A taste of the Oriental Express
by Julie Baxter | 14 December 2016
A shimmering tiger prawn sits atop a green mango salad accompanied by chilled, gently-spiced tomato soup; sumptuous curries are complemented by pumpkin and rice noodles or jasmine rice; hot chocolate sauce is poured over the chocolate ball in my bowl to dissolve it and reveal lush coconut ice cream; and moulded mousse cakes and ice-creams, drizzled and dressed, are presented as culinary works of art on my linen-clad table.
You get the picture? The food is impressive. But can you guess where I am? No, this isn’t a five-star hotel or a Michelin-star restaurant; it’s not a First Class lounge or even a luxury cruise ship. All this is being served to me over three days, on a train.
Not your average British commuter train, obviously, but the Eastern & Oriental Express travelling from Bangkok to Singapore and offering a true foodie heaven. Sure, the lush landscapes I’m travelling through are fascinating and the occasional stops for excursions to the River Kwai and the Malaysian royal town of Kuala Kangsar break up the days, but it is the regular call back to the dining car that really get passengers talking.
‘Wow’ they say, or ‘gee’ and at times: ‘blimey not more!’ but more there always is and really it would be churlish to decline. So I eat my way through masala chicken with watercress veloute, or aromatic steamed cod fish with fresh leek salad served with egg tofu and shitake mushroom, and the Tom Yum cappuccino – actually a crab foam-topped soup - and nibble valiantly on homemade mignardises and petit fours.
Chef Yannis, I discover, is French and was trained in the traditional French way. In a previous life he cooked for President Mitterand but for the past nine years, in a tiny, moving kitchen with six supporting chefs alongside him, he has developed an absolute passion for interpretating Asian cuisine in his own special way; designing and delivering fine dining which reflects the rail route, for up to 80 rail passengers each trip.
“Coming to Asia was a revelation. I’m a curious chef, I’m interested and adventurous in exploring local and regional cooking and I am still discovering new things. Asia is where culinary development is really happening. On this train we are moving through three countries, taking in the influences of their varied cuisines and feeding on the trends from across the region. We are reinterpreting them and using them with western dishes to ensure passengers recognise what they are eating and find something familiar too.”
Most clients will be inspired to take the train by its itinerary and its associations with a glamorous and elegant past. They will be encouraged to dress for dinner in formal evening wear and will be entertained by a little light piano or some local musicans and dancers from Thailand or Malaysia. This is soft adventure at its best. Even the most nervous of traveller is looked after from start to finish, cosseted and chaperoned by a loyal cabin steward – there’s no risk, no danger and absolutely no pre-trip training required, except perhaps to stretch their stomachs a little to make room for the abundant menus sure to come their way.
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