I have never hidden the fact that one of my main motivations for travelling the world is food. Food is a major part of my life, and it is therefore a major part of my travels. I delight in sampling an array of local cuisine when I am in a new country; there is nothing I won’t try (live snake, chicken fetus, bull’s testicles, and even the godforsaken masala coke, to name a few). I schedule a large part of my itinerary around what foods to taste and which restaurants to try, spending hours poring over reviews online and in guidebooks.
While there are hundreds and thousands of dishes I never got the chance to taste throughout my travels, I do have a few stand-outs over the past few years. In no particular order, here are some of my favourite meals in Southeast Asia.
Yellow Curry, Ethos, Bangkok, Thailand
I love red curry, I love green curry…but I love yellow curry. It was my go-to staple when in need of a cheap and filling meal in Thailand, but none did it better than the fantastic Ethos Restaurant just off Khaosan Road. I was introduced to this charming place by a fellow traveller on my very first night in Bangkok; I must have visited almost every day after that, if only for a quick but delicious smoothie. They offer a variety of non-Thai food (the hummus is incredible), but I was drawn to their yellow curry again and again. Served in a large bowl, the vegetables are perfectly steamed and beautifully flavoured – I even loved the tofu, and I’m not really a tofu person. Try this with one of their pineapple coconut shakes and you’ll swear you’ve died and gone to heaven.
Spring Rolls, Sapa, Vietnam
I stumbled into this small restaurant off one of the main streets in Sapa after three days trekking in the surrounding hills. I was exhausted, dirty, and hungry. These crunchy and greasy (how can they be both?!) spring rolls were exactly what I needed, and they tasted phenomenal. I know that the “fresh” spring rolls are much healthier and, in some parts of the world, more authentic, but there’s nothing like a hot, fried snack after a tiring journey.
Coffee, Luang Prabang, Laos
This is kind of cheating, I know, but I just seemed to strike out when it came to Lao cuisine. I didn’t have very many memorable meals during my weeks in the country, but I did fall in love with the coffee. Rich, full-bodied, and strong, I could always rely on the perfect cup whether I sat down at a fancy cafe or a roadside snack bar. I could drink this stuff by the gallon-full (which perhaps explains why I had some terrible sleeps there).
Nasi Kerabu, Kota Bharu Night Market, Malaysia
OK – this was not one of the best things I ate in Southeast Asia, not by a long-shot. I wasn’t that enthralled by most of the food in Malaysia, Singapore, or Indonesia, though I always chalk that up to my ignorance, not necessarily the country’s fare. Maybe I just didn’t know where to go or what to order, I like to think. The reason this dish is on this list is for one reason and one reason only: the rice is blue. This was my third time to Malaysia and I had never tried this famous and yet seemingly elusive dish, so when I saw it in the night market in Kota Bharu, I knew it would be my dinner. I was excited to be in Malaysia and excited to be sharing the company I had, so it tasted good. Great? No. But it was blue, and it was fun, and I was satisfied.
Papaya Dumplings, Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand
I was with my best friend and we were exploring Thailand for a few weeks. Thinking we had to do something other than just shop and sit in the shade of wats and eat pad thai, we decided to head to the floating markets just outside of Bangkok. Though we didn’t enjoy the markets (too crowded, too touristy), we found quite possibly the best dumplings in Thailand, made on one of the many boats in the canals. It helped that they were made by an adorable older lady and her daughter, but they were fresh and hot and spicy and absolutely perfect for an afternoon snack. We went through three bowls before we literally had to drag ourselves away.
Sweet Pork Breakfasts, El Nido, The Philippines
As hearty breakfasts go, it doesn’t get much better. I stayed in El Nido, on the island of Palawan, for about ten days; I am in no way a morning person, but I woke up early just for the novelty of watching the sun rise over the ocean while feasting on all sorts of delicious breakfasts. A french press, sticky rice, scrambled eggs, sliced fruit, and the sweetest, juiciest pork you can imagine? Perfection.
Pineapple Curry, Your House, Pai, Thailand (and no, it wasn’t Christmas)
Forgive me, for I’ve forgotten whether the restaurant was called Your House or My House or The House, but I can tell you this: it was damn tasty. I spent many hours sitting in this restaurant, sharing laughs and sharing meals. My favourite was the vegetarian pineapple curry (again, the tofu was delicious); it was that perfect medley of sweet and spicy. Washed down with a freshly made fruit shake, I loved coming here for a late lunch after a full night of partying at the infamous Don’t Cry Bar.
Pizza, Three Monkeys, Ubud, Bali
Sometimes, you just really need familiar food. This pizza was insanely good, but was still different enough from pizzas I’d had in the past that I felt I was trying something new. I try not to do it too often, but I think it’s all right to indulge in food that may not be local to the country you’re in but reminds you of home: pizza, sandwiches, pasta, cheese, whatever it is that you crave. It may not always be available, of course, or you may have to pay quite a bit to get high-quality food (this pizza cost more than I would have liked to pay), but, if you haven’t had that food in a while…damn, it tastes good.
Giant Salad Inside a Pineapple, Koh Phi Phi, Thailand
This was pretty much my dream salad: curry chicken, cashews, tomatoes, pineapple, egg, and more. Pair that with a fresh coconut and I could have sat there on the beach all day, savouring each bite. I ate this on my last day in Koh Phi Phi and I wish I could have had it again, because I never found another salad like it in Southeast Asia.
Amok Curry and Beef Lok Lak, Kampot, Cambodia
I first tried amok curry and beef lok lak in Siem Reap, and from that day I couldn’t get enough. I ate it all throughout the country: on the beaches of Sihanoukville, in the bustling city of Phnom Penh, and alongside sleepy little roads in Kampot. Amok quickly became one of my favourite curries, and I’ve yet to find it outside of Cambodia. All the ingredients are steamed in banana leaves, and it results in a creamy and delicious coconut curry that I’ve convinced myself I could eat every day of my life.
Burmese Buffet, Yangon, Myanmar
I had spent a fabulous day with a group of travellers who felt like instant best friends: we rode bikes, we laughed, we took silly photos and chatted with locals. At the end of the day, weary but famished, we decided to head back to the same street vendor we had visited the night before. It was a little place with plastic chairs and low tables, cold cans of beer and servers with smiles ear to ear. The buffet itself was fantastic, as was a lot of the food in Myanmar; a country sandwiched by a number of nations, its food has a variety of influences. We could taste hints of Thai, Chinese, and Indian within the curries and salads, and it was the kind of food where, the more you mixed it all up, the better it tasted. It was one of my favourite meals while on the road, though there are few meals better than those spent with friends.
Raw Food, Rawsome, Pai, Thailand
This was another meal that I love more so for the memory and the novelty of it than the taste. The entire menu is comprised of raw vegetarian food, including their pizza, burgers, and spring rolls. While I wouldn’t choose to eat like this every day, the healthy and fresh meal was exactly what I needed after so many nights spent drinking cheap buckets of Thai whiskey and stuffing my face with fried bananas. Plus, I am always a sucker for food that is heart-shaped and/or cute. See: my entire two years living in Japan.
Cao Lau, Hoi An, Vietnam
I lied. At the beginning of this post I said that these were in no particular order. That wasn’t true…I saved the best for last. Cao lau is without a doubt the best thing I ate in Southeast Asia so far, second only to the amok curry in Cambodia. In fact, I may go so far as to say that cao lau is my favourite food of all time. Bold words, I know, but I ate this dish for almost ten days straight in Hoi An at the outdoor markets and I never once got sick of how fresh it tasted and how beautifully all of the different flavours and textures blended together. Other than the combination of noodles, pork, greens, crispy wontons, lime, and a bit of chilli, this dish’s deliciousness apparently stems from some very special water. Accompanied with some white rose dumplings and a mug of cold beer, I can’t recommend this dish enough if you are ever in Hoi An. My mouth waters at the mere thought of it.
What about you? Do you have any other recommendations for Southeast Asian cuisine?