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Southeast Asian Cuisine

What to Eat and Where in Southeast Asia


For most people, food is a huge part of any trip. No other place on earth provides more opportunities to tantalize your taste buds than Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian cuisine can range from simple fare to spicy dishes full of ingredients which frighten squeamish eaters.

Don't just stick to fried rice! Use this guide for knowing the top dishes to try wherever you are in Southeast Asia.

1. Malaysia

Malaysian Noodles
Photo by Greg Rodgers

Malaysia, specifically Penang, has some of the best food on offer in Southeast Asia. This paradise for foodies came about partially thanks to Chinese and Indian immigrants who brought with them new spices and cooking techniques.

  • Malaysian Noodle Dishes: A staggering number of tasty noodle dishes -- mostly Chinese in origin -- can be purchased from street vendors for less than one dollar.
  • Malaysian Indian Food: Malaysia's large Indian Muslim community offers delicious and healthy cuisine sometimes served on banana leaves -- a great choice for vegetarians.

Read about visiting Gurney Drive Penang and find out where to eat in Penang.

2. Vietnam

Vietnam Market
Photo by Greg Rodgers

Vietnam, along with Laos, is one of the few culinary bastions left in Southeast Asia where travelers can still find good bread, cheese, and wine.

  • Baguettes, Pate, and Cheese Sandwiches: Take advantage of the remnants of French colonization -- you won't find decent bread in very many Asian countries!
  • Pho: Pronounced “fuuuh,” Vietnam's famous noodle soup is light and delicious.
  • Cao Lau: Found only in Hoi An, cao lau is arguably the rarest noodle dish in the world.

3. Thailand

Papaya Salad - Southeast Asian Cuisine
Photo by Greg Rodgers

Thai food hardly needs introduction; pad thai, curries, and other fabulously spicy dishes have made their way around the world.

  • Pad Thai: A plate of flat, rice noodles served with egg, bean sprouts, lime, and optional crushed peanuts.
  • Thai Curries: Usually prepared with coconut milk and curry paste, Thai curries are sweet, spicy, and filling.
  • Thai Street Food: Thailand has some of the best street food in the world. With prices around one dollar or less, an excellent dinner can be had by just grazing from food carts.

Read about favorite Thai dishes and unknown Thai dishes.

4. Cambodia

Amok in Cambodia
Photo by joaquinuy / Creative Commons

Khmer food may not be as famous as that of their neighbors, but the dishes are unique and tasty. Food is commonly prepared with prahok, a fish paste which lends a unique flavor to curries and rice.

  • Amok: Cambodia's signature curry is typically prepared with fish, however, variants with chicken can be found. The meat is prepared in banana leaves and then seasoned with a blend of spices.
  • Bai Cha: A fried rice variant made with sausage and soy sauce -- certainly filling!

Read more about Khmer food.

5. Laos

Laos Southeast Asia cuisine
Photo by Greg Rodgers

Laotian cuisine is similar to food from neighboring Thailand and Cambodia, however, many dishes have their own unique, local twist.

  • Laap: Spelled a variety of different ways, laap is the national dish in Laos. Roughly chopped meat is blended with toasted rice and then seasoned with fish sauce and lime.
  • Papaya Salad: Known locally as som tam, papaya salad is a ride of texture and flavors. Crunchy, sour, sweet, spicy, and salty best describe this healthy salad. You'll find papaya salad all over Laos and Thailand.
  • Ping Pa: Ping pa consists of marinated freshwater fish grilled slowly until it becomes dry and stringy. Ping Gai, the chicken variant, is smoky and addictive.

Read about the food in Vang Vieng.

6. Philippines

Filipino Adobo
Photo by Scaredy_kat / Creative Commons

Food in the Philippines is a fusion of Asian cuisine with many Spanish and European influences.

  • Adobo: Found everywhere in the Philippines, Adobo is meat or fish cooked slowly in vinegar and spices, then browned to a crispy finish in oil.
  • Pancit: Pancit is simply any noodle dish -- scores of variations exist -- with meat and vegetables.
  • Kare-Kare: Oxtail, tripe, and vegetables are added to a peanut-based broth to make this heavy stew.

Read more about food in the Philippines.

7. Singapore

Photo by Greg Rodgers

Who would have guessed the tiny island state of Singapore to be one of the top food destinations in the world? Singaporeans certainly know how to eat! A large expat and immigrant presence means that practically any style of Western or Asian cuisine can be found. Make sure to visit the popular Lau Pa Sat food court to find lots of new Singaporean specialties.

  • Laksa: Singapore has their own delicious variant of the noodle soup laksa.
  • Char Kway Teow: This popular, Chinese street food dish consists of rice noodles fried to a dark brown in soy sauce. Meat, sliced fish cake, egg, and sometimes sausage are added to create the king of all fatty noodle dishes.

Read about ten dishes to try in Singapore.

8. Indonesia

Nasi goreng in Indonesia
Photo by Trezy Humanoiz / Creative Commons

With over 19,000 islands, it is not surprising that the food in Indonesia is as diverse as the people. Native spices such as nutmeg and cloves turn otherwise-lackluster dishes into something you will crave for months after.

  • Nasi Goreng: The national dish of Indonesia, this orange-colored fried rice is simple yet delicious.
  • Gado-Gado: Perfect for vegetarians, gado-gado is stir-fried vegetables in thick and sweet peanut sauce.
  • Tempeh: Fermented soybeans are compressed into cakes to create a firm-textured tofu with a nutty taste. The tempeh cakes are sliced and used in dishes as a meat substitute.

Read more about the food in Indonesia.

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