For the adventurous traveler and fearless foodie, eating in Southeast Asia is pure delight. The only thing separating you from freshly-ground peanut sauce, spicy Thai sausages, or steaming curry puffs proffered by street cart food sellers are a few coins jingling in your pocket.
If you roam the streets long enough, and keep your aural senses poised, you will soon be able to instantly identify the sweet smoky scent of tamarind sauce sizzling in a hot wok, the salty brine of fish stew, or perhaps the charred, nutty notes of satay chicken grilling over a charcoal fire. On nearly every street corner, at nearly every time of day or night, food is served in Southeast Asia. Whether you’re splurging on an elegant pre-fix at the Mandarin Oriental, or slurping noodles on a plastic stool in the middle of the street, you’re not likely to be disappointed.
I understand, however, that not everyone has the desire to shove every single unidentified crispy, slimy, or chewy item for sale into their mouths like it’s sample day at Whole Foods. I understand some travelers have dietary limitations, palate aversions, or simply a preference for government-sanctioned sanitation. Though I have many things to be thankful for in my life, I have to say I consider myself most fortunate to have a stomach of steel. Never once has food or drink made me sick, I have no known allergies, and with the exception of a few Thai curry dishes, spicy food has never made me break a sweat. Not everyone, however, is so lucky.
The following food-related tips to eating your way through Southeast Asia apply to both indiscriminate food chompers like myself, as well as those who still wish to experience the local food scene, while perhaps exercising caution while doing so. Hopefully these suggestions will make the daunting task of choosing what to eat in Southeast Asia a bit less overwhelming.
- It is often cheaper for locals to buy their meals from vendors or restaurants than it is for them to cook at home. This is good news for those traveling around Southeast Asia because many of the restaurants cater to local tastes. It also means that restaurants and street markets are usually crowded–a great opportunity to chat with some locals.
- Street food is abundant and cheap. This is often true both in big cities and small towns. This is excellent news for travelers because it means you could try a dish from every food cart you passed if you wanted to without making a big dent in your wallet. The cost of a beer, however, will likely cost more than the meal itself (depending on what country you’re in) so double check alcohol prices if your money is running low.
- If you ask for “spicy,” that’s definitely what you’ll get. Forget those American one-to-ten spiciness scale ratings–I once watched a full grown man cry into his chicken soup after confidently requesting that his chicken curry be “as spicy as the locals like it.” I can assure you, they weren’t tears of joy. When in doubt, ask for just a little spice. You can always add more chili later, but a mouth on fire could put a damper on the rest of your day. Another tip: order an iced tea with milk, or a fruit lassi with any spicy meal – dairy will help ease the burn.
- Ordering vegetables doesn’t necessarily mean the dish will be vegetarian. I can’t count the number of times I’ve ordered some variation of “stir fried mixed vegetables” at a restaurant, only to be served a plate of chicken or pork with a few pieces of carrots floating somewhere underneath. Learn the local word for vegetarian, or the phrase “no meat please.” They may look at you funny, but if you’re not interested in carnivorous cuisine, it’s necessary to be very clear about this when ordering food.
- Order what looks good. If you find yourself somewhere without an English menu, or with 200 options, peruse the restaurant (or stall area) to see what others are eating. If you see (or smell!) something delicious, give it a shot yourself! There’s no shame in pointing to another table’s sumptuous feast and requesting, “I’ll have THAT, please!”
- Eat where the crowds are. If a restaurant is empty, chances are it just isn’t that great. Likewise, if there’s a wait for a table, or a long line in front of a food vendor, it likely is QUITE worth the wait. I once waited three and a half hours for a table at a tiny, back alley dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong for what I can say was unquestionably the best meal of my life.
- Eat fresh. This may seem obvious, but if you have the choice between taking a pre-wrapped peanut pancake made five minutes ago or waiting another minute or so for a fresh one to come off the griddle, wait for it! A street vendor may try to hand off a package of fried noodles he wrapped up a while ago, but please insist that he wrap up a fresh one for you. It will just taste better.
- Dear chocoholics: it’s time to find a new favorite dessert. It is nearly impossible to find a decent homemade chocolate dessert in Southeast Asia. Sometimes it’s pretty hard to find any sort of chocolate, PERIOD. My advice? Try a local sweet treat. My recommendations are mango sticky rice in Thailand, black rice pudding in Indonesia, cendol in Malaysia, or iced coffee in Vietnam (believe me, the sugar rush is enough to satisfy ANY sweet tooth!).
- If you’re going to splurge on a fancy meal, splurge on something you CAN’T get on the street. Pad Thai from a fancy hotel that’s five times the price on the street just isn’t going to be five times as delicious, so don’t waste your money. In a part of the world where street food rules, cocktails, baked goods, and anything with cheese may be some of the only examples where a chef at the Intercontinental may be able to best culinary artists on the street.