For ten years I have traveled to Asia and for the past four years I have lived permanently in different parts of Thailand. When first coming to the region it was for the sunny weather and stunning scenery but now it is the food which won’t let me leave. Asia, without a doubt, hosts many of the best eating experiences this world has to offer and the kicker is that they come at tiny prices. While we all have our own favourites, these are the food experiences which I cannot live without. These are my Top 5 Foodie Experiences in Asia.
1. Isaan Food (Thailand)
I can’t remember my last order of Green Curry and I think my last Pad Thai was close to never. Not because they aren’t tasty dishes but because Thai food is a whole lot more. Among the best for me is Isaan Food which are foods originating from the Northeast region of Thailand. A mouthwatering selection of barbecued meats, chilli dips, fiery salads and hot and sour soups. While less celebrated globally Isaan food is still easy to find in Bangkok and the most common dish would likely be Laab Moo a spicy minced pork salad which makes a good starting point for Isaan food. When in Bangkok the better places to find Isaan food is at the evening roadside barbecues which pop up on city streets after work hours which are where I go to neck beer, ravage meats, sweat on heat and feel like a man. A famous area for barbecues is in front of Central World Mall (Chit Lom) where each night hosts a congregation of after work banter and boozing. When Living in Bangkok they were, hands down, my favourite foodie experience.
2. Mamak / Indian Food (Malaysia and Singapore)
I love Indian food but I find travel in India to be way too stressful. I therefore opt for second best following the colonial trade routes through Asia where Indian cultures and foods thrive. Routes along the edge of Malaysia, joining the Straits of Malacca and onto Singapore. Passing trading ports where exchange of spices, cooking and cultures has made a diverse mixing pot for some of the world’s best eating. Indian food in Malaysia (mamak) is authentic, cheap and everywhere – from Little Indias to everyday food courts (Nasi Kandar). Many of my favourite foods come from the tandoor ovens; chicken tikka and tandoori chicken hard to beat. Also the flat breads; roti and naans, then biryani and tasty curry dishes. I dream of these foods. To pick a dish which best symbolizes the uniqueness of eating in the region I would say fish-head curry. A mix of Singapore’s Chinese and Indian food cultures which came about when an Indian chef added fish head to his curry hoping to please Chinese customers. It is a dish worth traversing the world for.
3. Street Food (Asia)
It is hard to talk about food in Asia without mentioning Street food. Cheap, authentic and overall amazing. Western reputation often sees street food as food for people who can’t afford restaurants which is very wrong. Some of the best foods I’ve eaten were sold from street food carts and cost me next to nothing. Also street food is very safe despite reputation with travelers suffering from ‘the squirts’. Fact is street food is the easy culprit for blame of Traveller’s Diarrhoea but most of the time it comes from water – ice-cubes, brushing teeth, water washed fruits and salads. With cooked foods you’re fine. In fact I prefer seeing food prepared and cooked in front of me, behind closed doors anything can happen. I have eaten street food on a daily basis for the past 4 years with no problems whatsoever. It is now one of the reasons I can never leave Asia.
4. Local Liquors (Back Alleys and Street Corners)
There is no better route to local immersion than boozing with locals; and the harder the liquor the quicker you get there. I first found this in Bangkok where I inadvertently gained local street cred for my love of Yaa Dong street liquor a potent concoction only visited by the neighbourhoods motorbike taxis and labourers. I later found the same is true all over Asia. If I see locals boozing roadside I stop to investigate, whether drinking Toddy in Myanmar, Arak in Sri Lanka or Lao-Lao in Laos, I am always befriended with a free shot or two and always buy some back in return. Local liquors often cost next to nothing and a dollar or two could get you well on your way.
5. Noodling (China)
Noodle soups always failed to excite me in Southeast Asia, and when in popular soup regions, such as Vietnam, I would continually opt for something more meaty, filling and ultimately less soupy. My obsession for noodles in China therefore took me a little by surprise. I think this is to do with many factors starting with the varieties of noodles in China which I find to be more chewy, good for slurping and surprisingly filling. Next, the toppings where meaty additions of sausage or even chicken drum sticks are often the norm. Add on the pickled long-beans, of which I am now an addict. But what wins in the end is the varieties of broths and the unique hot and numbing flavours of Sichuan peppercorns which are common in noodling in China. So we find a whole new world of noodles on our first visit to China and every time we return is to stumble clueless from one side street noodle shop to the next, pointing to random noodle dishes on menus, and eating whatever lands in our bowls.