Southeast Asian cuisine is vast and varied – it has developed over centuries, with influence pouring in from India to the west and China to the east, peppered with European, Middle Eastern, and island influences. However, many visitors stick to what they know, nervous to try something that could light their mouth on fire with spice or tear their intestines up with unknown ingredients. These fears are largely unfounded, and while pad thai and dumplings are among the best here, don’t be afraid to try something out of the ordinary. Here’s what to order and where while travelling in Southeast Asia.
Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia – curries galore
Curry is wildly popular in mainland Southeast Asia, drawing from its regional roots. While Burmese and Cambodian cuisine is not as widely imitated as their shared neighbor, they still have their own distinct personalities. In Cambodia, khmer red curry is a good option for visitors – it’s more subtle than its aggressively spicy cousins in Thailand. Fish curry is popular in Myanmar, served with Indian-influenced rice and roti.
Thailand, on the other hand, has a laundry list of copycats, many of which deviate wildly from its basic ingredients. Pad thai and green curry are classics, and can’t be beat here, but don’t be afraid to mix it up a bit. Pad see ew is an exciting noodle alternative, and for curries, the massaman style can’t be beat. Massaman itself is a reflection of Asian cuisines’ cross-breeding roots – this Thai dish takes its roots in traditional Malay cuisine. This dish, traditionally made with chicken or beef, is comprised of a sour-sweet combination of coconut milk, onions, cashews, and spices.
Vietnam – Bahn mi and coffee
While Vietnam has its share of traditional rice and noodle dishes, the French who colonized it fused Vietnamese cuisine into a French roll, creating an amazing hybrid that offers the salty distinction of Asian cuisine in a convenient sandwich format. Introducing banh mi, a French loaf classically served with meat, veggies, and an assortment of pickles. Try one in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, though these delicacies have spread across the continent, and are easy to find in any food court or Vietnamese restaurant in Asia.
Don’t focus only on food, though – Vietnam is also a mecca for coffee snobs. The blend is world-famous, and Hanoi can compete with Paris, New York, and Melbourne for the world’s best city in which to artfully stare out the window of a coffee shop.
Indonesia – Rawon
As a nation made up of hundreds of islands, Indonesia’s cultures and cuisine vary widely from end to end. As such, the food can shapeshift, merging Malay, Chinese, and Indian influences with their own local flavors. Traditionalists stick to nasi goreng, Indonesian fried rice, or nasi padang, a hugely popular yellow curry. For something different, try rawon, a dark, spicy beef stew whose Indonesian influences are evident in its rich, nutty flavor.
Malaysia – Mee Bandung
Malay cuisine is varied as well, drawing heavily on its oceanic surroundings to produce cuisine with strong fish and shrimp flavors. A can’t-miss favorite is mee bandung, a noodle and egg soup flavored with spices, onions, and shrimp.
Singapore – all of the above
Singapore is such a cultural melting pot, its hard to tell where foreign influence began. The city-state draws heavily on the Malay roots surrounding it, but also has been greatly influenced by Chinese, Taiwanese, and island dishes. Try Indonesian-influenced Satay, dim sum from Hong Kong, Indian Roti Prata, or the Singapore native Char Kway Teow.