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A Gastronomic Tour of Best Student Cities in Asia

A Gastronomic Tour of Best Student Cities in Asia main image

If you’re looking to study in Asia you might already have considered the world-class education at its top-ranked universities (as highlighted in the QS University Rankings: Asia), the exposure to new cultures and languages, and the comfortable quality of life in the region’s top cities for students. However, any exploration of Asia cannot be complete without also touching on its immense culinary offerings.

As Chinese-American author, translator and inventor Lin Yutang said: “No food is really enjoyed unless it is keenly anticipated, discussed, eaten, and then commented upon.” In this spirit, the following is a gastronomic tour of the best student cities in Asia.

1. Singapore: Chili Crab

The city-state Singapore is third in the latest edition of the QS Best Student Cities, and is home to the National University of Singapore (NUS), which sits at the very top of this year’s QS University Rankings: Asia.

Singaporean cuisine is a truly global gastronomic tour in and of itself, with influences from China, Indonesia, India and Malaysia mixing seamlessly with Peranakan styles and those from Western traditions. Food is also a crucial part of Singaporean national identity, with various Singaporean literary texts describing it as a national pastime.

A favorite of locals, visitors and expatriates alike is chili crab, which was listed at number 35 on the World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods compilation by CNNGo in 2011. The signature sweet yet savory sticky sauce means this whole crab dish is not overly spicy, despite its name. Meanwhile, the thickening flour and egg ribbons which are added towards the end of the cooking process combine to produce its familiar fluffy texture.

Best place to eat: Head to the Singapore Food Festival held annually from June to July. Savvy visitors at the last three festivals could ask at any tourist information desk to receive coupons for free chili crab at any of the many stalls. If you get a craving any other time of the year, Singapore’s East Coast is best for fresh seafood, with the East Coast Parkway home to plenty of (rather pricey) seafood restaurants.

Top tip when eating: First, don’t be afraid of getting messy – chili crab is notoriously difficult to eat. Second, order your crab with mantou: steamed, deep-fried or toasted buns for scooping up the thick and delicious tomato-based sauce.

What to have for dessert: Ice kachang or durian ice-cream

What to drink: Teh Tarik, a frothy milk tea made with condensed milk, or the locally brewed Tiger beer

2. Hong Kong: Dim Sum

Both within the top five of the 2014 QS University Rankings: Asia are the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), while Hong Kong itself appears in 7th place in the latest edition of the QS Best Student Cities.

The next stop on this gastronomic tour is city-state Hong Kong, whose proximity to China unsurprisingly means a strong Cantonese influence permeates its cuisine, although its status as an international city of commerce has meant that a wide variety of non-Cantonese Chinese cuisine, Japanese and Southeast Asian flavors and dishes from Britain and the Western world can also be found to almost equal degrees.

Perhaps the best-known meal in Hong Kong is the Cantonese dim sum, which was traditionally served as a snack but has now become a staple of Cantonese dining culture. Usually consumed for breakfast and/or lunch, dim sum consists of a selection of dishes in small portions, often ordered as a platter and perfect for family-style sharing. Typical ingredients include beef, chicken, pork, prawns and countless vegetarian options. Traditionally, a filling is prepared and inserted into steamed or fried buns, dumplings, rice noodle rolls (cheong fun) or lotus leaves (lo mai gai). Further accompaniments include congee (a thick and sticky savory rice pudding) and sou (a type of flaky pastry).

Best place to eat: Superstar Seafood, Times Square, Causeway Bay; or Dim Sum, Sing Woo Road, Happy Valley

Top tip when eating: Dishes in specialized dim sum restaurants or teahouses are served in steam-heated carts, with each dish priced separately and according to the restaurant’s particular classifications.

What to have for dessert: Go to Hui Lau Shan (a dessert restaurant in Causeway Bay) and order Sago Mix – the sago makes it milky and chewy, while the seasonal fruits give it sweetness and sourness.

What to drink: Tea service is important in dim sum – it is used synonymously with the term yum cha (literally “drink tea”). Popular flavors include oolong, chrysanthemum, green tea, jasmine and other scented teas. Hong Kong-style milk tea with evaporated milk is also popular.

3. Seoul: Bulgogi

South Korea is 14th in the QS Best Student Cities index and has a strong showing in the QS Universities Rankings: Asia, currently claiming two of Asia’s top five universities and 46 of the top 300.

You’ll find Korean cuisine (hanguk yori or hansik) to vary significantly across the country. While there are unique regional dishes, traditional Korean meals are noted for the number of side dishes (banchan) and soups (guk, tang or jjigae), both of which accompany the main rice or noodles.

Bulgogi is usually made with grilled marinated beef and is listed at number 23 in the World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods compiled by CNNGo. The word bulgogi literally means “fire meat”, a reflection of the way the marinated meat is cooked using traditional grilling techniques, rather than a statement about its spice level. Whole cloves of garlic, sliced onions and chopped green peppers are often grilled or fried with the meat, which will have been marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, pepper and mushrooms.

Special mention: Kim chi, made with fermented cabbage (or radish, cucumbers, or chives) and chili, accompanies every meal and can be quite spicy – some even call it an acquired taste.

Top tip when eating: If served with lettuce or another leafy vegetable, wrap a slice of the meat along with a dab of ssamjang or other side dish in the leaf and eat together.

What to have for dessert: Egg tart (daan taat), made with either a flaky, puff pastry-type base or non-flaky cookie dough base with an egg custard filling. The filling is available in a variety of flavors including strawberry.

What to drink: Soju, a vodka-like alcoholic beverage and national drink of South Korea

4. Tokyo: Nigirizushi

Appearing in 17th place in the QS Best Student Cities index, Tokyo is home to Japan’s highest ranked university. The University of Tokyo is currently in 10th place in the QS University Rankings: Asia, with a further 67 Japanese institutions in the top 300.

Japanese cuisine is based on combining staple foods (such as Japanese rice or noodles) with a soup and okazu – dishes made from fish, vegetables, tofu and the like. A complete meal is rounded off by tsukemono (pickles), with each element served in its own bowl. Japanese cuisine is also known for its emphasis on the seasonality of food, and the high quality of its ingredients. In 2010, the Michelin Guide cited Japan as the country with the most starred restaurants in the world.

Nigirizushi (fish pressed onto rice) is perhaps Japan’s most famous cuisine – it is known around the world as “sushi”. Originally from Tokyo, nigirizushi consists of an oblong mound of cooked vinegar-ed rice (sushi meshi), which is dabbed with wasabi sauce and pressed with a topping (called neta). Neta includes seafood (salmon, tuna, octopus, eel, squid), vegetables and sometimes tropical fruits. Typically served with raw neta, sushi can be prepared with either brown or white rice and is typically accompanied by shredded ginger, wasabi and soy sauce.

Best place to eat: You’ll be spoilt for choice on a gastronomic tour in Japan, with a staggering amount of restaurants, many specializing in sushi. Some restaurants may have private booth dining, where guests are asked to remove their shoes and leave them outside their booth.

Top tip when eating: Nigrizushi is traditionally eaten with fingers, not chopsticks. Turn over the sushi so only the topping is dipped in the provided sauce, or baste the top using ginger as a brush.

What to have for dessert: Wagashi, traditional Japanese confectionary often served with tea.

What to drink: Nihonshu, a fermented alcoholic beverage brewed from rice – popularly but incorrectly referred to by tourists as sake, which in Japan is used to describe all alcoholic drinks.

5. Beijing: Peking Roast Duck

Beijing is 18= in the QS Best Student Cities, and its Peking University holds a respectable 8th place in the QS University Rankings: Asia, with China boasting a total of 73 institutions in the Asian top 300.

Your choice of Chinese cuisine is similarly diverse, typically divided into the “Eight Culinary Traditions of China”. The dynastic emperors of ancient China were even known to have separate dining chambers for each specific type of dish in their palaces.

Rice remains China’s staple food and pork accounts for about three-fourths of the country’s total meat consumption. However, Beijing is best known around the world for its Peking roast duck. Known as Bĕijīng kăoyā, Peking roast duck is served with thin pancakes, plum or sweet bean sauce and slivers of scallions, pickled radishes and cucumbers. Ducks are bred specially for this dish, and are often seasoned with spices before being roasted in a closed or hung oven. A mark of authenticity is the duck’s thin, crisp skin, and dishes usually have mostly skin and little meat.

Best place to eat: Quanjude is a national chain famous for Peking duck – go to the restaurants in Qianmen Street and Hepingmen Gate for the most authentic and best quality.

Top tip when eating: Dip the duck into the sauce, place on one half of the pancake and layer with a few pieces each of the cucumber, radishes and scallion. Fold the pancake in half, placing the empty half onto the duck, then fold into thirds to create a rectangle shape (similar to a spring roll).

What to have for dessert: While seasonal fruits are the most common form of after-dinner dessert, Chinese sweet foods include tang and baobing – shaved ice with sweet syrup and fruit toppings.  

What to drink: Tea – tea ceremonies and tea tastings at tea houses are popular, particularly in the Qianmen area, south of Tian’anmen Square.

6. Taipei: Beef Noodle Soup

Taipei is ranked 28th in the QS Best Student Cities and is home to Taiwan’s highest ranking university in the 2014 QS University Rankings: Asia. National Taiwan University (NTU) is ranked 21st in Asia, while Taipei Medical University and the National Yang-Ming University both make the top 50.

Taiwanese cuisine includes representative dishes from the Hoklo (Hō-ló) people, the Taiwanese aborigines, the Hakka people and local re-imaginations of cuisines from neighboring China. A notable Japanese influence is a remnant of the 50-year period in which Taiwan was a dependency of the Empire of Japan, while Fujian styles are also common.

While pork, seafood, chicken, rice and soy are common ingredients in Taiwan, beef was traditionally less common, due in part to considerations of Taiwanese Buddhists and partly because of a traditional reluctance to slaughter cattle otherwise used for agriculture. Nonetheless, the Taiwanese version of the provincial Chinese beef noodle soup is now one of the most popular dishes in Taiwan, with the country holding an annual International Beef Noodle Festival.

Best place to eat: Yongkang Beef Noodle, Section 2, Jinshan South Road is one of the top 20 beef noodle shops in Taipei. Little Shanghai in the Songshan District is also an option.

Special mention: Go to Tamsui in New Taipei City (a city which surrounds Taipei) for a-gei, a regional specialty consisting of deep-fried tofu stuffed with cellophane noodles, sealed with fish paste and drizzled with spicy sauce. While there, you might also try Tamsui fish ball (yúwán) or iron eggs (tiědàn).

What to have for dessert: Explore Taiwan’s abundant supply of native tropical fruits, or try bubble tea: a tea-based drink made with tapioca balls (boba), and available either as a fruit-flavored or milk tea.

What to drink: Taiwan’s strong tea culture includes “tea-arts” shops and traditional tea ceremonies. Common teas include Taiwanese oolongs such as Iron Goddess and Alpine Oolong, Puers, black teas and green teas.

7. Shanghai: Hairy Crab

The latest QS Best Student Cities index places Shanghai in 35th place, while the 2014 QS University Rankings: Asia names Shanghai Jiao Tong University (28th in Asia) as the city’s highest ranking institution. Further Shanghainese institutions include Tongji University, Shanghai University and East China University of Science and Technology, all ranked in the Asian top 100.

Shanghai (or Hu) cuisine is closely related to those of surrounding provinces Jiangsu and Zhejiang and is collectively known as Benbang cuisine. Shanghai cuisine is often described as sweet and oily, due to the use of sugar (usually in combination with soy sauce) and the most common method of preparation.

Alcohol is a main component of Shanghai cooking, with fish, crab and chicken “drunken”, or soaked with spirits, then briskly cooked, steamed or served raw. Salted meats and preserved vegetables serve as typical accompaniments. As Shanghai faces the East China Sea, seafood is popular, and a notable autumnal dish is known as hairy crab, made from Chinese mitten crabs. Also known as big sluice crab and Shànghǎi máo xiè in pinyin, this dish is so popular that vending machines have recently been introduced to sell Chinese mitten crabs at subway stations. The crabs are tied with string, placed in bamboo containers and steamed.

Best place to eat: Tu’an Crab Tasting House (Tu’an Xie Wei Guan) near Huaihai Zhong Lu

Special mention: A notable Shanghai delicacy is xiaolongbao, known as Shanghai dumplings. These steamed buns are filled with pork or minced crab and soup, steamed in bamboo baskets and served with black vinegar and sometimes shredded ginger. Xiaolongbao is best eaten by biting the top off, sucking out the soup and then dipping in vinegar.

What to drink: Crab meat is believed to be “cooling” (yin) for the body so is often consumed with ginger tea or Shaoxing wine to provide a yang balance.

8. Kuala Lumpur: Nasi Lemak

Universiti Malaya, Malaysia’s highest ranking entry in the 2014 QS University Rankings: Asia 2014, is located in capital city Kuala Lumpur, which comes 43rd in the QS Best Student Cities list. Overall, Malaysia has a strong showing in the rankings, with 18 of its institutions making the Asian top 300.

Malaysia’s cuisine reflects the nation’s multi-ethnic makeup – you’ll find influences from the Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Javanese and Sumatran cultures. Largely due to its historic location as part of the ancient spice route between Asia, Northeast Africa and Europe, Malaysian cuisine includes dishes from around the world, all re-created in a unique Malaysian style.

Nasi lemak, fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf, is considered Malaysia’s national dish. It is often paired with various side dishes including fresh cucumber slices, small fried anchovies (ikan bilis), stir-fried water convolvulus (kangkong), roasted peanuts, spicy pickled vegetable salad (acar), hard-boiled egg, and a spicy sauce called sambal. Fried chicken (ayam goreng), cuttlefish (sambal sotong), cockles (kerang) and beef (rendang daging) can be accompaniments for a more substantial meal.

Best place to eat: Many of the best Malaysian restaurants rely on word-of-mouth advertising, and are often located in out-of-the-way places – try asking the locals for their personal recommendations. For the less adventurous, Village Park Restaurant in Damansara is one popular option.

Top tip when eating: While chili is a main component of dishes, this does not necessarily make them spicy. If you are feeling the heat, avoid ordering water or ice for your drinks at hawker (street) stalls, as they often use untreated tap water.

What to have for dessert: Cendol, made with pandan-flavored green strands, red kidney beans, glutinous rice or cream corn and a mound of shaved ice, all drenched in a generous amount of sweet coconut milk.                                

What to drink: Malaysia’s national drink Teh Tarik, or air bandung, a cold drink made with condensed milk and flavored with rose cordial syrup

9. Kyoto: Shojin Ryori

Kyoto occupies 50th place in the QS Best Student Cities list, while Kyoto University holds an impressive 12th position in the 2014 QS University Rankings: Asia.

The city is notable for its abundance of vegetarian foods, due in part to the many Buddhist temples in the city and marks the final stop in this gastronomic tour. Kyoto and the nearby city of Uji are also well known for their matcha, or green tea, including a wide variety of matcha-flavored treats such as the popular matcha ice cream. Meanwhile, yatshuhashi is a popular Kyoto cinnamon biscuit snack that comes either baked or raw, while kaiseki ryori is a multi-course dinner often consisting of dishes chosen by the chef.

Visitors to Kyoto who spend the night at a temple lodging can enjoy the multi-course shojin ryori, which developed from the austerity of Buddhist monks. Shojin ryori consists of strictly vegetarian, mostly savory dishes, of which a common ingredient is tofu, a local specialty of Kyoto. In fact, the preparation of tofu is so common that it can also be referred to as tofu ryori (“tofu cuisine”). Widely served in restaurants throughout Kyoto is yudofu, a soft tofu simmered in a vegetable broth.

Best place to eat: The Nanzenji and Arashiyama districts are particularly famous for tofu cuisine, while the centuries-old Nishiki Market in central Kyoto is a must-visit for food fans.

Special mention: Kaiseki ryori has its origins in the traditional tea ceremony, but has evolved to become a meal with a prescribed order of courses determined by the cooking method of each dish. Travelers can enjoy kaiseki by staying at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn where the dinner is included with the stay. Meanwhile, kawayuka, or kawadoko, involves dining outdoors on temporary platforms built over flowing water – a great way of enjoying Kyoto cuisines in the summer. Kamogawa River in central Kyoto is famous for kawayuka, while the Kibune and Takao areas in forested mountains are great for kawadoko.

What to drink: Sake – some of Kyoto’s most famous sake comes from the 400-year-old Gekkeikan Brewery in the Fushimi area of Southern Kyoto. The brewery also offers tours of its facilities.

Image sources: Shutterstock; www.gastronommy.com (chili crab); flickr: Andrea Schaffer (shojin ryori).

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