Ten Iconic Foods In Southeast Asia
“Food is our common ground- a universal experience.” James Beard
The rich variety of foods in Southeast Asia is one of the many memories I have from traveling there. It is both very affordable and different so you might want to ease your way into the cuisine. Don’t start with the spicy tarantula. The staple across the region is rice which is often served as a main dish. Second place is taken by a variety of noodles, which are boiled, fried, tossed, steamed or baked to form a part of a wide variety of dishes. You can’t drink the water in these countries which leads me to only eat cooked food. I have had some amazing meals and carefully ate in morning street markets when the food is fresh. If you going to eat street food (and you should) it is best to eat at the time locals do. If the stand is crowded, it is probably good.
Bahn Mi, Vietnam
The bánh mì is a French-style baguette, stuffed with an ever varying combination of meats, vegetables, and sauces. The bánh mì sandwich gets its origin from the French influence on Indochina. The baguette was introduced by the French, but appropriated by the Vietnamese in the 1950s when they started calling it the bánh mì or wheat bread. The traditional meats you find in bánh mì are pork, pâté, and cured ham. Typically, the vegetables are coriander, cucumber, carrot, slices, radish and more depending on what part of the country you are in. The best one I had I was at a roadside stand driving from Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta. Try them in Hoi An as well. Anthony Bourdain loved them there. Hoi An is one of my favorite places in Southeast Asia.
I watched as a street vendor in Yangon set up his food and put out a few small plastic tables and chairs. They were serving mohinga which is the most popular and also the national dish of Myanmar. It is a combination of rice noodles in a curry sauce with a base of fish combined with many flavorsome ingredients like ginger, garlic, onions, lemongrass, and a handful of dried spices as well. You can garnish it with chili and cilantro and if you spoke Burmese you could get a fried egg on top. It looked and smelled fresh and within minutes was crowded with people. I decided to try it. It tasted like something you would eat in Thailand or India which makes sense because Myanmar is between those countries. I watched as more and more tables were being set up and more street carts were appearing. It was quite good and cost about fifty cents.
Pad Thai, Thailand
Pad Thai was invented in the 1940’s as part of a set of cultural reforms to have a national Thai identity. Accounts vary but they say it was part of a national competition. It was given the name Pad Thai to distinguish it from the many similar Chinese noodle dishes. Pad Thai is not old or traditional but it is the most popular snack food in Thailand. There is not a lot of protein in it in Thailand but due to the popularity around the world, restaurants have added protein options to make it more of a meal.The dish usually combines tamarind, rice noodles, shallots, eggs, fish sauce, fresh bean sprouts, chives and miscellaneous fresh vegetables or protein. Chili pepper, Roasted peanuts and a wedge of lime are served on the side. I had it first in a restaurant near Ayuthaya which are the ruins of the old capital of Siam destroyed by the Burmese in the eighteenth century. In Thailand you eat it with a spoon and fork. The chopsticks are for the tourists.
Fish Amok, Cambodia
Cambodia’s most famous dish is fish amok. It is a steamed, mousse-like custard made of curry paste, with river fish and coconut milk and is served in a banana leaf cup. It probably started as an inland dish as the fish comes from a river or lake. Amok refers to the process of steaming food in a banana leaf. Sounds good right? It is so delicious. It was my first lunch in Siem Reap after visiting Angor Wat. This is eaten with chopsticks. Everything in Cambodia is eaten with rice. Having had so much starvation for so many years, it is odd for them to see people jogging to lose weight or not eat rice. I needed to eat some rice in Cambodia to understand the food. I felt a little of that first world privilege that I had a choice not to eat it.
Khao Piak Sen, Laos
Though I wanted to eat laap in Laos, (traditionally raw meat salad) which I saw many people eating, I stuck with cooked food. Rice noodle soup in Luang Prabang is the best way to start a busy day of sightseeing. It is a flavorful meat or chicken broth with thick handmade noodles and has a thicker consistency than watery soup. At the table setting you will usually find a small dish of fresh herbs, hot red peppers fried in oil, shrimp paste, and often some dried crushed peanuts as well. It is one of Lao’s oldest, most traditional dishes.
Samusas are a popular snack throughout Myanmar.They are smaller than their Indian cousins and are served with a sauce unique to the Burmese region. Burmese are obsessed with frying – the more oil, the better. In the tea shops in Yangon they chop them up and serve them in a salad. They are also served in a soup. I felt they were cooked enough to eat from a street cart when my blood sugar got low. I really wanted to try the raw sugar cane juice with it but I had green tea instead.
Bun Cha, Viet Nam
I ate bun cha when I arrived in Hanoi. It started in Hanoi and is their signature dish. Rice noodles are served on a separate plate (bun). Cha is pork cooked in two styles: cha vine (ground pork) and cha mieng cha (grilled thin sliced pork). It is served in the broth which is made of fish sauce, vinegar and sugar. In the big basket of greens on the table, you will find fresh lettuce, Thai basil, cilantro, fish mint, banana flower, and coriander. There are two ways to eat it. You can wrap everything in lettuce and dip it in the broth or you can throw everything in like Hanoians do and eat it like soup with chopsticks. I did that to cook the lettuce a bit. It was fun to relive the experience watching President Obama and Anthony Bourdain eat bun cha in Hanoi.
Khao Niaow Ma Muang,Thailand
Mango with sticky rice is one of my favorite desserts. Mango is the most popular fruit in the world. Traditionally, sticky rice is made by being soaked in enough water to cover the rice, and then left overnight before being steamed and sweetened with sugar and coconut milk (it has a similar taste to rice pudding although it is not quite as moist). It is served to complement the sweet mango. There are many streets vendors in Bangkok that sell it in the summer months. You can also get it as a dessert in restaurants.
Chaa Angrong Sach Ko, Cambodia
Hunger is a legacy that lives on in Cambodia and everything is edible. This is not my first fried bug country but there are a lot of them here. Platters of fried tarantulas and spiders are common in the market. They told me the red ants that were biting my leg on the hammock were delicious when cooked with beef and fresh basil and they were right. The insects add a tangy, sour pop to the savory, fragrant medley of chili, basil, ginger, lemongrass, garlic, and shallots. As long as it is cooked, I’m willing to be adventurous. Anything fried in oil and salt tastes good and they add a pop of more protein to the dish.
Pho, Viet Nam
No matter what time of day or night, a steaming bowl of pho noodle soup is never hard to find in Vietnam. Pho consists of flat rice noodles in a light, meat-based broth. There are small amounts of meat or meat balls cooked separately and added. Fresh vegetable garnishes complete the ensemble, usually composed of Thai basil, green onions, cilantro, and bean sprouts. Bean Sprouts are for the tourists who get that in their own countries. The dish is usually accompanied by basil, lime, chili, and other extras on the side so that eaters can season the soup to their own taste. The balanced tastes of sweet, salty, spicy, and citrus are highly contagious; pho usually becomes an instant favorite. It is Viet Nam’s unofficial national dish and eaten all over the world now. The first pho I had in Viet Nam was on the way back from Halong Bay. Pho costs about two dollars. It is eaten with chopsticks in one hand and a spoon in the other. Slurping is encouraged.