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Exploration Through Food: 5 Tastes of Asia

As part of a package about the return of international tourism in Asia, The New York Times asked five photographers with deep connections to India, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Thailand to share one of their favorite local dishes.

Japan: Soup Curry

Rich broth with aromatic spices and 20 vegetables


More than 2 feet 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 color 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 flavors 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.

Unpretentious and inviting, Rojiura Curry Samurai’s Kamakura branch feels more like a cozy 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 appetizer 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 flavorful and additive-free bouillon. Paired with a chicken thigh and rice, the dish highlights the flavor and the texture of the vegetables.

Guests can customize 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.

Featured restaurant: Rojiura Curry Samurai, in the city of Kamakura

Price: 1,200 yen, or about $9, for soup curry with vegetables and a chicken thigh.

India: Masala Dosa

Gluten-free crepe with potatoes and onions


From the narrow streets of Varanasi to the flashiest of five-star hotels, you can find masala dosa in virtually every corner of India. Loved by people of all ages and ethnicities, the crispy and savory 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.

I was introduced to masala dosa about 25 years ago when I feasted with my cousin at a new restaurant in the small city of Kurukshetra, in northern India. I still remember my cousin insisting that I try the dish: “You’ll be coming back for this again and again,” he said. And, sure enough, he was right.

The history of the dish is difficult to trace, although many food historians believe that dosas have been around for at least 1,000 years. And like many Indian foods, the dish varies depending on region and occasion. Historically, the batter was made with rice, but over time it became popular to add urad dal, or black lentil, to give it a richer taste and texture.

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 Jayram 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, or about $10, making it an inexpensive option for a quality meal.

Featured restaurant: Sagar Ratna, in the north Indian city of Chandigarh

Price: 800 rupees, or about $10, for a dosa meal for two.

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 flavors. 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 savoring — 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 flavor 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 flavor 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 Flavors, 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 holly basil, Thai basil, tomatoes, straw mushrooms, Thai chilies 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.

Featured restaurant: Rongros, in Bangkok

Price: 350 baht, or about $9.50, for tom yum with giant tiger prawns.

Singapore: Chili Crab

Mud crabs fried with chili and tomato pastes


Two dishes are often in contention for Singapore’s most iconic food: chicken rice and chili 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 favorite place for chili 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 chili 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 sixth 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 chili 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 (chili 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 chili crab. Fittingly, he was trained by Cher.

Featured restaurant: Roland Restaurant, near East Coast Park

Price: 78 Singapore dollars, or about $55, for a serving of 2 crabs.

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 traveled more than 100 miles, 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 flavor 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 favorite 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 chili paste), minced garlic and sesame oil, among other seasonings. Haewol only serves beef from female cattle.

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, or about $16, for a serving of saeng-gogi; 13,000 won, or about $9, for a serving of nun-kkoch gujeolpan bibimbap. — NYT

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