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In April 2014, Nicolas Petit and Gabriella Zanzanaini, a food and travel obsessed duo, set off on the adventure of all adventures. They quit their jobs and took a year-long trip by land from Paris to Hong Kong, exploring little-known regions and engaging with people through local cuisines. Here they share a food map of their travels by highlighting the best flavours, tastes and street eats they found along the way.
We embarked on a journey from Paris to Hong Kong by land in April last year. In 306 days, we crossed more than 20 countries and covered over 20,000km. From the coast of Eastern Europe through the rough terrains of Eastern Turkey, the planes of Iran and Central Asia, the rugged mountains of Northwestern China and the lowlands of Southeast Asia, we tried as many dishes as we could. We tasted some of the best food we ever had and politely swallowed some of the worst. Where our language skills were lacking, food served as a universal language which created bridges and opened doors. Plus, we just really like eating.
We’ll let you decide if you want to take the same journey (we encourage it!) and cross Eurasia to find your personal food favourites, but we thought we’d save you the trip and single out our must-eats in the various places we visited, so that you can track them down during a single-destination trip as well.
What were the dishes we would climb over a mountain for, if only to taste them one more time? Which ingredients will we now hunt down for our own kitchen, chasing that flavour now ingrained in our minds?
Here are our food highlights from the age-old Silk Road and beyond.
WHAT TO HAVE FOR BREAKFAST, LUNCH AND DINNER
Burmese breakfast in Mandalay, Myanmar Teahouse on the Corner of 69th & 37th Street
Don’t skip the most important meal of the day in this cute purple teahouse, where you will be served strong, sweet, milky tea with coconut buns, thousand layered naan bread with condensed milk or the local favourite ‘mohinga’ (fish soup with noodles). Choose between milky sweet, super strong or “normal” tea, though all include a generous amount of condensed milk – sugar-free does not exist when it comes to tea in this country.
Chinese breakfast in Shangri-La, Yunnan, China E-outfitting Boutique Hotel , No.3, Yamen Gallery, Pijiang Po, 674499
Start the morning at high altitude with the chef’s feast of home-made corn bread, steamed ‘mantou’ buns, scrambled eggs, corn on the cob and congee (Chinese savoury porridge) to prepare your energy reserves for the hike up to the golden Ganden Sumtseling Monastery.
Jiaozi in China On the streets
We fell in love with these steamed dumplings, known as ‘jiaozi‘, in the town of Chengdu, but you will find them everywhere in China. Street-side stalls have them stacked up in bamboo steamers ready to serve or quickly flipped into a plastic bag for a takeout treat. The best way is to douse them in a mixture of vinegar and soya sauce, but they are just as delicious on their own.
Lasagna in Venice, Italy Osteria Alla Staffa, Sestiere Castello, 6398, 30122
If in season order the lasagna with bitter radicchio and peppery salsiccia. We walked into this little unassuming osteria at the beginning of our trip and were still dreaming of this rich and flavourful dish by the time we arrived in Hong Kong.
Seafood in Fethiye, Turkey Osman’s Place, Fethiye Fish Market
Head to the nighttime market at the centre of this beach town and choose your own seafood. Ignore the shouts and waves of about 30 fish stands and stick to your gut. Restaurants around the fish stands offer to cook your fish and serve it with a mixed salad and garlic bread for six Turkish lira. We grabbed some calamari and shrimp before heading to Osman’s Place, where chef Arife churned out crispy fried calamari and chilli butter shrimp like nobody’s business. Down it with a glass of chilled Turkish white wine.
Shuvit oshi in Khiva, Uzbekistan Zerafshan Chaikhana, Islom Hoja, Ichon-Qala 741400
The only unmissable dish in Khiva is shuvit oshi and Zerafshan restaurant’s version is delicious. Uzbekistan is not exactly known as a foodie destination, but this specialty of the Khorezm region makes it into our unforgettable list. Freshly made green dill pasta served with a succulent lamb ragù and a glass of red wine, eaten while you look up at the turquoise pillars of the ancient castle of Khiva. Who said Uzbek food was bland?
DRINKS, SNACKS, STREET EATS AND TREATS
Coconut coffee in Hanoi, Vietnam Cộng Càphê
This quirky coffee chain in Hanoi makes light Vietnam’s communist era with propaganda posters lining the walls. Make like the young and trendy Hanoians and head there for afternoon tea or a morning of ‘digital nomading’. Their menu is full of fresh juices and creative mixes to fuel you, but our hands-down favourite is the hot coconut coffee.
Atom smoothies in Gaziantep, Turkey Multiple street locations
Gaziantep’s streets are dotted with fresh juice shops, where you can get anything from a simple pomegranate or orange juice to the famous Atom. Named for the energy it gives, Atom” are churned out by the minute at little shops on the corner. A blend of banana, strawberry, kiwi, melon, cold milk, mixed nuts, honey and ‘şalgam’ juice (pickled red carrot juice) give it its Barbie pink colour. It’s more like dessert, but one taste of this and you will be hooked.
Dizi in Tabriz, Iran Tabriz Bazaar
We had our fist ‘dizi’ hidden away in the bazaar streets of Tabriz. Dizi is a comfort food much loved by Iranians that does not require the same laborious preparation of many other Persian classics. A painfully hot metal jug filled with ‘ab gusht’ (literally meat water) lamb chunks and oil is served alongside an empty bowl into which you break up pieces of ‘sengak’ (dimpled crêpe-like bread) to scoop up the juices. When you are done, the potatoes and chickpeas that have been cooked with the meat are ladled out and crushed to a pulp with a personal metal masher. An experience not to be missed.
Gözleme in Fethiye, Turkey Fethiye Tuesday Market
Along the narrow canals of Fethiye, a gigantic market comes to life every Tuesday. Farmers descend from surrounding villages and carefully lay out their colourful produce. On the other side of the canal is the market’s food court. Groups of women run temporary stalls selling ‘gözleme’ and ‘katmer’ – Turkish pancakes filled with spinach, cheese or meat. Sit down, have a tea and enjoy watching them prepare the hand-made treats as you sample a few pickles from the big plastic jars on each table.
Samosa thoke in Yangon, Myanmar
Keep your eyes open in Yangon for street stalls piled high with crispy samosas. Most likely they will be making samosa thoke, meaning samosa salad. To call it a salad is misleading as this is a complex dish. It is possibly our favourite savoury dish from Myanmar (and it’s vegetarian too). The crisp pastry of the samosa triangles provides the crunch while the filling and the extra chickpea falafels provide creamy weight. Then comes the freshness from the shredded cabbage, finely chopped raw onions, mint and coriander. Some chillies for spice. A squeeze of lime. The final touch is heat and comfort in the form of a thick masala lentil soup. There are multiple variations, but the secret to the one we had was a touch of cinnamon.
Bánh tráng trộn in Hanoi, Vietnam
Possibly the most colourful dish we had in Vietnam, bánh tráng trộn manages to combine sweet, salty, spicy, crispy, chewy and creamy, all in one go and we still don’t think we have covered all the textures and flavours for you there. Bánh tráng, meaning coated cake, and trộn, meaning mix, was obviously conjured up by someone craving, well everything.
Bein mont, Yangon, Myanmar
Ah. The crème de la crème of Burmese street snacks. Any day in Yangon deserves a bein mont. The sweet version is a glutinous rice flour pancake topped with white poppy seeds, slivered almonds and fresh coconut slices. None of the pancakes we have tried or tested over the years have anything on this one. This reigns when it comes to the humble cake in a pan – plus it’s gluten-free.
Lokum, Safranbolu, Turkey
The reason some flock to Safranbolu is for its lokum, morsels of chewy sweetness often served in the form of little cubes, also commonly referred to as Turkish delight. This is not your average airport-duty-free lokum, as the Safranbolu version is delicate and just slightly elastic, like soft pillows with the suggestion of a flavour – clotted cream, walnut, pistachio, fig, rose and of course saffron. By the time we settled to buy a box, we were stuffed with tasting samples. We left happy with our carefully selected gems, eating them at intervals to make our stash last as long as possible, but much like the Pringles ad goes: “once you pop you can’t stop”.
Tahdig in Iran
You cannot step foot in Iran and not have tahdig. The Iranians have turned rice cooking into an art form and the best bit is the crispy part at the bottom of the pan. We’re not talking about the accidental part which you burnt when you left the pot on for too long, we’re talking about a purposefully crafted crust. Sometimes made through the addition of lavash bread and potato slices, it merits its own dish at the table. Anyone who misses out on this while travelling to Iran has not come close to trying the best thing the country has to offer on a plate.
Knife-sliced noodles, Halal restaurants in Northwestern China
China’s version of tagliatelle beats all the other pasta shapes in this noodle-obsessed country. Walk into any Muslim halal joint in North Western China and you will find these wide strands cooked in beef broth with leafy green vegetables or stir-fired with meat, onions and peppers. Traditionally from the Shanxi region, it involves scraping a large block of dough with a wide slanted knife, its edges shaped like a potato peeler. The noodles are sliced directly into the boiling broth and then drenched in cold water to ensure their al dente texture.
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