When the globalization of cuisine goes the wrong way

After an 18 year absence from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, I visited all four countries a few months ago over a two week period with my family.  The sublime delight of their local cuisines was always a highlight of many trips I had made to those Southeast Asian destinations in the past.  To name a few: Hong Kong’s noodles, Singapore’s Indian district fish head curry, Malaysia’s Muslim staple char kuey teow (rice noodles) with prawns (never with pork), and Thailand’s incomparable red and green curries (with anything).

Just typing the names of these dishes makes my mouth water!  Eighteen years is far too long to be away from such scrumptious food.

Of course I welcomed the internationalization of food choices coming to my area that have made it easier to find all those and more in local restaurants specializing in SE Asian gastronomy.  Though I still don’t know where to find Malaysian char kuey teow (and still can’t pronounce it correctly) or fish head curry (the best in my book is served up at Muthu’s Curry House in Singapore), fine examples of Chinese noodle soups and delicious Thai curries are thankfully plentiful in the Research Triangle area.  I’d put up the delectable Duck Red Curry from the modest Thai House Restaurant in Raleigh against any I’ve enjoyed in Thailand, for instance.

Our kids enthusiastically enjoying noodles prepared at a local noodle shops on Hong Kong island.  No Western food was on the menu, a refreshing discovery! 

While in Asia, we did tuck into some good eats, such as perfect noodles in Hong Kong and to-die-for Peking Duck at the chic (and expensive) Empire City Roasted Duck in the upscale Kowloon K-11 Mall.  But I was dismayed to find that the internationalization of cuisine has gone from West to East, not just from Asia to America!  It was actually a challenge to find really good native food in all four countries.

McDonald’s in the Mongkok (Hong Kong) next to the freeway. Not an attractive streetscape, but patrons streamed in day and night anyway, chowing down on Western fast food.

In Hong Kong McDonald’s Restaurants seem to be serving the needs of the masses of busy people and their kids like never before.  We frequented McDonald’s to sate the hunger of our two kids and can attest that every store was doing a land-rush business, with customers across the demographic spectrum.  The breakfast menu is an East-meets-West hybrid, but definitely not Cantonese cuisine.  Not that I credit (or blame) McDonald’s for what seems to be a trend towards more international food choices, but except in outlying areas, we found traditional breakfast noodle shops harder to find than I recall.

McDonald’s in the Mongkok area of Hong Kong was always busy, a 24/7 operation.

In multicultural Singapore it was always my experience that several Asian fares co-existed but did not collide.  If you wanted Indian food, one headed for the Indian district.  On this trip, time did not permit us a sojourn there to sip Tiger beer while eating fish head curry off a banana leaf with our fingers (the traditional method).

But we did have some almost tasty but mostly bland samplings of several Asian cultures at a Food Republic near our hotel. Food Republic is a chain of stand-alone food courts with common seating areas surrounded by fast-food-looking counters where orders are taken for whatever suits your fancy: Korean, Chinese, Indian, Thai, and so on.  And Chinese choices are many: traditional Dongbei, rice and noodles, hot pot, Szechuan, and so on.

Food Republic in Singapore offered a wide variety of rather bland Asian dishes.  Not even the Szechuan food was something I’d go back for.

We tried a number of Food Republic dishes, and all were wholesome and good, but it just didn’t feel like real Singapore.  We could have been in any mall in America.

We passed through Malaysia from the bottom to the top of the peninsula aboard a train, but we grabbed what morsels we could at the Johor Bahru Central Station and in the train’s snack bar car.

Johor Bahru (Malaysia) Central Train Station, spiffy and clean, but with rather Spartan food choices and no good local cuisine.

After recovering from the shock of modernity that is the Johor Bahru Central Station, I browsed through the stalls selling victuals that might work for breakfast.  Again I was disappointed to find just a few tasteless halal doughnuts amidst an even more tasteless array of Western-style breads and things made to look like pastries.

Western-style breads and cakes for sale in a shop at the Johor Bahru Central Train Station.  There were some weird hybrid breads, but no purely Malaysian choices, and it all tasted like sawdust.

At the end of the station’s concourse sits an American fast food tradition: a bright, shiny KFC.  I couldn’t find traditional Malaysian fare on sale there, but the menu sure bragged about its Italian desserts!

The KFC dessert menu board at the Johor Bahru Central Station. These don’t look like native Malaysian food choices to me.

On board the train that sped across the Malaysian peninsula, we were delighted to find a snack bar car.

The snack bar car on the Malaysian cross-country train – modest, clean, but with an extremely limited food selection for a 14 hour trip, and they ran out of noodles long before reaching our destination.

While it wasn’t haute cuisine by any stretch of the imagination, our kids loved the cheap cup noodles, and the more Styrofoam plates of noodles heated in a microwave were even better by comparison.  It was still essentially fast food, though, and wasn’t going to win any prices at the state fair.

20151223_114743-Malaysian noodles
Cup noodles on the Malaysian cross-country train were typical of those found worldwide.
Microwaved pre-cooked noodles on the Malaysian train were edible, but not something to brag about.

A superb breakfast was included at our fabulous boutique hotel in Georgetown, on the Malaysian island of Penang, yet once again it was a Western-style assortment of breads and fruits. No local foods.

Really delicious Western-style breakfast at our Georgetown hotel on Penang Island (Malaysia) 

En route to Thailand by ferry, we changed boats on the Malaysian island of Lantau.  There the ferry terminal is a very busy tourist crossroads, and I hoped to run into some local comestibles from a hole-in-the-wall place that would tickle my taste buds.  Instead, all we could find was a Lantau food court reminiscent of those sometimes seen at middle-sized American airports.

The food court at the Lantau ferry terminal (Malaysia)

It was set up on the Food Republic model of central tables surrounded by various merchants selling Muslim, Chinese, Thai, Indian, and Malaysian food.  After sampling a smorgasbord of small dishes from several nationalities, I couldn’t decide which was more mediocre.

Very average and unimaginative food court on Lantau Island (Malaysia) at the ferry terminal

Finally in Thailand on Koh Lipe Island, we were optimistic that the Thais took great pride in their native cuisine and could not possibly offer up a second-rate curry.

I was wrong.  Although we enjoyed some pretty good dishes over four days, none was outstanding.  We couldn’t understand it until we chatted up an American restaurateur married to a Thai fellow.  She was disgusted that all the Thai places on Koh Lipe had let their standards slip because they figured that international tourists couldn’t tell the difference, and tourists were anyway satisfied with non-Thai food.

A pretty good Thai dish on Koh Lipe

Back on the mainland at Hat Yai central train station waiting hours for our overnight sleeper to Bangkok, we wiled away the time in the station restaurant.  The kind Thai owner had learned Western baking techniques and had delicious breads and pastries on offer.  But his Thai selections were not much better than average.  This was particularly surprising to me because Hat Yai is not a place tourists usually hang out, and I expected the memorable Thai food of my past visits.

Quite the selection of Western-style foods and beverages at the Hat Yai (Thailand) central train station, but where are the Thai foods?
Delicious western-style breads, cakes and buns and puddings in Hat Yai made by the Thai owner, but his native dishes were just okay.

En route to Bangkok that night on board the comfortable sleeper train, we were delighted to find a real dining car, and festively decorated for Christmas (it was the season, after all).

The diner on the Hat Yai-Bangkok overnight train was festively decorated for Christmas.
The rail diner menu on the Hat Yai-Bangkok overnight train.

The menu looked pretty good, and the actual plates were certainly better than on the Malaysian train.  Too bad the flavors were on par with the so-so Thai meals we had on Koh Lipe.

The curry served in the diner aboard the train looks better in this photo than it tasted.  It was good, but not memorable.

The biggest letdown of all came in Bangkok itself where we tried a number of curries (red, green, massaman).  All were markedly better than the rail diner food or that on Koh Lipe, but none was a home run.   All the Thai restaurants had dual language Thai-English menus, which we expected from past experience, but we had to struggle to find the Thai selections.

The Thai owner of the best Thai cafe we found in Bangkok brings hot tea for breakfast.  He baked his own bagels every morning.

One favorite small, locally-owned cafes happened to be directly across the street from our hotel, and its menu was a good representation of the trend: page 1 was American food (hamburgers, French fries); page 2 was Italian-American (pastas and such); page 3 was Mexican-American (Tacos, nachos—shocking!); page 4—at last—was Thai dishes, and not very many of them.  The Thai owner also served good bagels and cream cheese for breakfast!

That’s a live Ronald McDonald in Bangkok, and he speaks Thai, of course.

Sure, we found some good local food, but not one traditional place was unforgettable. The dumbing down of the exquisite Asian cuisines that we have known and loved is well under way.  How long, I wonder, before real noodle shops and mom-and-pop curry cafes in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand will become anachronisms given to snarky comments by Millennials scurrying by while munching on trendy Chik-fil-A waffle fries, their native palates completely shot?

Roasted scorpions on a  stick in Bangkok.  They had big spiders, too.  I didn’t eat either.
Cafe cycle on Koh Lipe
Cafe cycle chef whips up a Thai dish on Koh Lipe – maybe we should have tried it.
Street food on Koh Lipe – authentic as it got

2 thoughts on “When the globalization of cuisine goes the wrong way

  1. I read your post with interest. I am an American who has been traveling SE Asia for the last two years. I have visited all the places that you have mentioned in your article, sometimes staying for several weeks (Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, Peninsular Malaysia). Even though I agree with you in bemoaning the spread of franchise food throughout the world, I have to disagree with your analysis that authentic local food is fading away. It must be difficult to travel with two Americanized teenagers and their particular appetites – but it is tough to locate tasty local food when you are “frequenting MacDonalds” and taking meals at the Food Republic catering operations in big shopping malls. The same goes with train stations and trains; but even then you have choices. The train from Hat Yai to Bangkok makes several stops and the passenger cars fill with locals hawking home-made snacks and savory dishes that are the essence of local street food. I have to agree that Koh Lipe has gone completely tourista and is really not a very pleasant place any longer – it’s a real shame. The same is happening on so many Thai islands that they have become somewhat of an antithesis to “paradise”. But Bangkok? How can you not eat authentic, delicious, inexpensive Thai food seven times a day if you so desire? And Singapore? Everywhere you went on your trip, especially the big population centers, there are millions of local people who will not put up with mediocre food, ever. The food is there – it just is not always conveniently situated directly across the street from the main tourist corridors. When I find myself in a place where the choices are only MacDonalds, KFC or Burger King – there is always a little local market nearby with some nice tropical fresh fruit, maybe some coconut water or a cool yogurt drink.

    Yes, the spread of Western franchise food and beverage is a scourge throughout SE Asia. I have met locals who tell me that they are proud to have overweight children because they believe that it is an indicator of affluence. There is not enough information and knowledge disseminated regarding the health ramifications of this kind of diet . On a side note, I am daily appalled at the level of cigarette use by Asian males. But this is another discussion for another thread…

    So… eat well wherever you are! The food is usually there (maybe with the exception of the Philippines – ha!). Eat local, eat fresh and consider giving up animal protein – the planet can breath a little bit better if you do!

  2. It’s not just Asia, my friend. Recently I was in San Francisco and went to my all-time favorite Italian restaurant on the Wharf to get crab spaghetti. It was made with, I am not joking, tomato soup and maybe 1 Tablespoon of crab, no basil. I asked for the manager who said: “We don’t have any basil and we’ve had to change the recipe to suit the patrons”. HUH? Buon Apetito.

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