Musings about early retirement with no fixed address

Eating Well From A Small Asian Kitchen

Over the last 18 months we have learned a number of delicious lessons about how to cook in a small Asian kitchen. We both enjoy cooking, but it can be challenging to make full meals from limited appliances and space. When we first arrived in Bangkok way back in June 2019, we wanted to take advantage of the abundant cheap produce that was available. More recently, we’ve been forced to cook during COVID quarantine restrictions that not only kept us home, but closed all restaurants too. Luckily, we had perfected our techniques by then, so we still ate well. Here’s what we’ve learned over the last 18 months.

Our cooking style has changed a lot from our US methods. We previously used our oven all the time, whether that was to roast vegetables, finish a steak in a cast iron pan, or bake our own bread. There aren’t ovens in any of the apartments here in SE Asia. A microwave is as close as it gets. That’s likely because it’s so hot most of the time that turning on an oven would be crazy. “Hey, it’s 100 degrees out, let’s make a roast!” is not something normally uttered by sane home cooks. 

Casting aside our oven crutch, all of our meals are now based around cooking on a single induction cooker or stove top burner. Adding a rice cooker to the mix means that we can still make delicious and filling meals, because rice goes with everything. And we eat A LOT of rice. At first it seemed like too much, but now we’re both wholly addicted. A day without rice has me going into full on craving mode. Many of my favorite meals are simple combinations of a couple of sauteed vegetables, rice, and eggs mixed in a single bowl. 

Eggplant and greens is one of my favorite combos. Added sprouts for a little crunch.
Add rice and top with eggs
Mixed deliciousness in every bite

Before I show you anymore pictures of food, I will state that this post is not in my comfort zone. While most bloggers who travel around the world post about food constantly, you may have noticed that I almost never do. This is because I have dozens of dietary restrictions stemming from persistent acid reflux. I have to avoid anything remotely spicy, deep fried, or even tomato-y. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to list out all of my issues (I’m not even sure blog posts are allowed to go that long), but it’s safe to assume that eating out is challenging for me. Add in some language barriers or a generally spicy cuisine, and it’s even harder. Unlike many other travelers, food is not an essential part of my travel experience and my adventurous life does not include adventurous eating. Nevertheless, I like eating well.

Living with all of these dietary restrictions is not all bad. Years and years of cooking for my specialized diet has turned both Katie and I into pretty good cooks. We can never just follow a recipe, since there are always ingredient substitutions to make. That has allowed us to learn what flavors go together well and what can be used in place of others. It’s also helped develop a love of cooking. So even if I could eat everything under the sun, I’m sure we’d still eat at home a lot.

A simple combo of bok choy, fresh corn, and sprouts
Add rice and top with eggs
Looking good

What we do eat is usually centered around fresh ingredients. Fresh vegetables are abundant everywhere here in SE Asia since it’s always growing season. Rice and eggs are cheap and delicious. We’ll add chicken or ground pork from time to time, but not too often. Many of these meals have a similar theme, but after more than a year and half of experimentation, I’m convinced that it’s the best way to eat well here.

Ground pork, cabbage, and yellow squash with cilantro
Add rice and top with eggs
I love the pig and cabbage combo

When we first started out, our dishes were too simple. I’m almost embarrassed to post this it looks so bad, but this was one of our first home cooked meals after we arrived in SE Asia. It wasn’t great, but we improved.

Pretty bland

It didn’t take us too long to learn that we needed to add eggs and mix everything together in a large bowl. Some places we stayed didn’t have large bowls to eat out of, so we’d buy a couple and leave them behind when we left. The mixture of runny egg yolk, sauteed vegetables, and rice was much better. I add a little soy sauce most of the time. Katie will add that plus onions and hot sauce as desired. It’s a massive improvement over the plain rice dish.

Going a little less healthy with olives, ham, broccoli, oyster mushrooms, cilantro, and bad cheese
Add rice and top with eggs
Salty deliciousness

A different take on the rice bowl is fried rice. The only additional thing needed is to plan ahead and make the rice a day before so it can dry out in the fridge overnight. Almost any ingredient works, and after a quick saute, it can be mixed with some of the old rice right in the pan. Scrambled eggs, pea pods, carrots, and zucchini are our favorites. Using fresh cilantro and a squeeze of lime adds a nice pop.

Zucchini, ham, cilantro, fresh corn, and frozen peas. Not pictured – day old rice and, you guessed it, eggs for scrambling.
Fried rice ala Eric

These rice bowls are our main staples and we eat them most days of the week. I’m usually the cook for our day to day meals, but when we do fancier stuff, it’s almost always Katie doing the work. Being stuck in the same city with little else to do also meant we felt the urge to expand our cooking repertoire. And by we, I mean Katie. I could eat a rice bowl everyday for the rest of my life, but she gets bored with them sometimes.

To mix it up, she learned how to make her own flatbread. It’s quite nice when a (rare) break from the rice is wanted. It goes well with soups (not pictured), which we experiment with when we have a proper soup pot.

Dough being flattened with our ad hoc roller, an empty olive jar
Hot and tasty flatbread

She also figured out how to perfectly pan fry salmon fillets, something we never really did before. So we’ve been doing that periodically to mix things up as well. One of our current grocery stores has edamame and pickled ginger, so that goes really well with the other vegetables.

This one is decadent. Clockwise from top left – zucchini, greens, edamame w/ radishes, avocado, and asparagus. It’s all on a bed of rice with pickled ginger on the side.

We’ve made a number of one-off dishes too, depending on many factors. We’ve made big batches of potato salad and carrot salad. We’ll pick up tofu from time to time for something different. We even did a cold noodle vegetable salad too.

Clockwise from top left – Daikon radish and carrots, cabbage, broccoli, cilantro, ginger, edamame, bok choy, chayote squash, and zucchini in the middle. This was briefly sauteed and added to cold noodles flavored with toasted sesame oil.
Topped with an egg of course.

Overall, we’ve adapted very well to cooking in limited space. Some of our apartments are better equipped than others, so we try to take advantage of what we have access to while we have it. If we have a toaster, we eat more bread. If we have a nice stock pot, soups are more likely to fill our bowls.

There are always lots of tasty fresh ingredients available, so we generally pick up what looks the best and then plan how to eat it afterwards. We’ve learned that nearly all combinations are tasty with eggs and rice. Maybe you can tell. Eating well, especially during our quarantine periods, has definitely helped make those stretches better. Now it feels like we can make almost anything. As long as it has rice of course.

25 Comments

  1. Skip

    Nice! Looks delicious and healthy. I see you enjoy pairing those meals with a beer as well. Thumbs up!

    We look forward to hitting those markets and having access to fresh ingredients.

    I know you tend to buy a few things with every destination, but do you find you usually have access to most of the utensils needed for cooking? Decent knives come to mind.

    Glad to see you are eating well at least.

    Safe travels!

    • Eric

      Hi Skip,
      As you can imagine, it varies. While pretty much every place has had a knife, they usually suck. And somewhat surprising to me, almost no place offers a cutting board. We generally carry with us a knife (two actually), cutting board, french press, vegetable peeler, pepper mill, and some spices.

      • Skip

        Ah, good to know about the cutting boards. I’m assuming you must have at least one checked bag when going through airports to carry these things. I’ve been mulling over having one checked bag vs. carry on only. Carry on only wouldn’t be a problem for us, except for the frustration over dull knives, lack of cutting boards, and difficulty finding sun block for my pastey skin.

        • Eric

          The carry on weight limit for Asian airlines is commonly 7kg and there’s no way we can hit that. So checking them is pretty much the only option around here. Maybe somewhat surprisingly, the cheap fares almost always include the checked bag anyways, so it doesn’t cost extra.

  2. Jarad

    In Thailand but no curries?! I’ll assume that’s due to your dietary restrictions. Glad to read another post — I was getting worried with months of radio silence.

    • Eric

      Katie loves the curries and gets them often when we eat out. She makes the sacrifice to share what I can eat when we cook at home though. She’s nice. 🙂

  3. Matt Mulder

    Let’s see you make some bun cha! I’ve tackled making that back here in the USA on special occasions to introduce people to a new culinary experience. So yummy!

    • Eric

      Good idea Matt. Maybe I can tailor that to appeal to my sensitive constitution.

  4. Lyn Klages

    Nice to read a post… missed them… I don’t love rice but guess I would learn! Lots of soy sauce probably …you’ll have fill us in on the holidays!

    • Eric

      You could do rice noodles if you didn’t want your rice in grain form. lol

  5. Aunt Beth

    Yum!

  6. Dianne

    Can’t wait until you can recreate these SE Asian meals for us! Everything is good with an egg on it. You forgot pictures of popcorn! 😉

    • Eric

      Yes, but we’re going to need to use the oven too, assuming we remember how.

  7. Paula

    Glad to see an update on your life. Actually, the way you are eating is so much healthier then many of our meals here. You’ve certainly learned a new skill to add to your life. Take care and stay healthy.

    • Eric

      A new skill and a new rice addiction! 🙂

  8. Glenda Lehman

    Hi Eric snd Katie, I have missed your updates. Glad to hear you are doing well. You are quite the chefs, I am impressed.
    I do believe if you ever come home to Michigan, you are going to have to do some cooking and invite us for the feast. It all looks so good and amazingly healthy. Good for you!!
    Keep your updates coming, always full of interesting stories. Love you guys!!

    • Eric

      Hi Glenda – We’re happy to do the cooking, although we might deviate from the single burner technique for more than two people.

  9. Cindy

    Looking at your dishes reminds me of being in Indonesia! There is ALWAYS rice with meals; many times it is the primary part of a meal. Continue to enjoy being creative in the kitchen. It adds so much to your stories and in years to come, you will be glad you are keeping track of your journey with all the writing you are doing to keep your experiences fresh.

    • Eric

      Hi Cindy,
      Maybe one of these days I’ll be able to remind you of Indonesia by posting about Indonesia. Stick with me! 🙂

  10. Lori

    I’m so glad to see this post from you both! I’ve been wanting to comment for a while now because your blog is my favorite of the FI blogs I read. I always appreciate your honest reaction to situations that you find yourselves in, even ones that aren’t so rosy. Your expanding culinary skills are fun to read about. Please keep posting!!!

    • Eric

      Hi Lori,
      Thanks for the comment and kind words.

  11. Justin S

    This post = 8/10

    This post with rice = 11/10

    • Eric

      Now this is a quality comment! I award it my highest rating of 5/7.

      (For those of you who are not Redditors: With Rice and 5/7)

  12. Tara Red

    Eric, what advice would you offer to someone trying to pursue a largely grain-free diet while traveling in SE Asia? Is cauliflower rice is thing? Maybe noodle-less soups? I’m kinda stumped and wonder how my own dietary preferences might make travel more or less enjoyable through certain regions.

    • Eric

      There’s abundant cheap produce available in just about every area. I haven’t seen cauliflower rice specifically, but there is cauliflower. There are potatoes too, especially sweet potatoes. You just can’t bake them. There are plenty of other hearty vegetables too. I’m sure you could make salads. We do that sometimes, although it’s a lot of extra work since you can’t just clean the veggies under the faucet. I eat a lot of fruit too. There are large bunches of bananas for about $1 anywhere.

      I think that as long as you have a kitchen, you could eat just about anything you eat in the US as long as you can make it yourself from scratch. There are western restaurants where you can get pizza or a burger or a full English breakfast just about everywhere too. We don’t do that often, but sometimes a good burger hits the spot. Overall, bigger cities have the most options, so if you start there, you could probably get a good idea of what will work for you before branching out. Hopefully that helps.

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