OK, OK. I know what everyone really wants to know about… The food! Glorious food. Street food.
One of the greatest joys of travel, and my favorite motivator to explore an unknown neighborhood, the quest for local cuisine can lead you to not only some delectable new flavors, but also to a unique cultural exchange with curious locals. Some of the best food will be in a hole in the wall where no one speaks English. (Lots of pointing, hand gestures, and smiles will help you order.)
In Southeast Asia, your tastebuds will never be bored. And the street food is so cheap, you can have as much of it as you want. I’m talking about places where you order outside, the food is made on some sort of pushcart/bike/contraption, and you eat whilst standing or stooping on a makeshift stool. Here is some of the tastiest street food I encountered in my travels.
Travel Tip: If you are worried about how safe it is eat the street food, just use common sense and intuition. Does the food look freshly cooked and do the ingredients look decent? A high turnover rate is key. If the food looks stale, like it’s been sitting out all day with lots of flies, then skip it.
Laksa — The cute city of Georgetown on the island of Penang has great street food, and usually involves streetside carts with lots of little plastic tables and chairs scattered around a sidewalk. Malay food is an interesting mix of Chinese, Indian and local influences. One of the many special noodle dishes you can get is Laksa, which has a sour-spicy curry flavor and is usually topped with shrimp.
Roti Canai — Mmmmm. Just thinking about it, and I hear an ‘mmmmm’ sound coming out of my mouth involuntarily. Take one freshly-fried, flaky, doughy, buttery Roti (very different from roti in India) and dip it into a little cup of delicious, rich, sweet-spicy curry sauce. Often eaten for breakfast by locals.
* Best complemented by a Coconut Shake, which I plan at home when I get a chance. According to one cafe I asked, it simply involves mixing coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk, and ice in a blender. Heavenly on a hot day with some spicy food. (Optional: add some rum for happy hour.)
Shan Noodles — In Asia, every city or town, it seems, has a signature noodle dish. It’s great to try them all and taste the differences. We found this bowl of goodness on a sidewalk in the dusty town of Kalaw, near Inle Lake in the center of Myanmar. What made Shan noodles especially good was the thick, sesame sauce (it reminded me of tahini) that was added when served to make the broth when creamy and rich.
* Another really cool dish from the Burmese is Green Tea Leaf Salad. It has a really unique salty, musky flavor that I came to love. It’s not like anything else I’ve tasted.
Three words: MANGO. STICKY. RICE. — There is Pad Thai, obviously, (my favorite version was wrapped in an omelette, which we’d have for breakfast) and many interesting noodle and curry dishes, both on the street and in restaurants — but my favorite favorite snack, dessert, or anytime meal in Thailand was one that seemed to cater to backpackers. Mango sticky rice is often found from carts outside of the bars at night.
Just like it sounds, there is a mound of lovely sweet sticky rice, covered by fresh slices of mango, then drenched in some combination of coconut milk and sweetened condensed milk, and often topped with sesame seeds. It is so yummy, I want one now.
Shout Out: Honorable mention goes to Khao Soi, a rich, creamy Burmese-influenced yellow curry coconut noodle soup that I discovered in Chiang Mai, and can be found around northern Thailand. (Not really street found, I only saw it in restaurants.)
Bangkok — Best overall street-food city, in my opinion, goes to Bangkok. There are delicious finds around every corner, markets upon markets and lots of variety.
One day we found these little fried dumpling type snack, that had a flaking pastry filled with a sweet egg and coconut concoction.
Banh Mi — I love banh mi, and since it was one of my favorite things to eat at home in New York, I couldn’t wait to try it in Vietnam. Yeah… not so fast. I learned a few things about the delicious sandwiches once I got there. I started my (first) journey around Vietnam in Hanoi, in the north and traveled southward over 3 weeks. I later found out that Banh Mi is from the south of Vietnam, most popular in Saigon. Also, in Vietnamese, the words ‘Banh Mi’ (which you must pronounce by shouting with a high nasal pitch) literally just translates to ‘bread’! So if you go around trying to ask for it in the northern part of the country, you will get a lot of confused looks and people pointing to bread. It exists, but it can be hard to find.
In the south, however, Banh Mi is everywhere. Saigon is street food heaven. You can get really nice sandwich from a cart on the street for 15,000 dong, or about 75 cents. Look for ‘bánh mì thịt nướng’ to get a sandwich with delicious barbecued pork instead of the usual random variety of pink and gray meat slices. Ok, that is all I have to say about banh mi. Thank you.
Pho — Pho is everywhere in Vietnam, and it is always a satisfying choice. I never understood why places with hot, humid climates often have hot soup as a staple meal–but Pho can actually be very refreshing. Vietnamese people seem to eat it for every meal. Walk down any street in Saigon and you’ll see people sitting on tiny plastic stools, slurping it up. Join them 🙂
Cafe Su’da — Vietnam has the best coffee in Asia–and possibly anywhere. It is SUPER strong and sweet. It’s extra-caffeinated–half a cup will make you feel like Superman and the Hulk combined. They like to mix it with sweetened condensed milk, hot or iced, which makes it so rich and yumderful (yup, I just made up the word). Cafe Su’da means ‘iced coffee with sweet milk’ and if you order it in Vietnamese, you’ll almost always get a giggle from the cute old lady serving you. There are little stands serving this coffee on every corner, in cities and small villages alike, and in fact, most Vietnamese men seem to spend entire days lazing away in the shade, sipping cafe su’da. Do they even have jobs?
Hawker stalls are the staple of Singaporean eating, though not exactly street food. They are like indoor food courts with dozens of options of different bites from all around Asia. My favorite are usually the dim sum and dumpling places — though frog legs are a popular choice for locals. I felt I had to mention Singapore in this post, because there is so much good food there!
** Note: This is by no means a comprehensive list, there are many other kinds of wonderful street food I may have missed — If you’ve traveled in Asia, what have been your favorite roadside snacks? Please share!