Lea Salonga’s Backstory: Eating my way through Asia



Eating my way through Asia
By Lea Salonga
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 21:50:00 10/01/2008; On paper 10/02/2008

BANGKOK, Thailand — I’m back on the road. I’m here for a “Cinderella” press trip, and full from a welcome dinner held by the show’s presenters. Yes, Thai food. The meal was nothing short of beautiful. From the appetizers of fresh pomelo and prawn salad to the tom yum goong, massaman curry and pandan chicken and, finally, coconut ice cream for dessert, the palate was pleased, the tummy tickled. Of course it goes without saying that the company at dinner made it all the more delicious.

It’s one of the most fun aspects of going on tour. One member of the cast plans to “eat my way through Asia.” Hey, that’s not a bad idea, considering how varied Asian cuisine is.

In Manila, where the tour began, many guys from the company found themselves addicted to dried mangoes and ChocNut. And I was around when a few cast members, during a between-shows poker tournament, sampled some balut (sprinkled with a little rock salt). Because the duck embryos hadn’t matured to the Fear Factor/Amazing Race Asia stage just yet, the delicacy wasn’t as intimidating as it could be. Thanks, Loy Martinez, for your contribution to widening our touring company’s palates! That balut was delicious!

Mainland wonders

On the press trips to parts of mainland China, I was curious about how the food would taste there. Sure, I had tasted dimsum in Hong Kong, in a couple of the teahouses at Lang Kwai Fong, and sampled Shanghainese food as well, but how would Chinese food be presented in the mainland?

Extremely deliciously, I was happy to learn!

We tried quite a few restaurants in Xi’an. Melaka, a Malaysian place on Restaurant Row, was one notable and often visited spot. Brandy Zarle (Joy) and Kristen Turner (Ensemble) along with Sheilla Habab, Lynn Zhang and our driver Rock (or Bato, as he came to be known by the end of our stay) were my lunch mates the first time.

Malaysian food is somewhat familiar, so I knew what to ask for. I had nasi lemak— coconut rice, ikan bilis (dilis) in sambal sauce, chicken curry, fried peanuts and sweet pickled vegetables. The others ordered a range of dishes—Hainanese chicken rice, crispy eggplant with prawns, meatballs, pork, and fresh vegetables. After one performance, at the Yi Café of the Shangri-La Hotel (our home in Xi’an), I had nasi goreng while Sheilla had some squid ink Spaghetti Carbonara. The room service menu offered quite a few Chinese and Western selections. I enjoyed the pan-fried French beans with chili and black bean paste served with white rice more than most anything else on the menu. For the most part, I’ve been eating and enjoying Asian cuisine (save for a couple of visits to Starbucks for my favorite beverage there—green tea soy latté, grande). By the way, they sell hot Chinese mini egg tarts (or dan tat) at the KFC in China.

After Xi’an, we made a quick trip to Guangzhou for press, which meant an opportunity to go Cantonese. Our presenter, Mr. Chow, treated Peter Saide, Lulu Zhang (from Broadway Asia’s Shanghai office who would be acting as interpreter for this visit), Sheilla and me to an incredible meal. He brought us to a Cantonese restaurant, not too far from our hotel—one of the more famous ones in the city, he said.

We were ushered into a private room, and served some fragrant pots of tea: jasmine in one pot and chrysanthemum in another. Some wonderful steamed chicken came out first. The rest of the meal wasn’t too shabby, either—pan fried fish, assorted sautéed dried seafood, a deep green Chinese broccoli, duck in stew, and a hot dessert whose name escapes me (a gelatinous substance in hot coconut milk and syrup).

Good score

Next stop: Zhengzhou. Our stay would last only a few days, but I scored a few good meals. The night I checked into the hotel, I ordered steamed pork dumplings, served with chili and black vinegar. My goodness, they were so satisfying and delicious!

The next day, I had lunch with the two other Pinoys in the cast, husband-wife tandem Loy and Shiela Martinez. At the restaurant on the fifth floor of our hotel, we asked for the big menu that had pictures. We took our time perusing this volume (yes, it was a big and heavy book), and then settled on deep fried pork ribs with garlic (a safe bet), lamb stewed with chili in a sizzling pot, crystal shrimp with kale, and steamed Mandarin fish with three sauces (garlic on one side, mild chili on the other and, in the middle, sliced soft tofu with black bean paste on top). We each had some white rice.

Everything we ordered was fantastic!

Each sauce on that fish was delicious in itself, and the combination of two, or even all, the sauces was amazing! The lamb had a bit of bite from the chili, and the shrimp was crisp and fresh, tasting so clean with the crunch of the kale. I was in gustatory heaven, and returned to my room with a huge smile on my face. A couple of days later, I was back at that restaurant. Peter and I would have a TV interview there, accompanied by Merita Huang (associate company manager) and Sheilla. After the interview, Harriette McClure (Peter’s lovely lady-friend and a “Cinderella” cast member) joined us. We ordered the same fish, lamb and pork dishes, and more—shrimp patties coated with almonds, eel in a hot pot, Yang Zhou fried rice. Again, the meal was a winner. Sheilla and I left for Manila the next day.

Back to tuyo

In Manila, the morning after I arrived, I had my favorite comfort food— tuyo, eggs and garlic rice. After all that Chinese food, there was nothing like spending time at home with its familiar smells and flavors. I would be home for five days with friends and family (I needed to deeply breathe in the fragrance of my daughter’s hair).

So I am now in beautiful Thailand, a few hours after I started writing this column, still trying my best to digest my last meal. From here I head off to Guangzhou, with memories of that incredible Cantonese meal. I think I’m going to try other cuisine there. I’ve been told there are good Italian and Mexican restaurants worth a visit, so perhaps I’ll give them a try.

Eating one’s way through Asia is turning out to be heaps and heaps of fun! It’s certainly one enjoyable way to discover our wonderful and unique part of the world, with an open mind, and an open mouth. Kainan na!

(I must give credit to Julia Cook, our wonderful Wicked Stepmother, for the title. It was her phrase that inspired this piece.)


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