South East Asia is a popular region for backpackers young and old to head to. Whether it’s Thailand’s tropical beaches and exotic floating markets, jungle treks and windsurfing in Vietnam, or visiting the temples that dot the Myanmar skyline, there’s plenty for everyone to enjoy.
There’s also plenty of delicious food to satisfy every kind of taste.
It’s no surprise then that cuisines such as Thai and Vietnamese regular feature as favorites and restaurants dedicate to the region’s food have sprung up all over the world. However, nothing can beat experiencing food in its country of origin.
I’ve invited one of my favorite bloggers out there, Brenna of This Battered Suitcase, to share her tips on the best southeast Asian food that’s out there just waiting to be gorged on and devoured.
There’s a lot of it. Be sure you have a napkin handy, you’re bound to slobber. Take it away, Brenna…
Why do we travel? We travel to learn, we travel to meet new people and see new things. We travel to open our minds and share our stories, to explore and to wander for the sake of wandering.
Sometimes, though, we just travel to eat.
I’ve made a life out of travel, and I’ve never tried to hide the fact that one of my greatest pleasures on the road is to try new food. Bull’s testicles, chicken fetus, snake hearts – I’ll try it all. And of all the places I’ve been, I can say with certainty that Southeast Asia has perhaps the greatest array of cheap and delicious dishes. Spicy and sweet, hot or cold, full of flavor and color – the region has a huge variety of cuisine. Here, then, are ten of my favorite dishes in Southeast Asia.
1. Fried Spring Rolls, Sapa, Vietnam
While traveling through Vietnam I ate dozens of plates of spring rolls, often of the fresh variety. Filled with crunchy vegetables and dipped in a deliciously sweet peanut sauce, it was the perfect snack in between meals. But for all that healthy freshness, I couldn’t resist the warm and greasy fried version. Golden-brown and accompanied by crisp lettuce and spicy Nuoc Cham sauce, they are filled with a mix of pork, shrimp, mung bean noodles, and vegetables, and I never grew tired of chomping into one (especially after a three-day hike in Sapa). This is one case where I will argue strongly: forget fresh. Fried is the way to go.
2. Pad Thai, Bangkok, Thailand
No trip to Thailand could be complete without a taste (or twenty) of this famous dish. Found nearly everywhere, it’s often best enjoyed late at night after a few too many Chang beers; it can be purchased for about a dollar on the street. With the perfect mix of rice noodles, fish sauce, eggs, crushed peanuts, bean sprouts, lime, tamarind, and chili, you can find all sorts of variations that include shrimp, tofu, or chicken. Even if you are stuffed after gorging yourself on all the delicious foods Thailand has to offer (both green and yellow curries get an honorable mention here), you’ll be tempted to grab a plate of pad thai “just because”.
3. Amok Curry and Beef LokLak, Kampot, Cambodia
Whenever I am asked about which countries have the best food, Cambodia instantly springs to mind, if only for these two dishes. Loklak is a ridiculously tasty meal, consisting of marinated beef doused in a red onion curry. Though each chef seems to contribute his or her own flair to Lok Lak, the key and the consistent ingredient is the use of Kampot pepper, which adds a richly aromatic flavor to the meal. Also found throughout the country, amok curry is often made with fish (but can be made with chicken as well). Amok is beautifully prepared, steamed in banana leaves to retain as much flavor as possible. The fact that it is made with irresistibly thick coconut cream guarantees that you will order this dish time and time again when in Cambodia.
4. Burmese Buffet, Rangoon, Burma
Burma is a fascinating country politically, culturally, and gastronomically. As the country is bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Thailand, and Laos, its food has a wide assortment of flavors and textures. The best way to sample Burmese cuisine is at one of the local street-side cafes; equipped with little more than a hot plate and some plastic tables, the makeshift restaurants serve up a huge range of dishes made from different vegetables, noodles, and spices. It is the kind of food that grows even tastier the more it is mixed and combined. Washed down with a cold beer, it’s the perfect way to end a day spent in the bustling city.
5. Khao Soi, Chiang Mai, Thailand
It’s always fun to try regional food that may be difficult to find in other parts of the world, and so when I was in Chiang Mai I ate bowls upon bowls of Khao soi, famous in Northern Thailand. The dish is a mouth-watering blend of both crunchy and tender egg noodles, chicken, coconut milk, turmeric, lime, cilantro, and shallots. Served piping hot, it was impossible to resist even in the sweltering heat of the day.
6. Nasi Kerabu, Kota Bharu, Malaysia
What can I say about Nasi Kerabu? It is found throughout Malaysia and Indonesia, and, after visiting the countries a few times, I figured it was high time to try it; after three years of eluding me, I finally found it in a market in northern Malaysia. So was it worth the hype? Well, it was very cheap, very greasy, and…the rice was blue. If those three things don’t satisfy the budget and photo-happy backpacker inside of you, I don’t know what will.
7. Sweet Pork Breakfast, El Nido, The Philippines
As it’s the most important meal of the day, why not make the meal a delicious one? I am definitely not a morning person, but these hearty breakfasts in El Nido could motivate even me to wake up at the crack of dawn. Complete with scrambled eggs, sliced fruit, sticky rice, strong coffee, and succulent sweet pork, I didn’t know which was the more beautiful view: the sunrise or my own plate.
8. Coffee and Cake, Luang Prabang, Laos
Under French colonialism for part of the 20th century, Laos has retained some of the cafe cultures of its former ruler. You’ll find cafes filled with strong coffee and sweet desserts on almost every side street of Luang Prabang and Vientiane, and they do not disappoint. As if filling up at the local food markets wasn’t enough, I could be lured at least twice a day to sit, people-watch, and tuck into a large piece of chocolate cake with a side of espresso. Needless to say, those harem pants you bought at the night market will soon be two sizes too small (yes, I am speaking from personal experience).
9. Papaya Dumplings, Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, Thailand
My favorite traveling partner and I were in Bangkok for a week and we decided to head to the famous floating markets outside the city. Though we weren’t fans of the market itself, we found quite possibly the tastiest papaya dumplings in all of Thailand. Made by an adorable older woman, we ate first one and then two and then three plates of the spicy but sweet treats. Steaming hot and made fresh, I would consider going all the way back to the market if only to find these exact dumplings.
10. Cao Lau, Hoi An, Vietnam
There is no doubt in my mind that Cao Lau was the best thing I ate in Southeast Asia. A staple of the many outdoor food markets in Hoi An, I ate Cao Lau on each of my ten days in the little Vietnamese city (sometimes twice a day, in fact). Made from pork, noodles, crispy wontons, lime, chili, and greens, it beautifully blends all of Southeast Asia’s best flavors and textures. Paired with an ice-cold mug of beer, the dish was little more than a few dollars, making it the perfect backpacker meal: cheap, fresh, filling, and incredibly delicious. Who could ask for anything more?