If you’re anything like me, food is one of the highlights of travelling to different countries. So, when I backpacked around South-East Asia, I was in heaven. Of course, you have to love spicy cuisine. But, aside from the exotic flavours, steamy curries and cheap street eats, I just love the way people enjoy and create their food!
I love watching the way a Pad Thai is fried up in front of you in a wok at the markets and how, on every table in Vietnam, you will find fresh chilli oil, chilli flakes, hot chilli sauce, fresh lime, peanuts and leafy salad garnishes -you can mix and match flavours to create the perfect meal for yourself. I delight in the feasts spread out on floor mats, where everybody shares, where you can make your own rice paper rolls and eat until you are full to the brim. I love how you can sit out on the street on tiny plastic stools to feast on your Pho. It’s wonderful to be able to pick up a street eat and ask for a fruit shake for a mere $2. I admire the way curries in Thailand can make you cry because they are so hot and I adore the sticky rice in Laos, which you roll into balls with your fingers and dip in the curries.
Food in South East-Asia makes my mouth water just thinking about it. Here are some favourite feasts, which I enjoyed time and time again, during my travels. And no, I didn’t get sick of any of it. In fact, when I got home, I found myself needing to add chilli to everything. It is quite addictive!
Found all over South-East Asia, fried rice is a staple. Usually topped with a fried egg, this meal can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner or simply an afternoon snack! It’s also a great vegetarian option.
This is one of my favourites! I absolutely loved ordering Pad Thai from the markets in Bangkok. The street food is so much fun to watch, because they make it in front of your very eyes and it is ready in minutes. Plus, it’s great value. Very easy to make vegetarian, either with egg or tofu as the protein, this meal is the perfect meal, accompanied by a fruit shake of your choice!
From the spicy red and green curries, to the flavoursome Massaman curry, these dishes are delicious and can easily be made vegetarian. Make sure you order plenty of rice, as you will most probably need it. It was always a risk ordering curry in Thailand, as you would never know if you were going to cry and run for help, or whether you could enjoy the flavours heating up your mouth. Nonetheless, don’t let fear hold you back!
These savoury pancakes were most common in Ho Chi Minh city. In fact, I couldn’t find them anywhere else. I was lucky enough to learn how to make this dish in the ‘Cyclo Resto’ cooking class. Filled with veggies, prawns and whatever else you request, this meal is often served with lettuce and dipping sauce. You roll up a mouthful of the pancake in lettuce, dip it in chilli sauce and enjoy the different textures and flavours, which burst in your mouth!
Crispy Whole Fish
Usually baked with lots of herbs and spices, these fish are delicious! Be prepared to pick through lots of bones and expect the fish to arrive whole, eyeball and all!
Rice Paper Rolls
Found all over Asia, my favourite rice paper rolls were Vietnamese. I loved learning how to make them – it’s very simple and easy to do back at home. You can find rice paper in the local supermarket. Make sure you have soy, peanuts, chilli, lime and sugar for a delicious dipping sauce. For inside, use rice noodles, lettuce, coriander, basil, carrot, capsicum and anything else you fancy. Traditionally, Vietnamese use pork and prawns as well, though I’m equally as satisfied with the vegetarian version.
Made on wheat flour rather than rice flour and deep fried in oil, these delicious snacks are best dipped in chilli sauce and eaten hot. Personally, I prefer the fresh rice paper rolls, but occasionally, these crispy morsels hit the spot. I enjoyed learning how to make spring rolls on a boat in Halong Bay. Not a bad spot for a cooking lesson!
Omelette with rice/baguette
This was a very standard breakfast all over Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It’s a bit like our eggs on toast, but you are always better off to order the baguette, as the toasted bread is usually a bit dry. Rice takes some getting used to for breakfast, though I quite like it for a change. In Thailand, the rice was often placed in a cute mould like a teddybear!
I found these delightful sweet pikelets in Luang Prabang. A lady was making them on a side street and I bought a packet for about 20 cents. Make sure you let them cool down a little, because when you bite into the soft dough, they erupt with a delicious custard-like texture inside.
Surprisingly, baguettes are found all over Vietnam and Laos, an influence from the French colonial days. You can almost guarantee a baguette with your omelette for breakfast, but my absolute favourites are these fresh baguettes, filled with salads, in Luang Prabang, Laos. They cost the equivalent of $2 from the street stalls and the vendors are extremely generous with the fillings! If you want avocado, you are likely to find half a huge avocado on the sandwich, along with all the other ingredients that can possibly fit!
Banana Pancakes, Thai Style
My friend and I were thrilled when we discovered these delights at a market in Bangkok. We watched in awe as the street vendor stretched and spun the dough with his fingers until it was so thin you could see through it. Then, fried up before our very eyes, he cracked on an egg, adding sliced banana and sugar, before folding it with the spatula until it resembled a sandwich. Once golden and crispy, it was sliced into little squares, drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and sprinkled with extra sugar. Just delicious!
Found all over South-East Asia, the papaya salad is a refreshing addition to a meal, although it can be super spicy so watch out! They often use a lot of fish sauce, so be prepared to ask for none if you don’t fancy it. I really enjoyed the papaya salads in Laos, though I did have one that almost made me cry, it was so hot!
This soup is a staple in Vietnam, largely eaten for breakfast. The bowls are huge and the flavour can be altered to your liking by adding fresh chilli, lime juice, sugar or greens (supplied on the restaurant tables). My vegetarian habits slipped quite a lot when I travelled in Vietnam, as meat seemed to come with nearly every meal. But I did find a delicious Vegetarian Pho in Ho Chi Minh city. On the other hand, we tried to order a Vegetarian Pho in a remote area of Laos and, despite our best efforts to say ‘no meat,’ I ended up with a huge bowl full of many varieties of meat and seafood, some unknown! I sipped on the broth, ate the veggies and politely left the rest in the bowl.
This interesting snack was served up to me in a homestay in the hills of Sapa. It was one of my first encounters with sticky rice – it is a savoury snack, to be apparently enjoyed first thing in the morning, when the sun is rising over the mountains, the roosters are crowing and the pigs are snorting around the yard, waiting to be fed! This particularly morsel had been fried, so the exterior was crispy. But, when I entered Laos, I discovered a whole new world of sticky rice. Generally, it is served in a little basket next to your main meal. It can be black or white. You roll it into balls with your fingers and dip it into the different dishes. Whilst I enjoyed the novelty of sticky rice, after a month in Laos, it started to feel really gluey in my stomach and I was happy to return to Thailand for some light and fluffy steamed rice!
White Rose Dumplings
On my birthday, I treated myself to these pretty dumplings at a restaurant in Hoi An. They had a delicate flavour and were the kind of thing I could have kept eating all day. I don’t think they exist anywhere else in Vietnam, so make sure you try them if you make it to the elegant city of Hoi An, in Central Vietnam.
A traditional street food in North Vietnam, I tried my first Bun Cha in Hanoi and was pleasantly surprised. It consists of meatballs in broth, with a side of rice noodles, green salads and herbs. I could not believe the delicious flavours erupting in my mouth! Highly recommended, though it was not a high point in my vegetarian ways.
I have no idea what this meal was, but it intrigued me so I had to try it. The lady street vendor ladled a dollop of a porridge-without-oats mixture into a plastic bowl. I assume it was made from rice flour mixed with water (or something similar). Then, it was sprinkled with deep fried bread (or some kind of mystery carbohydrate) and finally topped with something that looked a bit like brown cotton, but tasted distinctly like cheese. I can’t say it was the best meal in the world, but it didn’t taste too bad. I won’t need the whole bowl next time though!
What are some of your favourite dishes from South-East Asia? Did you ever try something that melted your tastebuds?!