Southeast Asia is a food lover's playground, and no food blog captures the region better than Eating Asia. Robyn Eckhardt and her husband Dave Hagerman have spent the past 4 years hopping around Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and other spots, blogging and freelancing for publications such as The South China Morning Post and Time Out Kuala Kumpur. From banh mi snackdowns to portraits of Penang's cooks and street vendors, Eating Asia's posts reveal a intense passion for both the food and the people behind the food. And the photos will leave anyone starving for more.
How did you become interested in blogging about the cuisines of Asia?
First came an interest in writing about the cuisines of Asia and, following logically from that, a desire to write well about the cuisines of Asia. I wanted to become a better writer but I needed a prod to practice. The blog gave me a reason to sit down in front of the computer on a regular basis and write (the photographer had a similar impetus to blog). What was your perception of Chinese food before you first visited China?
Oh goodness, I grew up in suburban Detroit in the 60s/70s, so you can probably imagine what my perception of Chinese food was! My family often picked up Chinese carryout on Sundays -- egg foo yung (I still don't know exactly what it was), chicken chop suey, fried rice, chicken peanuts, bland and mushy mixed vegetables. In uni (still in Michigan) my roommate introduced me to crab rangoon and my now-husband introduced me to guotie with chili oil, but that's as far as it went.
How did it change after you lived in Sichuan?
The food (in Chengdu) turned my culinary world upside down, in a wonderful way. There were new, completely foreign flavors - chilies, huajiao, star anise - that I took to immediately. I'm a chili addict to this day.
I remember blood-red carrots, gorgeous plump beefsteak-like tomatoes, cucumbers with more flavor than water, heaps and heaps of gorgeous mustard and other greens, bean curd tasting of fresh soy, half fist-sized shui jiao (boiled dumplings) bursting with pungent Chinese chives, steamed bao oozing pork fat from their top-knots. At the end of our year in China, Dave and I stayed on Hainan Island for 5 weeks eating nothing but lobsters and shrimp and gorgeous steamed fish accompanied by simple stir-fried vegetables.
I suppose I learned that Chinese food in China had little to no resemblance to Chinese food in the States. When I returned to the US I couldn't eat Chinese restaurant food. Which was a good thing, in a way, because it forced me to learn to cook Chinese.
How does Chinese food differ in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, other countries of Southeast Asia?
A difficult question! This will be obvious, but Chinese food in SE Asian countries is influenced by local tastes. So in Malaysia when you order wonton mee you're also served a saucer of pickled chili slices (up to you whether or not to add soy sauce) and with pan meen, which resemble daoshao mian in texture, a tart sambal made with coriander and lime juice. I think in Thailand, Vietnam,and the Philippines, Chinese dishes have been more 'indigenized' than they have in Malaysia. Much Chinese food in Malaysia is still very Chinese.
One thing I'd say about Malaysia is that you can find dishes prepared traditionally that might be hard to come by now in China. I was talking the other night with Jarrett Wrisley, a fellow food-obsessed writer who recently moved to Bangkok after years in China. He told me that the food he ate at Sek Yuen, my absolute favorite Chinese restaurant here in KL, is probably the best Chinese food he's ever had. The Cantonese-Malaysian dishes served there are still prepared as they were when the place opened over 50 years ago; everything is cooked over wood. That sort of thing, I think, is probably harder to find in China these days (you'd know better than I). (Editor's note: Sad, but true, especially in the cities. Hong Kong and Taiwan are better for preserving old ways of food prep.) There's still a reverence here for the old. How do you get ideas for Eating Asia blog posts?
I, or, I should say, we - rarely head out in search of blog material. It just happens. So the ideas tend to come after we've traveled or while we're on the road, or after we've been home for a while. I'll look through my notebooks and I might find something from a trip 3 months ago and think hey, I never posted about that. Or Dave will be sorting his photos and say you know, I came across those Mindanao lechon photos, when are you going to do a post on that?
Regular readers will know that my posts skip around from place to place and are almost never in consecutive order. Today, northern Thailand from our trip last week. Tomorrow, maybe Penang from two months ago. It probably costs us readers but I refuse to hew to any sort of thought-out schedule for posts --- that would take the fun out of blogging.
What is it like to work with your spouse in both your freelancing and blogging careers?
I can honestly say it's great. We are 100% sympatico in our approaches to our subjects, sometimes to the extent that we don't even have to discuss the work at hand. We derive pleasure from the same sort of experiences, we approach travel and food in the same way, we relate to people quite similarly, though I do it by talking with them and Dave does it by communicating with his camera.
From a practical standpoint it's often quite useful to be working closely with a man - let's face it, there are somewhat 'male' settings in which he eases my way; I, by turn, ease his (in markets, for instance, that are almost 90% women). I'm working more with other photographers recently and Dave's doing more work on his own or with other writers, and that's all very good. But as a writer I have to say there is nothing quite so rewarding as seeing a piece you've written illustrated with photographs that really connect to your words and convey the sort of feeling you were after while writing.
Off the top of your head, what are the 3 most interesting or delicious foods you've discovered in Asia?
Really off the top of my head, right now: mapo dofu. Passion fruit. Laksa assam.
Three favorite Asian cookbooks or travel books involving food?
Into the Vietnamese Kitchen I love Andrea's comfortable, encouraging tone. She cooked dinner for us one night and as she led me through the dishes she was making it was just like reading her book.
And I'm going to name a book not related to Asia (sorry!), simply because it's the best food-related book I read in 2008 and I want to encourage anyone who hasn't read it to pick up a copy: Gumbo Tales by Sara Roahen. Her passion for the people and foods of her adopted home of New Orleans is so evident, and her New Orleans is so reminiscent of my Malaysia. There's a serious, everyday sort of reverence for food and food traditions in both places.
Imagine you had $20,000 and 1 month at your disposal for a self-planned culinary tour. Where would you go and what would you eat?
I need two months, and I'll take Dave if that's OK. Two weeks we would spend in Piemonte, in a farmhouse that we've spent a few Christmases past in. The town is Nizza Monferate, and those two weeks are all about marketing, cooking, searching out small, family-run trattorie and osterie, and drinking lots of local wine.
Two weeks we'll spend in Turkey. We'll pick up a car in Antalya, on the Mediterranean, and drive through the Anatolian heartland to Trabzon, on the Black Sea coast. It's a trip we did 8 years ago and one we're dying to repeat. Gorgeous scenery, lots of lovely grilled freshwater fish, hearty lamb stews, cornmeal flatbreads with fresh butter and honey, and mercimek corbasi (lentil soup) for breakfast.
One week for Penang, staying at a refurbished shophouse in Georgetown and eating eating eating.
And the last three weeks driving around Malaysia, stopping wherever. We've lived here more than 3.5 years and we've never had the chance to just travel in the country without a schedule. That's a goal for 2009. There's so much of Malaysia we still don't know.