If you’re traveling to Southeast Asia, your tastebuds are in for a treat! Southeast Asian food is some of the world’s best; gastronomic destinations like Thailand and Vietnam are universally acclaimed for their delicious cuisine, especially their fantastic street food. Even the more underrated kitchens of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar serve up surprisingly tasty dishes.
Although there are vast regional and provincial variations (often reflecting the rich culture and history), expect bursts of freshness, with made-to-order dishes utilizing the abundance of tropical fruits and vegetables, fresh herbs and spices, and staples covering coconut, chilis, fish sauce, rice, and seafood. Mouth-watering dishes range from noodle soups and piquant curries to tropical salads, offering simple yet complex contrast of flavors and textures, invariably on the spicier side.
Food in Southeast Asia can also err on the bizarre with creepy-crawly snacks and street food delicacies, many of which originated out of austere times, Asia’s no-waste policy, and as a rich source of protein and minerals. At street markets and kitchens, the more adventurous traveler can munch on deep-fried scorpions in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, grilled wild rat meat in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, and crunchy tarantulas fried in garlic, salt, and oil in Cambodia. Alternatively, spicy red ant salads and stir-fries are big in Cambodia and Thailand, along with deep-fried crickets and grasshoppers in lime and chili!
For food that everyone will relish, here are our 13 must-try Southeast Asia dishes!
Regarded as Cambodia’s national dish and well-known among travelers, Amok is a sweet yet tart fish curry, made with filleted, freshwater fish (alternatively, chicken, or vegetarian options) and a custard-like sauce of coconut milk, freshly-ground spice paste, chili, palm sugar, and lime zest. This is all steam-cooked in palm or banana leaves, then served with the ubiquitous steamed rice. There are similar versions of Amok in neighboring countries, albeit not as spicy and without the distinctive bitter taste of slok ngor herb.
Also known as Laap, Larb is deeply rooted in Lao culinary traditions and is the unofficial national dish. Larb is basically a salad of cooked minced meat (duck, chicken, water buffalo, beef, or pork), mixed with lime juice, fish sauce, coriander, mint, chilis, spring onions and garlic, then garnished with freshly-chopped herbs and toasted ground rice. It comes served with sticky rice, (khao niao), another signature of Laos cuisine and accompaniment to most meals.
Just about everyone in Myanmar eats Mohinga for breakfast, which, hearty and filling, offers a cheap but effective boost for the Burmese working day. In fact, this Burmese national dish is so beloved, it has evolved as an ‘all-day breakfast.’ Although with umpteen regional varieties, Mohinga is essentially a rice noodle dish with a tasty broth made from catfish stock and pounded fresh spices (including lemongrass), topped with fritters, banana blossom, and slices of hard-boiled eggs, served piping hot.
The Burmese don’t just drink tea, they also eat it! Also known as Burmese Tea Leaf Salad or Pickled Tea Salad, Laphet is a salad of fermented tea leaves, tossed together with fresh vegetables and spices, coconut, fried garlic, and fish sauce, for unusual textures and tastes. So ingrained in Burmese culture, this traditional dish plays a major role in legal proceedings, rites of passage, Buddhist ceremonies, and welcoming visiting guests at home.
A relatively new concoction, Thailand’s Pad Thai is ironically more popular with foreign travelers and on global menus than in its birthplace! Available across Thailand, this world-famous dish is made with flat rice noodles, stir-fried with either chicken, fish, seafood, pork, or simply vegetables, along with ingredients like dried shrimp, bean sprouts, tofu, and eggs, sprinkled with crushed peanuts and chilis. Flavors are a complex combination of sweet, sour, and salty, with a well-balanced contrast of textures.
This beloved Thai soup is a spicy, sour, and aromatic tastebud extravaganza, traditionally served with steamed rice. Although shrimp is most commonly used, variations can include chicken or beef, cooked-up with shallots, lemongrass, fish sauce, minced fresh ginger or galangal, mushrooms, kaffir lime leaves, and crushed chili peppers.
Consumed the world-over, Thailand’s almost legendary curry dishes need little introduction. There are numerous regional variations, but all have a soup-like consistency with piquant flavors, ranging from mild to explosive and sweet to sour, and are generally made with coconut milk, fresh herbs and leaves, freshly-ground curry paste, and various other aromatic additions. The best-known Thai curries are the red, green, and yellow varieties (according to spicy heat and dominant ingredients), but other notables include Phanaeng, Massaman, and Khao Soi.
Omnipresent across the archipelago, from fine-dining restaurants to street food vendors, Indonesia’s national dish is a spicy interpretation of classic fried rice. Nasi Goreng generally follows a magic formula of pre-cooked rice (eaten with every meal in Indonesia), stir-fried with chopped chicken and/or seafood, vegetables, sweet soy sauce, spices, shallots, eggs, shrimp paste, chilis, and tamarind, piled high and topped with a shrimp cracker and fried egg – accompanied by Indonesia’s fiery Sambal condiment.
Vegetarians will love this delicious Indonesian mixed salad! Many islands have their own interpretations, but Gado-Gado’s template is generally blanched vegetables, such as potatoes and green beans, hard-boiled eggs, and fried tofu and tempeh, smothered in a spicy-sweet, thick peanut sauce and garnished with shrimp crackers.
Although commonly eaten across Southeast Asia, this yummy street food originated in Indonesia and is another unofficial national dish. Sate (or Satay) are marinated, bite-sized meats, barbecued on bamboo skewers over an open grill, eaten with a thick peanut sauce and steamed rice or Lontong (rice cakes). Archipelago variations result from ingredients and meats used – chicken, goat, beef, fish, or the more exotic crocodile or snake. Bali’s signature Sate Lilit is made with minced pork, or minced fish, wrapped around a flat skewer, spiced with lemongrass, galangal, chili, and lime leaves.
A popular Vietnamese street food snack made with translucent rice paper, Vietnamese Spring Rolls fall into two classic and delicious categories. Cha Gio (southern) and Nem Ran (northern) are the deep-fried varieties, filled with minced pork, shrimp, mushrooms, and vermicelli noodles, served piping hot with a tangy dipping sauce. The thicker, fresh spring rolls (Goi Cuon) are mostly eaten in the south, filled with pork and shrimp slivers, fresh herbs, cucumber, and garlic shoots, served cool and dunked in a rich, peanut-based sauce.
No mere noodle soup, Pho is Vietnam’s beloved national dish and one of Asia’s most iconic cuisines. Engrained in the national psyche, especially Hanoi where it originated, steaming bowls of Pho are eaten anytime and everywhere, although predominately for breakfast. Although with many regional variations, Pho is essentially a slow-cooked and subtly flavored bone broth, infused with spices, ladled over chicken or beef slivers and rice noodles and accompanied by fresh herbs, fish sauce, bean sprouts, chilies, and limes for bespoke seasoning.
Although enjoyed across Vietnam, the finest Bun Cha is arguably found in its birthplace, Hanoi, where it’s revered street food. Delicious Bun Cha is commonly eaten for lunch in street-side eateries and combines three elements: caramelized pork patties grilled over a charcoal brazier, served up in a small bowl of cold sweet-savory broth with chopped bacon, a bowl of cold rice noodles, and piles of fresh leafy herbs.
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