From the bustling streets of Bangkok to the mellow markets in Myanmar, South East Asia’s street food has an unrivalled range of culinary flavours and delights. From frog porridge to scorpions on a stick, the more you say yes to the extraordinary delights on offer, the more you will experience the culture of the continent that is constantly grazing.
At the heart of much Asian cuisine is the Mekong Delta – the ‘rice bowl’ of Asia. Originating in China, the Mekong provides all of South East Asia with its staple and you will never be far from a bowl, or it’s faithful companion Fish Sauce – a national favourite that can be found on every table, closely accompanied by the third musketeer – chilli sauce.
Vietnamese food is simple, fresh and full of flavor and the beer is unbelievably cheap- in particular Bia Hoi – the local draft beer which is readily available for a crazy 3000vnd (about 10p!!). The streets are lined with family- run restaurants with tiny plastic stools that wouldn’t look out of place at a children’s nursery and street vendors sell everything from ‘Banh Mi’ (baguettes) to chickens feet. One thing is for sure, in Vietnam you will never be far from an incredible (and ridiculously cheap) meal.
In the morning, the locals awake to a warming bowl of Pho, this is almost the law and comes with a variety of additions including beansprouts, coriander, chilli and usually chicken or beef. Deceptively filling, this is one of the most wholesome and cheap eats you will ever come across at just 40 Vietnamese Dong a bowl!
Mon cuan (rice rolls) are delicious and available at all street-side restaurants, if you’re lucky you may get the chance to make them yourselves. Also on offer is delicious sea food, if you get the chance go mud fishing in the Mekong, the locals will often whip up what you have caught straight away to put in your rice rolls.
What may surprise you is that Vietnam is one of the largest growers and exporters of coffee worldwide and as a nation they are obsessed! Quirky little coffee houses decorate the major cities including a beautiful café designed in the style of the Viet Cong in Saigon. French influence is still strong with bakeries common place and croissants, baguettes and other treats easy to find. A Vietnamese delicacy is weasel coffee, the most expensive coffee in the world – the weasels eat the bean, the enzymes in the weasel’s stomach then break down it down, it is then passed and roasted to create a lovely Arabica coffee.
The ‘land of smiles’ never sleeps – and never stops eating!! Street food is abundant and delicious and best of all, incredibly good value. Portions are often small but that just provides an excellent excuse to try more!
Street vendors in Thailand whip up everything from Pad Thai to banana and Nutella pancakes on gas stoves attached to mopeds. Little ladies push their stalls around the streets from dusk til dawn and you will never go hungry – especially in Bangkok! If you can make your way to the local night markets where street vendors cook on BBQ’s attached to their carts – you will be able to purchase delicious curries, stir fries, noodle soups and wonderful seafood, take a seat at the restaurants with little plastic chairs and eat with the locals. Insects are a national favourite and you will never be far from an opportunity to nibble a scorpion or try a crunchy cricket – (complete with chili sauce!)
Whilst on arrival in Cambodia’s big cities you could be forgiven for thinking that Western influences have taken over the traditional Khmer food, however if you’re prepared to stray from the frequent offerings of hamburgers and chips you will discover the delights of Cambodian cooking, including Fish Amok, a wonderfully fragrant coconut curry served with rice and wrapped in a banana leaf, Lok Lak a tasty beef dish and lemongrass beef/ chicken stir-fry. If this is all a bit tame for you, fried tarantula is a national specialty.
The locals breakfast over a light noodle soup – nom banh chok, laden with vegetables, this is a tasty and affordable way to start the day. If you get the chance head to a Khmer BBQ – definitely take it, they are delicious and consist of fresh seafood accompanied with an abundance of rice, soup and vegetables.
In Laos the French Indochina history is still evident from the baguette selling street vendors to the French restaurants dotted throughout Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Whilst it may be tempting to guzzle croissants and pain au chocolate, make sure you try some traditional Laos cuisine.
Sticky rice is the base of any Lao meal, with accompaniments including delicious ‘larb’ – a spicy mincemeat salad or delicious banana leaf curry – ‘mok’. If you’re offered the banana whisky make sure you have a chaser as it’s less banana and more whisky!
From beautiful beanbag beach restaurants to exquisite award winning hotels, Indonesian food is an eclectic mixture of foreign influences and traditional local flavours. Fish and Buffalo are prevalent throughout the region and rice, peanut sauce, chili and coconut milk are the pillar stones of most dishes. Nasi Goreng is a national favourite and is readily available in restaurants and from street food vendors. In Western Sumatra the local specialty is Rendang curry, traditionally made from buffalo or beef this delicious and flavorsome curry should be top of your list.
In short, South East Asian food is an incomparable, delicious mixture of Indian, Chinese, Thai and European influences, dishes are served simultaneously and sharing is common practice. Get your chopsticks out, eat local, eat fresh and don’t be afraid to try new things – especially the street food!
If all this has made you hungry and ready to head to South East Asia, check out our amazing challenges across the region below, from Cycling through Vietnam to spotting orangutans in the Sumatran Jungle, there really is something for everyone: