Meet Southeast Asia's Street Food Masters

Detail of Makansutra Manila interior; note the “Shiok” plastered across the wall.
Mike Aquino

After a ten year search, the first World Street Food Congress Awards winners have been made public: a group of quality street food vendors from all over the world, serving traditional recipes from Vietnamese banh xeo to Singapore char kway teow.

Many of them are second-generation vendors, having taken over the business from their elders after giving up lucrative careers elsewhere. Some of them have made it a point to give generously back to society; Wee Nam Kee in Singapore, for example, hires reformed ex-convicts as cooks in their kitchen, and Indonesia's Pak Sadi has made a name for himself thanks to his charitable efforts.

All of them have racked up renown long before the World Street Food Congress came knocking. When you visit any of the cities these stalls are in, make sure to drop by and see for yourself why their collective reputations (and awards) are richly deserved.

01 of 14

Singapore's Best Claypot Rice

Image courtesy of Makansutra, used with permission.

Lian He Ben Ji Claypot Rice
Block 335 Smith St, #02-199, Chinatown Complex, Singapore

You have to be particularly good at your craft to master claypot rice... and if you have the best claypot rice in Singapore, that's saying something. Traditional claypot rice is cooked over a wood fire, requiring just the right amount of water and heat if you want a simply passable result.

For really great claypot rice, you must try Singapore's "Three Sisters Claypot Rice" - they use a unique gas and wood heating technique that cooks the claypot rice more efficiently while imparting the smokiness that claypot rice enthusiasts crave.

Dr. Leslie Tay of the popular Singapore food blog I Eat I Shoot I Post explains the origins of the name: the recipe was "passed down from father to daughter-in-law who then roped in her two sisters to run the stall," he writes. "They use very nice duck liver sausages, lup cheong and wax meat here and the salted fish is well proportioned.... The rice is nice and plump on top and well charred and crusty at the bottom with a nice smokey flavour that comes from the use of charcoal fire."

Dr. Tay also likes the corner of Chinatown where the Three Sisters set up shop - "The corner of Smith Street Food centre which they occupy is also bright and airy unlike some of the stalls within the food centre which can get a little stuffy."

Continue to 2 of 14 below.
02 of 14

Thailand's Most Satisfying Fish Porridge

Image courtesy of Makansutra, used with permission.

Chiang Ji (Siang Ki) Teochew Fish Porridge (Khaotom Pla)
Chiang Kii, 54 Soi Bamrungrat, Bangkok, Thailand

To taste Thailand's best take on the Chinese fish porridge (khaotom pla), you'll need to wander through the soi (side streets) of Yaowarat in Bangkok until you come across this old-school stall. Siang Ki is a husband-and-wife-run outfit that ladles hot, clear fish broth over steamed rice, topping the lot with pomfret fish, fried garlic and pickled vegetables. You can add soybean paste and fresh oysters to further enrich the plate, if that's what moves you.

  • 4 Places to Get Delicious Bangkok Street Food
Continue to 3 of 14 below.
03 of 14

Singapore's Tastiest Char Kway Teow

Image courtesy of Makansutra, used with permission.

Hill Street Fried Kway Teow
Block 16 Bedok South Road, #01-187, Bedok South Road Food Centre, Singapore

Char kway teow ranks as one of Singapore's top guilty pleasures; at the time your guide was writing ad copy for the National Kidney Foundation, this greasy, salty dish was Number One on their foods behind Singapore's endemic levels of hypertension.

But don't let that turn you off. It's no risk when eaten in moderation, and everyone should try it at least once: a scrumptious dish with far more textural variety and umami than you'd guess at a single glance.

This char kway teow stall in Bedok, Singapore represents the top of the class: a sweet AND savory AND salty AND crunchy dish that achieves perfection under the expert hands of Mr. Ng. The future is in good hands, as Mr. Ng's son is in line to take over (one of a long list of professionals who are succeeding their hawker parents to carry on the family name).

Continue to 4 of 14 below.
04 of 14

The Most Popular Nasi Kandar in Penang, Malaysia

Image courtesy of Makansutra, used with permission.

Line Clear Nasi Kandar
177 Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia

We've talked about nasi kandar elsewhere (read this entry in our article about Malaysian street food), and it's time we talked about the place to get it in the city where that dish came to be: when in Penang, Malaysia, Nasi Kandar Line Clear is the place to see.

Like most classic street food stalls, Line Clear really doesn't look like much: a grubby lane-side stall off Jalan Penang, its popularity has helped it expand into a convoluted food shed serving folks from all walks of life. Join the long line of patrons waiting for their order to be taken; when it's your turn, you can choose from a variety of foods to eat alongside your plate of white rice: mutton stews, Indian fried chicken, fish head curries, simple egg and curried ochre, and much more.

Line Clear is the clearest proof you need that good street food isn't limited to the lower classes: if you make it good, hearty, and consistently delicious, they will come, rich and working-class alike, to banjir (flood) their rice with your wares.

  • Malaysian Indian Food Guide
Continue to 5 of 14 below.
05 of 14

Singapore's Five-Star Tempura Prawns and More

Image courtesy of Makansutra, used with permission.

JB Ah Meng
2 Lorong 23 Geylang, Singapore

Chef Ferran Adria is said to have fallen in love with JB Ah Meng's tempura prawns, so you know it has to be good. But fancy it is not: JB Ah Meng stands right in the middle of Singapore's red-light district, in a nondescript coffee shop along Lorong 23. Customers sit at tables along the alleyway in front of the shop.

But the food is very five-star: white pepper crab, deep-fried fish skin and salted egg yolk tempura prawns that keep enthusiasts coming back, frustrating imitators who fall far short of JB Ah Meng's high standards.

Singaporean food blog Umami raves about JB Ah Meng's "three-storey rice noodles", or Sam lau maifan: "This was absolutely delicious," she states, cutting to the chase. "I love my chow-maifan, and this ranks as one of the best I've eaten. The noodles were presented almost like an omelet, with loads of beautifully charred surfaces permeated with that intoxicating and desirable aroma of 'wok-hei'." (For the uninitiated, "wok hei" refers to that ineffable charred/smokey flavor you get from food cooked expertly in a hot wok - Wikipedia.)

Continue to 6 of 14 below.
06 of 14

Indonesia's Most Innovative Soto Ayam Ambengan

Image courtesy of Makansutra, used with permission.

Soto Ayam Ambengan Pak Sadi Asli
Jalan Wolter Monginsidi Indah 28, Kebayoran Baru, South Jakarta, Indonesia

Pak Sadi started out small, helping his uncle sell soto ayam lamongan, or spicy chicken soup, on the streets. By tinkering with the chicken soup formulation, he hit upon a formula that improved on the traditional bumbu spice mix that serves as the base of the soup.

Today, Pak Sadi sells the Surabaya version of soto ayam, which is thickened with pulverized krupuk, or prawn crackers, tinted by turmeric and accompanied by rice noodles, hardboiled egg, minced fried garlic and spring onions. His version is so popular, Pak Sadi has had to register the formula to discourage the many imitators trying to cash in on his success. From perambulatory hawking on the streets, Pak Sadi now has a string of street stalls and cafes to his name, along with a reputation for good food, high standards, and civic generosity.

"His story is about learning, earning and returning to society," Singapore food authority K.F. Seetoh explains. "The amount of jobs created and reputation he has garnered is admirable."

Continue to 7 of 14 below.
07 of 14

Malaysia's Best Assam Laksa

Image courtesy of Makansutra, used with permission.

Wan Dao Tou Assam Laksa
1W Jalan Gottlieb, NW of City Centre, Georgetown, Penang Island, Malaysia

The current proprietor of Wan Dao Tou Assam Laksa, Lim Ee Quen, gave up her beauty salon business to manage her family's 14-year-old stall in front of the Penang Chinese Girl's High School. She has far less reason to regret the career change, as she was crowned the Battle of Penang Hawkers 2011's Assam Laksa Champion.

A few sips of the stall's signature dish will give you enough reason to justify the win: bits of sardine float in the robust-flavored broth, the latter deriving its flavor from tamarind, galangal, lemongrass and chilli. The later addition of fermented shrimp paste, torch ginger flower and fresh mint leaves give the noodle soup an added kick.

More on Penang assam laksa in our article about Malaysia street food.

Continue to 8 of 14 below.
08 of 14

Vietnam's Yummiest Chuoi Nuong

Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to

Nam Bo Chuoi Nuong
352 Nguyen Trai, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

They were a hit at the recent World Street Food Congress, and they were a hit with your guide too - chuoi nuong, a grilled banana wrapped with sticky rice and drenched in coconut milk with a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds, completely hit the spot. Coconut milk and cooked banana make for an ideal pairing; the banana-leaf wrapper, discarded before serving, added a nice aromatic touch.

Mrs. Ngo, the stall's proprietor, made a career change from architecture to hawk chuoi nuong after the birth of her firstborn.

Continue to 9 of 14 below.
09 of 14

Thailand's Most Colorful (and Most Scrumptious) Snacks

Image courtesy of Makansutra, used with permission.

Khun Pas
Silom Soi 5, (Soi La Lai Sob Saladang), Bangkok, Thailand

The best Thai street food seem to be hidden off Bangkok's many soi, and Khun Pas is no exception: Mrs. Bowon and her husband Martin tend to a stall off Saladang that serves traditional steamed glutinous dumplings. The pastel colors come from natural ingredients - pumpkin, pandan leaves and blue pea flowers, among others.

Thua Paep is a sweet dumpling filled with sesame and mung bean, coated with sesame seed. Khao Kriab Pak Moh is a savory dumpling with water chestnut, long beans and carrot combined with minced pork filling, and eaten with fresh lettuce and chilli sauce. The stall that specialized in both dishes was founded by Mrs. Bowon's mother, who has since passed it on to the former's capable hands.

  • 4 Places to Get Delicious Bangkok Street Food
Continue to 10 of 14 below.
10 of 14

Indonesia's Tastiest Nasi Kapau

Image courtesy of Makansutra, used with permission.

Rumah Makan Nasi Kapau
Simpang Tugu, Korong Tabik, Nagari Kapau, West Sumatra, Indonesia

A son of Nagari Kapau, Pak Afdal (pictured above) gave up a career cooking in Indonesia's finest restaurants to come back to his hometown to set up a streetside stall serving nasi kapau: "food people here appreciate", as he says.

He won locals over with his food: no small feat, as the townsfolk of Nagari Kapau in West Sumatra, Indonesia, are notorious for their pride in their local cuisine. Their haughtiness is well-founded: their local food, a variant of nasi padang, ups the spice and flavor quotient with piquant servings of rendang, dendeng lado merah (smoked beef jerky with spicy red chilies), sambal lado mudo (green chilli paste with salted fish and eggplant) and gulai cubadak (jackfruit stew with mild curry sauce), all served alongside white rice.

Continue to 11 of 14 below.
11 of 14

Vietnam's Most Savory Seafood Pancakes

Image courtesy of Makansutra, used with permission.

Banh Can 38
154 Nguyen Dinh Chinh, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ms. Phan Thi Thu Loan was well on her way to a career as an architect, until she gave it up to run a streetside stall selling banh xeo, or seafood pancakes. It turned out well for everyone. Visitors to her stall in Saigon can now enjoy old-fashioned banh xeo and banh khot (seafood rice cake). Ms. Loan has garnered awards from Vietnam's famously fussy gastronomy magazines, too.

The secret is in the batter: rice grains are soaked for hours, then pounded with a mortar. The pancakes are cooked over a charcoal fire to bring out the perfect texture and smoky flavor, then topped with fresh seafood and three kinds of sauces (braised fish sauce, anchovy sauce, and fish sauce).

Continue to 12 of 14 below.
12 of 14

Singapore's Original Chicken Rice

Image courtesy of Makansutra, used with permission.

Wee Nam Kee
Makansutra Gluttons Bay, 8 Raffles Avenue, Singapore

While the newest Wee Nam Kee outlet can be found in Marina Bay's Makansutra Gluttons Bay, the store's history goes way back, and the dish's love affair with Singapore goes back even further.

Hainanese chicken rice is a simple immigrant dish, adopted by Singapore as their unofficial national food: sliced steamed white chicken served with chickenfat-coated white rice alongside chicken broth, cucumber slivers, kecap manis and ginger paste. The chicken is served at room temperature, as they're dumped into an ice bath to arrest cooking.

The founder of Wee Nam Kee, Mr. Wee Toon Oout (pictured above), left a career in advertising 30 years ago to buy up a simple chicken rice stall, and revolutionized chicken rice in Singapore by simply listening to his customers and innovating based on their inputs. Mr. Wee's son is now part of the management team, and has spearheaded Wee Nam Kee's expansion overseas (the Philippines is now a prime market for chicken rice).

  • Ten Dishes You Should Try in Singapore
Continue to 13 of 14 below.
13 of 14

Indonesia's Tastiest Chicken Sate (Sate Ayam)

Image courtesy of Makansutra, used with permission.

Sate Ayam Barokah Haji Basiri
Jalan Arteri Pondok Indah No.5, Kebayoran Lama, Jakarta, Indonesia

Lucky we don't judge good street food by the look of the place, because Sate Ayam Baroka Haji Basiri's original stall in South Jakarta doesn't look like the kind of place where you can get the city's most delicious chicken skewers, or sate. (Check out our entry on sate in our article about Indonesia's best street foods.)

And yet the sate here is so good, Indonesia's celebrities rub shoulders with blue-collar workers for a place in the line. Rich or working-class get the same chunky sate brushed with sweet soy sauce, grilled and served alongside a bowl of savory peanut sauce to dip the sate in before every bite.

Apart from the original nondescript stall, three more outlets now serve Haji Basiri's famous chicken sate all over Jakarta.

Read this entry on sate ayam in our article about Indonesian street food.

Continue to 14 of 14 below.
14 of 14

Melaka's Finest Peranakan Comfort Chow

Image courtesy of Makansutra, used with permission.

Donald & Lily's
16 Ground floor, Jalan KSB 1, Taman Kota Shahbandar, 75200 Melaka, Malaysia

This venerable Nyonya food stall is making the transition to the second generation: daughter Jennifer is continuing her parents' mission of serving quality Peranakan (Straits Chinese) comfort food, including mee siam, assam pedas, nasi lemak, laksa, and cendol. (Her testimony about taking over from her parents can be read in this blog entry.)

Motormouth from Ipoh, a Malaysian food blogger, recommends Donald and Lily's ayam pongteh, a dish of braised chicken and potatoes with soy sauce and palm sugar syrup. "[It's] a most delicious affair, screaming for white rice to soak in all the lovely, savoury juices," says the Motormouth. "On its own, the chicken and potatoes can be a little salty, but we relished every bite of the tender chicken and the huge chunks of potatoes."

Was this page helpful?