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Orient express

Do you know those cheap plastic chairs in Southeast Asia whose legs are apt to collapse under a Westerner's weight? I particularly remember them at the Ta Ouv restaurant in Kampot, Cambodia.

We had asked one of the chefs to allow us to film the making of a dish called loc lac. He turned a massive gas burner up to full, planted a large black wok on it and threw in a ladleful of oil, followed by a scoop of garlic and ginger. Straight in went the beef, followed by chilli paste, fish sauce, prahoc and, amazingly, a dollop of tomato ketchup.

He stirred it, added a spoonful of salt, a big pinch of MSG and turned it out on to a pale blue melamine plate, on which were sliced tomato, onions and lettuce. It was done.

But I'm not remembering this just because it was so special. It is also because it seems to me to sum up what we all like so much about Southeast Asian cooking: the robust simplicity of the food.

It's a glorious assault on the senses. It also seems to us to be healthy: vegetables are raw or hardly cooked; there's a lot of seafood; freshwater fish are everywhere; meat is used sparingly and rice is mostly simply steamed.

This book, like so many of mine, is an account of a journey I made to what I've rather cheekily called the Far East.

Before setting out on the journey, I was warned about bombs in Indonesia and the worsening political situation in Thailand. But if you listened to people at home, you'd never go to most of the marvellous countries I travelled through and you'd miss the lovely food and friendly people.

That to me is the real point of food: it brings out the best in us all.


Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey: 150 New Recipes Evoking The Flavours of the Far East is out now, published by BBC Books; photography by James Murphy

Irish Independent