Asia is a stellar continent, for herein not only lies a barrage of contrasting cultures and landscapes, but also spectacular itinerary of things to see and do. From trekking mountains to diving with the fish, you have it all. And once you’ve touched down here, you shall soon add the tag of favourite food to this vibrant continent.
But let’s zoom into South East Asia (SEA) in specific, which comprises of 10 countries – each with a distinct culture and flavour of its own. It is simply criminal to ignore Seafood, mainly because the dance of spices and mixtures of taste in your mouth is an experience you can’t miss. Food here, in particular, holds great stories, and each one is a must try dish. But if you’re under time constraints, or clueless about what dish to pick and from where, here are some absolute must-try dishes in vibrant SEA.
Pad Thai is an absolute must have noodle dish in Thailand, known for its spice levels, emphasises on fresh flavours and quick stir-fry method. For those reasons, you’ll find the noodles are nice and soft while the vegetables are light and crunchy. It is made by stir frying eggs, tofu, your choice of vegetables, chillies, flavoured tamarind pulp, fish sauce (soy sauce for vegetarians), palm sugar, and is served with lime wedges and crushed roast peanuts. You’ll find this street food served almost anywhere due to its easy recipe, and variations in meat such as chicken, beef, seafood or plain vegetarian. The tangy-spicy dish is a siren call for all foodie lovers, and we guarantee it.
Tom Yum is searingly aromatic with a basic recipe of fragrant spices and herbs, combined in a hot and sour soup. You’ll love this versatile soup dish, for it can be devoured at any point you’d like – whether you’re down with a cold, feeling like indulging, or simply in need of a light meal. The soup can be made from several kinds of stocks including chicken, fish, prawn or just plain water. But regardless of the base stock you use, tom yum is known to pack-a-punch with every sip you take, thanks to its spiciness. This soup is filled with ingredients such as garlic, lemongrass, ginger, coriander leaves, shallots, lime, chillies, basil leaves and much more.
In love with Thai Food ? Do check out those culinary tours & cooking classes in Thailand, a Must-Do for foodies!
Khao tom is an addictive steamed dessert of seasoned steamed sticky rice in banana leaves. This dish is completed with black beans, fresh coconut cream and sticky rice, wrapped in banana leaves and left to steam until cooked. If you’re not fan of sweets, this dish can be converted into a savoury one by simply adding minced pork fat. You can readily find this on the streets of Laos as it is an absolute must have, cheap and filling dish, but most importantly it is finger-licking good.
Kaipen (river algae) is a delectable snack made from river weed, that’s best enjoyed with a beer, or as a comfort food. It is cut into thin strips – just like paper – and then seasoned with sesame seeds, slices of garlic, tomato, and or onion, then left out to dry in the sun. This snack seems just as sinful as potato chips, but don’t let that fool you, because Kaipen is packed with tons of vitamins and minerals with no animal content (perfect for vegetarians). It’s cheap, nutritious, crunchy as a crisp and easily available. The perfect snack for when you’re on the go on your vacation.
Where do we even begin with this dish! Laksa is a rich soupy noodle dish that’s completed with rice vermicelli, chicken (prawn, or fish), and oysters in thick coconut milk curry, topped with bean sprouts. There are several versions of this dish found in Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand, but the best version is the Penang Asam Laksa found in Malaysia. Many people combine this soupy goodness with “otah” – grilled fish cake, made with fish, tapioca starch and spices, wrapped in banana leaves. It’s a filling dish, owed to the richness from coconut milk, so be sure to gear up for this meal on an empty stomach. We can assure you, this dish won’t disappoint!
Bubur Chacha (pronounced as bo-bo cha-cha), is an authentic Malaysian dessert that’s not only fun to look at thanks to the colourful ingredients in it, but also delicious to eat, owing to the richness of flavours. The sweet dish is made with fragrant sweet coconut soup, sweet potatoes, and tapioca pearls (sago pearls). Also, one of the star ingredients on this dish is pandan leaves, that gives it the distinct flavour. So sit back and enjoy this dessert after any meal: which by the way, can be eaten hot, cold or even warm – take your pick.
Fish Amok is often (unofficially) labelled as Cambodia’s national dish. That’s because rice and freshwater fish play a big role in the Khmer diet, due to its abundance in the country. The popular Cambodian dish is a fish mousse which gets its distinct flavour from kroeung – an aromatic curry paste made from lemongrass, shallots, galangal, fresh turmeric, garlic, and some chilli. The kroeung is then mixed with coconut milk and the mousse then put in a banana leaf bowl to steam. Every restaurant prepares amok differently, so you can expect this dish to be anywhere from a saucy amok to a custardy one – regardless of the texture, it’s worth every bite!
Fried Spiders is a regional delicacy in Cambodia, especially popular in Skuon. This unique dish isn’t merely a favourite among locals, but has been gaining rapid traction among tourists as well. If you’re wondering, “what was the person who tried these spiders even thinking?!” then you’re not alone. Although the exact history isn’t clear, it has been believed that the locals began eating spiders out of desperation during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, no thanks to food shortage. Well, regardless of this dish’s beginnings it’s a food most certainly here to stay. The spiders are prepared by adding MSG, crushed garlic, sugar and salt and is fried until the spider legs are stiff – which also ensures the contents of the abdomen aren’t runny. Cheers to the adventurous!
Balut is a delicacy in the Philippines, but is a dish unsuitable for those with weak stomachs – you’ve been warned! That’s because balut is a hard-boiled fertilized duck egg, where you pick the shell off and eat the embryo inside. The dish can be eaten in a number of ways including seasoning it with salt, chilli, garlic or vinegar. Once you have seasoned them to your liking, you sip the liquid surrounding the embryo then eat the yolk and chick inside. Bon appetite!
Chicken Adobo is said to be an authentically Filipino dish, originating from the 16th and 17th century. It’s so authentic, that people often believe that the locals had been cooking this recipe since the Spanish colonized Philippines. Which is why the name “adobo” though Spanish, was cooked based on local taste-buds. The dish involves marinating the meat, seafood or vegetables in vinegar, garlic and soy sauce, then browned in oil and simmered in marinade, and finally served with rice. Simplicity at its finest.
Satay is diced meat stacked on a skewer and served with peanut dipping sauce. What makes this a delicacy in Indonesia is the seasoning which includes turmeric, and the taste of succulent meat being grilled on charcoal or wooden fire. Satay maybe served with thin cucumber and onion cubes in between each chunk of meat, or separately on the plate. It’s the perfect appetizer and combination with any drink, and one stick just isn’t enough to whet your appetite.
Rendang, is a popular Indonesian dish, best consumed when it is cooked in the beef version, (although a chicken option is available). The meat is marinated with coconut milk (the main ingredient), spices like ginger, turmeric leaves, lemon grass, and shallot among others. Once the meat is ready to be cooked after marination, it is continuously churned in a pot or frying pan until all the liquid has been evaporated and the meat tender. You’ll love this dish for its flavour, all thanks to the slow cooking method, which allows the meat to absorb the ingredients. Did someone say rich food?
Like most dishes on this list, Mohinga too is said to be its country’s national dish. This finger-licking goodness is available throughout the day, but often consumed for breakfast. There are varieties of this dish depending on which part of Myanmar you are at. The standard dish comes from Southern Myanmar and comprises of chickpea flour, crushed toasted rice, garlic, onions, lemongrass, banana tree stem and many unique ingredients like catfish and fish paste in a broth. Once the broth has been thoroughly cooked, it’s served with rice vermicelli and topped with fish sauce, lime, and crisp fried onions.
Lahpet Thoke that’s pronounced as “la-pay toe,” is a Burmese tea leaf salad that’s enjoyed by tourists just as much as locals. The scrumptious dish is imperative to the Burmese so much so that when the tea leaves are harvested, the best ones are set aside for fermenting, while the rest are set aside for drinking tea. Lahpet Thoke is a mix of flavours including pickled tea leaves, roasted peanuts, crunchy beans, toasted sesame seeds, fried garlic, chopped tomato, and if you prefer, some dried shrimp. The layout of this dish is important, whereby all ingredients are separated from one another, so as to allow the consumer to customize each bite to their liking. Fun fact: this dish was a symbolic peace offering between kingdoms, and was exchanged whenever they settled their differences. We’ll eat to that!
You can say chicken rice is a comfort food among many Singaporeans. Not only is this a cheap dish, but it is highly fragrant, filling and nutritious. The rice itself is made via a complicated process of balancing the right amounts of garlic, ginger and chicken broth to achieve a fragrant rice. The chicken too undergoes a complex process of steeping at sub-boiling temperatures to create a stock and reusing the broth over and over again. Once the chicken and rice are ready, it’s decorated with slices of cucumber and some ginger paste and chilli paste on the side. It’s a crime to leave Singapore without trying chicken rice! And when you do try it, you won’t be disappointed.
Rojak directly translated from Malay means “mixture.” And this couldn’t be more fitting a dish for Singapore, as it mirrors the “mixture” of cultures that reside within its walls. This is a traditional dish comprising of vegetables (like bean sprout and cucumber) and fruits (like young mango and rose apple) salad, dough fritters mixed in sticky black sauce and perfected with chopped peanuts and finely grated garlic bits. The true mark of an excellent Rojak is the perfect blend of sweet, sour and spicy sauce mix – which is achieved with fermented prawn paste, sugar, lime and chilli paste. You can eat rojak as a side dish, appetizer or main dish altogether.
Feijoada is typically a Brazilian dish, but because East Timor has been influenced by centuries of Portuguese colonization, food like this isn’t uncommon. Feijoada is a stew of beans with fresh pork or beef, alongside vegetables like cabbage and tomatoes. The ingredients are then mixed in a large clay pot and prepared over low heat until cooked. Once the stew is thoroughly cooked, it is served together with rice and sausage. Unassuming, but don’t underestimate the flavours from this dish.
Tapai is a fermented rice dish, that’s both sweet and sour and is slightly alcoholic. It’s traditionally an Indonesian food but found everywhere in East Timor. This alcoholic paste is used in many traditional recipes and is made from cassava and white rice. By the way, Tapai is also used to make alcoholic beverages. The rice is fermented for days until it develops a sweet flavour while the sugars are converted into alcohol. You can enjoy this as a sweet dish or pair it with other sweet foods such as dried fruits or coconuts.
Pho, pronounced as “fuh” (and very commonly mispronounced as “foe”) is the most popular Vietnamese food you can find. That’s because this soupy-noodle goodness makes for a great comfort food when you’re sick, and a delectable meal on days you’re not! You can find this steaming goodness on practically any street in Vietnam, but more commonly in the northern streets. Pho is packed with nutrients made from fresh flat rice noodles, with a yummy broth concocted from oxtail bones or marrow bones, giving you a clear broth that’s then mixed together with fragrant beef, anise and ginger. The dish won’t be complete without its garnishing of bean sprouts, basil, spring onion and a piece of lemon. Fret not our vegetarian friends, there’s a version just for you, with the only difference being that it’s not as rich as the meat-based pho, but it’s just as fragrant and filling.
Gỏi cuốn or as people know it as Vietnamese spring roll is unlike any roll you’ve had. That’s because the Vietnamese trade in the deep frying method, for a healthier uncooked version made with rice paper. The wrapping is so thin and translucent, that you can see all the stuffing inside the roll. This can either be served cold or at room temperature. Inside this roll, you’ll find ingredients such as basil, mint, meat (it can be anything from shrimps, to pork and chicken), carrots, green onions, and bean sprouts. That being said, ingredients vary from place to place, but one thing that remains constant is the utterly healthy makeup and the blend of soft skin and crunchy interior to this dish.
So there you have it, your very own guide of things to eat in South East Asia. Of course there are so many more dishes you absolutely must-try, but if you’re on a tight schedule, these dishes are enough to make you lust and come back for more. Bon appetit!
P.s. our lovely readers, if there are any dishes you think should make this list, share the love, and let us know! After all, sharing is caring 🙂
By Rachel Erasmus