From detoxifying buddha bowls to artfully-layered, deconstructed burritos, bowl foods have come along way since soups and stews were the stock options. Our Instagram feeds are overrun with endless snaps of evermore enticing and innovatively engineered bowl-based creations, but despite being a star on the social media stage, this trend is anything but a fad.
At its heart, this cool cuisine is all about comfort, whether it’s a refreshing serving of poke on the sun-drenched Hawaiian coast, a hangover-busting bowl of pho in Vietnam or a reviving Welsh stew to warm the cockles. And it’s this feel-good factor that really lends itself to connecting people and places. Here, some of the crew at Lonely Planet ladle out their best bowl food experiences from across the globe.
Khao soi in northern Thailand
Any traveller who has been lucky enough to spend time in the north of Thailand will have supped on an irresistibly fragrant bowl of khao soi. A luscious, golden, coconut milk-based curry, concealing juicy pieces of chicken and slippery rice noodles that's topped with crispy, deep-fried noodles for added crunch. For a tad more tang, don’t forget to add the colourful pickled vegetables that are served on the side; and if you can handle the heat, a heady helping of bird’s eye chillies swimming in fish sauce.
As a young person travelling solo in Chiang Rai, this dish and I spent many an evening in each other’s company. Perhaps it’s the lack of plastic tables, hot evenings or outdoor eating culture back home, but I’ve never managed to recreate those unforgettable tastes and textures. Guess I’ll just have to go back!
Ellie Simpson, Traveller Communications Analyst. Follow her tweets @GutsyGrad.
Salmorejo in Seville, Spain
Never say gazpacho when you mean salmorejo, at least not in Andalucía. Locals insist that this piquant dish is different to its more famous cousin – and it is, if not by much. While gazpacho incorporates a variety of vegetables, salmorejo sticks to tomatoes and garlic. It blends in leftover bread and vinegar and tops things off with chopped egg, Iberico ham and a swirl of olive oil… And I love it.
Salmorejo marks the turning point for me finally understanding the point of cold soup. I’d just moved to Seville (Europe’s hottest city) and the force of the cultural change – and the heat – had taken me by surprise. Enjoying cold soup was my first lesson in how different life would be; its history, the second. Most believe salmorejo was invented in Córdoba, but Seville swears otherwise. And so I began to discover how Seville takes pride in being different to everyone else, especially the rest of Spain.
Congee in Guǎngzhōu, China
Few countries seem to have acquired the infamy among travellers that China has. ‘Your phone won’t work,’ a stranger once prophesied to me in a darkened dorm room. ‘Nobody will speak English, and the public bathroom situation…’ So, I arrived at my hostel in Guǎngzhōu with some feelings of trepidation. The owner, presuming I’d be hungry, showed me to a makeshift eatery in a nearby car park. He didn’t speak great English but promised me the best breakfast of my life. A large bowl of congee (rice porridge) was placed before me, its contents resembling a cold, sticky porridge garnished with chunks of assorted meat.
Around me, morning commuters slurped down noodles while embroiled in animated discussions. The sweating cook poured foaming vats into frying pans. Animal carcasses dripped, stray dog tails whipped and a cluster of kids bustled around a black and white TV set. Peering down at my food, a sense of achievement began to waft over me. I felt, for the first time, a long way from home. I held onto this pleasant thought as I raised the spoon to my lips... Ultimately it tasted revolting, but I’ll always remember the feeling of accomplishment it helped inspire.
Jack Palfrey, Assistant Editor of lonelyplanet.com. Follow his tweets @JPalfers.
Arroz de marisco in Portugal
I love Portuguese food – it’s unfussy and nourishing. From treats like pastel de nata (custard tart) to mains such as frango assado com piri piri (spicy, charcoal-grilled chicken) and porco à alentejana (braised pork with clams), the country’s cuisine rarely fails to please. But if there’s one recipe to rule them all, the defining dish of a seafaring nation with more than 1000 miles of coastline, for me it’s the near-ubiquitous arroz de marisco. The bald translation – seafood rice – seriously undersells this medley of shellfish in a tomato-based sauce, which is typically served in a large earthenware pot for two people or more, and then ladled into shallow bowls.
Aside from the prawns, mussels, crabs, lobster and whatever else the sea has offered up on a given day, the great thing about arroz de marisco is where you find the best examples of it: not, in my experience, in swish, prominent restaurantes but in humble, backstreet tascas instead.
James Kay, Editor of lonelyplanet.com. Follow his tweets @jameskay123.
Pho in Hanoi, Vietnam
Leaving the balmy 33 degree heat of Cambodia, my boyfriend and I arrived tanned and mellow in the midst of northern Vietnam’s winter. At a cool 13 degrees it was a pleasant change, until a four-hour walking tour mingled with a lingering cold meant that one afternoon, the chill was a little too close to the bone. Starting out a bundle of energy and intrigue, we regressed to shivering and snivelling wrecks, on the lookout to take shelter in one, or any, of the city’s cosy little haunts.
We politely made our exit from the tour, weaving in and out of the frenzy of Hanoi’s markets and mopeds till we found a bustling little eatery in the Old Quarter. Without hesitation we picked out the comfort food to top all comfort foods: pho. With thick noodles and prawns doused in a herby broth, the dish arrived steaming in a huge bowl. And with a beer that cost us less than $1 to accompany it, we were soon on the road to recovery.
Christina Webb, Assistant Editor, Trade & Reference. Follow her tweets @kitinamaria.
Ceviche in Mexico
Mexico is my favourite country, and the flavoursome cuisine is a big selling point for me – think tacos, spicy salsas, smoky chipotle, guacamole, fresh limes and more. I've been to this country four times now, but on my most recent visit to the charming fishing town of Puerto Morelos, I enjoyed one of the most delicious dishes I've ever eaten: a deep bowl of salmon ceviche, slathered in zingy lime juice, aromatic coriander and red onion. The classic combination.
But there were also some rather surprising ingredients that I hadn’t anticipated… Along with the salmon curing in the lime juice, there was an unexpected sweetness from tiny chunks of pineapple and mango. What could be better than sitting on the beach, watching the waves, and chowing down on such a fresh and flavoursome bowl of food? In many ways that bowl encapsulated why I love Mexico – it’s colourful and vibrant, a bit of a sensory overload and after one taste you’ll be hooked!
Ramen in Tokyo, Japan
In Japan, a country where bowl food is a staple and solo dining is encouraged, it's no surprise that there is a chain of restaurants dedicated to connecting you to your crucible of goodness without distractions. Ichiran branches – famed for their tonkotsu ramen – are ubiquitous in Japan, so I had to stop in and check it out. I paid for my dish through an electronic ticket machine (this is Japan, after all) and filled out a paper form to customise my perfect bowl – extra chilli and softer noodles. When a seat was available in the small dining area, I was led to my own personal booth.
Wooden, folding dividers split me from those on either side, and I slipped the completed tickets through a curtain in front of me. Moments later, a perfectly-crafted bowl of ramen appeared, the chef performed a small bow, and the curtain was rolled down leaving me at peace to chow down on the delicious noodle broth. In Tokyo, a city overflowing with people, this small respite from conversation and bright lights allowed my senses to focus on the rich flavours of the dish. It was one tasty bowl I will never forget.
Starting to salivate? For more bowl food inspiration as well as 100 one-pot recipes from across the globe, check out our new book The World's Best Bowl Foods.