Southeast Asia is known for its cultural diversity: a fact reflected by its street cuisine.
Southeast Asia is popular with tourists for a host of reasons, from the rich and diverse culture, to the picturesque natural wonders, to the numerous cheap finds at flea markets. For many travelers, however, some of the biggest attractions come in the wide range of cuisines, with street food gaining as much favorable attention as its more elegant counterparts in restaurants.
Typically big on flavor, Southeast Asian street food can generally be taken as a snack or as a main course partnered with rice or any other popular staple. Street desserts are also abundant in the region, affording travelers a full meal composed of nothing but roadside fare for less than a couple of dollars on most occasions.
So, here’s a challenge: getting to know each country through its street food.
Perhaps the most popular food destination in Southeast Asia, Thailand has a wealth of street food, many of which possess an amalgamation of tartness, sweetness, saltiness, spiciness and, in some cases, bitterness. This seemingly complex assemblage of flavors is part of Thai food’s distinct taste, which has drawn praises from tourists and food critics worldwide, the likes of whom include celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and the late Anthony Bourdain.
Many hawkers in Thailand sell grilled skewered meats dipped in peanut sauce called satay, also known as gai bing (chicken) and moo bing (pork). The well-seasoned skewers are flavorful and can be thoroughly enjoyed on their own, but the experience improves tenfold once the peanut sauce is added, creaminess and nutty sweetness joining the mix.
If you’re particularly hungry, you can pair the satay with Thai fried rice or khao pad. The shrimp paste in the fried rice adds another dimension to the myriad flavors, and goes well with most Thai dishes.
Those looking for healthier options can go for the som tam (papaya salad). Its subtle tartness is refreshing on the taste buds and mingles remarkably with the flavors of meat. Apart from being a light snack, the som tam is a fitting accompaniment to satay or any meat dish. It can also serve as a palate cleanser after you down a plate of pad thai.
While roaming Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, I noticed an array of stalls selling soup with noodles and meat. One of the most popular items is sen lek which uses pad thai noodles. When ordering, diners can choose from a variety of meats like pork, chicken, duck, pork, meatballs, and egg. Condiments like peanuts, chili, sugar and vinegar are available so you can customize your meal according to your preferences.
If you make your way to Bangkok’s hawker centers, you will also find rice meals with Thai curry and tom yum goong, one of the most well-recognized soups in Thailand. I even found topnotch shawarma sold by a Middle Eastern settler in one of Sukhumvit’s side streets.
Diners who adore natural flavors will be at home with Vietnamese cuisine. Rather than the elaborate sauces of European cuisine or the flavoring agents seen in other Southeast Asian cuisine, Vietnamese food focuses on enhancing the tastes of its chief ingredients through harmony and balance. As such, the dishes are often lightly flavored and peppered with herbs. Those who prefer heavier impressions on the palate, on the other hand, can add Sriracha, hoisin sauce, red pepper, and other condiments to the meals.
Interestingly, the often-glamorized banh mi is considered street food in Vietnam as you can find it everywhere in the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. In other parts of the globe, the hefty meat sandwich with an abundance of tasty greens is sold at premium prices, but not in Vietnam. For a dollar or less, you can take home the sandwich from your friendly neighborhood street seller.
If you prefer noodle soup, Vietnam has an abundance of places that sell pho, from large restaurants to tiny eateries and booths by the road. It has a clear soup base with rice noodles, a generous heaping of meat and vegetables, and can be customized with a plethora of extra ingredients which include basil, bean sprouts, chili, and lemon. Pair the soup with fried spring rolls if you want to add a bit of crunch and umami to your dining experience.
Caffeine junkies will get a kick out of Vietnamese coffee, which is particularly strong and is often mixed with condensed milk. It can keep travelers energized for long hours of weaving through the country’s myriad shopping centers.
There is no shortage of flavor when it comes to Malaysian street food. Nearly every item on most menus packs a flavorsome punch, punctuated by a potpourri of chili, herbs, and spices. In some places, even the fried rice is as spicy as the curry, so prepare your palate for an assault of strong flavors.
The rendangs and nasi gorengs may dominate the restaurant scene, but on the streets of George Town in Penang, visitors are treated to a sour and spicy noodle soup called laksa. The soup can be clear or contain curry, accompanied by meat, noodles, choice greens, cilantro, and other spices. In Penang, however, locals prefer their laksa with mackerel, tamarind, rice noodles, lemongrass, cilantro, chili, and mint, among others. As a food traveler, you already have a ton of choices with laksa alone.
One of the most popular items in hawker centers is the satay. Similar to its Thai counterpart, the meat is well seasoned and grilled to a slight char. It also comes with luscious peanut sauce and can be partnered with rice.
Fans of hotpot will enjoy the lok lok, which lets you pick between a multitude of skewered delights and dip them in broth or peanut sauce. You can find this snack in food trucks all around town.
Famished travelers will be delighted by the congregation of flavors found in Malaysia’s national dish: nasi lemak. Although it is often served in restaurants, the dish is also sold on the streets, typically wrapped in a banana leaf. It is composed of rice cooked in pandan leaves and coconut milk, a selection of meat, peanuts, spicy sambal, boiled or fried egg, and fried anchovies. Delving into its distinct central flavor, the nasi lemak seamlessly meshes the five basic tastes, thus a lot of precision is involved in cooking the dish.
As the largest nation in Southeast Asia, Indonesia has a vast collection of street fare peddled in carts, shoulder-carried containers, and food booths. In fact, it has influenced the preparation methods and flavor profiles of the cuisines of some of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Similar to Malaysian and Thai cuisine, Indonesian street fare is characterized by pronounced flavors and the heavy use of herbs and spices.
Southeast Asian nations take their skewered meats seriously, but none more so than Indonesia, with sate (satay in Thailand and Malaysia) dubbed as its national dish. The marinated meat is grilled until it carries a slightly charred sheen, and then it’s made even more flavorful with its peanut sauce dip and side salad. It also goes really well with the turmeric rice served by some hawkers.
A popular staple both in the streets and the restaurants is noodles, and one of the go-to meals is bakmi ayam (chicken noodle). The noodles are served partially dry like pad thai and have chicken strips, meatballs, greens, and mushrooms. Diners have the option to order dumplings on the side for added umami.
Crispy fare is found in most hawker centers in Indonesia, and the type that get the most attention from locals is the gorengan, which is an umbrella term for fried snacks. A gorengan stand typically has deep fried tofu, cassava, yam, and soy beans that come with a spicy sauce. While the fried chunks are taken as a snack, you can also pair them with rice or noodles. You can also eat it alongside another popular fried snack, the kerak telor or deep fried egg with shrimp, coconut, and shallots.
Besides snacks, you can try notable Indonesian street dessert in the martabak (sweet pancake). You can select from different pancake stuffing, which include chocolate, peanuts, Nutella, cheese, and milk, among others. The martabak is particularly heavy so be ready.
Cambodian cuisine bears a lot of similarities to Thai and Malaysian food. The flavors are punchy but tamer than those aforementioned cuisines, as one could posit that Cambodian cooking also adopts the flavor balance found in Vietnamese food.
A dish that can be found everywhere in Cambodia is the lok lak (stir fried beef). Think of it as Cambodian salpicao. The beef is tender and nicely seasoned, served with rice, side salad, and egg. You have the option to use the lettuce leaves of the salad as a wrapper to create your own beef wrap, similar to the way Peking duck is eaten.
Diners with huge appetites are known to pair the lok lak with perhaps the most popular food item in the country, the fish amok. It is fish lathered in coconut curry, sprinkled with turmeric and lemongrass, wrapped in a banana leaf. As with many Southeast Asian foods, it is a perfect match with rice.
Chicken curry is also fairly popular, with the dish having yellow curry reminiscent of Thai cuisine. Any type of curry will go well with a heaping of rice, and I was fortunate enough to find a place that served unlimited rice. Paired it with fried spring rolls, it makes a thoroughly satisfying meal.
For people on the go, the lort cha comes as the ideal meal: stir-fried noodles with egg, greens, and beansprouts. You can order fried spring rolls from other sellers to go with the meal for an added punch.
Shake stands are found all over Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, from which you can order all sorts of fruit shakes. My favorite was the cashew shake: take it as a dessert, a beverage, or both.
Apart from shakes, there are a lot of iced coffee sellers on the streets. The serving is huge, similar to a venti drink at Starbucks, but sold for less than two dollars.
If Cambodian fare bears a partial resemblance to Thai cuisine, some of Myanmar’s dishes are a spitting image of those found in India, and the same goes for the flavor profiles. As such, the nation is home to some of the region’s tastiest curries, fried rice, and veggie meals, so much so that the absence of meat in certain dishes wouldn’t matter. There is always a pound of flavor in every spoonful.
Like in India, chickpeas figure heavily in Burmese cooking and are used for every type of meal, be it appetizer, main course, or dessert. One of the most preferred kinds of street food in Yangon is the naan bread with pe byouk (chickpea paste). The mashed chickpeas add fuller texture to the bread and impart a rich taste similar to that of hummus sans the spices.
Two more handheld snacks that are considered must-tries for food travelers are the stuffed dosa and the mont lin ma yar. A well-known South Indian dish, the dosa is a skillet-cooked lentil-based bread that is used to wrap chickpeas, cabbage, beansprouts, and curry sauce. It’s heavier on the tummy than its appearance suggests. The mont lin ma yar, on the other hand, appears like the Burmese spinoff of Japanese takoyaki, but instead of containing octopus and Japanese spices, it has quail eggs, chickpeas, spring onions, and pepper.
One of the most widely known dishes in Myanmar is the mohinga, which is rice noodles in fish paste or fish broth, garnished with deep fried fritters, cilantro, lemongrass, and turmeric. It used to be a breakfast item among locals, but due to its popularity, the dish eventually gained a starring role in lunches and dinners.
The curry and biryani combo in India is also prevalent in Myanmar, with less heat but just as much flavor. Myanmar curry, when set alongside Thai curry, has thicker consistency and flavor, is richer, and is far less sweet. The biryani, on the other hand, is similar to its Indian counterpart. You can eat it as a staple or a full meal on its own.
The ethnic diversity of Singapore is reflective of its cuisines. Each major community in the country–composed of people of Chinese, Indian, and Malay descent–has brought its own set of dishes, ingredients, and manner of preparing food. Furthermore, the multitudes of hawker centers throughout Singapore also feature the cuisines from its neighboring countries and the rest of Asia. You will likely find some of the street food mentioned above being sold by Singapore-based hawkers and restaurants, and they are prepared really well given the discriminating taste of the average Singaporean.
On top of the list is the bak kut teh, or pork ribs in broth prepared with a host of spices such as garlic, cinnamon, anise, and cloves. It is often served plain, but some sellers add extra ingredients to boost the flavor. Those extras include mushrooms, tofu, and vegetables. Bak kut teh is a popular after-party meal as a succession of sips can help with tipsiness and minor hangovers.
Heard of curry laksa? While the dish’s roots are entrenched in Malaysian cooking, Singapore’s version features tangy curry mixed with coconut cream, fried tofu, pineapple, chili, cucumber, mackerel, mint, and vermicelli noodles. Some variants also have shrimp. As a testament to the quality of Singapore’s street laksa, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay actually lost a cooking challenge against a local laksa vendor.
A remarkable Singaporean culinary invention, the sambal stingray melds Malay cooking with an odd central ingredient. The stingray is wrapped in banana leaf, grilled, then liberal portions of sambal are applied on the fish. Sellers toss in flavoring agents like calamansi and krill paste to add to the complexity of the dish’s flavor profile. As a result, each bite comes with a zesty burst on the palate.
Chili crab is popular restaurant fare among locals and tourists. Highly creative home cooks, as a result, managed to replicate the dish, add their own twist to it, and then sell it in hawker centers. The tomato sauce is rich and spicy while the crab meat tender and fresh.
Lastly, there’s an Indian snack called murtabak, not to be confused with the Indonesian martabak. Sold in Makansutra, this is toasted pita bread stuffed with chicken or lamb, and then served with thick curry sauce. Some advice: get an extra serving of curry sauce as it is highly addictive.
Laos has a more primal approach to its cuisine compared to the spice-heavy, strongly flavored meals of its neighbors, mainly offering grilled fare, tasty salads, and various applications of sticky rice. However, it also has its share of meals that draw comparisons to Thai and Cambodian food. If you’re looking to eat healthy, you have certainly come to the right country.
Laotians are the world’s largest consumers of sticky rice, and as such, you’ll find it as a staple and a primary ingredient of desserts throughout the country. Steamed in a bamboo basket, the klao niaw (sticky rice) is the staple food in Laos, typically paired with all sorts of savory dishes. At the other end of the spectrum, the most popular sticky rice-based dessert is the khao lam, which is rice with coconut cream and red bean cooked in a bamboo tube. Most food markets have this dessert so you won’t miss it.
The most popular meat dish is the larp, larb, or laap–its spelling tends to vary from vendor to vendor–which is a meat salad composed of select greens, lime juice, rice, and garlic. Choose from beef, pork, chicken, fish, or duck as its main ingredient. Similar to Thai dishes, the laap successfully assimilates all basic flavors in one plate.
The smoky section of food markets–which draws hordes of locals and tourists alike–is home to a large assortment of grilled meats like pork barbecue, beef skewers, chicken, sausages, and fish. You’ll also find barbecued sticky rice in those sections, often cooked with eggs, fish sauce, and herbs. That is definitely worth a try.
Like with most Southeast Asian nations, Lao cuisine is also big on noodles. In food markets, you’ll find a Laotian version of Vietnamese pho called feu. It can be served as a stew with rice or a traditional noodle soup. A sprinkle of spices is added to the soup, with the central ingredient being either beef or chicken. When ordering, make sure to say “feu noodles” if you intend to purchase the noodle soup, otherwise you’ll receive the rice and stew variant.
The flavor profiles in Philippine cuisine are vastly different from the spice-infused foods in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand or the herb-rich meals in Vietnam and Laos. Filipino meals tend to underscore sweetness, saltiness, or umami, but before you can label the taste as basic, you’ll also encounter dishes that are just as complex as the viands in other parts of Southeast Asia like the tart and salty adobo or the multifaceted kare-kare (meat stew cooked in peanuts or peanut butter and served with salty shrimp paste and sour calamansi). Philippine street food is no different. Gustatory travelers have labeled it a fusion of eastern and western flavors.
The main attraction of food bazaars in the Philippines is the pork barbecue. Unlike the more complex satays of Southeast Asia, the meat is predominantly sweet – like the West’s hickory barbecue – and is served with vinegar.
In a more modest setting, locals prefer barbecued chicken or pork intestines called isaw. It’s also coated in sweet marinade, grilled, then paired off with vinegar. Ask the vendor to char it a little to make it less gamey.
Other popular savory skewers include kikiam, fish balls, squid balls, chicken balls, hotdogs, and kwek kwek (deep fried quail eggs in batter), all of which can be dunked in a thick sweet sauce.
Besides skewers, Filipinos also have a penchant for crispy fare, so you’ll find vendors peddling crispy chicken skin and crispy desserts like turon (deep fried bananas in flour and brown sugar) and banana cue (deep fried bananas in caramelized brown sugar).
A main course favorite is the sizzling sisig. Although mainly served in restaurants, the pork dish has made its way to the food stands of Metro Manila’s central business district, Makati, and has given its fancier counterparts a run for the money. The street sisig at Makati’s Rada Street features crispy and soft pork bits mixed with a fried egg, mayonnaise, soy sauce, and calamansi. Have one spoonful with rice and you’ll immediately know why the dish has gained popularity in other parts of the world, including the US.
A particularly unique snack that is taken as either a dessert or a pick-upper is the taho. It is composed of silken tofu, a thick caramel-like sweetener, and small tapioca balls. The snack is served hot and is typically sold early in the morning by peddlers who shoulder carry a couple of large silver cylinders.
This list wouldn’t be complete without the balut. Dreaded by a lot of tourists but adored by locals, the fertilized duck egg is boiled then eaten from the shell–chick, yolk, juices, and all. Vendors provide a generous serving of salt to enhance the flavor and reduce the egg’s gaminess. Don’t let its appearance fool you; the balut tastes a lot better than it looks.
With this overview of the street food in Southeast Asia, maybe you can plan your trip based on your culinary preferences. You can start with a nation known for milder flavors like Vietnam, then progress through the complexity scale by proceeding to moderate Philippines and zesty Thailand before capping off the tour in spicy Malaysia or Indonesia. Or you can visit nations with underrated but wonderful cuisines like Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos. Regardless of which route you intend to take, your taste buds will be in for an absolute treat.
Paul Wenceslao is not an actor. He’s not a star. And he doesn’t even have his own car. But he used to be the managing editor of a popular men’s magazine, is currently a freelance writer and editor who manages his own team, was a former booth owner at Mercato, and is BFF to his nine cats. All that should amount to something, he hopes.