Everyday Exotic

The right meal is a gateway to past adventures. A traveler searches for Southeast Asian street food near and far.

Walking alone down the deserted backstreets of a small Cambodian town at night, a short riverboat ride down from Angkor Wat and the backpacker bustle of Siem Reap, I saw a family selling snacks on a dark corner. Piled in mounds on plates were crickets, beetles, cockroaches, grasshoppers and snake tails coiled and tied with rubber bands. I bought a plastic bag full of their tamest-looking grubs and pecked at them while I went looking for a bar I’d read about on the outskirts of old-town. They tasted like roasted soy nuts: toasty, generically savory, slightly wrong.

A quick Internet search that night confirmed that, yes, insects have been known to be part of the Cambodian diet—especially during the dark days of the Khmer Rouge. But the bug stand had the distinct feel of a desperate, low-traffic tourist trap. Still, I had decided I was going to say yes to everything on this trip, especially foodstuffs. Even beetles. (Although, honestly, not snakes.)

In the three months I spent traveling around Southeast Asia late last year, this sort of deliberately exotic experience was rare. (So was its opposite: the backpacker-catering burger/pizza/falafel joint.) Infinitely more common were the countless street stalls and open-air restaurants of Thailand, the stupefying abundance of food courts and hawker malls in Singapore and Malaysia, the squat plastic chairs and crouching tables of Vietnam’s street-corner soup spots, crammed between scooter repair shops and spilling out onto the sidewalks.

Food punctuated my time irregularly, unexpectedly, excitingly. Time compressed around food into dense sensory moments. Each meal was a new adventure. I was hungry.

In the deep-fry food stalls lined up outside the university in Chiang Mai, I ate soft-shell crabs the size of madeleines, skewers of chicken liver and crispy-rubbery pig intestine cut up with scissors. In Kuala Lumpur, my hostel’s cheerful front desk clerk sent me to a family-filled open-air shop, down a busy side street, two subway stops out from the city center. The shop served laksa (spicy noodle soup) and various nasi (rice) dishes from plastic coolers, giant steel pots and a spread of overflowing plates on a folding table. In Hue, Vietnam, tucked-away concrete-block restaurants served breakfasts of bun hen—noodles with local river clams and herbs in clam broth—to entirely local crowds, except for me.

On the overnight train from Hanoi to Danang, my sleeper-car bunkmates were three generations of Vietnamese men. They were unrelated, though two went by the colloquial “Bac”, meaning “uncle.” Only the youngest spoke any English and, as soon as the train started rolling, he broke out the snacks and invited me to share: a small tub of rice, some pressed pork, hardboiled eggs with salt and hot pepper—and two bottles of homemade rice liquor, each little glass counted off and toasted, “Mot, hai, ba—dô!”

In these places, I found dishes both traditional and exotic, regional and polyglot, dirt-cheap and delicious. These were the spots I’d gone looking for when I went traveling—and the ones I’d miss the most when I returned home.

In all the guidebooks and travel literature, you rarely encounter the question of how to bring your travels back home with you. We talk about homesickness, maybe wanderlust, but what about the in-between: the nostalgia for past travels, a longing for our fleeting homes away from home? Travel offers glimpses of other lives we might lead. It takes us away from the day-to-day, into a world that seems full of possibilities.

Food may be our easiest gateway back to our travels—as well as a great reason to travel in the first place. More sensory than a snapshot, the smells of a familiar dish tickle the brain’s emotional and associative muscles. Great food is transportive, magic.

There is, of course, a wrong way to go looking for that golden return ticket. We all know this guy: He went to Europe after college and now swears you can’t get a decent espresso in America. He spent a week in the Yucatán and now he enunciates everything on a Mexican restaurant menu like an NPR anchor talking about the latest economic-political strife in Neecaragua. He went to Thailand one time and now he thinks he’s Anthony Bourdain. Don’t be him.

Seattle is full of foods that will take the recently returned adventurer or newly minted food snob back to somewhere he once, maybe, kinda sorta belonged. Thriving immigrant populations and Seattle’s relative proximity to Asia have gifted the city with a diverse roster of Asian fare. But a new breed of restaurant has been taking to the streets lately, more closely approximating not only the flavors of Southeast Asia, but also its eating style.

On Capitol Hill, two places are particularly comforting to the recently returned traveler: Kedai Makan, a Malaysian street food stall that’s taken up shop on Olive Way, and Little Uncle, a shop-front style Thai spot next door to the futuristically green Bullitt Center building on Madison. Both were inspired by travels their chefs brought home with them to Seattle, and both balk at being called “street-food”—or worse, “authentic.”

“In the U.S., street food is ‘eat and walk’,” says Kedai Makan’s Kevin Burzell, over iced coffees one recent afternoon at Arabica Lounge, up the street from his restaurant. “In Southeast Asia, it’s not. It can be a bowl of noodles, you can sit down. You eat differently in Asia, the whole culture of food is just different.”

When traveling, I didn’t trust a restaurant if it had four walls and a front door. On the street, students, workers and tourists dined in clusters, grabbing food that was prepared with as much care and skill as you’d find in any restaurant. Not a marketing gimmick, street food there is a practicality, woven into the thread of everyday life. Street food is just food.

Burzell and his wife/business partner Alysson Wilson met eight years ago while working in resort restaurants outside of Munich, Germany. Two years later, they took off for an 11-month trip through India, Southeast Asia, China and Mongolia before settling down in Seattle and working at restaurants including Poppy, Monsoon, Ba Bar, Cascadia and Crush. Then they went back to Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Burma for another 10 months. When they returned, Kedai Makan was born—first as a roving farmer’s market stall and a pop-up at La Bête. The couple moved into their Olive Way space early this year.

Although they both cook, Wilson and Burzell come off like a classic front-of-house/back-of-house duo: She’s outgoing and voluble, he’s more reserved and intense. They talk about the challenges they face as Americans trying to make Malaysian food—the availability of ingredients and the differing realities of Seattle and Malaysian food cultures.

In Malaysia, it’s not uncommon to find hawker stalls gathered together into massive, open-air food courts, with each stall serving up its one or two specialties—from chili crab and curry mee to tandoori and sushi to rainbows of ais kacang (mixed ice) for desert. Diners can pick and choose before bringing the results back to their communal tables. It’s a scene that puts Portland’s food truck pods to shame.

Kedai Makan attempts to invert that scenario, serving as many as 11 unique dishes out of their single tiny kitchen on any one night, while dispersing diners to the tables of symbiotic neighboring bars. “If you can walk with noodles in one hand and chopsticks in the other, you can do it,” Burzell says. “But you might not want to.”

One warm recent night, the menu included staples like roti canai (Indian-Malaysian flatbread fried and served with fragrant yellow daal), nasi goreng (fried rice and marinated tofu, topped with a fried egg) and gado gado (steamed vegetables in peanut sauce). Kedai Makan’s take features green beans tied into knots and served with a hard-boiled duck egg as well as some outstanding black chili pepper pork ribs sprinkled with sesame seeds and cilantro, its sauce seeping into their bed of rice. Ngow lam fan are udon-like noodles in a sweet-savory sauce with pickled vegetables, peanuts, mushrooms and tiny bits of stewed beef. “Give it a good stir,” advised the girl at the counter.

They can only serve so many dishes, though. “We’ve had Malaysian people walk up and look at our menu and not see their one favorite dish and turn around and walk away,” says Wilson. “But we’ve got all these other things!”

Some of my favorites have yet to appear on their menu, including char kway teow, a popular Chinese-Malaysian dish I first tried for breakfast one bright morning in one of Penang’s grubby little tiled cafes: steaming hot cockles nested in stir-fried noodles and bean sprouts soaked brown with soy sauce, topped with still-crisp slivers of what I’d thought were green onions but were actually Chinese chives. But Kedai Makan uses just a regular electric stove, and Wilson explains, “You can’t do it without a wok.”

I also came home craving nasi kerabu, a Malay dish of rice dyed blue by cooking with butterfly-pea flower petals and served with dried fish, shrimp or chicken skin crackers (think pork rinds), pickled vegetables and fresh herbs. “We did nasi kerabu at a cooking class at Delancey,” Wilson says. “But some of the herbs you can’t really get over here.”

But she and Burzell do incorporate local items. “All the fish we use is from the West Coast. We’re not going to import fish from Malaysia, that’d be stupid,” he says.

Do they worry about the authenticity of their operation? “We try to be respectful of the cuisine,” Burzell says. “But one of the great things about Malaysian cuisine is that it’s such a melting pot—you have Chinese, you have Indian, you have Malaysian.” It’s an ocean in which a dash of Pacific Northwest could hardly hope to make a wave.

Asked who their closest peers are, Burzell and Wilson immediately cite Little Uncle, which operates a street-front stall on Madison and a new basement joint in Pioneer Square. Both locations are run by fellow farmer’s market veterans PK and Wiley Frank, another husband-and-wife duo. They, too, traveled extensively in Thailand before opening a restaurant inspired by those journeys, but their relationship to the land runs deeper: PK has family there, and their youngest child was born during a year in Thailand, one of a half-dozen extended trips the couple has taken together.

After the lunch rush on a recent visit to their new Pioneer Square location, Wiley and PK give off the dedicated, harried air of a couple who’ve just converted a basement into a restaurant in five weeks. PK excuses herself back to the kitchen while Wiley talks about freezing a year’s worth of kaffir lime to make curry paste, finding preserved Thai turnip at a Columbia City grocery and sourcing cilantro root from a Hmong flower stall at the farmer’s market. He rhapsodizes about a singular meal in Dan Sai, Thailand, a remote and hilly Northern region near the Laos border where the woman cooking the food pointed out this particular tree, or that odd local herb, that gave the dish its unique, impossible-to-recreate character. His finger traces the mountains and the river of Dan Sai into the wood of the restaurant’s bar as he talks.

Little Uncle recalls scenes of Asia not summoned by the average Thai restaurant. Their khao soi—egg noodles served with chicken in a yellow coconut curry sauce and topped with crunchy noodles, pickled vegetables, raw onion and red chili—is as good as any I ate in the open-front street-corner restaurants of Chiang Mai, sandwiched between the English-language academies and kids in school uniforms. (For that matter, it’s as good as you get at Portland’s acclaimed Pok Pok.) Their khao man gai—which is plain-looking but perfectly cooked chicken and rice, flavored with the chicken’s fat and served with a side of dark spicy sauce and a hot but cooling winter melon broth—was as good or better than I had in Bangkok’s street stalls or Singapore’s food courts.

“Our food is not necessarily authentic,” Wiley says. “We use Dungeness crab in some of our dishes because that’s what’s best in Seattle. You won’t see Dungeness crab in Thailand. I’m not Thai, but I make much of the food—is that authentic? Yes, we milk our own coconuts in traditional Thai fashion for our khao soi, but the coconuts are from the Dominican Republic. We just make food we like.”

Wiley also recoils from the term “street food.” “Street food can mean cheap and fast to a lot of people, but Little Uncle is not always cheap and fast.” He describes the traditional “shop house” restaurants in Southeast Asia—places where families live and work, often serving food out of a front room or the downstairs of a two-story dwelling. (In fact, Little Uncle was originally called Shophouse before Chipotle took the name for a national chain and sent a cease-and-desist letter.) I never heard the term while traveling, but I saw countless such places—the most memorable of which was a concrete hallway kitchen in Hanoi where a family’s son wheeled his motorcycle through the dining area to the garage.

Kedai Makan and Little Uncle are hardly the only places in Seattle summoning Southeast Asian street food and atmosphere. Ba Bar on 12th advertises “street food, cold drink” in its signage. It’s decidedly upscale and sit-down compared to a Vietnamese street corner, but its menu does offer street-level fare such as bánh cuon (pork and mushroom crepe rolls) and glutinous rice dumplings in the style of Hue, a city known for its 14th century citadel and its elaborate Imperial cuisine.

There’s Satay in Wallingford, another Malaysian joint founded by enthusiastic American backpackers, and Pestle Rock in Ballard, which serves similar regional and Isan-style Thai cuisine (including a spicy, minty pork larb and its own heaping bowls of khao soi). There are, of course, countless great restaurants in the I.D.

Even U-District classic Thai Tom takes you back—not only with its standard but exceptionally executed Thai fare and theatrical open kitchen, but with its convivially cramped quarters, its relentless Euro-techno soundtrack and the street full of white college kids outside. Rub your eyes and you might see an unnaturally gray and muted version of Bangkok’s backpacker ghetto Khaosan Road.

What these places offer isn’t a certain setting, atmosphere or specific set of recipes. They’re a link back to the appetite for the discovery and adventure that sets us traveling in the first place.

Kedai Makan’s Burzell puts it well. “I didn’t grow up eating Malaysian food,” he says. “I discovered it as a traveler. I’m going to spend the rest of my life learning about this food.”

I found that appetite, too.

Photos by Eric Grandy