Matcha. Truffle. Donuts. Bingsu. Waffles. Rainbow. Toast. Churros. Food fads have taken Asia in flurries, often starting in one country, sighted by tourists from another, and subsequently spreading throughout the region with pop-ups and franchises. Flea markets are the test-bed of receptivity, and entrepreneurs will know they’ve made it if their products start flooding Instagram, Facebook and food blogs.
Don’t mess with an Asian’s palette, nor should you be fooled by their petite frames - Asians are born foodies. Just think about how old these civilizations are, and how survival instincts would have led ancestors to turn anything that looked like food into a decent meal. Bugs, innards, the alive and the fermented prove hardly to be a challenge, for these dishes are valued more for their nutrition than their appearance.
The allure of Asia lies in its diverse cultures that are unique, yet surprisingly complementary, especially when they are articulated on a serving platter. Fusion is not only a mix of East and West, but has surfaced in many forms like Malay-Chinese (peranakan), Indian-Chinese, Thai-Viet and Korean-Chinese cuisine. Spice has its variants - the numbing, the nasal-clearing, the sweet, the tangy, the savoury, the fiery and the sweat-inducing. The same fried chicken chain tastes different once you cross the borders, and you might be left bewildered when you spot rice and egg tarts on their menu. Evidently, a trip to Asia is for the bold heart and not for the weak stomach. Let curiosity kill your taste buds as you tick off this edible bucket list.
20 Durian - The Only King That Never Loses Its Reign
Durian has earned its base of diehard fans as well as its camp of hardcore opponents. The pungent fruit rose to royalty when it was forbidden from all forms of public transport and selected enclosed spaces. Thankfully, supporters won the battle as the fruit found its way through the cake, the chocolate, the mousse, the profiterole, the pancake, the ice cream, the fries, the tart, the creme brûlée, and even the pizza. Whether you’re downing squirt-worthy puffs from Malaysia’s Taste Better, digging into liquified flesh over ice and toast from Thailand’s After You Durian, taking in refined savoury creations from Singapore’s Mao Shan Wang Cafe, or dealing with the mess in its purest form from sidewalk stalls, every durian lover has their favourite way of devouring the fruit. The best months to feast are from June to September, though there is a minor season from December to February. Many swear by the Mao Shan Wang for its bittersweetness, but novices should stick with the D24 for the sweetness that does not overwhelm.
19 No Scoop, No Cone - It’s An Ice Cream Roll-Up
Gone are the days of fried ice cream at food fairs. Deep fried dough with mushy ice cream? That probably doesn’t even taste half as good as its stir-fried counterpart. All hail Thailand for inventing the I-Tim-Pad, or Thai rolled ice cream. The Thais have internalized the concept that food should look and taste divine with the help of art and science. Splash some milk over an ice grill, add some fruit or flavouring, mash them all up, give the mix a good stir, then scrape them all off into curls that are laid out in a floral pattern. Better still, all this happens in just two minutes. So keep your phone on standby before you miss out on an Insta-story clip. Sounds like child’s play? It really is, especially when you get to choose how much whip and what toppings should go along with your curls. Leave the stall with a cup and a smile, because you’d be as happy as a kid in a candy store.
18 Load On The Sugar High With OTT Shakes
It all started when some crazy dudes Down Under decided to create FreakShakes so ostentatious that they had to be photographed. Picture dollops of Nutella, blobs of whipped cream, stashes of cereal, sticks of pretzels and fluffs of cotton candy stuffed into a giant mug. Any diet plan would have to be postponed by at least a month. The shakes flew faster across the Southern Ocean than planes would, landing itself right smack in the heart of Asia. Meet the Messed Up Family from Garage 51 in Malaysia. The son, the daughter, the mummy and the daddy would easily take a 30-minute wait before they arrived at your table. Or take your actual Fam to The Benjamins for everything OTT - the shake madness infected the burger, the rice bowls and then the cakes. It comes as no surprise that the OTT fad is still making its rounds in the region.
17 Nourish Your Skin With Beauty Pots
Collagen - the secret to why Asians always look younger than their age. Enter the chains of beauty pots, where you can sip your way to youthfulness without having to go under the knife. Let what seems like a bowl of pudding melt into a thick and heartwarming stock. Then load up the fresh meat and vegetables, and let them simmer in the pot. Cook to your desired level of doneness before helping yourself to a bowl of richness. Slurp well, for what warms your stomach is said to firm your skin and erase those wrinkles. If you’re craving some deep fried comfort food, please look away. In line with the appeal to wellness, only healthy ingredients are allowed. The Japanese treat has found its way through Taiwan, Singapore and the Philippines, where various renditions of the original pot have emerged. Stay safe, or try the mala version for some oomph.
16 Seaweed Anytime, Anyday, Anyhow
Breakfast. Brunch. Lunch. Tea. Dinner. Supper. Snack. The versatility of seaweed has made it nothing short of a miracle vegetable. The Koreans season it as an appetizer, the Japanese roll it into a maki, the Thais roast and twirl it into a snack, the Chinese serve it as a cold dish, the Cambodians indulge it as jelly, the Viets stir-fry it into their pho, the Malaysians deep fry it into crackers, and the Indonesians are even inventing edible packaging out of it. With its low calorie count, brilliant colour and wide availability, it is no wonder chefs are willing to sprinkle a bit of seaweed over their creations. Blend it into a smoothie, throw it into an ice cream mixer, or sprinkle it over some comforting soup. Nothing should go quite wrong if you are eating more greens, especially if this one comes with vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and fiber.
15 Your Food Ain’t Burnt! It’s Just Charcoaled
Give the squid ink a miss - charcoal is the new norm! Don’t worry, you’re only eating activated charcoal, which is the byproduct of burning coconut shells, wood and other plant materials. Although charcoal can help to flush out toxins from your body, doctors advise that it’s best not to go crazy over it. Perhaps a scoop of black ice cream from ATUM Dessert in Hong Kong wouldn’t kill. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, challenge yourself with the baked bamboo charcoal noodles with Alaskan crab meat and cheese at Hong Kong’s two-Michelin-starred Shang Palace. Those who are feeling a little penniless can still do with some black ice cream at The Cold Pantry in Singapore. There was even a battle of the black burgers since Burger King released the Kuro Burger in Japan. Then, there was the black diamond bacon spicy chicken leg burger by KFC in China and the Korean Spicy Burger by McDonald’s in Malaysia. Catch the wave before the next hits, for these items are all seasonal!
14 Flaunt Your Wealth With Gold
How much do you think that plate costs? Take this in - it takes 48 hours to prepare this decadent cupcake, which includes vanilla extracted from Ugandan beans, chocolate hailing from Italy and a 23-carat edible gold leaf. To top off the extravagance, the whole dessert is even dusted with gold. You better make a good wish with your fairy godmother, so that she can fly you to Dubai to taste this $1007 delicacy. Venture into a traditional Japanese market and you’ll see stalls selling ice cream plastered with edible gold. That’s without burning a hole in your pocket. But once you take a bite into the creamy goodness, you’d realize that the edible gold tastes just like… well, nothing. Maybe the richness in taste will come through with the price.
13 Unleash Your Inner Child At Themed Cafes
Cartoons, animals, fantasies and the loo? Locating the washroom in Taiwan certainly takes on a different meaning with the Modern Toilet Restaurant, where everything is served in the colour or appliances you’d find in a toilet. Working out an appetite hasn’t been that challenging. On a more light-hearted note, go Insta-crazy with cute Hello Kitty icons stamped onto steaming buns at Hong Kong’s Hello Kitty Chinese Cuisine, catch’em all at Tokyo’s newest permanent Pokemon Cafe, or pet the chill alpacas at Farm’D in Bangkok (caution - they actually spit). If those still don’t speak to the inner child in you, perhaps tech would speak to your inner teen. Check out VR Plus, Seoul’s first virtual reality cafe. Imagine working up a sweat by playing Ninja Slice and charging ahead with swords. For those who prefer to act like adults, there’s Maidreamin with many outlets in Japan. Looking at men wearing fluffy headbands and replicating cutesy moves that the maids (or servers) do makes for a real good laugh for the ladies.
12 Fusion Food? Nah, Bring On The Fusion Cocktails
Fancy some pho cocktail? Hanoi’s Unicorn Pub has got a pho-tastic mix for you to slurp on, if you like star anise, cinnamon and cardamom with a side of chilli and lime. For those who are game for a blend of fish sauce, lemongrass and a tinge of spice, try Under the Bridge. Just pray you don’t feel under the weather after. Skip the Singapore Sling, for pandan is the key in the Singapore Sazerac at The Warehouse Hotel. Then there’s the Oolong Tea Collins and Happy Cake (picture matcha and pistachio concentrate) at Hong Kong’s Quinary, one of an investment banker’s favourite haunts. With the rapid evolution of the bartending scene in Asia, rumour has it that you might be downing foie gras next.
11 A Little Savoury, A Little Salty - It’s Gotta Be Salted Egg Everything
It used to be a side to compliment a bowl of homey plain porridge, even a treat for those who could not afford vegetables or meat. But it was upped a notch when ingenious minds at Hong Kong’s Urban Bakery decided to inject the goodness into a croissant, so that the filling would ooze out so beautifully as you slice through the bread. Though the liquid form is most desired, powdered salted egg is used to season chips and fried fish skin. In fact, Irvins Salted Egg from Singapore are almost always sold out at their counters that you have to make orders in advance. Salted egg found its way onto eggs Benedict, ice cream, chicken wings, crab and even cocktails. If you could do with a bit more creaminess in your dish, why not jump on the salted egg bandwagon?
10 Feeling Anti-Social? Head To The Food Vending Machine
This is where tech and taste meet. Japan has got it right way before rest, dishing out hot drinks, snacks and food with the just the press of a button. Kudos to them for figuring out how to get the ramen broth right and how to get the perfect char on your toast in under a minute. Fast forward years later and you’d see vending machines popping up across Asia. Get your hands on some pizza in Malaysia, hairy crab in China and vacuum-packed meat in South Korea, or conjure freshly-squeezed orange juice on the spot in Dubai. If convenience and speed is key in the world today, the food vending machine has got that covered. Awake and hungry in the wee hours because of jetlag? You should know where to go to curb those hunger pangs.
9 Beat The Heat With Ice Cream-Stuffed Melon Pan
Melon pan - it’s not a melon bread shaped like a pan. In Japanese, ‘pan’ is pronounced ‘pun’, and it refers to bread. As for the melon, that’s just because the bread looks like a rock melon. The sweet bun comes with a thin layer of crisp cookie dough so that the crunch factor is subtly retained in every bite. To up the ante, foodpreneurs have begun to stuff it with milky ice cream to beat the summer heat. The bun is sliced roughly in half before a scoop of creaminess is shoved in between. This is a burger that you can’t quite squeeze, so lick off the ice cream until it becomes more manageable. Keep the wet wipes at hand, for mess is part of the fun.
8 Feed Yourself Purple
Purple is the new black, and possibly healthier too. Purple foods contain antioxidants that help to reduce risks of cancer, stroke and heart disease. Load up on the acai, sweet potato, beetroot, brinjal and taro, so that you can turn your food a striking purple and your skin glowing pink! While purple creations have made their rounds through ice cream, rice, pies, chips, cakes, buns, pasta, milk tea and smoothie bowls, the hottest and most contentious creation has got to be the taro latte. Some revere it, whereas others just can’t get past the idea of caffeine laced with a root vegetable. Otherwise, swap that for a purple sweet potato latte. The natural sweetness would satisfy the sweet tooth for a fraction of the calories.
7 The Pull Factor - Putting Cheese Through The Stretch Test
Pull and Say Chiizu! That’s Thailand’s Hokkaido-style cheese toast acing the stretch test. The secret lies in the use of specially imported Japanese milk mixed with fresh cheese so that you can pull the cheese past a 30-cm ruler. Before the stretch was the Bake. This Japanese brand has perfected the art of piping creamy cheese mousse into double-baked tarts. Although cheaper variations have swarmed the market, Bake remains the go-to brand for the best bakes. Trace back a little further and you’d get the raclette, which is now a staple at flea markets. Feel the excitement when the server torches the wheel and scrapes the gooeyness onto your burger, or watch intently at how he tosses the pasta in the wheel to ensure that every strand is coated with a thin layer of cheese.
6 Sting Your Tastebuds With Self-Heating Mala Hotpots
The classic mala hotpot refers to a pot of boiling stock loaded with peppers and Sichuan peppercorn. The pot has to be big enough for the whole family to surround the table. Raw vegetables and meat are plated on the side so that everyone can cook and eat as they wish. “Ma” means numbing and “la” means spicy, which makes the mala hotpot the perfect treat during a harsh winter. But with smaller families on the rise, the notion of having a big pot is slowly becoming passé. Enter the self-heating mala hotpot, catered for the individual who is too selfish to share. The pack works somewhat like instant noodles, except that it comes with a heat pack so you don’t even have to boil water in advance.
5 Get Bowled Over Lean Bowls
Aloha! Poke bowls have finally crossed the Pacific to set foot on the Asian battleground. The talk about raw food in Asia has always been about sashimi. But, the poke craze has piled the sashimi on salad, doused in a selection of miso, sesame, wafu and wasabi sauce. You could choose to go funky Hawaii with the pineapple, or develop your Asian roots with the wakame, kimchi and edamame. Even grain bowls have Asianised with bulgogi, bean sprouts, grilled eel and yuzu sauce. With clean and healthy eats trending, it seems like bowls are the new plates. Cafes that serve one-bowl dishes have sprouted up everywhere. In every sense of colour and fun, bowls will be how Asians sustain their petite frames.
4 Stuff Yourself With Fluffy Castella Cake
The castella cake originated from Japan, but was popularized in Taiwan as videos of its wobbliness raced across social media. The sponge cake is made of flour, eggs, sugar and starch syrup to attain its light, soft and fluffy texture. The ease of biting into the cake makes it a pleasure to eat at any age, nailing the mass appeal factor that most food fads miss out on. Better yet, it’s so easy to infuse new flavours into the cake that local variations have emerged. Add that layer of cheese for the cheesy stretch, turn the cake purple with some colouring or lather a layer of salted egg for those who crave the savoury. A cuppa and a castella - that’s all you’ll need for an Asian breakfast.
3 Go Coconuts Over Nasi Lemak
It’s real. You can buy a cake without dough, without icing, without cream and without excessive sugar. Presenting the nasi lemak cake! For the record, nasi lemak is a dish made out of coconut rice, served with cucumbers, fried meat, spicy sambal, peanuts and anchovies on the side. Imagine digging into a cake that’s spicy and savoury. Evidently, the Malaysians and Singaporeans love the dish so much that they’ve gone wild. When McDonald’s launched the Nasi Lemak Burger, it flew off the shelves in weeks. Fortunately, other stores have learnt to stock up. So there’s now the Nasi Lemak curry puff, the Nasi Lemak pizza, the Nasi Lemak ice cream, the Nasi Lemak sushi, and the Nasi Lemak handbag by Hermes (no, this is not edible).
2 Crispy Or Not? Take A Stand On The Masterchef UK Chicken Rendang Saga
“The chicken skin wasn’t crispy.” One sentence from the Masterchef judges was all it took to fuel an Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean war against crispy chicken rendang. Because chicken rendang is not fried and therefore not supposed to be crispy! Chicken rendang is a spicy meat dish in which the chicken is simmered for hours till it’s tender but still intact. For the benefit of the dish though, restaurateurs have reacted by featuring the crispy version on their menus. Check these wings out at Ikea, CreatureS and Rumah Rasa. Elsewhere, foodies have been hunting down the traditional rendang to embrace its tenderness in its entirety. Think no further - it is the best season to savour this local delight as chefs hold up to the fight.
1 Done And Dusted With Dirty Buns
Napkins are not needed - it’s okay to look dirty! The fad in Beijing has reached Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan such that pre-orders are recommended at some bakeries. A dirty bun literally requires you to make a mess of yourself - it’s just impossible to eat it in a glamorous way. Throw away the utensils. You’re going to use your hands to munch into chocolate cream-layered bread powdered with even more chocolate. It’s now cool to photo yourself holding a half-eaten bun with chocolatey fingers and a face smeared with cocoa. Go matcha if green is your colour, or lemon if you prefer white. A word of caution though - each bun clocks in at least 450 kilocalories, so you might want to hit the roads on your feet after.