As we sat down to eat, I looked intently at Fon as she flipped through a short story-sized menu. On our G Adventures tour through Thailand and Laos, which ended with two days in Hanoi, we got used to the thick, spiral-bound menus, dazzled and confused in return by the walls of type and blurred images of food.
To keep it simple, I asked our eternally optimistic Thai guide what she ordered. If Fon liked a dish I had never tasted – hey, never heard of – then this was what I would eat. At no point on our trip did this strategy steer me wrong.
That’s how I ended up eating these five divine dishes that I recommend any traveler try. This is not to suggest that other delicacies fell short. There were mung bean and red bean cakes in Bangkok, each a charming little block of cake-like cookie, the consistency of shortbread, but less buttery, more nutty. Or the mango salad bought in a mall that was without a doubt the best I have ever eaten, painstakingly prepared by a young man who used mortar and pestle to make the fresh spices he spread over the freshly picked fruit.
And a special shout-out to the green curry tofu with roti from a cute little place by Bangkok train station. Once I had settled down in my berth aboard an overnight train destined for Chiang Mai, I opened the paper envelope with a freshly baked, dark brown roti and dipped it hungry in the green broth, thick with tofu and vegetables. The soft density of the rotie soaked up the gentle spice of the curry for a perfect hit of seaweed.
Narrowing down the list to these five standouts was not easy. Those who made the cut all have one thing in common besides the delicacy: I had never eaten anything like it before.
1: Pad Pak Boong (Morning Glory)
A stir fry of water spinach (water glory), garlic chili pepper, oyster sauce and yellow soy sauce, I ate this slightly bitter accompaniment while sitting at a long table on a roof terrace in Chiang Mai. Although popular in Thailand – and elsewhere in Southeast Asia – it is almost impossible to find Morning Glory in Western restaurants, probably because so few stores sell water spinach, a thin, hollow, semi-aquatic shoot with the most tender leaves.
2: Khao Soi noodles in yellow curry
When I stumbled through a food court in a cellar center in Chiang Mai, I did not know where to start – other than ordering a Singha beer from the nearest kiosk. Fon came to my rescue and insisted that I try the Khao Soi noodles in yellow curry. Served in a humble Styrofoam dish it was extraordinary. Dry noodles fried over a yellow coconut curry broth filled with freshly chopped green onions, chili, lime and ginger. When you soak up the richly flavored broth, the noodles become soft as you eat, the flavors merging with each spicy mouthful.
3: Kai Pen (River Weed)
My husband and I were the only customers in Joy’s House, located on a quiet, flower-strewn side street in Luang Prabang, where before we ate curry fish with purple rice, we were served riverweed with chili paste. Similar to dried seaweed, river weed is also dried in plates, cut into dark squares, sprinkled with tamarind, ginger, garlic and sesame seeds and then sautéed for a wonderfully crispy and salty snack.
4: Banh Cuon
We ate Banh Cuon in Hanoi, one of the many North Vietnamese dishes we tried while on a street food tour. Sitting on plastic stools around a metal table on the second floor of a cramped, indescribable building in the old quarter, we were served plates of hearty steamed rice rolls packed with spicy minced pork and minced mushrooms and sprinkled with fried shallots and chopped greens. for a creamy, subtle taste.
5: Bun Cha
If you were to eat only one of the foods listed here, choose Bun Cha. And eat it at Huong Lien on Le Van Huu Street 24, where Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama in 2016 sat knee-to-knee over bottles of cold Hanoi beer, seafood spring rolls and generous bowls of Bun Cha, a traditional Hanoi meal and simply best soup you will ever have. Delivered in several parts, a bowl of sweet yellow fish broth was placed in front of us along with a plate filled with vermicelli rice noodles, another plate of herbs and salad and a bowl of grilled pork. It all gets dumped in the bowl, resulting in a collision of flavors: grilled and fresh, salty and sweet, rich and delicate.
Appropriately, we ate at Huong Lien on our last day in Hanoi, the perfect end to days of excellent meals that delivered unexpected flavors and were eaten in a variety of settings – sitting on plastic stools along crowded sidewalks, on half-empty mountain views ranges, at wooden tables on lazy boat trips down the Mekong.
But nothing beats sitting five feet from the metal-clad table where two giants in their fields shared laughter and beer and a bowl of soup.
On the way
Hungry? We have a lot small group trips to Thailand including these tasty treats: