Surviving in Asia
31.08.2012 - 09.10.2012
I had no intention of allowing my quest for spiritual fulfillment to succumb to the incessant demands of my stomach, but my sweet tooth has decreed the inevitable - I am really traveling Asia in search of cake. Unable to go a whole day without some form of cake, pastry or desert in England, it was ridiculous to think I could survive four months without at least the occasional sugar hit. It turns out the steady stream of sugar has become more of a gushing river, but we all have our vices. Having a budget of £15 a day has meant prioritising, and so far cake has come before air conditioning, western style toilets, shopping and even beer. In fact, the only thing it hasn't come before is fresh mango smoothie, and choosing between the two has become a question of surprisingly paramount importance.
If there was ever to be a land without cake, it would be Burma. The food there ranged from questionable to horrendous. The national dish of tough meat in oily curry does nothing to wet the appetite. It was only the country's proximity to India, so the occasional relief of chappatis and dosas, and the collection of Burmese owned Italian restaurants, who (very suspiciously) all claimed to have been taught their trade by an Italian chef, that saved me from myself.
Relief from starvation was delivered in the form of (often toothless) women wheeling carts of goodies down the street. I not only found coconut pancakes and (unexplainably) sweet Chinese dumplings, but even a donut! Admittedly, the donut turned out to be filled with soya beans, but I ate it anyway! In Bagan there were a cluster of cafes selling pancakes, and I had to fight the urge to do a post-lunch pancake pub crawl. But I managed to squeeze one in.
I became so desperate to avoid Burmese curry that while staying in the capital, Yangon, I searched for a Lonely Planet-recommended Chinese restaurant for over an hour. Not only was it on the other side of town, but trying to find 22nd street when there are no street names, iPhone GPS doesn't work, and no one understands what on earth I'm saying, turned out to be impossible. After a futile 45 minutes of retracing my steps and gesturing to locals, a lady who spoke English explained that the restaurant no longer existed - it had closed down earlier that year. I sat down for a beer.
Only two weeks in I began worrying about my shrinking waistline and my sanity, but I was continuously reassured that my need for cake would be satisfied in Vietnam.
Having been deprived of all forms of normal bread for three weeks, the tiny French bakeries scattered across Hanoi were almost too much to cope with. For the first 48 hours, the inside of these little rooms of joy were all I saw of the country. After filling my cake quota, and my shorts, I emerged (admittedly a little dazed from the sugar high) into the most incredible food heaven. The pho (chicken noodle soup), wontons, spring rolls and fried rice were all incredible, and even better if eaten on the street. In Burma and Vietnam, street stalls have children-sized plastic chairs and tables, which for the Vietnamese seems to cause no trouble, but i keep finding my knees in the way of my mouth. Savory, fried pancakes are a central Vietnamese specialty, and they were so good I ate them for lunch AND dinner two days running. A wonderful Vietnamese lady tried to teach me how to cook them during a homestay, but with the language barrier and my horrific culinary skills, the result was nothing like what I had been sampling!
I've had no problem finding cake here. As well as the little bakeries and street carts peddling banana fritters and sugary donuts, there are an abundance of Western-style coffee shops. In Hoi An there was an incredible (and incredibly expensive) European cafe that had beautiful cakes on display and homemade ice cream. I had brownie cheesecake (twice) and almost had to sell some belongings as a result, but they were definitely worth it. In terrible traveler style, I even ordered a cookie frappuchino on my final morning in Saigon. When he put cream and caramel drizzle on the top I almost died.
Today is my last day in Vietnam. In preparation for Cambodia, where they snack on deep fried tarantulas, I have eaten non-stop all day, and I've just got back in from a street food binge. I found rice cakes, deep fried bananas and a bizarre jelly donut. I also bought sugar cane juice, which - although incredible - will probably induce room-pacing at 2am. I'm starting to wish I had bought some emergency midnight snack supplies, but I need to draw the line somewhere. As long as it is a cake- shaped line...