Southeast Asian cuisine is famous throughout the world. And if truth be told, it's one of the main memories for many people who travel to Southeast Asia. Thailand lures capsaicin fanatics like moths to a spicy flame.
Experiencing good food is a key part of any trip. A country's cuisine and the effort involved tell a lot about its past and present. Each dish offers a peek at the culture and history. With so many varied influences over centuries, Southeast Asian cuisine can range from simple, filling fare for farmers to spicy fusion dishes capable of frightening squeamish eaters.
Don't just stick to fried rice or the familiar stuff. Branch out, and don't worry: food prices in Southeast Asia, even Singapore, are relatively inexpensive. Portion sizes are smaller, too — order away!
Malaysia, specifically Penang, has some of the best food on offer in Southeast Asia. This paradise for foodies came about partially thanks to Chinese and Indian immigrants who brought new spices and cooking techniques with them to the island.
Although Kuala Lumpur's food scene is alive and very well, serious eaters should head to the island of Penang, home to some of the best street food and food courts in Southeast Asia. Gurney Drive in Penang is especially popular for eating and socializing.
- Malaysian Noodle Dishes: A staggering number of tasty noodle dishes, mostly of Chinese origin, can be purchased from street vendors for less than one dollar.
- Malaysian Indian Food: Malaysia's large Indian Muslim community cook up delicious cuisine that is sometimes served on banana leaves — a great choice for vegetarians.
- Nasi Lemak: Of all the great cuisine in Malaysia, if one dish had to somehow stand out as a national dish, it would be nasi lemak. Fragrant rice, peanuts, spicy sambal, boiled egg, and dried anchovies are wrapped into a banana-leaf parcel ready to go.
Vietnamese cuisine is often considered less oily and more healthy than other Southeast Asian cuisine. Fresh herbs rolled into spring rolls (not fried) and hearty bone-broth noodle soups reinforce that reputation.
Vietnam, along with Laos, is one of the few places in Southeast Asia where travelers can still find good bread, cheese, and wine — three items left behind by the French.
- Banh Mi: Even if you're sworn off of Western food for your trip, somehow delicious banh mi baguettes don't count. Take advantage of the remnants of French colonization!
- Pho: Pronounced “fuuuh” instead of "foh," Vietnam's famous noodle soup is a world-famous staple. Try it in both Saigon and Hanoi — they prepare pho differently.
- Cao Lau: Found only in the quaint tourist town of Hoi An, cao lau is arguably the rarest noodle dish in the world thanks to ancient well water that is used in the preparation.
Thai food hardly needs introduction: pad thai, colorful curries, and other fabulously spicy dishes have made reputations known around the world.
The default Thai way of eating is to order several dishes and share around the table. You should, too, and sample as many good things as possible!
- Pad Thai: The most famous of Thai dishes isn't very old, but locals enjoy it, too. Expect a stir-fry of flat rice noodles served with egg, bean sprouts, lime, and optional crushed peanuts. Dried chili powder or phrik nam pla (fish sauce with diced chili peppers) are provided as condiments to add heat.
- Thai Curries: Usually prepared with coconut milk and curry paste, Thai curries are sweet, spicy, and filling. Some popular choices are red, green, yellow, Penang, and Massaman.
- Thai Street Food: Thailand has some of the best street food in the world. With prices around one dollar a meal, an excellent dinner can be had by just grazing from food carts. The carts in places where locals eat are infinitely better than those along Khao San Road.
Khmer food may not be as famous as food from neighboring countries, but the dishes are unique and tasty. Food is commonly prepared with prahok, a fish paste which lends a unique flavor to curries and rice.
- Amok: Cambodia's signature curry is typically made with fish, however, chicken is always available. The meat is prepared in banana leaves and then seasoned with a blend of spices.
- Bai Cha: A fried rice variant made with sausage and soy sauce — certainly a filling option for the hungry!
Laotian cuisine shares some parallels with neighboring Thailand and Cambodia, however, many dishes have their own unique, local twist.
- Sticky Rice: Travelers love and get hooked on sticky rice, a glutinous rice squeezed between the fingers and used to scoop up whatever you are eating. The unique texture is addictive, as is the presentation (it's often brought to the table in a steaming bamboo basket).
- Laap: Spelled a variety of different ways, laap is pretty well the national dish in Laos. Roughly chopped meat (most often beef, chicken, pork, or duck) is blended with toasted rice and then seasoned with herbs, fish sauce, and lime.
- Papaya Salad: Known locally as som tam, green papaya salad is a ride of texture and flavors. Crunchy, sour, sweet, spicy, and salty best describe this healthy salad. You'll find green papaya salad all over Laos and Thailand.
- Ping Pa: Ping pa consists of marinated freshwater fish grilled slowly until it becomes dry and stringy. Ping Gai, the chicken variant, is smoky and tasty.
Food in the Philippines is a fusion of Asian cuisine with many Spanish and European influences blended with Chinese. Philippine cuisine is different, and arguably heavier than other Southeast Asian cuisine.
- Adobo: Found everywhere in the Philippines, Adobo is meat or fish cooked slowly in vinegar and spices then browned to a crispy finish in oil.
- Pancit: Pancit is simply any noodle dish — scores of variations exist — with meat and vegetables.
- Kare-Kare: Oxtail, tripe, and vegetables are added to a peanut-based broth to make this heavy stew.
- Kinilaw: Call it the Philippine ceviche, kinilaw is a spicy, delicious salad of raw fish sliced into cubes and marinated in vinegar.
Who would have guessed the tiny island nation of Singapore to be one of the top food destinations in the world?
Singaporeans certainly know how to eat, and food culture abounds! A large foreign expat and immigrant presence mean that practically any style of Western or Asian cuisine can be found.
- Laksa: Singapore has their own delicious variant of the noodle soup laksa.
- Char Kway Teow: This popular, Chinese street food dish consists of rice noodles fried to a dark brown in soy sauce. Meat, sliced fish cake, egg, and sometimes sausage are added to create the king of all fatty noodle dishes.
With over 17,000 islands in the archipelago, it is not surprising that the food in Indonesia is as diverse as the people. Native spices such as nutmeg and cloves turn otherwise-lackluster dishes into something you will crave for months after.
- Nasi Goreng: The national dish of Indonesia, this orange-colored fried rice is simple yet delicious.It's often topped with a fried egg.
- Gado-Gado: Perfect for vegetarians, gado-gado is stir-fried or boiled vegetables in thick-and-sweet peanut sauce.
- Tempeh: Vegetarians around the world are grateful for Indonesia's healthy protein option. Fermented soybeans are compressed into cakes to create a firm-textured tofu with a nutty taste. The tempeh cakes are sliced and used in dishes as a meat substitute.