Five tastes of Asia

Five tastes of Asia


Following the return of international tourism in Asia, five photographers with deep connections to India, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Thailand share one of their favourite local dishes.

Diners at a branch of Rojiura Curry Samurai in Kamakura, Japan.

Japan: Soup Curry

Rich broth with aromatic spices and 20 vegetables

More than 60cm of snow fell the night I first tasted soup curry on the northern island of Hokkaido. I ordered the chef's recommendation and then watched the flakes add to the drifts outside the window. Soon, a steaming bowl bursting with colour and aroma was placed in front of me. I sampled a kabocha squash bathed in broth and, after a single bite, knew I was in love.

I grew up in the American South, where a hearty vegetable stew was my soul food. But since I moved to Japan in 2015, my palate has evolved to crave and find comfort in the simple flavours that Japanese cuisine is known for. Setting itself apart from other thick, gravy-based Japanese curries, Hokkaido's signature curry is more akin to a soup than a stew. Because of this, soup curry's individual ingredients are easier to appreciate: an amalgamation of rich broth, aromatic spices and carefully grown vegetables.

Rojiura Curry Samurai, a restaurant with several locations in Tokyo, has helped export Hokkaido's signature soul food to Honshu, Japan's largest and most populous island. With lines out the door in all of its Tokyo locations, the Sapporo-born brand crept south of the Japanese capital to Kamakura and Osaka. By the end of 2022, even the idyllic island of Okinawa will have a Samurai branch serving Hokkaido's quintessential comfort food.

The signature soup curry with crispy chicken thigh and 13 vegetables at Rojiura Curry Samurai in Kamakura.

Unpretentious and inviting, Rojiura Curry Samurai's Kamakura branch feels more like a cosy Japanese home than a fast-growing restaurant chain. Exposed timber framing, a tatami room where guests can opt to dine on the floor, curious antiques and a vocal welcome from the staff serve as an appetiser for the ample meal to come.

As with many Japanese dishes, the vegetables reign supreme. Crispy burdock root, plump soybeans, sweet carrots and twice-fried potatoes lead the 20 kinds of Hokkaido-grown vegetables added to the flavourful and additive-free bouillon. Paired with a chicken thigh and rice, the dish highlights the flavour and the texture of the vegetables.

Guests can customise their meal by adding sweat-inducing spice, protein (like sliced pork belly or fermented soybean paste) or an assortment of hearty side dishes. Regardless of the order, the soup curry is quickly delivered and reasonably priced -- and since Hokkaido soup curry is now a fixture throughout much of Japan, one no longer has to be encircled by snow drifts to enjoy it.

A Rojiura Curry Samurai in Kamakura.

Featured restaurant: Rojiura Curry Samurai, in the city of Kamakura Price: ¥1,200 (310 baht), for soup curry with vegetables and a chicken thigh.

-- Andrew Faulk


In the kitchen at Roland Restaurant in Singapore.

India: Masala Dosa

Gluten-free crepe with potatoes and onions

From the narrow streets of Varanasi to the flashiest of 5-star hotels, you can find masala dosa in virtually every corner of India. Loved by people of all ages and ethnicities, the crispy and savoury treat is made from a batter of soaked rice and lentils that is baked into a thin crepe on a griddle. The masala version of the dosa got its name from its filling, which includes mashed potatoes, onions, spices, curry leaves and mustard seeds.

Dosas, which are gluten-free and protein-rich, are typically eaten as breakfast in southern India and as street food outside southern India, although they can be enjoyed at any time of day. The dish is often accompanied with servings of coconut chutney, tomato chutney, pudina (mint) chutney and sambar, a south Indian stew.

The credit for north India's introduction to authentic south Indian cuisine goes to Sagar Ratna, a restaurant chain founded by Jayaram Banan. Banan opened his first branch at the Defence Colony market in Delhi in 1986. Now the restaurant chain has more than 90 outlets across the country. A dosa meal for two costs around 800 rupees (375 baht), making it an inexpensive option for a quality meal.

Masala dosa and chutneys at a Sagar Ratna.

A masala dosa prepared at a Sagar Ratna in Chandigarh.

Featured restaurant: Sagar Ratna, in the north Indian city of Chandigarh Price: 800 rupees (375 baht), for a dosa meal for two.

-- Poras Chaudhary


Ingredients at Rongros.

Thailand: Tom Yum Goong

Hot and sour Thai soup with shrimp

If there's a single dish that captures Thailand's essence, it might be tom yum goong. It's spicy and sour, delicate but intense, at once comforting and like a roller coaster of competing scents and flavours. It's the most popular soup in the country and is certainly among the more famous Thai dishes abroad. Most of the Thai people I know can't go more than a few days without encountering -- and savouring -- it. The spiciness, saltiness, sourness and sweetness, all in their purest forms, all at once.

My first encounter with tom yum goong, or hot and sour soup with shrimp, came 12 years ago, on my earliest trip to Thailand. I remember the moment the first spoonful hit my lips -- an experience I would describe as a flavour explosion. It was as if my senses all awoke at once. I've been addicted ever since.

Unfortunately, in my experience, the popularity of tom yum goong has led to a form of unhealthy competition. Many restaurants, vying to offer the tastiest version of the soup, have begun to make use of overly processed ingredients and to load the dish with too much sugar and MSG, a flavour enhancer and preservative.

Rongros, a tiny restaurant in Bangkok that sits across the Chao Phraya River from the stunning Wat Arun, or Temple of Dawn, has charted a different course. The name translates as House of Flavours, and there is no need for enhancers when the menu has been carefully crafted with recipes passed down from generation to generation. And if the ancient scents fail to transport you back in time, the traditional decor and beautiful old cracked walls -- which evoke the oldest and most sacred parts of Bangkok -- will.

The restaurant's chef, Jirapa Pradabwan, carefully selects only the freshest ingredients: wild-caught prawns, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal root, limes, red holy basil, Thai basil, tomatoes, straw mushrooms, Thai chillies and fish sauce. Using a clay pot, she then boils them in a bone broth made of fish, chicken and pork.

There are several restaurants with jaw-dropping vistas overlooking Wat Arun at sunset. Rongros, though, may serve the only dish -- its delectable version of tom yum goong -- that can live up to the majestic view.

Tom yum goong at Rongros, a restaurant in Bangkok.

Featured restaurant: Rongros, in Bangkok Price: 350 baht, for tom yum with giant tiger prawns.

-- David Terrazas


Crab served at Roland Restaurant in Singapore.

Singapore: Chilli Crab

Mud crabs fried with chilli and tomato pastes

Two dishes are often in contention for Singapore's most iconic food: chicken rice and chilli crab. Both are dishes that visitors almost always encounter, and both come in a seemingly endless array of subtle variations.

Roland Restaurant, owned by Roland Lim, is my favourite place for chilli crab -- and it has a long familial history. Lim's mother, Cher Yam Tian, invented the dish in the mid-1950s; it was an experiment, she says, in response to her husband's complaints of being bored with plain steamed crabs. The dish was well received, and those who got to taste the chilli crab encouraged Cher to begin selling it. She started with a small pushcart on the beach, and it steadily grew into a full-fledged restaurant called Palm Beach, which opened in 1962. The restaurant thrived and became a full-time business for the family, including young Roland, who quit school to help out in the kitchen. After 22 years of arduous work, the family sold a majority of the restaurant to new owners and relocated to New Zealand to start a new life in 1984.

After many years away, Lim returned to Singapore with his family and, after a short stint working at Palm Beach, struck out on his own, creating Roland Restaurant, where he began selling his mother's signature dish. The restaurant takes up the entire 6th floor of the parking garage at 89 Marine Parade Central. The space is large, convivial and unpretentious, and it's most often filled with locals and their families -- along with a few in-the-know expats.

Each rendition of chilli crab relies on its own unique recipe. Mud crabs are the crabs of choice at Roland, although other restaurants also use Sri Lankan crabs. The exact ingredients are often a secret, but the preparation typically involves frying some aromatics and sambal (chilli paste), along with tomato paste, sugar, salt, vinegar and a handful of other ingredients. Eggs and corn flour are added later, to thicken the sauce. The crab is typically boiled first, then later stir-fried with the sauce for about seven minutes.

At Roland, Chia Kim Yong (Ah-Yong), Lim's cousin, is the only chef on the team entrusted to cook its signature chilli crab. Fittingly, he was trained by Cher.

Featured restaurant: Roland Restaurant, near East Coast Park Price: S$78 (2,075 baht), for a serving of two crabs.

-- Lauryn Ishak


Owner Lee Da-yun at Haewol Hanwoo.

Korea: Hanwoo saeng-gogi

Raw beef from prized Korean cattle

For 20 years, from 1989 until 2009, my mother-in-law ran a restaurant in the South Korean city of Jeongeup, in North Jeolla province. Her signature dish was saeng-gogi, or raw beef, sourced from a prized breed of Korean cattle called Hanwoo. Every day she travelled more than 15km, round-trip, through rain or snow, to Hampyeong County, where she knew suppliers who offered the freshest possible beef for her to serve to her customers.

It was at my mother-in-law's restaurant that I first experienced Hanwoo saeng-gogi -- still, to this day, the best beef I've ever had.

Hanwoo saeng-gogi, also known in some provinces as mungtigi, is a uniquely Korean food. Hanwoo cattle are native to Korea and, as with Wagyu cattle in Japan, have become a prized source of premium beef. Coveted for its marbling, its flavour and its unique fat-to-protein ratio, the meat is rarely found abroad, in part because of overwhelming demand in Korea. While the dish -- it must be served the day the animal was butchered -- can sometimes be found at a reasonable price in Hampyeong County, which for hundreds of years has been home to a major cattle market, Hanwoo saeng-gogi is usually considered a high-quality delicacy and is not available in many places.

There's a street near the Hampyeong Cattle Market that's famous for saeng-gogi bibimbap, a dish that combines the prized Hanwoo beef with rice and assorted vegetables. But my favourite place to find saeng-gogi is Haewol Hanwoo Restaurant, which is a little farther from the cattle market. The family that runs Haewol raises their own cattle on their own farm -- and they manage other herds in town, too.

Saeng-gogi is served as it is with a little spread of sesame seeds on top. It is accompanied by two sauces: one is made with bokbunja salt (made with Korean blackberry), sesame oil and sea salt, and the other is made with homemade gochujang (red chilli paste), minced garlic and sesame oil, among other seasonings. Haewol only serves beef from female cattle.

A spread of Hanwoo saeng-gogi at Haewol Hanwoo in Hampyeong County, Korea.

Another of the signature dishes at Haewol is nun-kkoch gujeolpan bibimbap -- nun-kkoch means snow flower, and gujeolpan refers to a platter with nine divided sections. All of the ingredients found in the nun-kkoch gujeolpan bibimbap are locally sourced.

Oftentimes local dishes and cuisines can be shared across borders -- ingredients can be shipped, recipes can be shared. True Hanwoo saeng-gogi, though, can only be found in my home country of Korea.

Featured restaurant: Haewol Hanwoo, in the town of Haebo-myeon Price: 22,000 won (600 baht), for a serving of saeng-gogi; 13,000 won, for a serving of nun-kkoch gujeolpan bibimbap.

-- Chang W. Lee

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