Southeast Asian Cuisine | A Food-Lover’s Guide to the World’s Tastiest Region

Let’s start with a bold statement… Southeast Asian food is the best you will eat anywhere, fact!

Okay, I admit it, I’m biased. Here at South East Asia Backpacker, we spend a lot of time talking about the ways in which our favourite region is the best in the world. We accept not everyone will agree with us on every point, but when it comes to the question of food, we’re pretty confident you will!

Lend me your eyes, bellies and imaginations for 5-10 minutes and I promise that by the end you’ll be salivating like Pavlov’s dogs, ready to book that flight (or at the very least, order in some mighty-fine Southeast Asian takeaway).


What’s so great about Southeast Asian food anyway?

In a word, diversity. To cross a border in Southeast Asia is to take your tastebuds to another world entirely. That feeling in your belly as you approach passport control? Could be nerves, I guess. However, most likely, your body is preparing itself for the new and exciting culinary treats in store.

Of course, there are common themes and ingredients. The theme of balance appears again and again across the region, most notably between the five flavours; salty, sweet, bitter, sour and spicy. 

Noodles, rice and broths will be found almost everywhere you go. The sound and smell of stir-frying and deep-frying will likely be there too. Coconut, fish sauce, palm oil, palm sugar, peanuts, chilis, makrut lime*, lemongrass and coriander will feature heavily.

*Makrut lime is more commonly known as kaffir lime. However, kaffir is a racially charged word that we will not be using in the remainder of this guide.

SPECIFIC DIETS – If any of those common-place ingredients sent shivers up your spine, we’ve got you. Even the strictest diets can be followed safely in Southeast Asia, as long as you know-how. Read how this girl backpacked Asia with a severe peanut allergy. And, if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, make sure you read our comprehensive vegan guide to Southeast Asia.


Street Food in Southeast Asia

Ingredients and cooking techniques aside, there is one constant that accompanies you throughout your Southeast Asian adventure, and that constant is a topic close to my heart and that is… street food!

Picture this. You are sitting on a plastic stool at a plastic table, probably next to a road. You have chopsticks and a spoon at the ready. A plate/bowl of something unfamiliar is being placed in front of you.

If what I’ve just described is not already your “happy place”, you’ve never truly been happy, simple as that!

Many a love affair with travel has begun on the street food scene in our beloved SEA. As a South East Asia Backpacker reader, when visiting a place you have a moral duty to try as many of the street food stalls on offer as is humanly possible. On your last night or two, you’re allowed to return to your favourites. Before then though… TRY. THEM. ALL!!!

Will you enjoy everything you try? Probably not. However, chances are, the best food you experience while travelling will come from a street food stall. Your entire meal will probably cost less than a chocolate bar in a shop. It’s a great way to contribute to the local economy while making your money go further.  Most importantly, every street vendor has their own unique take on their speciality. One extra squeeze of lime here, one extra drop of fish sauce there and you just found the best pad Thai the world has to offer, until tomorrow that is…

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Asian Food – The Weird and the Wonderful

As you dabble in the tantalising world of street food, you’ll start to find yourself drawn to some of the stranger offerings. In fact, it may not have taken you long. Many a first-time traveller eager to impress those around them will snap up the opportunity to try a deep-fried scorpion on Khao San Road within hours of arriving in Bangkok…

Deep-fried arachnids, insects and their lava are, if anything, the easy way into the more curious end of the Southeast Asian cooking spectrum. They’re not at all bad, either. Most people say they “taste a bit like chicken” (mind you, when do people not say that?). There are snakes, snake eggs, duck-blood soup, seahorses and chicken feet to name a few. How do you like your eggs in the morning? Fertilised or century-old?

READ MORE: Weird Asian Food – 23 Strange Delicacies


Drinks in Southeast Asia

Soft Drinks – Need a nice refreshing drink with which to wash down that bird embryo? You’ll be pleased to know that this is yet another area that Southeast Asia does not disappoint. There are refreshing natural classics, like coconut water, drunk straight from the shell, sugar-cane juice and every imaginable fruit squeezed into a glass. Alternatively, you might enjoy the cutesy, admittedly more artificial options of bubble tea or pink milk.

Hot Drinks Maybe not what you’d first think of when it comes to life in the tropics, you will find a surprising number of delicious and unusual forms of your favourite caffeine kicks, coffee and tea. Vietnamese Coffee and Teh Tarik are well known across the world, but you’ll find every country will have done something quirky with a hot drink that you’ll be raving about in no time.

Alcoholic Drinks – Alcohol is readily available across the region (note – it can be more difficult and more expensive to buy in the Muslim countries of Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia). Several popular Asian beers are known around the world (San Miguel and Tiger to name but two), then there’s the backpacker favourite of Bia Hoi – the cheapest beer in Southeast Asia!

Wine is produced in Vietnam and Myanmar. Both can be surprisingly good. The wine in Myanmar is also surprisingly expensive. Vietnamese wine, on the other hand, can be absolutely fantastic value for money.

Then, there’s the most famous backpacker drink of them all, the bucket… A bucket is not a drink, it’s literally a bucket, a bucket full of drink (normally of very questionable quality), to be shared by a group. Whether or not a post-pandemic world sees the decline of this germ-sharing institution is yet to be seen. 

WARNING – There are many forms of bootleg alcohol available too (Arak is a particularly well-known example), which we strongly recommend you avoid. The number of people that have died after drinking more than they should have (ie, any at all) of these liquors is staggering. Many survivors have endured lasting damage from their encounter, including, but not limited to a complete loss of their sense of sight. Seriously, just don’t bother…

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Southeast Asian Desserts

I’ll be honest, I’m not so bothered by desserts as a general rule, but for those with a sweet tooth, Southeast Asia has more than a few treats up its sleeve! (Personally, I’m much more likely to choose a delicious piece of fruit. When such treats as jackfruit, rambutans and pomelo are on offer, it is hard to refuse…)

Even if you don’t normally have a sweet tooth, you should definitely sink your teeth into a dessert to three whilst in Southeast Asia. Truly, I suspect everyone would love mango and sticky rice, even if they don’t like the sound of it in advance. Then there are some more surprising options, like the legendary cendol, which is so beloved that Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have a pretty fierce discussion going on about who can claim it as their own.

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Southeast Asian Food – By Country A-Z

I spoke before about the diversity of the food offered by this marvellous region. Let’s now break that down and look at each country’s particular characteristics.


Cambodian Food:

  • Key feature: Resourcefulness
  • Distinctive Ingredients: Insects & Arachnids

It might surprise you to hear that Cambodian food tends to be less spicy than that of its neighbours… However, coconut, lemongrass, makrut lime, fish paste and turmeric all feature highly. So, while a Cambodian dish may not be spicy, it’ll still probably be super tasty!

Where Cambodian cuisine really comes into its own is the inclusion of ingredients that many cultures turn their backs on. Insects are an obvious example. This feature of the cuisine is largely due to the gruelling realities of life under the Khmer Rouge. 

Undernourishment was a powerful tool that the dictatorship exploited to keep the population under control. Food was heavily rationed and protein was scarce under the regime. This situation led many to hunt and catch as many creatures as they could get away with (ie. without being seen). Beetles and spiders were the most common catch of the day, but frogs, lizards and rats have all made their mark on the nation’s culinary identity as a result of those dark years.

3 Dishes to Try in Cambodia:

  • Fish Amok – A creamy coconut curry with a mousse-like texture traditionally served in a banana leaf. Widely considered the country’s national dish. If you are vegetarian, try it with tofu instead. 
  • Nom Ka Chai (Chive cakes) – Crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, this popular Cambodian street food snack is tasty the whole way through. Street food at its best!
  • Ongkrong saek koo (Red tree ants with beef and holy basil) – Whatever you may feel about eating animals, ants must be one of the most sustainable forms of protein on the planet and the little buggers wouldn’t think twice before sinking their painful little pincers into your rump, so why not get there first?

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Filipino Food

  • Key Feature: East meets West
  • Distinctive Ingredients: Peppercorns, Cured Meats, Soy Sauce, Offal

Filipino food sometimes gets a bad wrap from travellers, who have been known to complain that it is Americanised, too often deep-fried and generally unhealthy. While it’s true that the US has had a huge influence on the Philippines, including on its food, this accusation is an over-simplification that fails to acknowledge much of what is wonderful about the country and its food.

Yes, hot dogs and burgers are commonly found. However, foreign influence had already been shaping Filipino cuisine for centuries before those more recent introductions. Arabic, Indian, Chinese and Japanese influences had been contributing to the flavours found on this paradise of many islands for years. Then, of course, came the Spanish…

Unlike the American and Chinese impact on Filipino cuisine, the Spanish influence isn’t so obvious at first sight. However, it’s subtly there in the background, simmering away (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). 

Anyone who knows a thing or two about Spanish food will know that sofrito is the foundation for many dishes. In its simplest form, sofrito consists of onion, garlic and tomatoes. Whilst this mix is omnipresent across Europe, it is an unusual combination in Southeast Asia and its prominence in Filipino food, where it’s known as ‘ginisá’  marks a major difference compared with other cuisines in the region. 

Endless Spanish classics have made it onto the menu in the Philippines, including paella, lechón (suckling pig) and cured meats. Perhaps most interestingly of all though, the Spanish introduced the Filipinos to forks and spoons. “What about knives?” I hear you say. Nope, the locals were not allowed access to knives, as it was believed they might be used against the colonists. Whilst these days knives certainly are available in the Philippines, they are still rarely seen at the dining table.

3 Dishes to try in the Philippines:

  • Adobo – Generally considered the national dish, this braised stew builds its flavour around soy sauce, whole peppercorns and vinegar.  Chicken is particularly popular, but adobo can be made from anything. In fact, the variations on adobo are never-ending. It’s best to try as many as you can!
  • Halo-halo – Meaning literally “mix-mix”, halo-halo is a refreshing dessert built upon crushed ice, condensed milk and evaporated milk. Any number of ingredients can be introduced to this “mix-mix”. Sweetened beans are the most traditional extra, but literally, anything that fits well can be added.
  • Balut – OK, perhaps you’d prefer to see this as a “might-try” or even a “won’t-try” than a “must-try”. A fertilised embryo eaten directly from the egg is not going to be to all tastes, but it will make for an interesting conversation starter in the future, even if you’re not so into it at the time.

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Laotian Food

  • Key Feature: Sticky rice, spice
  • Distinctive Ingredients: Sticky rice, dried meats, chilli, baguettes and croissants

It is said that wherever Lao people are in the world, sticky rice is the glue that binds them to their community, their roots and to Laos itself. In fact, Laotian people sometimes refer to themselves as Luk khao niaow, which literally translates as “children of sticky rice”.

According to the International Rice Research Institute, of the world’s 6530 species of sticky rice, 3200 are found in Laos. Average yearly sticky rice consumption is believed to work out at 171kg per person (that’s over 450g each daily)! Suffice to say Dr Atkins would not have had much success in Laos…

You can easily deduce from that extreme statistic that sticky rice is the staple in most Lao dishes. There are noodles, of course, but they are rarer than in neighbouring countries, generally reserved for soups. Incredibly enough, baguettes and croissants are commonplace, a reminder of the era of French colonial rule. There’s nothing like a bit of bread to help wash down half a kilo of rice, I guess.

Another ingredient you will find significantly less frequently in Laos is coconut milk. Chilli, on the other hand, is very much still on the menu. In fact, in Thailand (of all places) it was seen as necessary to dial down the chilli-level in such Laotian classics as Som Tam and Larb in order to make them more palatable. Let that sink in…

3 Dishes to Try in Laos

  • Tam Mak Hoong – Better known in the west by its Thai name, som tam, tam mak hoong is a green papaya salad, most commonly flavoured with crushed up freshwater crab, lime and chilli in eye-watering quantities.
  • Larb – It’s not often a salad comes with a health warning, but then it’s not often a salad is based around raw meat, especially not pork or chicken, as is often the case here. However, larb is very often served with cooked meat. On those occasions, it’s a tasty mix of meat, crispy veg, mint, chilli (of course) and toasted rice. I’d go as far as to very strongly recommend you limit your larb intake to places that serve the cooked version. Death from larb is a thing, better not put that on your bucket list!
  • Beer Lao – Not technically a dish, beer Lao holds a place in the hearts of many a backpacker (as well as a logo on many a backpacker’s vest). This remarkably refreshing beer is state-produced! Who knew nationalisation could taste so good?

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Indonesian Food

  • Key Feature: A healthy kick of bitterness in the familiar sweet/salty/sour/bitter/spicy combo.
  • Distinctive Ingredients: Sambal, Peanut Sauce

Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago stretching 5,150km from East to West. It provides a home to well over 1000 distinct ethnic groups. Naturally, a country with a cultural mix as diverse as Indonesia is likely to have an equally rich variety of food on offer.

As is the case with every country in Southeast Asia, Indonesia has been hugely important when it comes to international trade. So important was it, in fact, that the islands that make up the Moluccas were known for a long time as “The Spice Islands”. Pepper, cloves and nutmeg/mace (two parts of the same nut) were exported from the islands at a ferocious pace. Predictably enough, the financial rewards of this important moment in international trade were reaped in Lisbon, London and Amsterdam and not on the islands themselves.

3 Dishes to try in Indonesia

  • Nasi Goreng – One of Indonesia’s five national dishes, this variation on fried rice draws its unique character from kecup manis (sweetened soy sauce) and terasi (shrimp paste).
  • Gado-Gado – Another of the country’s five national dishes, Gado-Gado is another dish whose English name would be “mix-mix”. However, that is where the comparison with the Filipino halo-halo ends. Gado-gado is a refreshing salad that can come in in-numerous formats. Whichever format you find, expect crunchy vegetables set off with spicy chilli, fish sauce and peanuts.
  • Rendang – If there’s one sure way to make a tasty meal even tastier, it’s time. Rendang is a slow-cooked delight most commonly made with beef, a stunning mix of spices and coconut milk. There aren’t many ways for a combo like that to go wrong…

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Malaysian Food

  • Key Feature: Diversity of influences
  • Distinctive Ingredients: Curry Leaves, Kerisik (roasted coconut)

When I had to sum up what makes Southeast Asian cuisine so great, I chose the word “diversity”. I mentioned crossing a border and finding yourself in a different world. Well, in Malaysia, you only need to cross the street to achieve the same thing!

Incredibly enough, some people are rather rude about the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. I have even heard it described as a “yawn-fest”. This leaves me somewhat confused. If you’ve opened your mouth wide enough to yawn, that’s a jolly good opportunity to stick some food in it, at which point I assure you, you’ll forget you ever had anything against the place.

East-Asian (especially Chinese), South-Asian (especially Indian) and to a lesser extent Arabic immigrants have all made a home for themselves in this cultural melting pot, and several of their techniques and ingredients have become key elements in the national cuisine. Colonial times also made their mark. Elements of Portuguese, Dutch and British cuisine are also mixed in.

Curry leaves are an example of an import particularly close to my heart. Possibly my all-time-absolute-favourite ingredient, these little gems haven’t made it across so much of SE Asia (inexplicably, in my opinion, the climate’s perfect for growing them). They did make it to Malaysia though. They aren’t quite as prominent as they are in Southern Indian or Sri Lankan cooking, but are often used to flavour rice.

As if the flavour of food in Malaysia wasn’t enough to set it aside already, it’s very common for a meal to be served up on banana leaves, making it even more appealing (if that’s possible!).

3 Dishes to try in Malaysia

  • Nasi Lemak – Malaysia’s national dish is another flavour-fest based around rice that surrounds the white grain with sliced cucumber, hard-boiled eggs, peanuts, dried anchovies and coconut sambal.
  • Penang Hokkien Mee – This noodle soup is one of Penang’s most famous specialities. The dish originates in the Chinese Fujian Province of Hokkien. It’s built on a flavoursome broth, with meat, noodles, prawns and a generous whack of spicy sambal.
  • Marmite Chicken – Somehow, marmite chicken never occurred to the British (Marmite, for those of you who don’t know, is a strong-tasting paste made of yeast extract, a by-product of beer production and possibly the most quintessentially British food there is). Yet again, Malay chefs saw what needed to be done and stepped up to make it happen.

Myanmar (Burmese) Food

  • Key Feature: Side Dishes
  • Distinctive Ingredients: Ferments and Pickles, Tea Leaves

Personally, when I make a curry, I like to offer up at least three or four pickles for my guests to choose from as accompaniments. Yet, even I start to feel slightly overwhelmed by the spread that appears before me when I sit down for a meal in Myanmar. It isn’t unusual for 10 to 20 additional metal pots to be served, most of them containing different ratios of dried shrimp and chilli, none of them offering anything close to “a subtle tone”.

Expect the dish that these pots accompany to also be extremely tasty. Like Malaysia, Myanmar offers up curries somewhat akin to those you’ll find in India, but with an unmistakable twist. There’s more prominence of pickled and otherwise fermented flavours as well as a number of bitter vegetables, that give many a plate a distinctive bite.

The best of Burmese food, in my experience, is found at the side of the road or at markets. There is a slight tendency for restaurants in touristy areas (bear in mind that movement in Myanmar is heavily restricted for foreigners, even in times of peace) to be over-priced, bland or just disappointing in a nondescript way.

3 Dishes to try in Myanmar

  • Mohinga – A fishy noodle breakfast soup that’s almost always available all day long, Mohinga has a very wide appeal and is unlikely to disappoint.
  • Tea-Leaf Salad – It’s surprising that so few nations have decided to cook with tea leaves, especially given how much of a success this dish is. The pickled leaves provide tangy freshness while deep-fried beans provide a crunchy body. Throw in a bit of lime and chilli, everybody’s happy…
  • Burmese Tea – Not a million miles away from chai, this sweet milky mix is available almost everywhere and makes for a great warming energy-shot to punctuate the day with.

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Singaporean Food

  • Key Feature: Multiculturalism
  • Distinctive ingredients: Seafood, rice, noodles

Singapore is a country that’s fiercely proud of the cultural diversity of its people. Spend ten minutes walking around near food-joints and you’ll find out exactly why that’s the case!

Malay, Chinese and Indian influences are the most prominent of all, but several other cultures have made their contribution to the delicious offerings you’ll find in this tiny city nation.

Singapore is not a cheap place to spend your time and accommodation costs easily go through the roof. However, eating can be affordable, especially if you do most of it in the legendary hawker centres. 

Singapore’s Hawker centres were added to UNESCO’s  Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in December 2020, and are described as “community dining rooms where people from diverse backgrounds gather and share the experience of dining over breakfast, lunch and dinner.”. I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Of course, in a country as wealthy as Singapore, there’s an impressive number of luxury restaurants on offer. However, if you want to tuck into Michelin starred food, don’t worry, you needn’t even leave the hawker centres! 

Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle is not in Hong Kong, it’s in Singapore and it, along with Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, were the first two street food stalls in the world to earn a Michelin star! Here at South East Asia Backpacker, we’re not normally believers in going to “the place” that everyone tells you you should. However, with these two options, we might make an exception.

3 Dishes to Try in Singapore

  • Hainanese Chicken Rice – Frugality is a motor for creativity and a driver towards strong flavours. This dish, in its Singaporean incarnation (as opposed to the Chinese dish it derives from), was created by servant-class immigrants as a way to make their chicken supplies go further. It is usually accompanied by chillis and cucumber and you will see it absolutely everywhere you go in Singapore.
  • Chilli Crab – I’ll admit, “mud crab” is not a particularly appealing name, but that’s where the lack of appeal begins and ends when it comes to this astonishingly tasty affair. It’s colourful, sweet and spicy. Best of all, you’re expected to make an almighty mess when you eat it.
  • Roti Prata – Anyone who’s spent any time in southern India will probably have developed quite a penchant for paratha. The Singaporean version of this insanely-moreish flatbread is normally served up with delicious curry, although it is even possible to have chocolate roti prata!

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Thai Food

  • Key Feature: Spice
  • Distinctive Ingredients: Makrut Lime, Tamarind, Fish Sauce, Lemongrass

No country in Southeast Asia has made it quite so firmly onto the international restaurant scene as Thailand. From Barcelona to Brooklyn, it’s possible to sit in an immaculate spa-like setting, eating mildly-enjoyable food with some carved-vegetable bird-thing decorating the plate, before paying an extortionate fee and leaving with a completely misconceived notion about authentic Thai food.

So what should adorn these eateries so that they get my seal of approval? Firstly, on the table there should be at least four pots with little spoons in them, ready to serve up the following items: Crushed peanuts, Pickled chilis (sliced) in their vinegar, Fish sauce with sliced fresh chillis in, Chilli flakes. (To offer additional condiments is OK, as long as those four are covered.)

One issue that may hinder the relationship with Thai food for some people is the spice level. There are a few dishes that are usually mild, pad Thai and guay tiew (two of my top picks) being fine examples. 

However, the further you stray away from touristy areas and the more you open your mind to new dishes, you will very likely find yourself in disbelief at quite how spicy food can be. While there’s no easy rule for predicting how spicy a dish will be, there is a general tendency in places that offer several curries from metal trays that all of them would fit into the “Wow! I can’t believe how spicy that is” category. There’s nothing wrong with asking for the least spicy option available. It will still very likely blow your head clean off!

3 Dishes to try in Thailand

  • Guay Tiew – The quintessential Thai lunch, guay tiew is noodle soup in its finest form. A rich yet fresh-tasting broth, containing either tofu or meat and with an ever-so-pleasing selection of crunchy veg on top, typically beansprouts, scallions and a healthy load of coriander leaves. Guay tiew rarely fails. Note: Even I will admit that the “meatballs” that often accompany guay tiew along with the main protein ingredient are worth avoiding, though that will be a matter of taste…
  • Pad Thai – No doubt there’ll be some eye-rolling at this, and the odd “oh my God, Pad Thai is so cliche”, to which I reply “You’re the eff-ing cliche, pal”. Pad Thai is a wonderful dish with a fascinating history. The blend of textures and flavours is so pleasing that it was always going to become a classic.
  • Panang Curry – There are five giants of Thai curry, Red, Green, Yellow, Massaman and Panang. I’m a particular fan of the latter. If it has a closest relative in the same list, that relative is the red curry, but in my humble opinion, panang is a more interesting affair. Rich, creamy and nutty, this orange-tinged delight is hugely satisfying with a welcome range of subtle flavours, combined with a less subtle but equally welcome whack of spice and fishy saltiness.

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Vietnamese Food

  • Key Feature: Balance, with a special mention for the balance of textures
  • Distinctive Ingredients: Lots of fresh herbs and salad leaves

A balance of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy ingredients is a theme repeated over and over as we take our bellies on a delectable tour of Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, this balance is believed to be one of many expressions of the five elements (as inherited from the Chinese Wuxing philosophy, read more here).

The five elements are thought to relate to flavours, food groups, senses, colours and even internal organs. In harmony with the five elements, there is also a balance related to Yin and Yang, which focuses on the “warming” and “cooling” nature of both ingredients within a dish and the dish itself. However, it is the balance of textures that I find of particular interest in Vietnamese cooking, and one that really makes the cuisine stand out.

There are textures inherent to any meal. Broths, for instance, are wet (obvious, huh?). Meat, depending on how it’s cooked, can be soft, chewy etc. These inherent textures are riffed upon by Vietnamese chefs who will aim to create interesting effects by combining them with elements that are crunchy, sticky or slimy.

Vietnamese food has a reputation of being one of the healthiest cuisines in the world. This is in large part thanks to the extraordinary number of fresh herbs that get served up alongside many meals. It’s not uncommon to find a large bowl of these greens is provided for you as an accompaniment to your meal. Most of the leaves are tasty and delicious. There are, however, a couple that won’t be to all tastes. Fish basil, as an example, is considered to have a fishy smell/taste, though I would personally describe it as the smell of a wet dog. I am not a fan, I’m afraid.

Personally, I’m not sure the “healthiest food in the world” tag is quite justified. A number of street stalls serve up meals based around extremely questionable “meats”. I have found myself wondering what on Earth is in my bowl/sandwich on more than one occasion.

One thing definitely not in my bowl/sandwich at that time was dog meat. How do I know? Because dog meat is considered a delicacy in Vietnam and something you are extremely unlikely to buy accidentally due to its elevated price tag. It is, however, widely available across the country. Aside from dog meat, there are a number of “more unusual” dishes on offer, including many varieties of snakes.

3 Dishes to Try in Vietnam

  • Pho – Vietnam’s most famous dish is a noodle soup, usually mild, healthy, refreshing and satisfying. It can be considered a safe option even for fussy eaters and has a very wide appeal.
  • Bun Cha – Bun cha is a speciality in the pumping capital of Hanoi. Bun cha is another easy-going noodle soup that features crispy grilled pork (which you might confuse for little hamburgers). Traditionally, it is served up with noodles, meat and a large assortment of herbs on one plate, with the broth separate. You then mix it up together according to your taste (if you’re anything like me, that means putting as much of it as possible in the broth, eating a bit and then filling it up with the rest).
  • Egg Coffee – In a country that barely uses dairy, you might not expect to find this rich, decadent caffeine hit on the menu, and yet there it is. Bitter coffee sites under rich eggy foam topped with cinnamon. Aside from the flavour, the visual impact of the drink is so striking, even I can understand the draw towards putting photos of it on Instagram.

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Sri Lankan Food

  • Key feature: A huge variety of bread
  • Distinctive ingredients: Curry leaves, coconut sambal

Not technically in Southeast Asia, I know, Sri Lanka was the first stop on my Asian adventures. It was there that I developed a love for the curry leaf, the defining smell that follows you everywhere you go in this beautiful country.

Food in Sri Lanka draws heavily on its ever-so-near neighbour, South India, but with a number of influences that make it feel like SE Asia has made its mark there too. Sambal is a good example of this.

In Sri Lanka, food begins at breakfast, which begins in the middle of the night (5:30 am wouldn’t be at all uncommon). The Sri Lankan breakfast is a force unto itself. Fruits, an omelette and a spread of tasty spicy stuff (normally more than one samba included) are laid wide across the table. This is a wonderful start to any day, albeit one that might slow you down for the following hours.

Small roadside places are normally the best venues to eat in the country (isn’t that always the case?). Whilst on the move, those same places will provide you with the perfect portable snack, the short eat.

3 Dishes to try in Sri Lanka

  • Short Eats – Not really a dish at all, rather, a genre of dish. Short eats are normally pastry-wraps of one sort or another. Some are basically samosas, others look quite a lot like croquettes. My favourite is the one that looks like a slab, normally triangular with browned flat edges. The outside is a rolled-up paratha, the inside is a paratha-wrapped heavenly mix (curry leaves, of course, and spicy veg usually).
  • Kottu Roti – The country’s national dish, kottu roti is a tasty mix of ingredients based around a roti that has been chopped up in a flamboyant manner in a noisy smoky mess. It ends up resembling rice, but even more filling and extremely tasty.
  • Hoppers – Hoppers are a remarkable play on the pancake, they are crispy thin at the edges and are formed into an improbable edible bowl. Usually, there’s a fried egg in the bottom of that bowl, which tends to be accompanied by a super spicy and often sour sauce or sambal. 

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Dave Noakes Bio Pic, with Nikki Scott
Dave Noakes

Dave joined the backpacker scene later than most. After living the first 13 years of his adult life in Barcelona, he set off for Asia for the first time at age 34. At this ripe old age, you’re more likely to find him in a half-moon pose than at a full-moon party. Dave is a musician (Chopper Dave) and has a keen interest in urban exploration.

Find Dave: Instagram | Soundcloud | YouTube

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