The Mekong River is the mighty backbone of South East Asia. It runs an incredible 5,000 kilometres from the Tibetan Plateau in China, though Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, before finally reaching into Vietnam.
This is a water world that truly rules the rhythm of these remarkable regions. Rivers, canals and streams all feed into the Mekong’s greatness. There is something unquestionably special about the Mekong River.
During his tenure as Executive Chef on Scenic Spirit, our 5-star luxury river cruise ship that glides down the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam, Oka Wibawa has learnt that it is unique food here that is the biggest drawcard.
Oka explains, “There’s a vastness to the ingredient influence in South East Asian dishes. It’s all about the flavours. Is it sweet, sour, spicy? Which cut of meat can we use? What vegetables and fruit can enhance the flavour? That is the difference in Asia. We use every part of the animal and every part of the vegetable. Nothing will go to waste.”
BELOW: Executive Chef, Oka Wibawa, Scenic Spirit
A Place Where Vegetarian Dishes Rule
In Vietnam, while meat-based dishes are available in abundance, it is often vegetarian and vegan dishes that are truly the star of the show. Oka explains this is down to the huge variety of vegetables easily available on the fertile riverbanks of the Mekong. Water spinach, bamboo shoot, many types of cabbage, and bitter melon which when stir fried with eggs is a culinary delight.
“My favourite dishes, for example, are those prepared with tofu,” tells Oka. “There is an incredible variety of tofu in Asia, and what you can do with it is really unlimited. You can blanch it, cook it, boil it, fry it, roast it and many more options. Tofu is also excellent in absorbing flavours and sauces so make it a perfect companion for vegan cooking.”
The Sweet Taste of Exotic Fruits
Delivering beyond expectation is at the heart of Scenic Spirit, and Oka explains there are two aspects of a 5-star Mekong River cruise that always amaze guests. The first is the multi-coloured exotic fruits available at breakfast.
A visual masterpiece, each appear almost too good to eat. The jackfruit is a type of large fig that can be eaten alone or cooked into a dish. The dragon fruit is the exquisite, seeded fruit of a cacti. Mangosteen is peeled to reveal eight segments of sweet deliciousness. There’s also guava, longan and soursop, each unique in their appearance but united in their sweet exotic taste.
Oka explains the second is the juicing station, transforming a variety of fruits into a refreshing drink to be enjoyed as the sun rises on the waters here. “The great thing is the diversity and seasonality. Every dish created on board is influenced by the season,” he tells. “What is in abundance right now in the region we are in.”
The Weird, Wonderful and Truly Unique
Vibrant and lively food markets line each side of the Mekong. A visit is a lesson on authentic Southeast Asian food in itself. Unique vegetables and brightly coloured fruit are a visual delight. For the culinary adventurous, there is an abundance of dishes to try that’ll be transformed into interesting tales to regale when you return home. Insects, of all different shapes and sizes, are featured largely in these markets. Often dried or fried, they are eaten by locals as an affordable alternative to protein.
“They are packed with iron and other invaluable good things for people,” explains Oka. Tarantula, crickets, silkworms and frogs are all on the menu. “Guests can sample these creatures on board as well as we have a themed lunch named ‘Cambodia Street Fair’, where we have prepared these,” says Oka. “Our guests can try them in a hygienically-controlled environment, prepared with the highest standard of food preparation practices possible.”
Sweet Treats with a Southeast Asian Difference
There’s a lightness to the desserts in South East Asia, distinguished by tropical fruits and sweet coconut milk. Mango, banana and coconut will be transformed into an exquisite post-meal sweet by adding in textures such as sago, tapioca and sesame seeds, and spices like star anise and cinnamon. For those who prefer extra sweetness, coconut milk is replaced with condensed milk.
In summer, these sweet treats are chilled with crushed ice, or served warm in winter. Oka tells, “One traditional sweet dish is mango and sticky rice, which is famous in most Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam but we serve it Cambodian style, with an additional burst of sweetness. It is always a dish enjoyed by our guests.”
A Spectacular Culinary Journey
As Scenic Spirit glides down the beautiful waterways of the Mekong River, you'll find it's more than enjoying the delicious specialties onshore. One of the biggest drawcards to a 5-star river cruise on Scenic Spirit, explains Oka, is the carefully curated meals on board. Each day, it is a unique and spectacular journey through the flavours that rule these extraordinary regions.
There are hundreds of recipes that have been created exclusively for Scenic guests, equally catering to the culinary curious or the gastronomically brave. “My personal creation, that is very popular and one that I am very proud of, is a seven-spiced duck leg,” Oka says. “It is a creation I came up with from my heritage of Bali. It is a recipe that has really resonated with guests. It is full of flavour.”
With Scenic, our truly all-inclusive philosophy ensures there’s a full international bar selection, with wines from all over the world. “A favourite with guests is the pre-dinner canapés and drinks at cocktail hour. This is a magical time on the Mekong,” explains Oka.