The Backpacker Beer and Curry Guide to South East Asia

A chili crab curry goes perfect with a cool Tiger beer!

They go together like fish and chips, like cheese and biscuits, like peaches and cream, like Brad and Angelina, like Oreos and bus journeys… okay so you get the picture! Beer and curry… a curry and a beer. A “burry”. Spicy, tangy flavours swilled down with ice cold, crisp liquid nectar!

It doesn’t matter which country you are travelling in South East Asia, it’d be rude not to sample the local ale and national curry. We’ve put together a beer and curry matchmaking guide for backpackers. ‘Cos let’s face it, you drink enough of the stuff!

1. THAILAND: Massaman Curry & Singha Beer

Mostly found in Southern Thailand, this coconut based curry is Muslim in origin and is usually made with beef or chicken. The actual word ‘Massaman’ is believed to be an ancient word for ‘Muslim’, as many of the spices used in the curry were brought to Thailand by early Muslim traders and later the Portuguese, who picked them up in the Middle East and India and brought them to the Southern coast of Thailand.

Made with crushed peanuts, cardamon, bay leaves, turmeric, cinnamon, tamarind, fish sauce, potatoes, onions and of course coconut milk, it’s a rich, flavoursome and aromatic curry. It can be served with rice or with a roti, or Indian flatbread. Unlike many Thai curries, this one won’t blow your head off as the coconut milk counteracts the spices, keeping the flavour mild. With more Indian influence than traditional Thai, the dish has been likened to a korma by some.

Singha and a curry
A jug of refreshing Singha Beer is the perfect Massaman Curry accompaniment

Perfect with: Clean and crisp Singha Beer is one of the most famous Thai beers, perfect as a refreshing beverage on a hot, tropical day in Thailand. Drink in a glass with lots of ‘namkeng’ (ice) for a true Thai-style experience.

Perfect setting: Overlooking the sunset over the Andaman Sea on a beach bar in Koh Phi Phi. The perfect meal to get you ready for a night of dancing on the beach… involving lots more Singha Beers!

2. INDONESIA: Rendang Curry & Bintang Beer

Rendang curry originates from the Minangkabau ethnic group of Indonesia who are native to the highlands of wild West Sumatra. As with all dishes of Islamic origin, pork is not a popular meat, with beef or chicken being the most frequently used.

It is a much loved, much celebrated dish that is popular throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Cooked slowly over three or four hours to create the rich fragrant flavours, the meat absorbs the spices and coconut milk making it tender, rich and oh so tasty. More of an aromatic thick stew than a regular curry, spices include turmeric, galangal, garlic, ginger and lemongrass. One of the key ingredients is ‘kerisik’ made from toasting grated coconut and then grinding it into a paste, sometimes also called ‘coconut butter’. Delicious!

Rendang is often prepared during festivals or served to honoured guests at ceremonies and was mentioned in Malay classic literature as early as 1550! Like a good lasagna or hot pot, Rendang gets better with age and some chefs prefer to serve weeks after they first cooked it!

Perfect with: Bintang Beer is the national beer of Indonesia that is often compared to Heineken in taste, being made by the same company. The beer is a ‘pilsner’ which for all you beer rookies out there means a clear, bottom fermented lager. Grab a big bottle as the perfect compliment to your beef Rendang!

Perfect setting: Sat in the middle of nowhere watching the sun set on one of Indonesia’s 17,508 islands.

3. CAMBODIA: Amok Curry & Angkor Beer

Another coconut based, tongue tantalising curry is Cambodia’s most famous traditional dish, Amok, mostly made with cod or monkfish, known as ‘amok trey’. With a subtle, mild almost comforting taste, the gentle flavours come from the fish being steamed rather than fried and the coconut base perfectly compliments the deep fragrant mix of spices that goes into making the curry paste called ‘kroeung’. Spices that are ground together to make the base include turmeric, ginger, garlic, fresh lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, galangal, shallots, dried red chillies and of course fish sauce!

Attractively served in a banana leaf bowl, garnished with kaffir lime leaves and served with a side dish of boiled rice, this Khmer curry is a must for anyone visiting Cambodia. It is served in abundance at ‘Bon Om Uk Festival’ which celebrates the incredible turning of the water of the Tonle Sap River and marks the end of the monsoon season.


Coconut based Amok Curry served in a Banana leaf bowl in Cambodia

Perfect with: Angkor Beer is a source of National Pride to Cambodians; “My Country. My Beer” so the advertising slogan goes. You can’t go anywhere without seeing an advert, umbrella or beer mat dedicated to the country’s favourite drink. The perfect beverage to wash down Cambodia’s national dish.

Perfect setting: Sat in a khmer restaurant in Siem Reap’s downtown Pub Street area, watching the street life go by and gearing up for ‘another’ wild night in Angkor What? Bar.

4. THAILAND: Penang Curry & Chang Beer

Usually made with thin strips of beef, Penang Curry is a strong, spicy dish with a very distinct flavour. It’s name suggests that it derives from the small island of Penang, on the west coast of Malaysia. However, like many dishes, it is likely that Thailand have put their own unique twist on the recipe.

With many traditional Thai herbs such as galangal, lemongrass, coriander, cumin, garlic and shallots plus lots of fresh Thai chilli, the curry paste is fried with coconut cream until it is almost dry and then topped with fresh kaffir lime. You can buy Penang curry paste in a packet for about 20 baht so you can make delicious curries to impress your friends when you get back home!


A spicy Penang Curry with prawns, best washed down with a Chang

Perfect with: Chang Beer is cheap and dirty and if the Penang Curry is as spicy as it is supposed to be you’ll need to neck plenty of ice cold bottles of Chang to calm your burning tongue. Plain ol’ water just doesn’t seem to hit the spot like Chang. But then there is the tiny detail of a ‘Changover’ to consider the next day… don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Perfect setting: Bangkok, Koh Phangan, Chiang Mai, Kanchanaburi… you’ll find Penang curry on the menu in many places in Thailand, in each place made slightly differently, usually due to the preferences of the Thai chef.

5. SINGAPORE: Chili Crab & Tiger Beer

Although not technically a curry, we feel we couldn’t miss the irresistible combo of Singapore’s Chili Crab and Tiger Beer! Originating in 1950, chili crab was created by Singaporean chef ‘Cher Yam Tian’ and has since become famous throughout the country and a world-renowned dish, recently named number 45 of CNN Go’s 50 Most Delicious Foods in the World.

Commonly made with ‘mud-crab’, which despite the unappetizing name is a soft, juicy and very tasty crustacean, the dish is flavoured with a thick tomato and chili based sauce, not too spicy. Ingredients also include garlic, rice vinegar and soya sauce. Eggs are beaten and added at the end to create egg-ribbons in the sauce.

A BeerLao in the sunset

Perfect with: Okay so the beer is three times more expensive here in Singapore than what you were paying in Laos, but a backpacker’s got to treat themselves once in a while right? Savour every mouthful of your meal with Singapore’s national beer, Tiger.

Perfect setting: Best eaten at a hawker stall or outdoor restaurant in Singapore’s atmospheric China Town watching people go by and chatting with fellow travellers. It’s a one off occasion for the frugal backpacker, as prices here are through the roof compared to the rest of South East Asia.

Top photo: Tasty Chili Crab and Tiger Beer in Singapore (photo by Tanya Procyshyn)

Nikki Scott - Founder South East Asia Backpacker
Nikki Scott | Founder & Editor

Nikki is the founding editor of South East Asia Backpacker and The Backpacker Network. In her early twenties, she left her home in the North of England on a solo backpacking adventure and never returned! After six months on the road, she founded a print magazine that became legendary on the Banana Pancake Trail. The rest is history.

Find me: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

10 thoughts on “The Backpacker Beer and Curry Guide to South East Asia”

    1. I’ll let you know once I’ve travelled the whole world.
      Perfect excuse to do more travelling in search of the best massamam curry ??

  1. You forgot the best two beers in South East Asia: Beer Lao and Myanmar Beer. Beer Lao should be eaten with some Laab. Myanmar Beer fits quite well with the taste green tea leaf salad – which is probably the only tasty dish in Myanmar anyways.

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