Asian street food equals foodie heaven! It really is that simple. Whether you’re heading off on the Banana Pancake trail through Southeast Asia or traversing untrodden paths in China, you are bound to find something mouthwatering on the street.
But with so much choice and so few menus in English, how the heck do you know what to choose? Read on for some of our favourite Asian street foods, as well as some top tips for getting the most out of Asia’s street food scene!
(Warning: this post WILL make you hungry!)
Best Asian Street Food
1. Pad Thai – (Thailand)
Is it even possible to talk about Asian street food without mentioning backpacker favourite, Pad Thai? This classic noodle dish from Thailand is made from rice noodles, eggs, fish sauce, tamarind paste, garlic, palm sugar, chilli pepper and dried shrimps. Topped with crushed peanuts, chilis and vinegar, oh and more fish sauce of course!
It is readily available all over the country and costs between 30฿ -60฿ ($1-2 USD) on the street. As well as being a delicious staple for travellers and locals alike, Pad Thai also boasts a fascinating history.
2. Lahpet / Tea Leaf Salad – (Myanmar)
Lahpet is Burmese for ‘pickled tea’. It might sound weird but in Myanmar, they eat tea as well as drink it!
Myanmar may not be that well known for its food, however, with the increasing number of travellers to the country, this is starting to change. Also known as Tea Leaf Salad or Pickled Tea Salad, Lahpet is always recommended as a must-try food in Myanmar.
Pickled tea is traditionally eaten in salads and as a snack. It has long been a gesture of hospitality in the country and is often served to guests when they are visiting friend’s homes.
3. Phở – (Vietnam)
This hot noodle soup from Vietnam is arguably the country’s most renowned street food dish and can be found in restaurants all over the world! It consists of broth, rice noodles, herbs and meat, usually either beef or chicken. (Pho Bo is the beef version, and Pho Ga is the chicken variation.) Although you probably wouldn’t guess from the spelling, it is pronounced ‘fuh’.
Phở is present all over Vietnam however, there are regional differences in the dish. In the north of the country, they use a whole blanched green onion and garnishes usually only consist of coriander, chilli sauce, garlic and quẩy. In the south of Vietnam, the broth uses a wider variety of herbs and is enjoyed with hoisin sauce, fresh chilli and bean sprouts.
4. Stinky Tofu – (China)
Believe me, you will smell this long before you see it. Sold on night markets and roadside street stalls across China, this fermented tofu offers a tasty treat and a nasal assault all at the same time.
Most commonly sold as a snack, stinky tofu can be enjoyed deep-fried, steamed, stewed or cold. It is usually accompanied by a spicy chilli sauce (presumably to numb the smell sense). Smelling like a mix of unwashed feet and rotting garbage, it is said that the stinkier the tofu, the more delicious! Not entirely convinced about that one…
5. Amok Trey / Fish Curry – (Cambodia)
This slightly sweet coconut-based fish curry is the most famous dish that Cambodia is known for. As well as appearing in restaurants all over the country, amok is also readily available from street vendors. It’s a must-try when visiting the country!
Though not as spicy as its Thai cousin curries, amok has many similar ingredients; galangal, garlic, kaffir lime, shallots, limes, coriander and turmeric (giving it that lovely yellow colour).
Made with any kind of white fish, it is traditionally cooked in a palm or banana leaves and served alongside steamed rice. The dish is traditionally eaten during Bon Om Touk (Water Festival). This event celebrates the reversal of flow from the Tonle Sap River to the Mekong.
6. Nasi Goreng – (Malaysia and Indonesia)
Translating to ‘fried rice’ in both Indonesian and Malay, this classic dish comprises stir-fried rice, garlic, shrimp paste, sweet soy sauce, shallots, tamarind and chilli. Various meats, vegetables and seafood are then added. Compared to the more famous Chinese fried rice, it has a stronger and spicier taste.
Although most commonly associated with Indonesia and Malaysia, Nasi Goreng is also eaten in Brunei, Singapore and Sri Lanka. It is a great dish for using up leftovers and one which the locals swear by!
7. Adobo – (Philippines)
Abodo is one of the most popular Filipino dishes and is even considered to be the unofficial food of the country. The meal originates from Spanish colonial era in the Philippines (1565-1898) with the word ‘adobo’ meaning ‘dressing’ in Español.
Adobo is the name given to the specific marinade used to cook meat and seafood. Adobo consists of soy sauce, bay leaves, vinegar, garlic and peppercorn. The most popular variation of the dish is chicken adobo, found almost everywhere across the Philippines, though pork adobo is also common.
8. Nasi Lemak – (Malaysia)
This Malay coconut-infused rice dish is commonly eaten at breakfast. Although it is the national dish of Malaysia, Nasi Lemak is also eaten in Singapore, Brunei and Southern Thailand. You can find this dish in hawker centres and also on Southeast Asian street food stalls.
Nasi Lemak is served with sambal (a spicy sauce) and it is often garnished with roasted peanuts, anchovies and a fried egg. Once the rice has been soaked in the coconut cream, it is left to steam. It is also cooked with pandan leaves (from the pandan plant which commonly grows in Southeast Asia). This gives the dish its flavour.
9. Gỏi Cuốn / Fresh Spring Rolls – (Vietnam)
More commonly known as spring rolls in Vietnamese, these delicious snacks are a hugely popular street food in Vietnam. (Also known as Pho cuốn.) Believed to have originated from China, they can also be found in other parts of Asia, like Thailand and Laos.
Traditionally, the spring rolls will contain a mix of pork, vegetables, prawn and rice vermicelli. They are then wrapped in rice paper. Gỏi cuốn is served fresh which means it has not been deep fried like other popular spring roll variation, chả giò (see below).
10. Chả giò / Fried Spring Rolls – (Vietnam)
Simply a fried (and therefore less healthy) option of the above! Perfect as a hangover snack or a greasy pick-me-up on the streets of Vietnam’s chaotic cities. They are also known as ‘nem ran’ so look out for both names on menus across the country.
The rolls are often served with a sweet and tangy dipping sauce called ‘Nuoc cham’ – made with lime juice, lemongrass, fish sauce and chili. It’s super delicious and you’ll just want to keep dipping!
11. “Short Eats” – (Sri Lanka)
Found in Sri Lanka, short eats are a kind of pastry, sort of like empanadas but filled with a spicy curry mix, usually of potatoes and vegetables. The rather strange name originates from British colonial times, where the tradition would stop for afternoon tea and a quick or ‘short’ bite to eat!
These delicious treats are often transported by the famous Choon Paan Man, who signals his arrival with the classic tune of Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’. That’s right, the Choon Paan Man is essentially a bakery on wheels, selling fresh bread and ‘short eats’. Sometimes spotted as early as 5.30 am, the Sri Lankan workforce has come to rely on him for both their daily routine and their lunchtime snacks!
12. Panipuri – (Nepal)
Commonly found on the Indian subcontinent, Panipuri is a round, hollow, deep-fried type of bread, stuffed with a mixture of potato, chilli, tamarind chutney, flavoured water, chaat masala, chickpeas or onion.
The flavoured water which is used to make the Panipuri is prepared with many ingredients. Most popular is the use of tamarind water but lemons, coriander leaves and dates are sometimes used for flavouring as well.
13. Bánh Mì – (Vietnam)
It is all but impossible to walk around a Vietnamese city without seeing a bánh mì counter on the street side. These unassuming carts sell delicious sandwiches for a steal of a price – and it’s guaranteed to keep you full for hours!
Sandwiches might strike you as unusual Asian street food. After all, bread is eaten far more widely in the West than the East. It probably comes as little surprise that Bánh mì was actually introduced during the French colonial era.
The sandwiches are traditionally made using crusty baguettes and a mix of meat and vegetables. Be aware, there are usually handfuls of coriander leaves stuffed into these sandwiches so remember to ask with a banh mi without cilantro if you are one of the few who think that coriander tastes like soap!
14. Mohinga – (Myanmar)
Another soup makes our list and this one is the famous Mohinga dish from Myanmar. Considered by many to be the national dish, this rice noodle fish soup is readily available all over the country.
Whilst Mohinga was long served as a breakfast dish, it has essentially become the ‘all-day breakfast’ of Myanmar and is now easy to pick up from street hawkers all day long. Look out for trishaw peddlers who will stop for customers on the street.
15. Sticky Rice – (Thailand and Laos)
You will find sticky rice, also known as ‘khao niaow’ all over Laos, where it is a staple food. Although you could be forgiven for assuming that sticky rice is made from common white rice, it is made using glutinous rice – a different type altogether. It has a higher starch content which is what makes it sticky.
As well as being eaten by hand in Laos, sticky rice is also used to form small cup-like utensils which can be used for the scooping of other foods. Surprisingly, despite the name glutinous rice, there is actually no gluten in sticky rice which makes this a great choice for travellers with celiac disease.
16. Char Kway Teow – (Malaysia, Singapore)
This noodle dish is thought to have originated from the Guangdong province in China. ‘Char’ translates to ‘stir-fried’ and ‘Kway Teow’ means ‘flat rice noodles’. Although this dish was likely to have been enjoyed in China first, it really boomed in popularity once it found its way to Malaysia and Singapore.
As well as noodles, the dish also consists of chilli, dark soy sauce, prawns, cockles, bean sprouts, Chinese sausage, chives and shrimp paste. It has a reputation as a very unhealthy dish due to its high-fat content. That won’t stop us though, it’s delicious! If you’re headed to Penang, Malaysia’s food capital, make sure you try Char Kway Teow.
17. Bún chả – (Vietnam)
More Vietnamese street food for our list! Bún chả is believed to have originated from the country’s capital Hanoi and this is still the best place to enjoy the dish.
It is a grilled pork (chả) and rice noodle (bún) dish which is served alongside a sweet fish-based sauce. To put it in more simple terms, it is essentially the Vietnamese answer to meatballs, however, it can be served cold. The dish is commonly eaten at lunchtime with salad greens and white noodles.
18. Tteokbokki – (South Korea)
This is one of the most popular street foods in South Korea and munching away on these rice cakes in practically a rite of passage if you visit the country. This dish is made from garaetteok, which is a kind of cylindrical rice cake which has been stir-fried. Fish cakes, scallions and boiled eggs are often added to the dish.
Tteokbokki is seasoned with either a non-spicy soy sauce or a spicy chilli paste and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Although this dish is routinely found on street stalls and snack bars, it is also possible to find it in restaurants across the country as well.
19. Satay – (Indonesia)
This Southeast Asian street food snack is a favourite with backpackers everywhere. Satay sauce is usually a combination of peanut and soy sauce (although other spice variations are used), served over the top of meat skewers. The meat skewers are usually soaked in water before grilling to avoid burning.
20. Baozi – (China)
Also known as bao, these steamed buns are commonly found in China. They are most popular with a meaty filling, however, vegetable fillings are often available. Usually, baozi is available to buy on the streets and from small takeaway shops. (They are also called steamed dumplings.)
If you are not eating baozi in a restaurant, you will be given two small pots to takeaway, one containing vinegar and the other containing soy sauce for dipping. Owing to the Chinese influence in Malaysia, bao has also become very popular there. The difference between the Chinese bao and the Malaysian bao is that in Malaysia, they are mostly halal and contain no pork.
21. Roti – (India)
Is there anything more important and fulfilling than bread?! Also known as chapati, this flatbread is most associated with India, however, it is also enjoyed in Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
Roti is made from water, wheat flour and salt and is served alongside many local dishes. As many breakfast meals are savoury in India, it even secures a spot alongside the first meal of the day!
22. Takoyaki – (Japan)
Commonly found on street stalls in Japan, takoyaki is fried balls filled with octopus, ginger, onions and tempura scraps. Once fried, they tend to be served with mayonnaise, fish shavings and a very distinct takoyaki sauce. For those who don’t know what this tastes like, you could liken it to Worcestershire sauce.
The dish first became popular in Osaka where it was invented by street vendor Tomekichi Endo in 1935. He also founded the oldest takoyaki store, named Aizuya.
23. Tom Yum – (Thailand)
Also referred to as Tom Yan, this aromatic Thai soup will blow your head off! Consisting of crushed red chilli peppers, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce and galangal (a kind of spice), Tom Yum is a type of hot and sour soup. Although it can contain chicken, pork or beef, shrimp is most commonly used. (Tom Yum Gung is the prawn version.) CNN included Tom Yum in its 50 most delicious foods list.
The Tom Yum Goong crisis was another name given to the financial crash of 1997 which hit many Asian countries hard. The Economist claims that it was probably named after the soup because the crisis was ‘a bitter and searing experience’.
24. Kwek-Kwek – (Philippines)
Kwek-Kwek is a popular street food in the Philippines. Essentially, it is boiled quails eggs, dipped in an orange batter and then deep-fried. Once crispy, kwek-kwek is usually served alongside a spicy vinegar dip.
The origins of kwek-kwek are not known for sure. However, local legend claims that it was invented accidentally when a balut seller dropped one on the floor. Not wanting to waste the balut, she simply peeled off the eggshell before coating in flour and deep-frying. Thus kwek-kwek was born!
25. Rendang – (Indonesia)
Believed to have originated from West Sumatra in Indonesia, rendang is one of the country’s most famous dishes. It is a slow-cooked and spicy meat dish which usually uses beef. The beef is marinated in a coconut milk and spice mix which makes the meat really tender.
Rendang was originally a dish which was only served to the aristocracy. This is partly because beef used to be very expensive but also because it was believed the only the wealthy and privileged should enjoy a dish as indulgent as rendang.
26. Chilli Crab – (Singapore)
If you are visiting Singapore, the ultimate must-try dish is undoubtedly the chilli crab. Served in fancy restaurants and hawker centres alike, the price for this delicious meal varies hugely. Take our advice and make sure you know the price beforehand so you don’t get a nasty shock once the bill arrives!
Mud crabs are usually used in this dish and are stir-fried in a sweet and spicy chilli tomato-based sauce. Despite what its name might suggest, chilli crab is actually isn’t that spicy at all! It is eaten with the hands as this is the only way to get the most out of the dish. Don’t worry if you’re worried about getting messy, a lime-infused washbowl is usually at the end of the meal!
27. Mok Pa – (Laos)
This traditional dish from Luang Prabang is for sure a highlight of Laotian cuisine. A fish is steamed in banana leaves and combined with fish sauce, sticky rice powder and an array of herbs and spices.
It is served with (you guessed it) rice and dipping sauces. Catfish is the most common choice of fish for this dish. There is a real art to folding the banana leaves so if you decide to recreate this at home, don’t be surprised if it takes you a few attempts to perfect it!
28. Kothu Roti
Introducing Sri Lanka’s favourite comfort food! This bread-based street food dish is made by slashing bread into tiny pieces before combining with egg, vegetables, meat and spices. Whilst it might not be the most appealing food to look at, Kothu Roti is guaranteed to tantalise those tastebuds!
Eating the dish is a treat in itself but it is well worth paying attention whilst your chef prepares it too. It really is a musical spectacle! This dish is also known as Kottu and Koththu Roti.
29. Laksa – (Malaysia)
For the soup lovers out there, this one’s for you! Laksa is a kind of spicy noodle soup made with rice vermicelli and chicken, fish or prawn. The dish is found in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and southern Thailand.
Different types of laksa will use different soup bases. This will change the flavour of the dish entirely. Traditionally, there are two different bases for the dish: coconut milk or sour asam (gelugur or tamarind).
30. Suki Haeng – (Thailand)
Have you heard of Sukiyaki, the noodle dish originating from Japan? Well, this is the Thai version which is much more suited to the Thai palate! The below photo was sent in by Bethanie Bucan taken at her favourite noodle stall in Chiang Mai. (Where the dish costs around 30 THB or $1 US.)
There are two versions of suki in Thailand; suki nam and suki haeng. As nam is the Thai word for water or liquid, suki nam is the hot pot soup version and suki haeng (haeng meaning ‘dry’) is the dry stir-fried version without soup. The dish usually contains either pork or chicken, Chinese cabbage, spring onion, egg and glass noodles.
31. Egg Tarts – (Hong Kong)
These tarts will remind you of a classic English egg custard tart and the Portuguese ‘pastel de nata’ and it’s fair to say that the Hong Kong version has been influenced by both of these two cultures over time. In fact, they were a much loved treat of Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong. (As well as Hong Kong, they can also be found in China and nearby Macau.)
Whether it’s from a local cha chaan teng (Hong Kong’s version of all-day diners) or the famous Tai Cheong Bakery, you just have to try one if you are visiting Hong Kong! They’re at their best when they’re still warm having just come out of the oven… mmhh. Shout out to travel blogger, Madhurima Dutta, for sending us these great pics! Check out her post on exploring off the beaten track Hong Kong here or for more sweet treats, read more about the best Asian desserts!
32. Papri/Papdi Chaat – (India)
An extremely popular street food which comes at an unbelievably affordable price (like many street foods in India!), pretty much throughout India.
The name comes from ‘papris’ or ‘papdis’, crunchy chips made from wheat dough that are a bit like nachos to you and me! Depending on the region or the street food stall, the crisps are loaded with a variety of toppings; from chick peas to potatoes, peanuts, chutney, coriander and yoghurt. Usually laden with a generous dollop of chaat masala, a quintessential Indian spicy sauce!
33. Fried shrimp – (Thailand)
Not the healthiest of street foods, deep fried shrimp is surely one of the most delicious! Crispy seafood (of any kind) dipped in sweet chilli sauce is a dream pair in my book and absolutely addictive!
The pick-me-up street food snack can be found on many street carts and in food markets across Thailand. The above photo was sent in by Khoiroh Manurung and was taken at Klonghae Floating Market in Hat Yai, Thailand.
34. Ca Phe Trung or Egg coffee – (Vietnam)
Overlapping the line between food and drink is Vietnamese egg coffee – the perfect pick-me-up breakfast drink! It’s heavy, it’s delicious, and it’s unforgettable. Says, Madhurima Dutta, who sent us in the below photo: “I have genuinely considered flying to Hanoi for the weekend just for the egg coffee!”
Found in cafes all over the country, particularly in Hanoi where the beverage originates, egg coffee is made from robusta coffee, condensed milk, sugar and egg yolks. Rumour has it that the recipe was invented in the 1940w during the Vietnam-American War when milk was in short supply so egg yolks were used instead.
Egg coffee is also found on our list: Must Try Drinks of Southeast Asia!
7 Tips for Enjoying Asia’s Street Food Scene!
Asia is famous for its street food, but the sad fact is that many backpackers are either too scared to try it or have no idea what to order! It’s true with the abundance of stalls selling a huge variety of dishes ranging from curries, soups, noodles and rice dishes to Asian fruits, dried squid, meatballs, kebabs and deep-fried snacks – the experience can be overwhelming, to say the least.
What will I order? How will I know what I’m eating?
So if you’re still feeling timid about the cultural phenomena that is Asian street food, here are 7 tips for finding something delicious!
1. The Golden Rule… Be more adventurous!
On an overnight bus last week we stopped at a canteen around 1am and I ordered myself a delicious chicken noodle soup from the street vendor a 30-second walk away from the bus stop. It was the perfect late-night snack.
I watched in horror as three buses of backpackers pulled up and each of them, in turn, went to the shop, bought snacks – crisps, cakes and soggy sandwiches and then complained about the food later! I can only urge travellers to be more adventurous when it comes to street food and once you overcome your initial nerves and indulge your taste buds, I guarantee you will never go back!
2. Eat when you see the locals eating!
Many people in Asia eat around four or five meals a day. Little and often is the way to go rather than having a dedicated breakfast, lunch and a big dinner. Friends and family gather at street-side vendors and it’s very much a social affair.
Like pop-up restaurants, some can only be found in a particular spot at a certain time of day. Turn up an hour later than usual and you may find your noodle lady is somewhere else. Their temporary nature is one of the reasons why street food is some of the freshest food around!
3. Follow the crowd
That noodle cart completely surrounded people wobbling on flimsy plastic stools? Yum. That hole in the wall with people pouring out of it? Yum yum. The noisy cafe hardly any space to sit down, a line out the door, and a symphony of shouted take-out orders? Jackpot.
4. Wander away from the tourist centres
Although it’s a God-send when you’ve been out drinking all night, the best pad thai in Bangkok cannot be found on Khao San Road. When you’re in Thailand, venture down side streets, or sois to find the best local food.
Wherever you go in the city, you’ll find small open-air cafes along the sois. They all tend to have a slightly grungy feel, a glass box with meat and vegetables near the front, and woks busily crackling on the gas. Don’t let the decor fool you, because here you will find the best food of your trip.
5. Don’t worry about the menu
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a menu in most of these places, let alone an English menu. Perhaps your language skills aren’t the greatest and you can’t ask what they have? Mai pen rai (no worries), my friend.
The easiest way to order here is to check out your neighbour’s food and point at what looks tastiest. If you see a lot of people eating the same thing, there’s probably a reason, so go ahead and order the same thing.
If you need a bit of help on the Thai language front, make sure you check out the video below for a short but very helpful lesson!
6. Hit the markets
You can find anything under the sun in an Asian market, especially in a big Thai one like Chatuchak in Bangkok, so it’s no surprise that some of the tastiest eats also await you there.
Since the majority of the city’s produce comes from these markets, you will certainly find the freshest ingredients and lowest prices there. Work up your appetite wandering through the stalls for clothes and souvenirs and then cruise to the food section to refuel for the next adventure.
7. Try everything!
Don’t get stuck in the same food routine when there are so many amazing things to try. Keep your eyes out for a table or counter with lots of silver rectangular serving dishes.
If you’re on Khao San Road, venture literally one block over to Soi Rambuttri, where you can find several such places. There, for about 30-40 baht, you can load up on different dishes with a fried egg on the side.
Best wishes and dishes! Got a favourite Asian street food that we missed off the list? Contact us with a description and a photo and we’ll add your food to our growing list with a link to your blog/Instagram/whatever!