You've heard the old cliché that Southeast Asia is a feast for the senses; you can put that to the test when you sit down to a feast, period. Some of your most memorable travel moments will be spent eating a meal; locals are particularly proud of their world-famous food for good reason.
Compared to food in the West, Southeast Asian food tends to be richer in flavor and spices. At the hands of local culinary masters, ordinary ingredients turn into culinary works of art.
Just travel to one of the region's many cities catering to foodies and you'll experience it for yourself: the surprisingly-cheap eats of Singapore's hawker centers; Penang, Malaysia's endless food choices; Indonesia's Padang restaurants on every corner; and even the Philippines' surprisingly diverse dining selections!
The foods listed below represent some of the top must-try dishes you'll find throughout Southeast Asia. When you find one listed on a menu, order it without delay!
Edited by Mike Aquino.
Nasi Goreng: Leftover Rice Transformed
asi gorengN – the omnipresent national dish of Indonesia – is a pleasant twist on fried rice. Cheap and delicious, nasi goreng is enjoyed by locals and travelers alike throughout Indonesia's 19,000 islands.
There are as many variations on nasi goreng as there are Indonesian housewives making it; common ingredients include shallots, egg, chives and shredded meat.
Their only commonality is the main ingredient, firm rice cooked the night before. As rice is a staple food in Indonesia, leftover rice is a given at the end of the day; Indonesian housewives use any such leftovers to make nasi goreng the next day.
Spices such as garlic, chili, and coriander lend the famous dish an Indian influence. A fried egg and crispy shrimp cracker add a little extra excitement to the meal.
Nasi goreng knows no social boundaries; the dish is both served in the finest restaurants and hawked as street food. Even President Barack Obama was served nasi goreng during his 2010 visit to Indonesia!
Pad Thai: Combined Flavors of Thailand
Perhaps the most well-known of food from Southeast Asia, Thailand's famous pad thai is enjoyed around the world. A delicious plate of pad thai can be enjoyed for less than a dollar in Thailand.
Flat rice noodles are stir-fried with egg, spices, and meat or shrimp to create a dish full of flavor. Bean sprouts and optional ground peanuts give a crunchy texture to the noodles; lime juice adds a citrus zest. Recipes vary, but tamarind paste and fish sauce blend to create a slightly sweet, salty, and spicy flavor – an addictive combination!
Despite its iconic standing in Thai cuisine, pad thai is actually a recent invention. The postwar Thai dictator Plaek Phibunsonggram decreed the creation of pad thai in response to creeping fears of Thai identity being washed away by Southeast Asia's competing powers.
Pho: Vietnam's National Noodle Dish
Pronounced something like “fuuuh,” no one is quite sure of the origins of Vietnam's famous noodle soup. (Hanoi foodies claim with certainty that pho was invented, nay, perfected in the north.) This is beyond dispute: pho makes a great meal anytime day or night.
Pho broth is prepared in advance from bones and meat. Rice noodles are then added along with onions and your choice of meat. A light-but-complex flavor is created by seasoning the soup with cilantro, onion, ginger, and cinnamon.
Pho is traditionally served with a plate of basil leaves, chili peppers, bean sprouts, green onions, and lime wedges; customers season the broth to their own liking.
The regional rivalry between north and south is immediately apparent in the pho you eat in either place. South of the seventeenth parallel, pho is served with the vegetables on the side, while in the North, the pho (called pho bac) is served with vegetables already soaking in the broth.
Laksa: Sour or Creamy, Winning at Both
Laksa has a fanatical following in both Malaysia (particularly Penang) and Singapore. While the thick noodle soup has evolved from region to region, two primary adaptations stand out: asam laksa and curry laksa.
Curry laksa uses sweet coconut milk as a base while asam laksa – the default in Penang – is made from sour tamarind paste. Both are rich, thick, and filling; the texture is slightly gritty. Lime juice offsets the somewhat fishy taste, while lemongrass and other spices season the soup to perfection.
Laksa is almost as commonplace as rice when wandering through Malaysia and Singapore's top food spots. You can find excellent examples in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown food spots like Madras Lane and hawker centers in Singapore like the one in Tiong Bahru.
Char Kway Teow: Smoky Fried Noodles on the Street
Want to start a fight? Tell a Malaysian that the noodle dish char kway teow was invented by a Singaporean, or vice versa. Foodies on both sides of the causeway jealously claim this fried noodle dish as their own.
But whether you tuck into a dish of char kway teow at a Singapore Chinatown food house or at Kedai Kopi Sin Guat Keong at Lebuh Kimberley in Malaysia's Penang, you'll encounter the very same dish on either side of the border: flat rice noodles, briskly stir-fried with cockles, prawns, Chinese sausage, chives, egg and bean sprouts in a dark soy sauce then served piping-hot.
Every dish of char kway teow comes with an abundance of umami and a variety of textures, all at low street-food-level prices (in Malaysia, you can score a bowl for as low as MYR 6, or about US$1.80; read about money in Malaysia).
Char kway teow fans look for a smoky aroma they call wok hei, which comes from the noodles' being stir-fried over high heat in a traditional Chinese wok. This writer swears by the noodles served at the aforementioned Lebuh Kimberley in Penang – if in Singapore, try the stuff at either the Singapore Food Trail or Bedok's Hill Street Fried Kway Teow.
Laap: Sticky Rice Goodness in Thailand & Laos
Sometimes spelled “laab” or “larb,” laap is the staple dish of Laos and parts of Northern Thailand, whose culture overlaps with those of the Lao. Simple but delicious, laap is made of roughly chopped meat blended with sticky rice and fish sauce.
No trip to Laos or Northern Thailand is complete without sampling a few different varieties of laap. Like many Southeast Asian staple foods, laap lends itself to infinite variation: it can be made from chicken, fish, beef, pork, or even duck. Optional lime helps to offset the fish sauce; chili and and mint add a zest to the chunky dish.
Laap is traditionally served at room temperature and is eaten with the hands any time of day. Read this article to find out how to expertly eat with your hands.
Nasi Kandar: Flooded with Flavor
Tamil Muslims migrated to Malaysia from South India during the 10th century, bringing with them new spices and cooking techniques. Today, their delicious cuisine can be found throughout Malaysia at eateries known as Mamak stalls.
Among the Indian culinary concepts now populating George Town, Malaysia tables, nasi kandar enjoys a popularity that defies its simplicity (rice topped with meat or vegetables, then slathered with curry). Nasi kandar is hardly subtle: real enthusiasts ask for curry banjir, or flooding the dish and saturating the rice with spicy curry sauce.
The dish takes its name from its history as a street food: back in British colonial days, street hawkers would dispense nasi kandar from baskets suspended on a yoke resting on their backs. Nasi is Malay for rice; kandar is the local name for a pole or yoke.
The descendants of those nasi kandar hawkers now sell their food from brick-and-mortar shops like Line Clear Nasi Kandar, established in 1930 and still thriving, with long lines snaking out onto the street during mealtimes.
Durian Fruit: A Nose for Flavor
Either deeply loved or vehemently hated, the infamous durian fruit is available throughout Southeast Asia. The durian is renowned for its pungent and overwhelming smell -- sometimes compared to body odor or vomit. The fruit has even been banned on public transportation and in shared spaces!
But once you prepare yourself psychologically for the smell, durian fruit is actually creamy, delicate and delicious. Singaporeans, Thais and Malaysians willingly pay big bucks for the best specimens, like US$300 for one Nonthaburi durian fruit!
Durian is grown all over Southeast Asia; however, the Balik Pulau region in Penang, Malaysia is famous for growing quality durians. The Malaysian state celebrates a durian festival between May and June, worth visiting if you're willing to brave the calories and the odor.
Mohinga: Myanmar's Breakfast of Champions
Everybody in Myanmar eats mohinga for breakfast, whether you're the lowliest market vendor or if you're Aung San Suu Kyi herself. Rich, hearty and filling, mohinga offers a cheap but effective boost for Burmese getting ready for the working day.
Mohinga is a rice noodle dish with a broth made from catfish stock and a selection of Myanma spices – among them coriander, lime and lemongrass. After a topping-off of crispy fritters and hard-boiled eggs, mohinga is served piping hot. You can eat it any way you like, except that you can never eat it using chopsticks – locals eat it with a fork and spoon.
This writer experienced mohinga several times in Myanmar – my favorite instances happened in Yangon, at the famous Daw Cho noodle stall off Shwedagon Pagoda; and at Pindaya, where my host at Thahara Pindaya served it first thing in the morning.
Sisig – Sizzling Pork Philippines Favorite
Philippines food runs from the freshly familiar to the exotic (see: the partially formed duck fetus delicacy known as balut). Tending towards the latter, the pork dish known as sisig can be ordered at most Filipino restaurants, ideally paired with beer during one of the regular drinking sessions on the islands.
Sisig was invented in the Philippines' foodie province of Pampanga, first served at a railside hole-in-the-wall by a housewife (the late Lucing Cunanan) who chopped up pork extras, mixed them with chopped shallots and chilies, and served the lot on a hot plate alongside rice.
You can still visit Aling Lucing's joint, still carrying on after her untimely death, serving steaming hot plates of sisig to diners who loudly proclaim this to be the best on the islands, bar none! For more on sisig and other Filipino food delicacies, read our account of a morning-to-night food frenzy in the Philippines.