Leah Cohen is owner-chef of Pig and Khao, a restaurant serving Southeast Asian cuisine on New York City’s Lower East Side. The half-Filipino chef (and Top Chef alum) has traveled extensively to Southeast Asia to explore its diverse food over a career that has included stints in the kitchens of Nahm and Bo.Lan, two of Bangkok’s most acclaimed restaurants. She wrote to Food Republic about her most recent trip.
Each of the past five years, I have made it a point to visit Southeast Asia. While the countries might change each year, the purpose of the trip is always the same: To get inspired by the food, to eat my way through the country and to bring all that information back with me to make authentic, elevated dishes at Pig and Khao. This year, I traveled with my boyfriend/business partner to Vietnam and Thailand for three weeks, where I focused on learning noodle dishes.
I am absolutely in love with Bangkok! I lived in the city for six months a few years ago and have visited the city at least half a dozen times — BKK is the only place in the world I can see myself living other than NYC. I always use Bangkok as my home base whenever I travel to Southeast Asia, both because I love the city and because the street food is insane! You can find endless food options walking down almost every street, and while it can be overwhelming at first, my rule of thumb is to visit the stalls that are busy. Having been to BKK many times, I already know a lot of great food stalls, but I am always learning more places to hit up. I like to use Mark Wiens’s street-food blog as a guide.
If you want to get out of the heat and into some cool air-conditioned space, be sure to check out the food court in Siam Paragon Mall — this food court will blow your freakin’ mind! You can spend the whole day eating at Siam Paragon and barely scratch the surface.
Whenever I’m in BKK, I visit Or Tor Kor Market, the best open-air produce/wet market. I always make sure to visit one stall that’s run by a cute old Thai woman who sells the best shrimp paste, and then I bring it back to use at Pig and Khao. I also buy my dried Thai chili flakes from a different stall in Or Tor Kor Market.
I also love the nightlife in BKK — there are so many options for everyone. Whether you want a chill night at a low-key local Thai bar, a visit to a swanky bar that would give any place in NYC a run for its money, a late night clubbing till 6 a.m. and dancing your little heart out, or an adventure to see Thai girls showcasing one of their famous talents, there is truly something for everyone.
Saigon is similar to Bangkok in that it is fast-paced, filled with motorbikes and has amazing street food on every corner. I think Bangkok is still many years ahead of Saigon, however. This was my third time visiting Saigon, but it my was first time in the city during Tet (Chinese New Year), when many people close down their businesses for ten or so days, leaving the city behind to visit their families in the countryside. Our first night in Saigon was a little challenging because many restaurants were still closed for Tet. Luckily, my boyfriend and I were with a great group of locals who were able to find tons of delicious food options, such as banh bot chien (fried rice cakes with egg) and bun bo bue (grilled head-on shrimp and beef salad with pineapple, lemongrass and calamansi).
Although noodle soups are eaten at all hours of the day and not just for breakfast, every morning in Saigon we woke up and ate a different bowl of piping-hot noodle soup. We were extremely fortunate that our friend Cuong, the founder of Red Boat Fish Sauce, spends a lot of time in Vietnam and knew all of the best local spots to visit. My favorite soup was one with crispy eel and glass noodles.
While I find the nightlife in Bangkok to be crazier than in Saigon, there is still a lot of fun to be had. There are tons of rooftop bars to check out — just be sure you dress appropriately. I got turned away from a bar because I was wearing flip-flops, and I am still bitter about it!
On my last day in Saigon, my friend Cuong was able to set me up with chef Vo Cuong for a cooking class where he taught me a handful of traditional Vietnamese dishes. My favorite was caramel fish, a dish I liked so much that I recently added it to the menu at Pig and Khao.
We drove from Saigon down to Can Tho, making stops along the way for food and a boat tour down the Mekong Delta. The first stop was for lunch at Trung Luong, where we had the most amazing dish. It’s called xio chien fung, which is a ball of fried sticky rice that is hollow inside, with a crispy exterior and slightly chewy interior. The one we had at lunch was the size of my head and was cut open tableside. Xio chien fung is served as a side dish and can be eaten on its own or with anything on the table.
We took a boat tour down the Mekong, visiting different villages to sample their local specialties, like coconut candy, bee pollen and honey, and fresh rice noodles. The most memorable part of the trip was visiting a floating market where people sell produce from their boats. You can order a bánh mì or a noodle soup from a cute old Vietnamese woman straight off of her boat. We finally arrived in Can Tho and stuffed ourselves silly with seafood. The next day we woke up early to catch the ferry — which was really nice and modern — to Phu Quoc.
One of the main reasons my boyfriend and I visited Phu Quoc was to visit the Red Boat Fish Sauce factory. We met Cuong in Saigon and were fortunate enough to have him take us through the Mekong Delta, to Can Tho and finally to Phu Quoc. The factory was strategically built in Phu Quoc because the climate of the island is believed to be ideal for creating the best fish sauce possible.
Most of the time we spent relaxing on the island, but the best part of the trip was going out on the Red Boat Fish Sauce boat. Before boarding the boat, we hit up the fish market and bought scallops, shrimp and calamari to grill, then partied with the crew, barbecued on the boat and had fun swimming in the ocean.
Hoi An is one of those magical places that you can never really do justice no matter how well you describe it. This was my third time visiting Hoi An and probably my favorite visit because Red Boat Fish Sauce hooked me up with a local guide name Thao. The day we arrived in Hoi An, Thao took my boyfriend and me to his favorite spot for cao lau and my quang, where we had by far the best versions of these dishes that I have ever had. After stuffing our faces full of noodles, we took a scenic bike ride through the countryside, visited an herb farm, rice-cracker factory, white rose factory, ceramic factory and even stopped for a hot sec to ride a water buffalo.
Thao also took us to his favorite tailor, where we designed a leather bag, which was ready the following day. The tailoring scene in Hoi An is quite remarkable, and it would be a crime if you left the city without getting anything made. Make sure you visit the tailors your first day there so you have time for alterations.
While my first day in Hoi An was spent fixated on noodles, my last day was all about the bánh mì. We visited the bakery in town that produces and supplies the majority of the town with bread for the sandwiches — uncoincidentally, right next to that bakery is the best bánh mì spot in all of Hoi An. This place has 12 different flavors, including the traditional pâté and a breakfast-style version with steak and eggs; they even offer one version with fried spring rolls.
Cooking classes are also very popular in Hoi An — almost every restaurant in the old town offers them. I cannot say that the class I took this time around was pleasurable, but I have previously taken fantastic classes at Morning Glory restaurant and Secret Garden restaurant.
The street food in Hanoi is absolutely amazing. While doing some research prior to visiting for the first time years ago, I read that the closer you are to the ground, the better the food. At the time I wasn’t sure what this meant, but after visiting the city, I now know exactly what the writer was talking about. While almost all street-food vendors in Southeast Asia use plastic chairs or stools, their sizes vary. In Vietnam — especially in Hanoi — the stools seem to be smaller and shorter at places where the food is better.
Another thing that the Vietnamese do well is coffee, and they take it very seriously. The coffee in Vietnam is so unique — it’s so rich and creamy that it almost reminds me of chocolate. For true coffee lovers (which I consider myself to be), everything you once considered to be good coffee is now shit! If you ever happen to discover egg coffee in Hanoi, you will be chasing that dragon forever.
We went searching for the best street noodles, namely bun bo nam bo, bun cha, cha ca and pho gà. During the day we strolled through the old quarters, where we were staying, and did some light shopping and walked off our noodles around Hoan Kiem Lake and West Lake. Our last night was the only night we ate at a real restaurant, called Don’s Bistro, where we met up with a friend of a friend, who lives in Hanoi. We had some amazing, upscale Vietnamese food with a beautiful view of the West Lake — a perfect way to end the trip.
One of the reasons I love the food scene in Southeast Asia so much is because you never know where you will have your next great meal — you may find yourself on a street corner, in a boat, in a mall, at a food market or in a fancy restaurant. Everywhere you go in Southeast Asia, passionate people who take great pride in making their country’s food with fresh, locally sourced ingredients surround you. This passion is what inspires me every time I visit and is what I take back with me to make their food at Pig and Khao.
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