One of the highlights of my recent trip to Peru was ceviche at Chez Wong, a kind of cult ceviche shop that exemplifies the fused cuisine of Lima. The influence of Chinese and Japanese cooking is strong there, and shows up in ceviche, a dish of Spanish origin with obvious similarities to sushi.
The restaurant, which is adjacent to Wong’s home in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood in Lima, is about as unadorned as it gets. Wong, with his chef’s outfit and shades on, prepares the ceviche in the back, and two servers run the food. There’s no menu, just a ceviche dish (most often flatfish — sole, flounder, or tonguefish), and a stir-fry after that.
On my visit, both dishes were unbelievable. The ceviche included flounder, squid, and red onion, and seemed first cured with salt in the Peruvian way, yielding a deeply flavorful, umami-laden taste. The stir-fry was fish with cantaloupe, greens, and wood-ear mushrooms. Can’t wait to get back there.
I’m thinking back today on my trip to Peru last week, and what made the food there so amazing. In part, it’s the diversity of Peru’s landscape and climate types. Lima is nestled against the West coast on the Pacific Ocean, so Lima itself is almost desert / Mediterranean-like, similar to San Diego. But the Andes quickly rise up inland to the East, meaning cheeses, potatoes, and meats are made, grown, raised, and cured in the cooler clime. Still further East, the mountains drop down to the Amazon basin, where tropical fruits and vegetables grow and freshwater fish swim. The variety is unbelievable, and that, along with the influence of native, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and European cooking, makes for a mind-blowing cuisine.
On my recent trip to Vietnam, I went to a floating market in the Mekong Delta, about two hours west of Ho Chi Minh City. We saw more sweet potatoes and watermelons than any other vegetable at the market. I didn’t expect sweet potatoes (and okra, watermelon, and squash) to be so common in Asia, but they were everywhere I went, making me feel at home in markets, restaurants, and on the streets, from Japan throughout Southeast Asia. In Ho Chi Minh city they were a common street food snack, usually served with hard-boiled quail eggs and a fiery dipping sauce. It was all good inspiration as these ingredients start coming into season here in the South.
In Ho Chi Minh City, one of the best markets I visited was Ben Thanh, right in the heart of the city. Here’s a shot from that market, taken about 10 am when a group of women was busy frying chicken for the impending lunch hour. The food counters at Ben Thanh were tightly packed together in the center of the market, beckoning customers, and selling everything from spring rolls, to pho, to fried chicken, to fresh juices. The shot illustrates one of the many commonalities between Southern cooking, and the cooking of tropical and temperate climates around the globe, like Vietnam.
The best part about a food-centric trip to Singapore is the mind-boggling volume and variety of food you can find there. There are dozens of hawker centres (here’s a list of over a hundred) all over town that the government set up to organize and regulate street food vendors.
Each centre tends to have a particular strength or focus reflective of the different cuisines brought to Singapore by its relatively recent Chinese (about 75% of the population), Malay, Arab, and Indian immigrant groups.
Most of the centres are open all day long and into the night. The food is so inexpensive, the number of dishes you can try is limited only by your appetite.
Above left is the Maxwell Road food center near Chinatown. Vendors there sell everything from Singapore’s famous egg and oyster omelette (above right), fresh juices from every tropical fruit imaginable (below right), and snacks like delectable, salty steamed peanuts (below right).