A food guide to the region
Penny Watson presents a menu of 16 must-try dishes in the region.
Food and travel often go hand-in-hand and there’s nothing quite like trying an iconic dish in the destination it hails from. Taste-testing any one of these 16 dishes, from
roti canai in Kuala Lumpur to chilli crab in Singapore, will create memories on the road and gastronomic yearnings that could last a lifetime.
1 Papua New Guinea : mumu
Mumu, one of PNG’s national dishes, is named after the traditional indigenous method of cooking in a ground oven whereby the food is wrapped in banana leaf and buried in a hole filled with hot coals and slow cooked. Using this method, mumu is a one-pot wonder where pork or chicken are slow-cooked with taro root and sweet potato, an assortment of greens and coconut milk. It is eaten like a casserole and is commonly served at celebrations, given its credentials for feeding a crowd.
2 Shang hai: soup dumpling
If there’s one thing you should be able to order in Mandarin Chinese, it’s xiao long bao. This so-called soup dumpling is the guide by which any dim sum eatery is judged. The round pastry parcel with a little twist at the top should be gossamer thin but strong enough to hold a mouthful of exotically rich broth and a meaty pork mince middle. To eat it successfully, poke a little hole in the top with chopsticks to release the hot steam, drizzle it with soy vinegar and ginger, then delicately transfer it from soup spoon to salivating mouth in one go.
3 Macau : Portuguese egg tart
If custard and egg are your thing, listen up. Macau’s egg tarts, with a creamy yellow centre and outer layers of flaky, buttery pastry are a hybrid recipe combining Portuguese pastel de nata (egg tarts) and English custard tarts. They’re dubbed ‘Portuguese egg tart’ by local Chinese to differentiate them from the local treat. The story goes that in the late 1980s, Andrew Stow of Lord Stow’s Bakery in Macau invented the much-imitated recipe. It has now become an edible icon.
4 Kuala Lumpur : roti canai
Don’t be disappointed if you struggle to get this authentic Malaysian dish for lunch or dinner. Introduced by the Mamak Indians and embraced by the entire Malaysian population, roti canai is a ubiquitous breakfast dish consisting of a round of fluffy, flaky-edged golden roti flatbread that is served with a side of curry (usually a Malay curry) or a dahl. It often comes on a partitioned metal dish. Use your (right) hand to sweep it through the curry and maybe a lime pickle, before popping it in your mouth.
5 Fiji : Kokoda
It makes sense that an island nation’s most-favoured dish comes from the seas. Kokoda is a fish dish similar to the Peruvian ceviche. It is made historically from Spanish mackerel, but nowadays the more common choice is fresh raw snapper, which is roughly diced and marinated in lime juice, left to chill then combined with fresh coconut, capsicum and red onion. Other riffs on the recipe include onion, chilli, tomato, spring onion and coriander, depending on what’s in the fridge. It is served in a small bowl and eaten as an entree.
6 Auck lan d: Anzac biscuits
Anzac biscuits are among a curious list of culinary icons – the pavlova being another, that Australia and New Zealand claim ownership to. 'Anzac' stands for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps and the way history tells it the golden biscuits, made chiefly from mixing oats, golden syrup, sugar, flour and coconut, were a never-fail recipe to send to soldiers abroad during World War 1.
7 Singapore : Chilli crab
One of Singapore’s tastiest and messiest meals, Singapore chilli crab is whole mud crab stir-fried in a thick and oozy sweet tomato and chilli-based sauce, and topped with coriander, chilli slivers and spring onions. Despite the name, it’s usually not unsociably hot. It’s essential to eat it with your hands, making sure to suck all the sauce from the crab shell when the meat has gone. Most eateries will provide hot water with lemon, or a mound of napkins for face wiping.
8 Bali: sate lilit Sate lilit
(or, satay, in Malaysian) is a Balinese favourite with many permutations. The more common is pork minced with a heady mix of herbs and spices, including galangal, chilli, ginger, turmeric, black peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg, coriander seeds and tamarind, to form an aromatic paste. The paste is then moulded around a sugarcane stick, or skewer, and cooked on a barbecue, grill or hot coals. Don’t be tempted by peanut sauce, sate lilit’s flavours shine through on their own.
9 Hong Kong : eg waffles
The delicious doughy aroma that emanates from roadside stalls in Hong Kong comes from one of the city’s much-loved street snacks, the egg waffle. The eggy leavened batter, sweetened with sugar and condensed milk, is cooked in a mould shaped like little round eggs, which is turned during cooking to ensure that the finished product is crisp on the outside and puffy and soft inside. Modern incarnations include chocolate, strawberry and black sesame, but the original is still the best, especially when eaten while strolling through Wan Chai Market.
10 Vietnam : bahn mi
Plenty of street corners in Ho Chi Minh City boast a little stall selling bahn mi. The fresh and crusty, white single-serve baguette, cut length-wise, is smothered with pate and butter, then stuffed with pork sausage (or barbecued pork), pickled carrot, cucumber and coriander. Bahn mi has its Indochinese origins to thank for the combination of both Vietnamese and French culinary delights. The baguettes are mostly eaten at breakfast and served wrapped in a small slip of paper. Grab yourself a street stool and tuck in.
11 Sydney : smashed avocado
Australia’s cafe set loves smashed avocado almost as much as barista coffee. The breakfast and brunch mainstay, which has risen to fashion only in the past decade, is a simple but delectable combination of wholesome ingredients. Thick-sliced, oven-baked sourdough bread is toasted and topped with a generous portion of forkedthrough seasonal avocado, quality fetta, a generous squeeze of lemon juice and a scattering of sea salt. Coriander, chilli flakes and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil are recommended options.
12 Pohnpei : Micronesia pudding
Also known as guamanian pudding (and latiya in the local Chamorro language), Micronesia pudding is a simple and traditional dessert that can be likened to England’s bread pudding. A custardy mixture is made from evaporated milk, butter, sugar, vanilla and eggs, then poured over a yellow cake or pound cake, with fresh ground cinnamon then sprinkled on top. Variations on the pound cake include vanilla cookies, madeira cake, lady fingers or even angel food cake. It is served cooled among friends and family.
13 Vanuatu : simboro
Starch-based dishes made from vegetables that are home-grown in gardens and agricultural plots are popular in Vanuatu. Simboro, a more simple version of the national dish laplap, is a bit like a Greek dolmade. It’s made from sweet potato, which is finely grated, then wrapped in the local ‘island cabbage’ or a chard-like leaf before being simmered in coconut milk. Starch variations include taro, cassava and plantains, which soak up the flavour of the coconut. It can be eaten as a snack in hand, or in a bowl along with the coconut ‘soup’.
14 Tokyo : ramen Ramen
may well have been invented in China (it’s heavily debated), but Japan has well and truly taken ownership in modern times. The heavy and nourishing broth-based soup (at a premium when a whole pig’s head has had a dunking) is filled with all kinds of goodness depending on the region it hails from. Ingredients include wheat noodles, parboiled eggs, slices of pork or beef brisket, shredded seaweed and spring onion. Miso and soy notes can be detected in the broth. It’s served in an oversized bowl with chopsticks and a spoon. One bowl is a meal in itself (so no need to order that tempting side of gyoza).
15 Hawaii : poke BOWL
Poke bowls are one of the big culinary trends of the past two years, perhaps not surprisingly so in Hawaii where the Hawaiian-Japanese fusion dish has long reigned supreme. A poke bowl is traditionally a dish of rough-chopped raw fish (usually tuna or salmon and sometimes octopus) served salad-style with tomato, seaweed, scallions, nuts, condiments including soy sauce and sesame oil, plus a sprinkle of chilli oil and sea salt. Today, anything goes and poke bowls – prettier than ever – might be topped with tofu, chiffonade radish, a sprinkling of seeds and a garnish of micro-herbs.
16 Sri Lanka : kokis
Kokis is a Sri Lankan deep-fried snack or dessert. Made with rice flour, coconut milk, egg and sugar, with a sprinkle of turmeric giving it a bright yellow colour, the dish is a hand-medown from Dutch colonial times. A decorative mould (often in the shape of flowers or butterflies) is heated with oil, pressed into the batter, then the resulting shape is shaken into oil for a crispy finish. The edible treat is such a novelty it takes centre-stage at occasions and ceremonies, especially Sinhala and Tamil New Year.