At one of the travel communities I subscribe to, one of the fora had a girl asking for some tips on not gaining weight while traveling around Southeast-Asia. Based on her picture (just a mug shot), she seemed quite heavy. The girls who answered were one in saying that they all seemed to be naturally losing weight while traveling due to all the walking plus the naturally healthy Southeast-Asian food. Based on their pics (again, mug shots) they seemed to be averagely built.
The ability to maintain weight and even lose weight is one of the greatest travel mysteries to me. Ordinary people plan their travel by booking plane tickets, accommodations, travel insurance, and packing. Mine includes trying to lose weight. Any trip even for just a weekend must always include freeing-up extra body baggage as most of the excess baggage I bring home after every trip has nothing to do with luggage. So in preparation for all those added calories, I try to have a weight deficit. I hit the gym, live on salads, and imagine myself walking down some exotic street in a tank-top and shorts. I think the only time people ever try to really lose weight for a trip is when they’re off to compete in a beauty pageant in some exotic Latin American country or when they’re heading to the beach. At the gym, once the run-up to summer begins (which officially starts Jan 1 but for some can start as early as the end of the rainy season in September), it is easy to guess who’s beach-bound—they grunt the loudest and look at themselves in the mirror in between sets. I admit, I’ve done that “I’m headed to the beach” workout routine and mindset. That was for my last-minute trip to Boracay summer of 2009. I wasn’t really out-of-shape as I had been training for a 3-peak climb in Bacun which of course requires a higher fitness level than going to the beach. But a sudden change of plans left me with only a month to at least try to look decent on a pair of board shorts. Like I said, I wasn’t really out of shape but I was headed to Boracay on a Lenten week which is like heading to Philippine Fashion Week on the beach. I may not have succeeded in being as yummy as Marc Nelson on an airplane ad but at least I felt confident enough to sun myself on the water’s edge. I came back to Manila with a glorious tan and not much weight gained. The secret? Just as your about to bite on a chori-burger, the sight of a walking six-pack is enough to make you even want to vomit your own spit to cut down on calories. It is ironic though that in spite of Boracay’s sexiness there are all these dinner buffets scattered along the beach. Of course, I tried one or two of those buffets. You can’t really help yourself.
My most serious weight-loss effort for a trip was in 2008 for the US. Now that was a roaring success. No diet pills. Just
pure exercise and vegetarianism for 2 whole straight months. The nightmare of looking like a walking sack while traipsing down Hollywood Blvd amidst people looking like they were auditioning for a prime-time soap opera was just too traumatic. By the time I was on a plane, I was lean and mean. And three weeks later plus In & Out burgers, Scooby’s Hot Dogs, and Las Vegas buffet breakfasts I had gained about 3/4 of the weight back. That in spite of working out at the Gold’s Gym clubs at L.A., and walking the entire length of the Venice boardwalk. It must be the sunshine or the gumbos at Farmer’s Market.
Because I was overweight this summer, I skipped all destinations that came close to water. Lent was spent in Vigan where I could blend with the antique aparador and eat all the empanada, longganisa, and bagnet I want without worrying how I was gonna sunbathe the next day. Vigan is just not sexy so I blended quite well.
There is something about eating the food at the very site of its origin that goes beyond any romantic notions of authenticity. It is akin to paying homage to the food and the rich history that created it. Food after all is a part of culture and is best savored within its confines. Take for example, Vigan cuisine’s latest export to Manila—the empanada.
Sure, I can grab one of the crunchy snacks at the Mall of Asia in Manila, but nothing beats having it oil and all at Plaza Burgos surrounded by rows and rows of empanada stalls while St. Paul’s Cathedral stands watch in the background. Eating after all is more than just engaging the taste buds. It’s an entire sensory experience. It includes the background chatter as the vendors knead the dough and skilfully drop the pies on the hot vats of oil to be deep-fried. The very air and surroundings contribute to its taste, texture, aroma, and experience. So enamored am I with the empanada that as soon as I drop my bags at the hotel, I’m off to Plaza Burgos and after traipsing all around Vigan on a kalesa I reward myself with freshly-fried empanada bursting with longganisa, egg, and bean sprouts. One is simply not enough, I gotta have two with an extra spoonful of longganisa please.
With so much new tastes to discover, I cannot ever understand travelers who always seek their comfort zone and head to global fast food chains which seem to be found everywhere! Though unique variations in their standard fare are usually on offer such as vegetables with Chicken Joy at Jollibee in HCMC or a really spicy chicken at KFC Bangkok, if I were all pho-ed out and longing for cuisine of my own country, I’d go find one that’s u
nique to the area. Treated to dinner in L.A., my sister was horrified when she was brought to Max’s Fried Chicken!
Even the smallest cities have expat or migrant communities that has carved out Chinatown, Little Arabia, Little India, and other little enclaves should one tire of local fare and crave for a taste of home without necessarily being too home.
Heck, even Las Vegas has a fast food offering Filipino food along the Strip. Amidst shrinking global boundaries, I would say no thanks to global fast food chains and YES to local initiatives. Plus I really would rather patronize local food establishments to encourage entrepreneurship among and also so that the money directly goes to the local economy.
If history were taught in school by way of the taste buds, I would have been a historian by now. I love colonial towns.
Pink girl frying yer char kway
The mix of culture inevitably results in beautiful architecture and very tasty and unique cuisine. One of the best-preserved towns I’ve visited is Georgetown in the island of Penang. While there in 2008, it had just been inscribed in the UNESCO Heritage List together with Melakka. With Chinese, Malay, and Nonya Baba all in one small town, Georgetown was a culinary delight. I bought Indian sweets at a van parked across a Malay open-air restaurants, had Chinese stir-fried noodles at a street stall in Lebuh Chulia and nasi lemak at an eatery just outside Fort Cornwallis. Traveling in Malaysia, I grew very fond of nasi lemak. The plate of rice cooked in coconut milk and served with a red sweet-spicy gravy, fried anchovies, peanuts, and a fried egg is simply wonderful! Trying it for the first time in one of the food stalls at the chaotic Putrajaya bus station while waiting for my Melakka-bound bus was an experience.
Getting lost in narrow alleys beyond the radar of travel guides I stumble on hidden treasures of taste. One such treasure I unearthed was a very tasty curry puff sold outside a nondescript shop house along Lebuh Chulia. A small white plastic table held the tray-full of puffs and a hand-written signed advertised it as the best curry puff. It was crispy and savory inside and much better than Old Chang Kee’s in KL. A few doors down a woman was frying some dough sticks called yew char kway on a large vat of hot oil. Freshly made, it was very light and crisp. A bakeshop on another street had boxes of black pepper cookies! Strange it may sound, but they were actually delicious. It had a peculiar taste that slowly grew on you. Thirst was quenched with iced brewed tea being peddled along the street.
The best place for authentic Nyonya Baba cuisine
I only had a day and a night in Georgetown before flying to Bangkok for New Year’s Eve and having heard so much about Nonya Baba cuisine, I was determined to have it at all costs especially since I was unable to try any of the restaurants or even street stalls in in Melakka due to the crowds. The Nonya Baba are the result of the inter-mingling of the Malays and Chinese and the cuisine is fabulous. I took a cyclo to Nonya Baba Cuisine at Jalan Japan which came highly recommended. Getting there was an adventure itself. The driver mistakenly brought me to the Nonya Baba museum which was closed. Then it started to drizzle, so my carriage was covered with canvass with only a small plastic window to see out. He kept stopping for directions and even showed my map to some of the drivers. When we finally reached what seemed to be the other side of the city, he parked the cyclo and got off apparently to ask for more directions. Then the cyclo started moving and stopped only when it hit the curb. I couldn’t get off as I was covered by the canvass. When I finally stepped out I could only laugh and exclaim, “you didn’t put on the brakes.” He apologized and announced that we had reach my destination.
The restaurant is a restored shop house with a few cloth-covered tables inside. The rest-room is inside the kitchen so you get peek of the food preparation. The curry capitan was delicious and unlike any I had tasted. It was also my first time to try iced cendol after having been frustrated in Melacca when the stalls couldn’t serve them as there was no ice due to the brownout. The servers were middle-aged women who spoke good English and were very very gracious hostesses. It felt like eating in someone’s home rather than a restaurant. I would come back here anytime.
The British may have left the East Indies but they left behind their teas and scones at the Cameron Highlands. It may
This is where I had my tea and scones
not be high tea and I certainly wasn’t dressed for it but sipping orange pekoe tea and fresh scones at the Cameronian Inn was the closest I got to feeling British. Lunch and dinner is of course satay and nasi lemak at one of the Malay food stalls. Speaking in Bahasa-Melayu which I learned back in college as part of my language requirement, I elicit smiles from the food server and a sense of brotherhood when they find out I am Filipino and share a lot of commonalities with language.
As a colonial outpost it’s surprising that Vigan seems not to have developed it’s own cuisine of of Spanish-influenced food such as paella, fabada, and callos. I’m sure these were served in the grand bahay na batos during Spanish rule, but unlike Bulacan and Pampanga with their paella-like bringhe, Vigan cuisine seems largely Ilokano.
Someone once said that a tourist goes sight-seeing while a traveler experiences the place. I think that includes experiencing food streets. More interesting than restaurant rows, food streets are not only better value for money but an experience in itself. They’re like mini markets. Here is where option paralysis sets in.
Yummy things ready to be fried in KL's Chinatown
In KL my hostel was situated very close to Jalan Alor which was one entire stretch of Chinese food. Stalls and a few non-air conditioned restaurants lined the streets and tables and chairs were laid outside. Tours with menus on hand urged you to try sit and order. My first night there, I had option paralysis with so much stalls to choose from. I ended up with Chinese food overload with an order of peking duck, roasted pork, and yangchow fried rice. Dessert were cups filled with a tapioca flan flavored with pandan leaves. On a street corner a guy selling hamburgers wrapped with a fried egg. An egg is cracked open on a griddle than the hamburger sandwich placed in the middle. As the egg cooked, he would flip the sides of the egg to cover the burger. There was always a long line so I never got to try it.
Early morning rush hour along Silom Rd in Bangkok, the smell of barbecued sticks of pork entice me to a protein breakfast washed down with fresh orange juice. Amidst the myriad of stuff you can pick-off from the street stalls from fried insects to barbecued pork to fresh fruits skewered on sticks, what I liked best about Bangkok are those fried things. There are mini spring rolls, meat balls with basil, quail eggs with shrimp, and other dimsum-like things. I simply point to the ones I like (which is basically everything). With a pair of scissors, the vendor cuts them in half and puts them in a mall plastic bag and pours a sweet sticky sauce with peanuts and puts a stick. One of the best places to have them is at the weekend market in Chatuchak. One stall sells them in small styro bowls with a bed of cucumbers. After all that grease, coconut ice-cream refreshes the palate. In the evenings, my favorite food street is Soi Convent at the side of California WOW. Here is where I have my braised pork and rice, Thai crepe filled with taro and coconut and topped with sweetened milk and sugar granules, more of those little fried things, all washed down with Thai iced tea.
Coming from the Hai Lert Park Hotel to see the the lingam shrine, I saw a food court at the ground floor of a high-rise building. I was in dire need of a bathroom break so I went in. The rest room was on the 4th floor of the building which meant waiting waiting and getting on an elevator. By the time I reached the floor, I was dashing for the restroom. Going down, I decided to check-out the fast-food court. It looked a bit high-end with its smartly-presented food counters and a small gourmet grocery. But I was hungry as it had taken me over an hour’s walk from the Chong Nonsi BTS. “Blue Elephant” the sign on one of the counters read. It was my chance to try their famously delicious curry minus restaurant prices.
Blue Elephant's Pork Curry
At the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao in Vietnam, I had some really good sweetish barbecued fillet of pork downed with some local beer. One hot afternoon in Mui Ne, walking aimlessly along the main road, I chanced on a girl making thin crepes filled with some stuff then rolled on a stick, grilled, then wrapped on paper. I bought one for 10,000 dong, walked away and started to eat it. 10 meters later, I walked back and bought another one.
Some of the best stuff may just be around the corner but sometimes you gotta exert more effort and go the distance. Some friends and I once went all the way to Talisay in Cebu to try what a Cebuano friend said was the best halo-halo ever. It was just a simple house-turned-refreshment place with wooden tables and chairs set on the large porch. Long before finely shaved ice hit the commercial halo-halo business, the halo-halo place was using it already and the ice itself was delicious. I suspect, fresh buko juice was added. It was well worth the drive.
Noodles and Spring Rolls in Mui Ne, Vietnam
Sometimes I’m lucky not to just have really good food but perfect surroundings or situations as well. My best experience of southern Vietnam was at the Mekong Delta town of Can Tho on a river trip on board a small boat we hired for 8 hours. Pit stop was at a small garden with tables laid out in huts set among the trees overlooking the river tributary. I had the most delicious fried elephant ear fish with its soft flesh rolled in a rice pancake and dipped in a sweet-salty sauce. Our woman boat driver whom we invited to eat with us showed us how to make the pancake.
Perhaps my most unique eating experiences was at a rainy beach in Bataan at a place called Tatlong Poste. It was late afternoon and the tide was low revealing sea urchins. The local kids who accompanied us to the other side of the coast earlier had learned that I enjoy eating sea urchins. They gathered armfuls and brought them to me . I would crack them open on a rock and scoop out the sweet fat inside. The rain had already fallen in torrents and had stopped and still I was greedily decimating the sea urchin population. It was as fresh as fresh can be.
Have Seat Will Eat
Tables along a road are always an invitation to partake of something exciting like unearthing a hidden treasure. I cannot help but peer into vats of food, look under cloth-covered baskets, or even just peruse the worn-out plastic-covered menus of street eateries. The more locals seated, the more exciting. To sit among locals is to sit within a culinary tradition of feeding. In the age of fine dining, celebrity chefs, and fusion, we have forgotten that the main reason for cooking and serving food was to feed hungry stomachs. That meant honest-to-goodness no pretension food that would fill the stomach and satiate the taste buds. It would be both masarap and nakaka-busog. To partake of such food amongst the company of locals is an experience that should be high on every traveler’s agenda.
Roadside eatery in Siem Reap
First time in Bangkok and on a first attempt to try-out street food, my friends and I headed to the direction of the side street near Lumphini Park. We ended up on the second floor of a closed wet market. Everything was in Thai and no one seemed to be willing to communicate. Somebody handed us a menu with pictures of hamburgers, fries, steaks— the last thing we wanted. In the meantime, from the stalls, vegetable and meat stir-fries, curries, noodles, and other Thai viands were making their way to the tables around us. My two friends were resigned to ordering steak and mashed potatoes. Not me! I was determined to eat Thai! I called the server and pointed to a dish of meat, vegetables and basil leaves which someone was eating at the next table. Sometimes, the best way to order is simply to point. That didn’t work though at one of the stalls in Silom which had a foul-tempered cook. As we attempted to communicate to the order-take who was very patient with us, the cook kept on shouting at us and waving us away. The order-taker just seemed amused and continued to write whatever it was we were pointing. Most of the orders arrived correct except for one.
More Bangkok-savvy now, I have already staked-out a few of my favorite street-side tables. Convent Rd which intersects Silom probably has some of the best eating options in the area. Top on my list is the braised pork with rice stall run by three gracious women and located near the 7-11. Jostling for space with the locals in one of the 3 small tables set-out on the sidewalk is always an experience. Every time I drop by, the two women give me a warm smile and welcomed me back. They even accommodate my strange requests such as adding some soup on my rice and extra toppings such as mushrooms and crispy pork.
In Siem Reap, all the calories burned clambering all day in the temples were dutifully replenished at a favorite street stall near the night market. Every night for three nights we feasted on fried rice, amok, spring rolls, Khmer barbecue, and fried noodles. The food was really quite cheap (US$1) and the lady and her sisters who ran it were really nice. We sometimes even got free fruit for being regulars. It was no wonder that by the time I returned to Manila, I was about 10 lbs overweight.
One of the few proper restaurants I tried was Khmer Borane Restaurant at Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh. I had just arrived from a 5-hour boat trip from Chau Doc and I was hungry for real food. I had a plate of rice, a pork dish, and a sweet cake which were all very good. Save for the kids begging you to buy books from them, it was a nice place for a meal but $6 per dish was too much for my budget. The rest of my stay, I found a roadside eatery near the hotel where we stayed that had Khmer fried noodles for just about a dollar and fried vegetable dumplings.
In Cebu years ago, while setting-up a gym along Fuente, on my last night before flying back home to Manila, my staff brought me to a row of tables set out in the evening along Fuente and which served the most delicious steaming bowls of sting-ray and a plate of corn grits. It was supposed to be an anathema to a hang-over. The guy who brought me there even apologized for the grits as there was no rice available. Little did he know that I have always liked grits more than rice. It may not be couscous but it was just as heavenly and delicious!
To Market! To Market!
Market places are another one of my favorite places. They are probably the best places to eat like a local at local prices! After all, market places is the real source of all that food. The variety of food can also be astounding and I always end-up just pointing and pointing and pointing until I have set of dishes enough to feed an army.
Jars of beans and tea leaves sold by the weight in Ben Than
Going nuts at Ben Than
I almost went beserk when I saw how cheap the prawn crackers, dried fruits such as jackfruit and bananas, and cashew nuts were being sold by weight at HCMC’s Ben Than market.
One of the pasar I went to was at Kampung Baru in KL which was just a few meters from the skytrain. The pasar just like any market is liveliest in the evening but I had other plans so I set out in the middle of the afternoon. The streets were empty but the market was open with a few stalls doing business. I had freshly-made roti dipped in a bowl of curry. I had my first taste of Khmer sausage eaten with friend noodles at the market in Siem Reap.
Apom Manis, Georgetown, Penang
Sweets for My Sweet Tooth
I still cannot forget it. The flaky crust, the sweet filling, and the creamy nuts. I was in Bacolod and I was devouring a box of Emma Lacson’s Pili Pie baked from an old family recipe of Silay. It had both the flakiness and chewyness of Turkish baklava. The only gustatory feeling that ever matchd it was the first time I took a spoonful of the famed butter pudding of Casa de Tita Moning. It was just so delicious, I closed my eyes, took a seat, and whisperingly exclaimed to my friend, “delicious,”. It was like taking a spoonful of pure sweet butter. I think the real food of the gods is not ambrosia but sweet butter. My meals start and end with sweets. Desserts is the beginning and the end. The Alpha and the Omega.
Crunchy on the outside sticky sweet on the inside are these Thai treats.
Fortunately for my calories but unfortunate for my taste buds, traveling mostly around southeast-asia means dessert would be fruits. I like fruits but I never consider them as desserts. They’re… well… fruits. Desserts should be made of cream, butter, flour, milk, and sugar. So it was with utter delight when walking home from the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Can Tho, I stumbled on a bakeshop that had some mini cakes on display. Mind you, these weren’t those tastes-like-cardboard cakes slathered with cough-syrup tasting icing. These were proper cakes on a ref display. That night,in my hotel room, it was pure bliss to finally sink my teeth on soft chiffon and creamy icing.
Of all the places I visited in SEA, Thailand probably is the best place for sweets. The Thai have these cute sweet goodies that look more like snacks rather than desserts. They even have this sweet called “golden threads” which are crunchy and look like yellow spun threads. My favorite are those little crispy crepes filled with a thick sweet cream and are similar to apom manis which I had in Georgetown. Ahhhh… apom manis. Only one vendor was selling that and I had to wait patiently for my turn. Strangely, it took a trip to the street referred to as Little Arabia in Sukhumvit to find someone selling takoh, the sweet coconut cream gelatin in pandan leaves.
But my absolute favorite sweet treat was the local crepe. I’ve seen other stalls making them but still unbeatable is the guy at the stall at the corner of Silom and Convent (again!). He usually sets up at around 7 in the evening though there are some nights where he is nowhere to be found. For about 30-40 baht, you can have a choice of corn, coconut, and taro. The crepe is laid out on a flat pan then the filling put in. It is then folded then fried some more and topped with sweetened condensed milk and granulated sugar.
A trip to MBK means two things— really hot catfish salad and bows and bowls of those icy desserts filled with different sweets much like our halo-halo and some sticky rice with coconut milk and durian! Halo-halo-like icy desserts seem to be prevalent in southeast-asia as I’ve also had them in markets in Phnom Penh and KL.
For Western style desserts, heaven must be the food court at Siam Paragon. Rows and rows of continental cakes, cookies and pastries! It was just too much! I wished I could eat them all! A little pricey definitely worth it.
Fried mussel cake
So How Do You Keep It Off.
- Going back to the post on the travel blog, I wonder how those women managed to keep their weight while on a Southeast Asian trip. Come to think of it, staying at the backpack ghettos of Khao San in Bangkok, Bui Vien in HCMC, and Pub Street in Siem Reap, I hardly saw any overweight travelers. Take note though that most of the backpackers in the Southeast Asian routes are of the European and North American kind with the former I suspect born with the inability to keep body fat especially if a backpacker.
- Some places seem to have certain food which I always associate with and cannot seem to get enough off. That means eating them at every chance I get. Bangkok would be all those little fried things. In Vietnam, it was the bahn-mi , a crusty baguette filled with a variety of meats, vegetables, and some sort of pate. I was having it for breakfast, lunch, and midnight snack everyday, sometimes even having 2 at a time! Even when I was in Cambodia, I was still having bahn-mi though I don’t think that’s what it was called there. The best bahn-mi I had was at a bus stop eatery en route from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap at a town called Skuon which was known for its fried spiders and bugs. Instead of the usual pork and ham, there was fried crackling pork that looked like Lechon Kawali! I not only had it on bread but I also ordered one as a topping on sticky rice. Really really yummy! Vietnam was also spring rolls, especially the fried kind which my friend and I had everyday in Mui Ne. But the best was at Bay Bong in Chau Doc which had spring rolls that seemed to have been wrapped in vermicelli noodles resulting in a delicate crispiness.
Adventurous I can be, still I shy away from some food. They’re just too strange to me such as the crispy bugs and worms sold in carts around Bangkok, the spiders-on-a-stick in Cambodia, and the dogs in the Cordilleras. Enroute to Sagada from Baguio, we passed villages that had dog heads hanging on stalls.
So going back to the question posted by that girl. How can you not gain weight while traveling? My answer is: You can’t.