Last Update: April 2020
There’s a whole bunch of reasons that make me keep coming back to South East Asia, but the food is definitely high up in the list. The multitude of flavors, ingredients and cooking techniques in this part of the world is overwhelming. Over the years I tried so many dishes and of course I have my favorites. However, when I was asked to name my nr. 1 favorite dish I really had to think long and hard.
Fact is, it was hard even to name my favorite South East Asian cuisine since there’s so much influence between the neighboring countries it’s difficult to know what dish is from where. Fried rice for instance, I love it, but is it Thai or Indonesian? Both are yum, but there is definitely a difference in taste, so which one is best? You tell me! Location also matters, I mean, fried rice in Thailand may be better overall, but nothing beats the Nasi Goreng from uncle Adi in Jakarta.
For this reason my Top 39 list of best food in South East Asia is of course biased as hell. Biased, because it’s ranked according to my personal taste.
Anyway, it’s my list so I get to decide.
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#39 – Laphet Thoke – Fermented Tea Leaf Salad
I have to admit that it took a while for me to truly appreciate this traditional Burmese dish. It’s so different from other typical South East Asian flavors, but eventually it grew on me and now I’m a fan.
Laphet Thoke is extremely popular in Myanmar and Northern Thailand. The best tea leaves are pickled and fermented to ease the bitterness and tough texture. The leaves are mixed with chopped cilantro, scallions, garlic, lime juice, vegetable oil and left to ferment for a few days.
The mixture is used as a generous dressing over shredded cabbage or romaine lettuce. Other distinct ingredients to mix in your salad are toasted sesame seeds, roasted peanuts, fried garlic slices and (yellow) split peas, tomato, oil, lime juice, fish sauce and a few pinches of sugar.
In restaurants, the ingredients for Laphet Thoke are brought to your table separately. This way you can compose your own salad with the flavors you like most. At the street stalls, the vendors will normally toss the ingredients into a salad for you, often with raw chili and garlic served on the side.
The combination of contrasting flavors and textures is what really makes this dish so irresistible. Ok, maybe the caffeine kick afterwards has something to do with it as well. Anyway, a unique South East Asian dish to kick-off my top 39 best food in South East Asia list.
#38 – Laab – Laotion Meat Salad
Whaa, Laotian meat salad, that doesn’t sound appealing at all! Also, the local name “Laab” or “Larb” doesn’t quite stimulate my appetite. Names can be deceiving however, because this is a dish that will make you come back for more. I am talking about the cooked meat version mind you, since some locals will swear by the raw meat version.
Minced pork, or chicken, or duck, or beef, or whichever meat you like, seasoned with mint, chilies, onion, garlic, fish sauce and lime juice. Mix it with diced vegetables of your liking and sprinkle it generously with ground toasted sticky rice (very important). Altogether a simple dish to prepare, but packed with deliciousness.
Laab has its origin in Laos, but is also extremely popular in Thailand, as well as with this European travel-blogger. Best when served with sticky rice and fresh vegetables on the side.
#37 – Bah Kut Teh – Meat Bone Tea
A hearty breakfast dish, predominantly served in Singapore and Malaysia, but invented by Chinese immigrants. It’s pork ribs that simmer in a herbal broth for hours on end until the meat is fall off the bone tender. Typical herbs and spices are cinnamon, clover, star anise, fennel, garlic, any medicinal herbs that the chef likes to add that day and a few dashes of soy sauce to enhance the flavor.
Extra soy sauce, chili, garlic, coriander and spring onions are often used as a garnish and youtiao (fried dough strip, like churro) is served alongside your steamy bowl. Some versions of Bah Kut Teh include offal, bok choy, mushrooms or fried tofu.
Despite the name, tea is not an ingredient in this dish. Instead, tea is commonly served to accompany the bah kut teh in order to neutralize the generous amounts of fat in the dish.
I particularly like the “dry” version of Bah Kut Teh where the moisture is reduced creating more like a stew. Adding a few extra chilies and a serving of steamed rice will really make my day.
#36 – Klepon – Green Sticky Rice Balls
Let’s do dessert, or actually klepon is more like a sweet snack. Green balls made of sticky rice dough, rolled in grated coconut and with a center of liquid palm sugar. I clearly remember that as a kid I would stuff myself with these yummy balls until the point of nausea. My Indonesian aunties always prepared unlimited supplies and I just couldn’t stop eating.
They’re so simple to make. Mix some glutinous rice flour with water into a dough, add concentrated pandan for color and aroma. Roll the dough in small 5cm balls, fill the center with grated palm sugar and boil in water. When the balls float to the surface they’re ready.
Roll them through grated coconut and let them cool down a bit. That last part is important, because the now liquid palm sugar will burn your mouth when hot.
Ah, those childhood memories made of sticky rice sweetness, sigh…
#35 – Pad Kee Mao – Drunken Noodles
For me, this Thai noodle dish beats the more famous Pad Thai by a mile. “Pad Kee Mao” more or less translates into “very drunk stir-fry”. Rumor has it that this dish cures your hangover, so there you go. Maybe it’s because of the chilies in there that are guaranteed to make you sweat out all remaining alcohol in your body.
Wide rice noodles are stir fried in fish sauce, light and dark soy sauce, oyster sauce and rice vinegar. Also added are garlic, holy basil, fresh peppercorns and lot’s of chilies. For protein use tofu, chicken, or whatever meat you like. Actually, I think seafood like prawn and squid are the most popular.
Make sure to drink lot’s of Chang or Singha beers to quench the fire caused by the chilies. Ah, maybe that’s why the name?!
#34 – Sankaya – Pumpkin Custard
Another dessert! Sankaya is truly a feast for the eye and taste buds. This Thai custard made of eggs, palm sugar, vanilla and coconut milk is poured into a sweet kabocha squash (Japanese pumpkin) with the kernels and excess moisture removed and then steamed to perfection.
When cooked correctly, Sankaya offers the most perfect balance of textures and tastes as good as it looks. The trick is to not “over” sweeten the custard in order to let the subtle sweetness of the gourd do its work. I like it best when served lukewarm, but would for sure never turn down a cold slice of Sankaya from the Bangkok street vendors if you offered me one.
Rumor has it that the Portuguese introduced this dessert to Thailand back in the 1600’s and from there it also made its way to Cambodia where it’s named “Sankya Lapov”. Obrigada Portugal!
During one of my trips in Thailand I was getting ready for a copious meal in a restaurant. The evening didn’t quite turn out the way it should have. I had no idea that I was about to survive an attack by a vicious dog.
#33 – Tempeh – Fermented Soy Bean Cake
In Indonesia, soy beans are fermented by using a starter culture (rhizopus oligosporus) until a firm white cake is formed with a mild nutty, mushroomy flavor. The cake is very nutritious and an excellent source of protein, which is why it’s often used as an alternative for meat and even as an ingredient for mock meat.
Tempeh is extremely versatile. It can be stir-fried, cooked, dried, braised, blanched, deep-fried, anything goes. The ability to absorb flavors comes in very handy when cooking with tempeh. This is demonstrated in my favorite tempeh dish, the simple, but tasty “sambal goreng tempeh”. Deep-fried strips of tempeh, covered in flavored chili paste (sambal) are quickly stir-fried and served as a side dish. Particularly good with a handful of petai beans (stinky beans) thrown in.
#32 – Chè Chuối – Sweet Banana Soup
I’m not really a dessert person unless there is whipped cream or chocolate involved, but this is already the third dessert on the list. Come to think of it, I’m also crazy about apple pie, gelato and anything with salted caramel. OMG, I love desserts!
Anyway, this spot in the list is reserved for Chè Chuối. Chè is Vietnamese for any sweet soup, drink or pudding. There are so many chè’s, it would be impossible to list them here or anywhere for that matter. Ingredients can be all kinds of beans, jellies, fruits, rice, seaweeds and plants like aloe vera. The soup is often a syrup of water, sugar, fruit juice, coconut milk or any mix thereof.
Chuối translates into banana, so banana soup it is. Tapioca pearls and slices of banana boiled in coconut milk with some added sugar. Sometimes, sesame seeds or crushed peanuts are sprinkled on top. Like many desserts in this part of the world, Chè Chuối can be eaten either warm or cold. I like both.
I don’t think travelers usually eat dessert in Vietnam, because we’re unfamiliar with it. Well, now you know, always save some room for Chè.
#31 – Mohinga – Burmese Noodle Soup
Noodle soup is popular in practically every South East Asian country. Traditionally a breakfast dish to get you through a day of hard labor in the fields. Nowadays the fragrant soup is enjoyed at any time of day.
There must be as many variations of noodle soup as there are chefs in South East Asia. Mohinga, being the Burmese version and even considered the national dish of Myanmar, also has loads of varieties, depending on regional preference and available ingredients.
The basic ingredients however, should be more or less the same and consist of fish gravy, fish paste and sauce, slices of banana tree stem, garlic, lemongrass, onion and ginger. The soup is thickened with chickpea flour or crushed toasted rice. Of course rice noodles are added at the last moment to fill you up.
The broth is fragrant, hearty and one always seems to have room for a steamy bowl of this fishy deliciousness. I like to garnish my Mohinga with chili flakes, a squeeze of lime juice and crunchy fried pe kyaw (split pea crackers). Some of the street hawkers serve a boiled egg or a piece of fish cake as an extra, now that’s what I call a bonus.
#30 – Gado-Gado – Peanut Sauce Salad
Like so many kids I was a problematic vegetable eater. I vividly remember sessions of me spending hours alone at the dinner table. I wasn’t allowed to leave until I finished the last piece of meanwhile cold and dry vegetable on my plate. My greenery aversion grew bigger and bigger.
Mom bent over backwards trying to get enough fiber, vitamins and minerals in me. She just wouldn’t give in, until one day she found the simplest of solutions. She gave me Indonesian Gado-Gado.
Blanched cabbage, long-bean, beansprouts, maybe even pak-choy or spinach. Actually, you can use any vegetables you like as long as they are crispy. Toss it all up, then add cubes of fried tofu and tempeh, boiled potato, sliced cucumber, boiled egg and a few chunks of lontong (compressed rice cake). Next, top it with a generous serving of warm and spicy Indonesian peanut sauce, the most distinctive ingredient to Gado-Gado. Sprinkle it with fried shallots and kripik.
From that day on I practically beg my mom to cook me up some veggies anytime I see her.
#29 – Loc-Lac – Marinated, Stir-Fried Beef
Cambodia”s favorite, Loc-Lac is basically a sliced up steak marinated in soy sauce, paprika, tomato sauce and fish sauce. The stir fried beef is served on top of green lettuce with fresh tomato and onion. Lime/salt/pepper dip on the side is essential.
Loc-Lac can be served either with steamed rice or French fries. It’s best with a fried egg on top, as it’s supposed to, but sometimes they “forget” and you have to ask for it. I guess it’s not too hard to find the French influence on Khmer cuisine in this dish and it’s actually an excellent “cross-over”, between East and West.
The use of high quality steak is essential for a good Loc-Lac. Obviously, you don’t want to chew on your meat forever. Unfortunately, affordable quality beef is rare in Cambodia so always be on the look-out for restaurant recommendations and be prepared to pay a little extra.
#28 – Halo Halo – Mish-Mash Dessert
Filipino sweet snack or dessert, whatever you want to call it, it’s delicious! Basically it’s all kinds of different sweet ingredients like sweetened beans, soft coconut, preserved fruits, gelatin, sago, toasted glutinous rice (pinipig) and whatever else the sweet-tooth Filipinos can think of.
Ladle a fair amount of crushed ice in a bowl, stack all those lovely ingredients on top (as many as you can, yesss!) and pour a generous amount of evaporated milk (condensed milk without the sugar) over it. Top the whole thing off with a scoop of wonderfully purple colored ube halaya, enjoy!.
The most fun part is of course that you get to decide which ingredients go into your Halo-Halo. If you’re crazy about coconut, but not so much about gelatin then just exchange one for the other. I always drive the vendors crazy, because I take forever to decide.
Halo-Halo is easy to prepare if you have the right ingredients. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a simple dish though. All those different textures and flavors actually make this a very multidimensional dessert. Very pleasing to the eye as well with all of those standout colors.
#27 – Kai Met Mamuang – Chicken Cashew
While the Chinese province Sichuan gave the world “Kung Pao Chicken”, Thailand gave us “Kai Met Mamuang”. Heavily inspired by the Chinese dish, but grown into a real Thai stir-fry classic in its own.
Tender chicken, dried chili peppers, onion, carrot and of course roasted cashew nuts give this dish a whole plethora of unique, contrasting textures and flavors.
The tourist hordes in Thailand have certainly discovered this dish as well. A restaurant owner on Phuket told me that after Pad Thai, Kai Met Mamuang is the most popular dish among tourists, even before curries. Some of the die-hard Thailand travelers and travel bloggers often dismiss the mainstream tourist opinions. I don’t! I couldn’t agree more with their excellent choice of ordering chicken cashew in large numbers.
#26 – Bún Chả – Pork over Noodles
Few foods are so typical to a country as Bún Chả is to Vietnam (with the exception of Phở maybe). Grilled pork and meatballs over rice noodles with fresh herbs and vegetables, pickles and dipping sauce. You need to try this before you see Naples and then…well, you get my point.
The crunch of the pork against the silky smooth of the noodles. The sourness of the pickles with the sweetness of the caramelized meat and the saltiness of the fish sauce in the dip. All of this coming together in your mouth in one heavenly fusion. Oh man, I’m actually mouthwatering just describing this, please take me back to Hanoi!
Try it and find out why Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama like it so much
There are so many stories about travelers being scammed in Vietnam. In my opinion it’s not that bad. Yes, there are scammers, just like anywhere else in the world. Just keep one eye open and don’t be naive. You’ll be ok.
#25 – Hainanese Chicken Rice – Chicken over Rice
About a century ago, immigrants from Hainan Island in Southern China spread out over South East Asia. The immigrants adapted well to their new environment, but still craved the cooking from back home. They tried to recreate a typical chicken dish using local chickens rather then the typical “wenchang chicken”, which is indigenous to Hainan.
Their efforts resulted in the world famous “Hainanese Chicken Rice”. Nowadays popular in most, if not all, South East Asian countries with Singapore even claiming it as one of their national dishes.
An entire chicken is slow cooked in just below boiling water, together with ginger, garlic and pandan. Immediately after cooking the chicken is dipped in ice-water to give the skin a soft and shiny texture. The rice served next to the chicken is boiled in the chicken stock, making it oh so fragrant and earning it the nickname “oily rice”. A garlic/chili dip and soy sauce are served as condiments.
Because of the slow cooking the chicken meat is soft, tender and juicy. After my first bite I instantly understood why this dish is so popular in so many countries, and so will you! Wake me up in the middle of the night and serve me chicken over rice. Make sure to add me a few sliced cucumbers on the side.
#24 – Adobo – Chicken Stew
Back in the 16th century, when the Spanish landed in the Philippines, they came across a local dish that was somewhat similar to their Adobo from back home. Both dishes involved stewing in vinegar and even though that is where the similarities stop, the Spanish still named the Filipino dish “Adobo”.
Filipino Adobo is real comfort food, easy to make and extremely tasty. Every Filipino swears that his/her mom’s recipe rules. However, the basics to any decent Adobo are pretty much the same. Chicken legs or thighs are left overnight in a mix of generous garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, peppercorns, bay leaf, salt and more garlic. Pan-fry the chicken for a minute on each side, add water and the left over marinade. Let it simmer for at least 30min, longer if you have time. Serve it with steamed rice and ladle some of the sauce over your rice, delish!
Adobo is also popular using pork instead of chicken. It’s best to use pork belly since the fat will prevent the meat from drying out during the cooking. Next to pork and chicken, Adobo is sometimes prepared with fried cubes of tofu, but honestly, it’s not the same.
Tip! Give the chicken an extra browning after the cooking. The smell of re-fried marinade-drenched meat might even turn hardcore vegetarians.
#23 – Khai Jiao – Deep Fried Omelet
Life can be simple, life can be good. The same applies for cooking, but I’m sure you already knew that. Man, Khai Jiao is so good and what can be more simple than an omelet?
Yeah, yeah, an omelet is not specifically from South East Asia, I can hear you say it. In this case I am talking about the typical Thai omelet. The difference is in the cooking technique and a dash of fish sauce. My favorite omelet is deep fried in a stir fry wok pan. Not stir fried, but submerged in hot sizzling oil (well, that’s is the definition of deep fried, isn’t it?) to give the omelet a thin crispy skin while silky smooth and fluffy on the inside.
I can eat Thai omelet for a whole week with nothing more than steamed rice and prik nam pla and I wouldn’t be bored. Ok, maybe add a little minced meat to the omelet for a more substantial meal. Don’t add onion or vegetables, because that will mess up the fluffiness. If you need vegetables, eat them on the side. Enjoy!
#22 – Amok Trey – Steamed Fish Curry
It should not come as a surprise that the national dish of Cambodia is fish based, since 80% of the Cambodian protein intake is derived from the rivers, the Tonle Sap lake and the sea.
When I lived in Phnom Penh I used to order Amok Trey all the time. Unfortunately not every restaurant passed the test. I don’t mind the short cuts, because I am well aware of the time/labor intensity to prepare this dish. I do mind however, that sometimes an essential ingredient is left out. Sure, noni leaves are hard to come by, but you shouldn’t prepare, let alone sell Amok Trey if you don’t have the ingredients complete. It’s like selling pizza without cheese.
Traditional Amok Trey has a wonderful soft and smooth texture with that hint of Asian spices. It’s rich, refined and considered a Royal Khmer dish dating back as far as the Khmer Empire (802-1431). Freshwater fish is stirred with kroeung, chili, fish sauce, egg, palm sugar salt and coconut cream into a coarse mash. The mixture is placed on top of shredded noni leaves in a banana leaf basket and carefully steamed for at least 30min.
The not so traditional and quicker way is to just stir fry diced fish together with kroeung, coconut milk and the other ingredients. Believe me when I say it’s still good! If they use proper fish and include the noni leaves that is. Drizzle coconut cream on top and eat it while it’s hot.
#21 – Chả Giò/Nem Rán – Fried Spring rolls
I never did find out the exact difference between “Chả Giò” and “Nem Rán”. Some locals told me it’s just different names in the North and the South of Vietnam for spring rolls. Others told me that “nem” is only used when there is ground meat in the filling. Others again told me that “nem” is for spring rolls with any meat, no matter if it’s ground, although salad rolls are also called “nem”. Well, if the Vietnamese don’t know, how should I?
Anyway, what I did learn is that actually any kind of filling is used. Most common is pork mixed with mushroom and shredded vegetables like beansprouts and carrots. But also chicken, crab, shrimp, tofu, jicama, cabbage, rice vermicelli and even curried sweet potatoes are often used. Basically, anything goes.
Vietnamese spring rolls are preferably rolled in rice paper. Often, wheat flour paper is used instead, because rice paper easily breaks during the frying process and they only stay crisp for a few hours. Technically, the wheat flour rolls should be named “egg-rolls” rather than spring rolls (there’s egg in the paper), but in practice, no-one does.
My conclusion is to just enjoy these little tasty treats by whatever name. You can have a favorite of course. Mine is absolutely the fresh crab/shrimp spring rolls. Most expensive and most difficult to make, but definitely the best. Enjoy them with the typical Vietnamese dip of fish sauce, lemon juice, chili, sugar and garlic.
#20 – Prahok Ktiss – Spicy Pork Dip
Popular in Cambodia, to share among friends or family (no double dipping ok!). Not for the fainthearted though, because of the pungent smell and scorching heat. All I can say is, “learn to love it, the reward is big time!”.
Prahok Ktiss is basically a dip from ground pork, a fair amount of fermented fish paste (prahok), Cambodian curry paste (kroeung), tamarind, pea eggplants and chilies, lot’s of chilies. All ingredients are simmered in coconut cream with added kaffir lime leaves and palm sugar that will help tone down the fishiness of the prahok and the bitterness of the pea eggplants. Mind you, it will still be fishy and pungent and that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Served with fresh, crispy vegetables for dipping. Make sure to have sufficient Angkor beers on standby to extinguish the blaze.
On my two-year stint in Phnom Penh, Cambodia I got to know the local food scene well. Let me take you on a Phnom Penh food crawl! An excellent opportunity to discover the Khmer cuisine and food culture.
#19 – Nan Gyi Thoke – Burmese Spaghetti
Yes, another dish from Myanmar that made this list and it’s also a salad. However, not a conventional salad like we are used to in the West with lot’s of lettuce and/or vegetables. It’s called salad, because the separate ingredients are mixed in a bowl without heat. For this reason, the nickname “Burmese Spaghetti” might be a better fitting description.
In this case, spicy chicken curry is mixed with thick rice noodles, toasted chickpea flour, lemon juice and fish sauce. You can also mix in some shredded cabbage, beansprouts and a handful of crispy fried noodles to your liking. Usually a sliced boiled egg and crispy shrimp crackers are served on top. The soft and crispy contrast in textures is a distinct characteristic of Burmese cooking.
Nan Gyi Thoke is a traditional Burmese street food dish that really makes the fusion of Indian and Chinese cuisine come alive. The better street vendors will serve you an additional bowl of fragrant chicken broth with the salad.
#18 – Beerlao – Laotian Beer
True, beer is not food. Nevertheless, from experience I know, and you probably as well, that beer can get you stuffed, so voila!
After a day in the sweltering heat, what could be better than an icy-cold brewski? With all those tropical temperatures in South East Asia it’s surely no surprise that beer is popular with locals and visitors alike. For long, some of the usual suspects are: Singha, Chang (Thailand), Angkor, Cambodia Beer (Cambodia), Bintang (Indonesia), Tiger (Singapore), San Miguel, Red Horse (Philippines), Bia Saigon, Bia Hanoi (Vietnam) and of course Beerlao from Laos.
In my opinion, Beerlao takes home 1st price for best of all brews in Asia. Of course, it’s all a matter of taste and some of you might disagree. It’s all good, but you should know that also Time Magazine named it “Asia’s best local beer”. Ok, even if that was back in 2004, it just goes to show that I am not alone in my beer preference. For the record, I’m talking about the original Beerlao 5% lager. Of lately, more beer products are added and marketed to satisfy international demand.
What makes Beerlao stand out from all the others is that it’s soft and very easy to drink. Hops and dry yeast are imported from Germany, while French malts are complemented with local jasmine rice giving the beer a crispy fresh finish. And yes, the fact that Beerlao used to be a hard to find travelers drink adds to the myth and the drinking experience.
#16/#17 – Cơm tấm/Bai Sach Chrouk – Pork over Rice
#17 – Cơm tấm: Probably you know this dish, without knowing it. Makes sense? The actual national dish of Vietnam is Cơm tấm. And all this time you thought it was Phở. Cơm tấm literally translates into “broken rice”. The use of broken rice in this dish over long grained rice is important, because of the texture. The rice is topped with barbecued, caramelized pork chop and a fried egg if you’re lucky. Often some extra shredded pork skin is sprinkled on top together with pickles, cucumber and tomato, yum!
#16 – Bai Sach Chrouk: Almost the exact same dish is extremely popular in neighboring Cambodia as well. Pork over rice, it sounds so simple, but man is this good! Succulent pork is marinated in coconut milk and garlic and then caramelized over a charcoal fire. Traditionally served over steamed broken rice with cucumber, pickles and a bowl of clear chicken broth on the side.
Similar to Vietnam, the best version in Cambodia also includes a fried egg on top. This typical Khmer breakfast named Bai Sach Chrouk is rich with protein to get you through a hard days work.
#15 – Laksa – Another Noodle Soup
Noodle soup is probably the single most eaten dish in South East Asia. Every country and/or region has its own version with Laksa being the style for Malaysia and Singapore. Be aware though that there is no such thing as one type of Laksa. There are more variations than there are chefs in South East Asia, but to keep it simple I will only describe the two most distinctive.
Laksa consists of either wheat or rice noodles. Strips of any kind of meat are added, along with prawns, fish, vegetables and whatever. The whole is then covered in a spicy broth. In Northern Malaysia the broth is usually served “asam” (sour). This is in line with Thai influences and the availability of local ingredients (tamarind).
However, in the South, under Indonesian influence, they will rather serve you a “laksa lemak” with a lot of coconut milk, which is actually my favorite Laksa.
#14 – Bánh Mì – Sandwich/Baguette
Yes, you read the title correct, there’s a sandwich on the list, but hey, what a sandwich!
You guessed it, after the French brought the baguette to Vietnam, the Vietnamese took it and made it their own. For the bread they mixed wheat flower with rice flour, which is cheaper and it also makes the bread more fluffy. With regards to the filling, anything goes. Meat, vegetables, tofu, sweet spreads and even scoops of ice cream are served on the crispy baguettes.
Sometimes eaten for breakfast, but actually the Vietnamese will eat their Bánh Mì at any time of day as a snack. It’s also very easy to come by as every city has numerous street food carts selling the subs, each with their own signature filling.
My all-time favorite Bánh Mì is indeed best eaten in the morning when the bread is at its crispiest. A generous filling of thinly sliced char siu topped with caramelized onions, lettuce and sriracha sauce. Nobody does it better than the Vietnamese, Subway, eat your heart out!
#13 – Nasi Kandar – Rice and Curry
“Nasi” means rice and “kandar” translates into “pole” in Malay language. In the olden days, tamil muslim immigrants on Penang Island were selling food from containers. These containers were hanging on each end of a pole that balanced on their shoulder. Today, you might still see them, but the majority of Nasi Kandar is now being sold from mamak stalls and restaurants all over Malaysia and Singapore.
So, now we know how the dish got its name, what is it? Steamed white rice or sometimes spiced rice (Biryani) is overloaded with curry based dishes (meat, fish, vegetable). Sometimes you get to choose and sometimes the seller chooses for you. Of course you can always tell him your preference/aversion. If you like the curry, ask the seller to “banjir”, which means “flood” your plate with curry.
Sometimes there’s a fixed price per plate, sometimes they charge you for the number of food items you choose. For a real local experience, visit a mamak stall where they serve Nasi Kandar on a banana leaf and you eat with your (right) hand. Messy, but finger-licking good.
When I think of mamak food stalls, oh my….instant craving. If you haven’t tried a mamak stall in Malaysia, you might as well haven’t been there at all. And once you have been, you’ll keep going again and again.
#12 – Sach Ko Jakak – Lemon Grass Beef Skewers
When I asked three separate Cambodians living abroad what food they missed most from home, this was the one all three of them came up with. Having eaten the tasty skewers many times during my stay in Cambodia, I can fully understand why.
We all like bbq don’t we? Well, unless you’re vegetarian maybe, but if so, you can replace the beef with zucchini, it works. It’s the kroeng (curry paste) that really makes this dish and it’s fairly easy to prepare if you can get the right ingredients and have a food processor.
Process lemongrass, lime leaves, garlic, chili pepper and turmeric into a paste and mix it with oyster sauce, salt, pepper, a dash of oil and maybe coconut milk. Marinate small beef slices and skewer them on water soaked bamboo sticks. Of course, the quality of the beef will influence your experience. Then bbq the skewers over a fire, preferably charcoal. Can you smell it? Serve with pickled cucumber and cold beer.
#11 – Kaeng – Thai Curry
Don’t you just love this iconic Thai comfort food! The famous Thai curry is known in Thailand as “Kaeng”. Contrary to common belief, Thai curry doesn’t necessarily need to be spicy, it’s a choice. The base is always a curry paste consisting of shallots, garlic, galangal, cilantro, lemongrass and shrimp paste. The number of chilies added determine the heat (duh).
Depending on the type of curry various other ingredients are added for taste. Chilies are thrown in for heat and color and the whole is then simmered in coconut milk, which is so characteristic for Thai curries. Fresh herbs are added only at the last minute to preserve their taste and fragrance.
Kaeng Phet (Red Curry)
The red color in this curry is derived from dried red chilies. Added protein can be any kind of meat or fish, but most common are pork, chicken, beef or duck. Vegetarian alternatives include tofu and/or pumpkin while Thai eggplant and bamboo shoots are the common vegetables in this curry. Thai basil and kaffir lime leaves are used for extra fragrance.
Kaeng Khiao Wan (Green Curry)
Green curry is usually the most spicy due to the use of fresh green chilies for making the paste. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean it always is. It’s all up to the chef. Green chilies also provide color and extra lemongrass defines the characteristic green curry taste.
First, the curry paste is fried to release its aroma’s after which coconut milk is added. Main protein used for green curry are chicken or fish balls, while Thai eggplant and pea eggplant are the designated vegetables. Extra fragrance in this dish comes from kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil.
Khaeng Kari (Yellow Curry)
If you like your curry a bit more friendly on the spice then yellow curry might be for you. Basic curry paste with extra ginger and curry powder are pounded together to create a mellow curry (compared to red and green Thai curries) that is still bursting with flavor.
#10 – Kaeng Phanaeng – Panang Curry
Although this Thai curry uses the same curry paste base as the ones above it still deserves a separate position in this list. Panang, phanaeng, phanang, whichever spelling you use is sweeter, because coconut cream is used, rather than coconut milk. For this reason, it’s also thicker and therefor often served on a plate instead of a bowl.
Dried red chilies are used generously, and although Panang Curry is supposed to be milder than the usual Thai curries, this is far from my personal experience (believe me, I still remember it well, ouch!). Restaurants catering to foreigners sometimes add crushed peanuts. Apparently Westerners seem to like it better that way and I must say, it does enrich the curry.
Panang Curry is traditionally prepared with beef, but any protein will work, as well as fried tofu or firm vegetables like Thai eggplant.
#9 – Nasi Goreng – Fried Rice
At home, Nasi Goreng was a staple food. Of course, no-one makes it better than mom. Although, come to think of it, my father also used to make a wicked Nasi Goreng and actually I’m not so bad myself.
It’s true that Nasi Goreng originated as a poor men’s dish. After all, you only need a handful of rice, onion, garlic and some leftover veggies. If you’re lucky enough to find an egg, well then fire up that wok and start stirring. Of course, it works even better with some added protein like chicken, pork, seafood or even tofu.
Indonesian fried rice requires a dash of kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and a chunk of trassi (fermented shrimp paste) to be added in the sizzling hot wok together with the other ingredients. My dad always liked to spice things up by throwing in a few chilies or sambal (chili paste). I swear that my high chili tolerance is a result from that good old home cooked Nasi Goreng.
#8 – Soto Ayam – Spiced Chicken Soup
This next dish is also from Indonesia, it’s like a trip down memory lane for me. However, do not think for a moment that its high rating is merely due to nostalgia on my part, no Sir.
Soto Ayam is a strong broth with fall off the bone chicken (breast-meat is flossed), enriched with fresh spices such as ginger, lemon grass, lime leaves and garlic. Also, typical dry spices like ground coriander seeds, cumin, turmeric and the inevitable trassi are added to create an extraordinary and fragrant broth.
To really enjoy Soto Ayam to the fullest, you should pour it over slices of lontong (compressed rice cakes) or maybe rice vermicelli. Then, top your steamy bowl with crispy fried onions, thinly sliced chilies, a dash of soy sauce, a squirt of lime juice, some small chunks of boiled potato and a whole boiled egg.
I am 100% sure that after tasting a good Soto Ayam, you’ll never care about regular chicken soup again, ever.
#7 – Nasi Lemak – Rice with Sambal
Malaysia has such a rich fusion cuisine combining Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and traditional Malay flavors. Still, ask any Malay abroad which dish from home he/she misses the most and 9 out of ten will tell you that good old comfort food “Nasi Lemak”.
The core of this dish is the rice, which is cooked and steamed in coconut milk with fragrant pandan leaves. Sambal (chili paste) is the heart, bringing together all of the toppings and garnishes. No Nasi Lemak is complete without ikan bilis (small crispy fried anchovies), roasted peanuts, slices of cucumber and a hard boiled or fried egg. It’s popular to add protein in the form of ayam goreng (fried chicken), but any other protein will do.
Traditionally, street vendors in Malaysia and Singapore served Nasi Lemak for breakfast to ensure a good start of the day. However nowadays, the popularity is beyond breakfast and it’s eaten more and more at any time of day. There’s nothing better than a well executed Nasi Lemak to cure a homesick Malay.
Whenever I talk about Malaysia it somehow always comes back to food. Before you know it I’m going on and on about kopitiams. That’s usually when I notice the puzzling gaze of my audience, ‘What is Kopitiam?’.
#6 – Peking Duck – Roasted Duck
Unmistakably from China, but ubiquitous in South East Asia. With a recipe dating back as far as the 1300’s and originally served to emperors, authentic Peking Duck didn’t used to be among the cheapest foods. Thanks to modern day increased supply however, Peking Duck has become affordable for the masses that make grateful use of this in large numbers.
Tender and succulent meat with that one of a kind flavor so distinctive to duck. Lightly sweet, crispy skin with smoky accents, it’s not hard to understand why it’s so popular. Street vendors and upscale restaurants alike, they have no trouble finding customers.
The duck is seasoned thoroughly and air is pumped between the meat and skin to achieve the crispiness while being roasted in a hung-oven. Also the skin is glazed with a maltose syrup that gives it that shiny look and sweet taste. The skin is then served with a garlic dip and thin slices of meat are wrapped in a pancake together with spring onions, sweet bean sauce and cucumber. What remains of the duck is cooked to a broth and/or stir fried into a main course dish.
The dish traveled with Chinese immigrants to South East Asia and is now one of the staple foods in many countries. There isn’t a town or village in Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia for example, where this delicacy can’t be found. Don’t miss out!
#5 – Satay – Grilled Meat Skewers
Back in the day, no family birthday was complete without large servings of Satay. In summer, my Indonesian family would gather outside around the BBQ for satay ayam (grilled chicken skewers) covered in peanut sauce. We would always serve it with lontong and a refreshing beer.
In winter, one unlucky family member was designated to man the grill under a makeshift roof in the cold outside. However, “unlucky” proved to be just relative since the grill-man sat front row to an unlimited supply of satay. I remember that whenever I was “unlucky”, a whole lot of grilled skewers never reached the birthday guests.
Typically, every Indonesian will have his/her own recipe for the best marinade. The basics however, are soy sauce, loads of garlic, palm sugar, trassi, turmeric, salt, pepper and lime juice for chicken, as well as pork satay. Different meats require different ingredients, such as sweet soy sauce or lemongrass for beef and goat, chili for fish, coconut for shrimp. There is of course no fixed recipe for satay marinade. Just make it how you like it.
The sauce is a different story. Peanut sauce and crispy fried onions go with chicken and pork satay. Sweet soy sauce with fresh chili and red onion goes well with beef and goat, while sweet chili sauces like sriracha are perfectly paired with fish and shrimp.
#4 – Lechón – Roasted Pig
Man, them Filipinos know delicious food! “Lechón” is derived from “leche”, which is Spanish for “milk”, and describes a roasted suckling pig. The Filipinos adopted the word and the dish during colonial times, but they didn’t limit themselves to suckling pigs. Instead, on the Philippines, “lechón” is the common name for “roasted pig”, mostly adult, while suckling pig is referred to as “lechón de leche”.
Lechón is a very rich dish and I once made the mistake of eating too much lechón, I just couldn’t stop, it was that good. I paid the price that night with a bad stomach ache. It didn’t stop me from ordering lechón again the very next day, but this time a more moderate portion.
On Luzon Island, where Manila is situated, the pig is spiced with just salt and pepper, then roasted and served with a sauce from onion, garlic, breadcrumbs, vinegar, brown sugar, salt, pepper and here it comes….., liver paste. Don’t dismiss it just yet, it’s really tasty.
On Visayas, the archipelago where Cebu is situated, they like to stuff the pig with herbs before roasting it. Specifically lemongrass is used for the stuffing, but also garlic, salt, peppercorn, bay leaves and spring onions, plus whatever secret ingredient the chef likes to add. For sauce, just dip chunks of the meat in vinegar with salt or soy sauce.
Of course, you can roast a pig anywhere in the world, if you have a few hours to spare that is. The Filipinos however, have somehow made it into a form of art. Lechón is a national dish here and it’s easy to taste why. Traditionally prepared for fiestas and special occasions, nowadays the succulent meat is readily available anytime on the Philippines.
#3 – Massaman – Beef Curry
This (world)famous Thai curry is different from other Thai curries, because of the use of dry spices not common to Thai cuisine. Among others, dry spices like nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, star anise and cloves were introduced by Persian traders to the South of Thailand in the 17th Century.
The Thai combined them with some of their own local spices, such as coriander, lemongrass, tamarind, white pepper, chili, galangal, garlic, shallots, and shrimp paste. They then added a handful of peanuts, potato and protein like beef, lamb or chicken and the wonderful dish of Massaman curry was born.
Oops, forgot the coconut cream, essential to the dish.
The taste is slightly sweet and different to anything you know, yet still very familiar. This is of course due to the combination of Middle Eastern and Asian flavors. Massaman is usually served not too spicy, but you can always add extra chili to your bowl if you like to spice things up, like I do.
Fun fact: Massaman curry reached the nr. 1 position in CNN’s “world’s most delicious foods list” in 2011. However, after opening a Facebook poll by the CNN editors in 2017 with 35k voters, the Thai dish dropped to nr. 10, which is still pretty high.
A lot of funny stuff happens on the road while traveling. The sheer ingenuity of a young backpacker when trying to rent a bike in Thailand left me both shocked and amused.
#2 – Siu Yuk – Cantonese Roasted Pork Belly
Similar, but not quite the same as the #4 in this list. Yes, it roasted pork, but this time only the belly and with the skin roasted to a crisp perfection. I probably don’t have to explain the taste, as I’m sure you know it.
This dish also has its origin in China, from where it spread to China-towns all over the world, but especially to (non-Muslim) South East Asia were it is extremely popular. The trick is of course to create an airy, crispy skin while the meat stays succulent and tender. I am told that this is achieved by making a zillion tiny holes in the skin and covering it with sea-salt for the roasting.
From Thailand to Vietnam, to Laos and Cambodia, you will find the crispy pork-belly everywhere. For the best Siu Yuk you will have to travel to Hong Kong, but technically that’s not South East Asia.
#1 – Beef Rendang – Beef Curry/Stew
I grew up in an Indonesian family in Europe so Indonesian food is a definitely part of my heritage. However, choosing beef rendang as the #1 dish of my “top 39 best food in South East Asia” was a completely objective decision. Apparently I am not alone in my choice, as this same dish was also named the #1 dish in the 2017 “World’s 50 best foods list” by CNN International.
If you haven’t tried Rendang yet, then it’s high time you did. Beef is super slowly cooked in coconut milk and a mix of spices with lemongrass being the most distinctive. Shallots, garlic, ginger, galangal, turmeric and chili are also important. Depending on your preferences you can add cloves, star anise, cardamom, lime leaves and maybe a handful of toasted coconut.
The braising should be done as slow as possible until all liquid is evaporated. It might seem to last forever, but this way the meat becomes really tender and all flavors are absorbed. A truly exceptional taste, so complex with so many different flavors going on at the same time with each bite. It’s Indonesia’s answer to Indian and Thai curries.
When you prepare Rendang yourself at home, make extra. If you can’t finish your portion in a restaurant, take it home in doggy bag. It’s true, next day’s Rendang is even better.
Update – April 2020
I received a few reactions saying that Rendang is a stew and not a curry, because it’s simmered slowly and is low on liquid. Well, I never actually said that Rendang is a curry, although I do see a lot of similarities. Anyhow, it’s just semantics, whether it’s a stew or a curry or a combination. At least, everyone agreed that Rendang is delicious and deserves its no.1 ranking, whoohoo!
Is your favorite in my “Top 39 Best Food in South East Asia”? Do you feel it’s ranked too low or even missing? It’s my list, but please, do speak your mind in the comments below.