it’s rude to slurp your soup, it’s actually quite difficult to do this without spilling the broth or accidentally spluttering! Another side effect of consuming so much Pho was that we were kept well hydrated in the warm, humid climate.