Famous for many things (dazzling temples, smiling locals, beautiful beaches etc.) Asia’s street food is world class. Not only is it super cheap but it’s by far the tastiest, healthiest way to eat when you’re travelling on a budget. Plus, you learn a lot about a place from their food, making it not only fuel, but a fantastic cultural experience.
You’ve probably heard all the horror stories about food poisoning, Delhi belly and the rest of it, that many people tell you comes part and parcel with eating street food. However, I have only ever had stomach issues in Asia and they came after eating a pizza in a ‘western’ restaurant in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Street food is safe, when it’s made with local fresh ingredients right before your eyes, which it almost always is.
So dive in fork first and check out Asia’s best on-the-go-grub with my ultimate guide to the top 20 Southeast Asian street foods:
1. Fried bugs
Didn’t think I’d start the list with that one did you?! So the sight of them may not set you salivating, but they’re the food most people asked about when you talk about eating Asian street food. Yes, I tried them in a market in Thailand. Yes, they were crunchy. No, they weren’t vile. This array of grasshoppers, crickets and worms, whilst not particularly attractive to look at, are largely inoffensive, have no real distinctive flavour, but go great with a beer and are packed full of protein.
Bo (beef) or ga (chicken), it doesn’t matter which one you choose, either way this traditional Vietnamese dish will set you right after a hard day dodging scooters in Hanoi or trekking through the hills in Sapa. Forget Cup Noodles, this is the king of noodle soups; warm, soothing, rich in beef stock and fresh handmade noodles, you can add your own squeezed lime, beansprouts, fish sauce and chili sauce to taste. It’s also not rude to bring the bowl right up to your mouth so you can slurp up the last drop – delicious and you can bag a generous serving for about £1 in most food markets.
3. Bánh mì
Greggs ain’t got nothing on Asia’s bánh mì. They’re basically a baguette sandwich, but they symbolise the larger legacy of French colonial rule in the region, formerly known as French Indochina (parts of northern and central Vietnam, along with Cambodia). This is also why you’ll find lots of French bakeries with the best croissants outside of Paris in this part of the world. Fill your baguette with pork liver pâté, roasted pork belly, grilled chicken, canned sardines, or a wedge of Laughing Cow cheese (Dairylea to you and me), before loading in the cucumber, pickled carrots and chili sauce.
You’ll find street hawkers serving up this traditional Burmese breakfast almost everywhere you go in Myanmar. A rice noodle fish feast, it’s considered their national dish. Made with chickpea flour, garlic, onions, lemongrass and fish paste, you’ll find your mohinga comes with more meaty catfish in southern Myanmar, as there is wider availability of fresh fish here. Wherever you are though, this hearty start your day shouldn’t set you back more than £1, and it’s better for you than anything off the McDonald’s 99p Saver Menu!
The concept is simple; meat, fish or vegetables on a stick, suspended over something hot, and all you’ve got to do is wait until it’s the right shade of chargrilled to suit your tastes. And damn, it’s delicious! I had my first Asian BBQ in Hanoi (note the beer bottle in the photo below) but they’re pretty popular all over Southeast Asia. You go up to the counter, choose your sticks and keep ordering until you’re full. When you’re finished a waiter comes around to tally up your bill; each stick has a different coloured tip, denoting its price, veg being the cheapest, seafood the most expensive.
6. Pad Thai
You can’t talk about Asian street food without mentioning pad Thai. It’s quick and easy to cook; all you need is rice noodles, tofu, dried shrimp and shallots, with a few extra spices and a side order of peanuts, beansprouts and coriander leaves to sprinkle on top. Chicken, beef or prawns are optional. It’s the perfect post Full Moon Party brunch, packed with protein and carbs, guaranteed to stomp that Asian elephant stomping all over your brain dead in his tracks.
Good for both breakfast and dinner, grab a dosa pancake stuffed with a mild vegetable curry, accompanied by small pots of chutneys and sambar (a lentil based stew or broth) to keep you going whilst cruising the shops in Singapore. Originating in southern India, this protein-packed street snack can be found in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, as well as Singapore, or, the Lion City, and is so scrummy, it was voted one of the world’s top 50 tastiest foods by CNN in 2011.
Try as many dishes as you can and you’ll soon find you’ve got a few staple favourites – you’ll notice a lot of the dishes appear on vendor menus but with a slightly different local twist depending on what part of Asia you’re in.
8. Inle Lake salad
These aren’t your typical iceberg lettuce, soggy croutons affair. Burmese salads are something special, and some of the best are served in the floating restaurants on Inle Lake in Myanmar’s Shan State. Made with a variety of veg, including green tomatoes, okra, cucumber and fermented tea leaves, this refreshing dish combines the flavours of ginger, garlic, sesame seeds and chili with the added texture of fried mung beans and toasted peas. It’s delicious and a good to go for when you want to lay off the carbs or need a bit of rice/noodle respite.
9. Peanut puffs and sweetheart cakes
Time for something sweet – and sweetheart cakes or peanut puffs are just the treat. Flaky pastry filled with peanut, almond or red bean paste, egg-washed and sprinkled with sesame seeds; I first tried one of these bite-sized balls of bliss in Singapore, where you can pick them up on most street corners from wandering vendors, but they originally come from China, showing once again the interaction of different cultures across Southeast Asia.
A traditional Peranakan dish, laksa draws inspiration from both Chinese and Malay cuisine, resulting in a lovely bowl of spicy noodle soup. There are many variations, but the most popular are asam laksa and curry laksa, the former a fishy sour version famous in Penang, Malaysia, whilst the latter is a creamy coconut-based dish. Whichever one you choose, wash it down with a sugar cane juice and don’t expect to pay more than £2 for this cracking meal deal. And in case you want to explore Penang a bit more, check out the city’s street art and delicious street food over here.
11. Som Tam
Some like it hot, some like it sweet. I’m not fussy, just give me all of the som tam (green papaya salad). This Thai salad, made with shredded unripe papaya, green beans, tomatoes, chili, garlic, dried shrimps, fish sauce lime and palm sugar, makes a great side dish or a cheap and fresh main meal. You’ll find different variations in Laos and Cambodia that may include other veggies, like cucumber or carrots. Watch the ladies ferociously pound the ingredients together in their pestle and mortar, but watch how much chili they put in – some may offer you the option to have it ‘western’ spicy or ‘Thai’ spicy, western is grand enough, unless you fancy giving your tear-ducts a flushing.
12. Steamboat suppers
Similar to the BBQ concept, pick your sticks and the cost of your meal is calculated once you’re done according to the number and colour of your skewers. However, what’s different is that rather than grill it all, plunge your kebabs of meat, fish or veg into pots of boiling hot water. A healthy option, good for when you’re feeling a bit bloated from too many rice noodles, it’s also a fun socialable activity, huddled on red plastic stools around a steaming pot submerged into your table.
13. Paratha and pay-yeay
Love crêpes? So do the Burmese, although these paratha are more like the flaky fried Indian breads of the same name. Filled with condensed milk, sugar or served plain, they’re a cheap breakfast for when you’re on-the-go. Wash it down with a cup of pay-yeay or sweet tea (again, with a dollop of condensed milk) and ride that sugar high right through to lunch time.
Larb, lap, laap or larp; no matter which way you spell it, you’ve got to try this meat-feast at some point during your adventures in Asia. Considered the national dish of Lao, this mince meat salad can be made with beef, pork or chicken, and always comes with plenty of chili and fresh mint. Other additions include beansprouts, lime and raw veg. Order a side of sticky rice – served in a traditional woven straw basket – to help your palate cope with the spice.
15. Num banh chok
Otherwise known as ‘Khmer noodles’ this is a popular Cambodian breakfast dish. It’s simplicity – just rice noodles and a green curry broth – makes it popular across the country, Cambodia’s cornflakes, if you like. Watch peasant farmers back from the fields rubbing shoulders with suited Phnom Penh businessmen at num banh chock stalls in markets across the country. The one pictured here is a fancier version, featuring a chopped up pork kebab, fried spring rolls and sauteed onions.
If you’re slightly weary then a good piece of advice is to go to the stalls that are busy – turnover is high which means they’re buying fresh ingredients and replenishing their cool boxes regularly.
Ok, so the tubs of fluorescent goo may not look that appealing, and eating kidney beans for desert does sound unconventional, but once you’ve tried cendol you’ll be cursing that you hadn’t tried it sooner. Popular across the entire region, this after dinner treat is made with coconut milk, strands of coloured rice jelly, shaved ice and palm sugar. For extra bite, why not add some red beans or creamed corn? It’s similar to the Indian desert, falooda.
17. Burmese pastries
In Myanmar, as soon as you pull up a pew in a coffee house a waiter dashes out with a jug of tea, a tiny cup and an array of fried pastries. These range from Indian-style, vegetable-filled samosas, to round glutinous balls filled with red bean paste or palm sugar. Don’t bother asking for a description, just dive in and grab a couple, then the eagle-eyed waiter will tot up how many you’ve stuffed your face with. If you’re watching your figure then I’m not sure these deep-fried finger foods are completely calorie free, but they are pretty tasty.
A traditional spicy Indonesian meat dish, this Southeast Asian curry will give your masala a run for its money. Served also in Malaysia, Singapore and parts of the Philippines, it takes hours to prepare, grinding the ginger, galangal, lemongrass, tumeric, shallots and chilies, slow cooking the meat in coconut milk until tender. It can be served dry or in a gravy, like below.
Get stuck in to the Chinese equivalent of Ready Brek. Congee is a rice porridge, cooked until the grains have almost disintegrated, often served plain but can be accompanied by chicken, fish and coriander. An ancient Chinese breakfast, you’ll find variations on menus across Southeast Asia.
So it may not be the most exotic item on the list, but my god, the sweetcorn in Asia is out of this world! It may have something to do with the fact that it’s fresh, not forced from the soil in warehouses, or it might be because they smother it in butter once it’s finished being barbequed; who cares, it’s quick, (relatively) healthy and costs less than £1 per ear. Get it from any food market, or catch one of the guys grilling it right on the beach from their portable kitchens.
Oh and if you stumble across these boys in Kuala Lumpur and decide to give them a try, you’ve got more (iron-clad) guts than me!…
Let me know if I’ve missed a treat in the comment box below.