Top 10 things to eat in South East Asia
South East Asia is home to some of the best and most exciting food in the region, and whilst on a recent cruise with Viking, I was lucky enough to enjoy some wonderful dishes. Think fresh, zingy vegetables and piles of aromatic herbs with chilli heat and vegetable broths. There’s also a plethora of fish and seafood to enjoy and my personal favourites are the fusion dishes that the area has, such as Franco-Vietnamese cuisine. The list below is by no means definitive, but it will hopefully give you a real taste of South East Asia and some of what it has to offer.
(Geographical note: Southeast Asia is a very diverse region, historically also known as Indochina; it comprises parts of Eastern India, South East China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines, Indonesia and West Malaysia)
You cannot visit Vietnam without trying a bowl of Pho; pronounced “Fuh”, it is probably the nation’s most famous and iconic of dishes. Pho is basically a bowl of spicy soup, and can be made with beef and chicken, as well as just vegetables for a veggie version. The essentials are a rich broth, made with beef bones for the meaty version, rice noodles and oodles of fresh vegetables and herbs, including ginger, lemon grass and chillies. It’s street food at its very best and costs about £1 for a big bowl.
Staying in Vietnam, we have another classic street food dish that has Franco-Vietnamese fusion written all over it. Bánh Mì is a sandwich, a meal in itself and is made with a baguette that’s filled with mayonnaise, pickles, vegetables, barbecued meats, pate and aromatic herbs, making it very east meets west. The influence of Vietnam’s French Colonial past is an essential part of the sandwich, with the baguette, mayonnaise and pate making a Gallic appearance. The word Bánh Mì means any type of food including bread and wheat, so it literally means “wheat bread”.
- THAI CURRY
Thailand is a beautiful country, and it’s also home to some of the best curries in the region. Thai Green curry and Thai Red curry are well known in the West, but to experience the authentic version, you need to sit down in a little kiosk on the side of the beach and enjoy a bowl of this hot, spicy and fragrant curry in the tropical surroundings when it originated from. Onions, shallots, garlic and chillies are the main protagonists in this fiery dish, and the addition of coconut milk soothes the high hot notes and makes it milder.
- AMOK FISH
When in Cambodia, you must try Amok Fish; this is probably the country’s most famous dish and is delicious. It’s basically a coconut infused fish cake that is wrapped and cooked in a banana leaf. The steamed and spiced fish parcels are then served with sticky rice and chilli sauce in the side. The fish is first marinated or quickly cooked in a curry paste before being mixed with spinach, coconut milk and galangal before being shaped and steamed in the banana leaf. This delicious street food treat can be found in every small village, town and cry.
- SOM TAM
Both Thailand and Laos lay claim to this fabulous regional dish, and I’ve enjoyed it in Thailand with green papaya as part of a main course salad. It’s basically garlic, chillies, tamarind, tomatoes, palm sugar and lime juice (and shrimp paste sometimes) that is pounded and then macerated with shredded green papaya – you then serve it with a bowl of herbal broth for dipping and dunking. Like lots of regional dishes, there are many ways of serving it, but that’s how I enjoyed it when I was last in Thailand. It’s also a handy dish for any visiting vegetarians, but you must check that there’s no fish or shrimp paste added though.
In Myanmar (formerly Burma) this is what you will find on every street corner. Mohinga is a rice noodle and fish soup that is widely considered to be the national dish of the country. It is usually eaten for breakfast, as a spicy “pick-me-up”, but can be enjoyed throughout the rest of the day too. The main ingredients are chickpea flour, garlic, onions, lemongrass, banana tree stems, ginger, fish paste, fish sauce and fish that are cooked in a rich broth. Crispy chick pea or lentil fritters and sliced boiled eggs are often added as extras.
- NASI LEMAK
Nasi Lemak is one of my favourite meals when travelling in SE Asia; it’s usually associated with Malaysia, but I’ve also enjoyed it in Singapore too. It’s also considered to be a breakfast dish, but I’ve enjoyed it in the evening whilst travelling in Malaysia, and it made for a filling, cheap and cheerful snack! Coconut infused rice is cooked in a Pandan leaf and is then served with fried anchovies and onions, toasted peanuts and sambals of cucumber, boiled eggs and chilli sauce. The Pandan leaf adds a unique flavour to the dish that is hard to replicate outside of the region.
- CHINESE STEAMED DUMPLINGS
A generic dish to add I know, but you cannot travel in SE Asia without seeing steamed dumplings of some sort. On my recent cruise in the region, I disembarked in China and was fortunate enough to see a fabulous dumpling restaurant as I walked about Haikou. Here I saw mountains of bamboo boxes piled high with dainty dumplings ready for steaming. Usually associated with Dim Sum, the Chinese style steamed dumpling is ubiquitous the area both in an outside of China.
- CHOW FAN FRIED RICE
I always associate Chow Fan with Hong Kong, where I was brought up and lived for 12 years. It is a regional dish that is linked to Cantonese cuisine and is simply fired rice with bits and bobs added. Also called Yangzhou fried rice or Yeung Chow fried rice, it is found in all street food stalls as well as in more formal dining restaurants. This is the way I remember it – it is egg fried rice with bacon, prawns, spring onions and peas. However, you will find hundreds of variations of the dish throughout SE Asia.
I cannot miss this delectable curry dish of the list. Rendang is a spicy meat dish that originated in Indonesia, but is now more closely associated with Malaysia. Rendang is traditionally prepared by the Minangkabau community during festive occasions such as traditional ceremonies, wedding feasts and Hari Raya, but I have eaten this curry many times in Singapore and Malaysia where they have special restaurants that just serve this famous dish. Beef Rendang is the most popular version of this recipe, but you can also get chicken and prawn Rendang too.
Culinary inspiration taken after my Viking Cruise on Viking Orion around South East Asia – More posts to follow about my cruise.
Commenting from Australia and reading your very interesting post on some of the better known dishes emanating from SE Asian countries I must admit to gratitude ! Each and every one of them belongs to regular menu rotation for many of us. For some time now Vietnamese dishes have have held us in most sway . . . perchance from the time we realized ‘pho’ was really Asian-style ‘pot au feu’ 🙂 ! Personally I am most likely to turn to Malaysia for my evening meal . . . the delightful fusion choices twixt the local, Chinese, Indonesian and Thai with fond remembrance at times of the Raj era British likes and dislikes lends itself to true excitement . . . As far as ‘gourmet journeys’ are concerned, a ‘foodie’ holiday in Singapore methinks is hard to surpass . . .
Karen Burns-Booth says
Thanks so much for your lovely comments Eha. I could eat Asian meals every night of the week, there are so many varieties and versions of classic favourites as well as new and yet undiscovered dishes to enjoy. Karen PS: I LOVE Singapore for it’s amazing food too 🙂