It is difficult to top experiences like finding the perfect meal at the bus station in Sarajevo, or spending an evening dining with a room full of singing, dancing Greeks in a Santorini seaside taverna. Fortunately, we find ourselves continuing to reminisce about some great meals from our first six months. Here’s some more of the highlights from Turkey, the Netherlands, and Thailand.
Turkey: Balik ekmek
We stood for a while and watched customers sitting on stools at low tables munching their sandwiches. There was a lot of yelling, and pointing, and energetic Turkish men trying to direct us to empty tables. We must have looked strange to them, just staring at the scene, but our mission was to observe how the system worked. Once we had it down we would return and have our own balik ekmek, or fish sandwiches, at the chaotic outdoor restaurants along the Golden Horn near the Spice Bazaar.
We realized later that this is the tourist version of balik ekmek, and we paid a price in the form of bony fish and a non-stop stream of young kids peddling candy as we tried to eat. The local, low-brow version comes from a man and his small grill cart in the muddy park near the fish market on the opposite, Beyoglu, side of Galata Bridge. He prepared our sandwiches right there and handed them to us wrapped in paper. The chair and table were up to us. Our adventures with balik ekmek again proved that low-brow is best—boneless filets cooked with just enough char, doused in fresh lemon, and topped with grilled onions and pepper. It didn’t matter that we had to eat standing up, watching the ferries and water taxis bob on the choppy waters of the Bosphorus.
The Netherlands: Rijsttafel
Due to its colonial past, Holland boasts some of the best Indonesian food outside Indonesia itself. I am obsessed with various Dutch snacks, like bitterballen, stropwafel, and fries with pindasaus, but in my many years visiting Holland, I hadn’t tried the famed Indonesian food (I don’t think I can count the pindasaus on the fries).
Sometimes you need a reason to break out of your culinary comfort zone and, during our most recent visit to Holland, that reason was our friend Samantha, who we spent a long weekend with in Amsterdam. After hours of wandering through the markets, taking various beer breaks in between sightseeing, and spotting bros in Amsterdam beanies (the winter version of the marijuana leaf t-shirts), we decided to hunt down Desa, an Indonesian place recommended by our hotel. Thanks to the bad map they provided, and a drunk Dutchman’s equally shoddy directions, we zig-zagged through the De Pijp neighborhood for about and hour, growing hungrier and more concerned they would be closed. Thanks to a random hotel receptionist, we found it, and though it was almost 9 p.m., they happily seated us.
We were so hungry we wanted to eat all the food, so we ordered a rijsttafel, or rice table, an assortment of small dishes. Like curry-marinated skewers of chicken sate, crunchy gado gado, a salad with peanut sauce, and ayam rica rica, a spicy chicken dish that even us spice-lovers couldn’t finish. Supposedly the colonists also wanted to eat all the food when they arrived in Indonesia, and the rijsttafel was born.
Thailand: Whole fish
Restaurants on beaches in Thailand serve a variety of different fresh whole fish, cooked different ways, with various different sauces, so you can eat whole fish every night for a week and have something new every meal. Sea bass crispy fried with nam phrik phao (spicy tamarind sauce), anyone? Or grilled snapper stuffed with aromatics (lemongrass, galangal, and herbs) served with a tart chili sauce? We tried three variations during our stay in Bang Por, Koh Samui, whose beach is dotted with basic seafood joints that serve fresh seafood dishes on plastic plates to diners sitting in plastic chairs.
Nothing fancy about that, you say? Wrong. There’s something extremely romantic and celebratory about dining on a whole, cooked fish, caught that day from the sea, which is lapping the sandy beach 10 meters from your table. (Eating a whole turkey next to the turkey farm probably doesn’t have the same appeal.)
And just as we thought we had left the mecca of Southeast Asian food destinations, we begin month seven of our journey in George Town, Penang, Malaysia, a food tourist’s paradise. We look forward to memorable meals in the land of night hawker stalls, outdoor food courts, and dim sum shacks.