There’s something magical about the way different foods melt in your mouth, get stuck in your teeth, or set your taste buds and lips on fire. Each meal is a different experience and when trying something new… you’re never quite sure what you’re in for! Get ready for an adventure as we puruse the best foods in SE Asia.
As meal-preppers, cooking fanatics, and foodies in search of the newest treats and most mouth-water meals, we were excited to eat our way through Asia, sampling the best local dishes, even before our travel journey began.
Surrounded by flavors that pack a punch (and don’t all grow at home) we were excited to try national dishes filled with lemongrass, sprinkled with coconut, spiced with a bit of kaffir lime, cooked in banana leaves, and topped off with the powerful orange hue of fresh turmeric and ginger. We were anything but disappointed. Meandering our way across different parts of Asia, we’ve eaten some of the most delicious meals of our lives and wanted to share our top pick from each country with you!
Must Try Meals in SE Asia
Cambodia – Fish Amok
While teaching English in Cambodia we stayed in a small village with access to some of the most delicious local cuisine. When we weren’t visiting the morning market and cooking for ourselves, we headed a few streets over to try the local fare. While sampling different dishes, Fish Amok quickly became a favorite.
Originating from the Khmer Empire, this dish serves up a curried fish (cooked in banana leaf) paired expertly with many herbs and a side of rice. The dish gets its unique flavor from the curry paste, shrimp paste, coconut milk, palm sugar, and spinach leaves. A true delicacy, it’s considered by many to be the national dish of Cambodia.
Indonesia – Mie Goreng/Nasi Goreng
It may seem strange to pick such a “simple” dish of fried noodles (Mie) and fried rice (Nasi) but these dishes are far from simple on the taste buds and will deliver you to far off worlds in terms of flavor. A staple in Bali, we’ve eaten plenty on our three trips to the island so far.
Alli’s favorite of the two, Mie Goreng, includes a smattering of different flavors and ingredients from pungent red chilies and freshly grated garlic to curly egg noodles and a sweet soy sauce. The dish is prepared very quickly as once the Wok is hot there’s no turning back. Even better, it’s often served with a side of shrimp chips that explode in your mouth like pop rocks as they touch the wetness of your tongue.
Laos – Jeow and Sticky Rice
If there was one meal Alli couldn’t get enough of… Jeow was it. Jeow is a spicy dipping sauce that can be made from a variety of different vegetables. Two of our favorites are roasted tomato based and roasted eggplant based. Think of a version of salsa chocked full of chilies, garlic, lime juice, cilantro, and (traditionally) buffalo skin and bile.
Jeow can be used as a dipping sauce for any meat dish you might wish to serve, or as complete meal served with sticky rice. Just make sure to shape the sticky rice into a small ball using your thumb and two first fingers before dipping! This is certainly a food not to miss!
Malaysia – Curry Mee
Malaysian cuisine has heavy Indian and Chinese influences as many Malaysians are from these countries. One of our favorite dishes is of the Malay-Chinese variety and packs a whollop when it comes to spice.
Curry Mee, most famous in Penang, Malaysia is a yellow curry noodle soup with a rich broth flavored with garlic, ginger, lemongrass, red curry paste, turmeric, coconut milk, fish sauce, egg noodles, cilantro, and many other delightful tastes. Depending on your comfort level with different ingredients, you can also add in pork blood cubes (we thought these were a strange, red tofu the first time we ate them!), cuttlefish, and cockles.
Myanmar – Tamarind Leaf Salad
When one thinks of Burmese cuisine, one of the first things that comes to mind is the coveted Tea Leaf Salad. And, while good, this dish is a little on the saltier side for us. Our favorite is the delectable tamarind leaf salad.
You guessed it, the main ingredient is the small, bright green leaves that grow on the enormous tamarind trees around Myanmar. Our first salad was enjoyed in the ancient city of Bagan and had the perfect texture pairings from the soft of the leaves to the crunch of the shallot and peanuts common in many Burmese dishes.
The Philippines – Lechón
While we’re not vegetarians, we do eat a mostly vegetarian diet savoring our fruits, veggies, and beans. Even so, we couldn’t help but try Lechon, roasted suckling pig, when we traveled to the Philippines. Our first taste of this succulent dish was at “House of Lechon” in Cebu whose name speaks to the importance of the dish across the country.
Eaten for special occasions throughout the year, the pig is cooked over a charcoal pit for hours until the skin is crispy and the insides are dripping with flavor. Even better? Many recipes call for stuffing the pig with different flavors from garlic and onions to lemongrass or even tamarind.
Singapore – Hainanese Chicken Rice
Chicken rice can be found anywhere in Singapore from hawker stalls to fancy, five-star restaurants. Like Malaysia, this dish is also adopted from Chinese influence but has become a national dish of Singapore.
Just as it sounds, chicken rice is a portion of succulent chicken paired with expertly cooked rice (cooked in chicken stock with ginger and pandan leaves) and a delightful chili sauce that perfectly blends together spice and sour.
Thailand – Khao Soi
We hadn’t heard of this dish on our first trip to Thailand as we’d traveled the South and Khao Soi is famous in the North of the country. Determined to try something new, TJ found a restaurant that serves only Khao Soi and we spent the rest of our time in Thailand chasing this dish from one restaurant to another.
So, what is it exactly? In Thailand, it’s a soup filled with tons of ground chilies, egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, meat, curry sauce, coconut milk, a boiled egg, and it’s topped with crispy, deep-fried egg noodles providing the perfect crunch to excite this local dish just a little bit more.
Vietnam – Banh Xeo
Before we’d ever been to Vietnam, Banh Xeo, dubbed the “Vietnamese Moon Crepe” (this crepe is folded into a half-moon shape, thus the name) was one of Alli’s favorites. Curious to see how the real thing would compare to what is served in the States, we set off in search of this coveted sizzling cake.
The batter is made from rice flour, turmeric powder, and water. The crepe is typically stuffed with bean sprouts, green onion, mung bean, and shrimp – though it can be stuffed with other meats as well. The verdict? Of course, it’s more delicious in Vietnam… but we’ll certainly be eating it at home too 🙂
Well, there you have it! These were our favorite foods in each of the 9 countries we’ve visited in SE Asia on this epic journey. The traditional foods and national dishes found across SE Asia are amazing and it was tough to pick our favorites! There are certainly many more delicious dishes we fell in love with. What are your favorites? We’d love to hear them!
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