There are plenty of reasons to get excited about travelling to Asia – the scenery, the people, the beaches, the culture. While Southeast Asia is a feast for the senses, it’s the prospect of an actual culinary feast that’s at the forefront of our minds. Southeast Asia is a food lover’s dream with countless options to tempt the taste buds.
Local cuisine is a major part of the travelling experience but often it can be daunting knowing what’s good and where to get it. Our local Tour Leaders often dine out with the Stray passengers teaching them about the dishes on offer, the best places to get them and how best to eat them.
From local restaurants to street markets, based on years of experience on the road, we’ve rounded up our Tour Leaders’ favourites to guide you on your Asian culinary journey. Here are our must-try dishes and the best of local cuisine across Southeast Asia.
Must-try dishes and the best places to try them:
Larb – Laos
The unofficial national dish of Laos. Essentially, a mince meat salad dressed with lime, herbs, garlic and fish sauce. Sticky rice and raw veges are often served as an accompaniment. It’s most often made with chicken, pork or beef, but mushrooms, duck or tofu may be used as variations. Larb is served at room temperature at any time of day.
Where to try it: Bar How? Restaurant, Houay Xai, Laos
Phanaeng (Thai red curry) – Thailand
This salty and sweet red curry with peanut flavour is made by combining thinly cut meat strips, coconut milk, curry paste, lime leaves and fish sauce. The dish is often prepared with beef, but there are also vegetarian options where fish sauce is replaced with a meat-free stock and meat is substituted with tofu.
Where to try it: Best Kitchen, 3/11 Samlarn Rd, Chiang Mai
Pad Thai – Thailand
The noodle dish that we all know and love for its fresh flavours, Pad Thai is a must when in Thailand. Pad Thai combines flat noodles, egg, vegetables, chilli, fish sauce and lime. The ingredients are stir fried, meaning the noodles are soft and the veggies light and crunchy. While it’s served anywhere and everywhere in Thailand, we hear that Green House Restaurant is the way to go.
Where to try it: Green House Restaurant, 84 Rambutri St, Bangkok
Fish Amok – Cambodia
Cambodia’s signature dish is a coconut cream curry consisting of lemongrass, shallots, garlic and chilli. It’s steamed in banana leaves then seasoned with a blend of mixed spices. While Fish Amok is the most common of this type of curry, there also are variations that are prepared with chicken instead.
Where to try it: Nary Kitchen, N 650, Group 32, Prekmohatep, Battambang
We’ve run through some of the best establishments to try a few of our favourite dishes; now here are the best foods to look out for at the many markets you’ll encounter around Southeast Asia.
Kaipen – River algae (Laos)
Fresh water river algae is thinly cut into strips and seasoned with garlic, onion and sesame seeds and left to sun-dry. They’re then served with jaew bong (see below) – great for vegetarians as it contains no animal product. It is however packed with vitamins – the perfect snack when travelling!
Jaew bong – Chilli paste (Laos)
Jaew bong is a smooth traditional Laotian chilli paste. Spicy and best used as a dipping sauce with sticky rice, kaipen or vegetables, it consists of roasted chillies, shallots, garlic, herbs and water buffalo or pork skin. It’s sweet, salty and spicy. Think of it as the Lao version of a salsa!
Khao Niao Mamuang – Sticky rice with mango (Thailand)
While it may seem like an odd pairing, this dessert is the best on a hot day! Sweet sticky rice is topped with sesame seeds and coconut milk that has been mixed with sugar and salt. The rice is then served alongside slices of ripe mango for a refreshing, tropical dessert!
Pho – Noodle soup (Vietnam)
Pho is a rice noodle soup, combined with your choice of meat. The broth is prepared separate from the meat, which is added to the hot soup to cook. It’s mixed with onion, ginger and cinnamon and served with chilli peppers, bean sprouts, basil leaves and wedges of lime. You can season it to your own taste!
Khao jie pate – Lao Sandwich (Laos)
As Laos was part of French Indochina for a period, there are many French influences evident in the country, from the architecture to cuisine. The Lao have adopted the baguette and created the khao jie pate, aka the Lao sandwich. The baguette is sliced and filled with greens, tomato, carrot, onion, diced ham and topped with jaew bong (chilli paste) and paté.