After six months, 6 countries, 540 meals (a very conservative estimate) and a number of mad dashes for the loo, its time to talk about the best food in South-East Asia.
The best part of travelling is eating. I mean it. We may not set off with this as the reason for our travels, but time and again its is the part of travelling that I find most enjoyable. I don’t just mean the act of scoffing down food. I mean the whole experience of trying new things, getting out of your comfort zone and finding something great that you will take home with you. It’s where different cultures, climates, histories and customs all come smashing together. When it comes to food, we can all relate.
My friend Ed once told me the best thing about being in Asia is looking forward to every meal. There is some truth there. We have spent the last 6 months travelling in Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia and we haven’t stopped eating. Food is taken so seriously over here. In Thailand, people eat small meals up to seven times a day. A very common greeting in Thailand is “Have you eaten rice yet?”
Before we immerse ourselves in life in Phnom Penh for the next year, I thought I should write about the best food we have eaten on this trip.
Best food in Thailand
We have written about Som Tam a number of times. In Asia, it’s a staple for us, and we even make our own version of it back home. Also called green papaya salad, Som Tom in its traditional form contains shredded green papaya, crunchy beans, peanuts, dried shrimp, pungent crab, fish sauce, sugar, lime and chillies are pounded together in a giant pounding looking contraption.
We usually shy away from the shrimp and crab – it can be very full on. If you are ordering this in Thailand, beware – it is blisteringly hot. Asking for no chillies, or a little (“nit not”) will still result in a fiery (but at least edible) dish.
This is the best of Thai food – fresh crunchy veggies, lots of spice, tart lime and fish sauce, and the subtle tang of green papaya. Healthy too! The other good news is this dish is available throughout Laos and even in Cambodia.
Sticky rice and grilled chicken
The perfect accompaniment for Som Tam – perfectly cooked sticky rice that you can pull apart and eat, and marinated chicken cooked over a charcoal grill. You can find this on the side of the street in Thailand, and I can’t think of anything i would rather eat.
Things on a stick
Thailand has the best street food in South-East Asia as far as I’m concerned. While staying at a friend’s house one Bangkok, we simply had to walk out the front door to find the street full of vendors selling breakfast foods – noodle soups, sandwiches, fresh juice and coffee, all being sold from carts. Come back a few hours later, and the lunch vendors are in, selling sticky rice, pad thai and rice and pork. By dinner, it’s changed again.
But king amongst street food is things on a stick. What things, you may ask? Just about everything. Different cuts of pork and chicken, marinated and charcoal grilled, chicken hearts and quail eggs wrapped in wontons and deep fried. Baby octopus. Hot dogs and chicken nuggets (yes, on a stick). A perplexing array of fish balls, chicken balls and I’m not sure balls. Real crab and real prawns. Fake crab and fake prawns. Not all of it fits the best food category, but some of it is fantastic.
Tom Yum Goong
I can’t do Thailand’s best food justice without including a soup. Tom Yum means hot and sour soup – Goong means prawn. This soup is so refreshingly and delicious – full of lemongrass and galangal, kaffir lime and lime, fish sauce and chilli and big fat prawns.
Peking Duck in Bangkok Chinatown
Ok, so a traditional Chinese dish, but the Peking Duck we had in Bangkok’s Chinatown was amazing. The little pancakes are rolled with only the super crispy, crunchy duck skin, and the rest of the bird is sent back to the kitchen, only to re-appear as a couple of other dishes. It’s so good, it got its own post.
The best food in Laos
Ok, so after Thailand, we went all that impressed with the food in Laos. This was for two main reasons – there isn’t the same easily accessible street food culture of Thailand, and tourism in Laos doesn’t have the same kind of infrastructure behind it. A lot of our favourites were available here – Som Tam and sticky rice for example – but often we found ourselves eating in tourist restaurants for want of a better option. Its seems a lot of restaurants focus on serving western food or Thai food (kind of the same as Laos food anyway). But we did have two favourites here:
Pork Sausage with Eggplant Dip
Up the Ou River from Luang Prabang, in a little town called Nong Khiaw we found easily the best food of our 5 weeks in Laos. It was in a tiny little restaurant on a dirt road, where the old lady cooked the food and the husband chased the chickens away.
The pork sausage was amazing – full of fresh flavours like ginger or galangal and lemongrass, and other ingredients that i can’t guess. it was served with a homemade relish and the most delicious smoky eggplant dip. Break off some sticky rice, grab a piece of sausage and dip into the eggplant dip. The most unlikely place to find the best food in Asia, but it’s definitely a contender.
Should Pho actually be in the Vietnam section? Well, not for us, because we ate much more of it in central and northern Laos (its so close to Vietnam anyway).
On a 38 degree day, after riding a motorbike for 5 hours, the last thing I felt like was a steaming hot bowl of noodle soup at an isolated roadside shack. But there were no other options, and everyday it amazed me. Its like some life-giving magic broth. A good bowl of noodle soup, with weird-looking bits of beef and a plate piled high with extras to add as you wish (lime, chillies, cabbage, Vietnamese mint and a tall bundle of assorted weed looking plants). I will never doubt noodle soup again.
The best food in Vietnam
Back in Melbourne, we were always big fans of Vietnamese rolls, whether it was Vietnam roast chicken rolls with pockets of eye-watering chillies from Jenny’s Hot Breads in Camberwell, pate-filled deliciousness from Johnston street, pork meatball rolls from that joint near Barkly square or bbq pork from Sunny’s on Smith St. All super fresh, with crunchy baguette and delicious fillings – and usually costing less than $3.
Well, Vietnam did not let us down, especially in Ho Chi Minh (or Saigon, or whatever) which seemed to be the capital for Vietnamese rolls (called Banh Mi). The rolls are often sold from street vendors, but it is best to get them straight from the bakery itself.
Our typical Banh Mi experience was this: a fresh, crusty rolled, cut and spread with a lard/butter/something yellow, and then spread with pate, stuffed with three different types of pork meat (yay for mystery meats), along with pickled carrot and other vegetables, chilli, coriander, chilli sauce and a dash of fish sauce. That normally costs around 10,000 dong (50 cents).
I think its silly to judge a food culture by what its very best food dishes are – i think you need to look at the quality of the everyday, easily available street food because that is the real food culture, and in this regard Vietnam was amazing.
Bun Cha remains my #1 favourite Vietnamese food. Its a northern dish of cold noodles, pork balls or grilled meat, lots of herbs (vietnamese mint, coriander etc), chopped up spring rolls and a big old bowl of that special fish-sweet-tangy sauce to dump over it all.
We thought this would be everywhere, as every Vietnamese joint in Melbourne sells it, but we didn’t see it as much as we hoped to. Still, when we did eat it, it was superb.
Roll your own Fresh Spring Rolls
Fried spring rolls are great, but good fresh spring rolls are even better. And having all of the ingredients brought to the table so you can add whatever you want and roll it up – well, you just made Asha’s day. Fresh spring rolls – in particular some we had in Hanoi – are just amazing. Take a piece of rice paper, add some beef pan-fried in lemongrass, vermicelli noodles, pineapple (yep pineapple – it was a revelation), lettuce, vietnamese mint, chilli and heaps of other unnamed herbs and roll tightly. Dip into a sweet, fishy dipping sauce and put that glorious thing in your mouth!
Ok its not food, but it had to get a mention. I never took Vietnamese coffee seriously before, but i do now. We were told that Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer of coffee. Now, i can’t be bothered looking that up on Wikipedia, so I’m running with it.
The way it is served isn’t for everyone – a bitterly strong brew drips out of a special pot which sits atop a glass containing a generous measure of condensed milk. The brew is small, strong and very sweet. A real heart-starter. Just don’t overdo it.
The best food in Cambodia
Beef Lok Lak
Now that we are living in Cambodia, we will be learning a lot more about Khmer cuisine. I hope that we will even be able to cook a few dishes and include some recipes on this blog. And this basic, hearty dish will surely be one of them.
Beef Lok Lak is simple – cubes of peppery, marinated beef served atop rice with a pepper and lime dressing on the side. Cambodia takes great pride in producing the ‘worlds best pepper’, and it really comes out in this dish.
Often Lok Lak is served with a fried egg on top, and I have even had mashed potato in place of rice. Its Cambodia’s version of steak and chips – simple comfort food.
Amok is Cambodia culinary big gun – the national dish (or so it seems). Traditionally the dish uses catfish – but i have has a mixed seafood amok and chicken amok, no catfish. The dish is a savoury coconut curry, sometimes served in multiple small portions, and at other times, served inside a coconut. This seems a fair way from the original dish, where the fish is covered in the curry sauce, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. Its rich, creamy and I will be eating it a lot.
Kampot Pepper Crab
On a recent trip to Kep we ventured down to the local crab shacks for another of Asia’s best food. Here they combine two of the Cambodian coast’s most famous items – Kampot pepper and Kep crabs. Taking a seat in the row of shacks that sit above the water on a murky strip of beach, I ordered by Kampot pepper crab, and soon someone was dispatched to wade out to the crab posts, visible bobbing in the water not too far offshore from the shacks.
Soon a huge plate of mouth wateringly fresh crabs arrives at our table, and well, you know its going to be good. A few minutes later and there is crab in my beard and cuts on my my hands.
Morning Glory has to get a mention. We have enjoyed eating steaming plates of this weedy green vegetable in every one of these countries. Sautéed in a pan with garlic, chilli and little oyster sauce, its a meal on its own. We were recently told that all of the morning glory in Phnom Penh is grown in the pungent lake of sewerage run-off outside the city, where rows of left greens rise out of the putrid, grey water. We haven’t eaten it since, but surely its only a matter of time. Maybe not the best food, but definitely the best vegetable.
Unsure of what ‘Morning Glory’ actually is (its called morning glory in every country over here) we looked it up. From Wikipedia: Morning glory is a common name for over 1,000 species of flowering plants. Ok then.
A bit too boring to add to the list, but its just fantastic to eat fresh fruit in Asia. And its so much more accessible. Looking out the window now i can see a girl pushing a cart of watermelons.
Swensens – Wait, WHAT?
Yes, the ice-cream chain store that is spreading like the the plague in south-east Asia. But after a long, sweaty day, when the heat and humidity is starting to win, Swensen’s welcomed us with open arms and towering sundays of ice-cream, fudge, brownies and sprinkles. And suddenly everything was ok.
Allright, so what did we miss out on? Let us know if the comments below……