Top Ten Dishes in Southeast Asia (So Far)
I spent over four months jetsetting through Southeast Asia. My favorite part of these travels? Discovering the flavors and cooking methods of these countries, obvs! Before I take this blog into Europe, I’m doing a rewind of my favorite (previously unknown) dishes from the places I’ve been. Yes, I already know how delicious a Thai Green Curry is, and I’m addicted to bahn mi sandwiches from Vietnam. So what have I added to my list of favorites, now that I’ve visited the countries that invented some of these favorite meals? Here are my top ten dishes in Southeast Asia. What are your favorites? Tell me in the comments!
Top Ten Dishes in Southeast Asia
Origin: Thailand (South & Islands)
Why It Made the Cut: All Thai curries are delicious, but Penang Curry takes your taste buds to a new stratosphere. It’s sweetened with creamy coconut milk and thickened with ground peanuts, which gives it a depth of flavor that the other curries don’t have. Packed with veggies and your choice of meat, it’s the most delicious way to get a big serving of vegetables in Thailand. The best ones still have a good dose of chili to give it the kick it needs to really highlight the deeper flavors.
Where to Get It: I first tried this type of curry in a touristy area in Phuket, but I’ve found it all over the south of Thailand and the islands in the Andaman Sea. When I visited Koh Lanta in 2013, every restaurant on Long Beach had a great version of this, but in the past few years the quality has been watered down. You can check out Oyjoi Number 1 in Phuket, May’s Kitchen in Koh Lanta (not beachfront, but good), and Lemongrass in Koh Phi Phi for consistently good version of this dish.
Beef Lok Lak
Origin: Cambodia (National)
Why It Made the Cut: This has become one of my favorite ways to eat beef. Ever. It’s technically a stir-fry, but the chunks of beef are smothered in a thick, savory, brown sauce that makes the meat just sing. It’s served with a lime-pepper dipping sauce that cuts through all that heavy meatiness and is so delicious you might want to bottle it and drink it. On a bed of plain white rice, it is perfection on a plate.
Where to Get It: I learned to make this the original way at Nary’s Kitchen in Battambang, so try it there if you’re passing through. I’ve added my own riff on their base recipe by adding a little kick with sriracha, but the traditional version is delicious too! There’s also a good one at Jack’s Place or Veronica’s Kitchen in Kampot, Genevieve’s in Siem Reap, Karma Restaurant in Phnom Penh.
Origin: Vietnam (Hoi An)
Why It Made the Cut: It’s a crepe! I mean, who doesn’t love a freaking crepe? But this crepe has an Asian twist: turmeric makes the rice-flour shell a beautiful yellow, and it’s stuffed with delicious minced pork and shrimp. Bean sprouts give this hot dish a burst of cool freshness, and fried shallots lend a sweet crunch that sends you straight to flavor nirvana. Wrap it up in a rice paper with some fresh herbs and dunk it in some nuoc cham dipping sauce for a perfect meal.
Where to Get It: I was able to find a good version of this in Hanoi, but do yourself a favor and eat it in Hoi An. Check out Mermaid Restaurant and Miss Ly in Hoi An for some of the best authentic Hoianese food in the country.
Why It Made the Cut: It surprised me the most! Whenever someone talks about tofu, my meat-loving heart makes a sad trombone sound. And fermented tofu? Sounds like something my yoga teacher friends would recommend as a snack at their latest meditation retreat (not that there’s anything wrong with meditation! Or tofu!). But when I learned how to fry this up in a sweet-and-spicy sticky sauce at Paon Cooking School in Bali, it was my favorite dish! It looks beautiful, and it tastes even better than it looks. The tempeh is chewy, and the sauce is like a journey. It’s sweet at first bite, then a hint of salt hits your tongue before the chili kicks in and pulls everything together.
Where to Get It: I’ll be honest, I only tried this at the cooking school… there are restaurants that serve different types of fried tempeh, from spicy sambal tempeh to this sweet-and-spicy kecap version. Keep an eye out for it when you dine out in Bali, and give it a try!
Origin: Thailand (North)
Why It Made the Cut: This is one of the most satisfying meals you can get in the cooler climates of Northern Thailand. It’s not quite a soup, but a fragrant, hearty broth hides beneath the giant pile of egg noodles that is the star of this dish. It has enough chili to warm you up and enough coconut milk to give it a slight hint of sweetness with each bite. You can get any choice of meat with the noodles, but it’s great even without meat! Crispy, crunchy fried egg noodles are the perfect topping, joining savory shallots and tangy lime juice to bring a little variety to the heartiness of the broth.
Where to Get It: The north! Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai, and other destinations in the mountains to the North will have this dish in most restaurants and on plenty of street carts at night markets. Check out Aroon Rai, and there’s an excellent mother-daughter operation called Kanjana off Soi 5 Rachadamnoen in Chiang Mai.
Why It Made the Cut: It’s a deep-fried pork knuckle. Do I need to say more? Okay, here it is then: Tender, juicy meat practically falls off the bone after you break through the salty crispy skin covering. A forkful of this is dipped into a soy-vinegar dip that perfectly cuts the creaminess of the meat. A smile slowly spreads across your face as the flavors hit your taste buds, and next thing you know, the entire chunk of meat is gone. That is the experience of crispy pata.
Origin: Vietnam (Hoi An)
Why It Made the Cut: The thick, chewy rice noodles that make this dish a regional specialty were my favorite noodles in all of my Asian travels. In a region where noodles are second only to rice, that’s saying a lot! Cao Lau noodles are something of a legend in Hoi An, since the lye water used to make them comes from a secret well somewhere on the outskirts of town. Topped with thinly-sliced beef and a savory sauce (that’s more like a broth), it’s a beautiful counterpoint to some of Hoi An’s more delicate dishes, like White Rose.
Where to Get It: You can only truly get this dish in Hoi An (thanks to that well water we just talked about), so look for it on menus at restaurants there. The best versions will come from the street carts, though. There is a little pocket of these on the corner of Hoang Dieu Street and Tran Phu Street, or you can seek out the markets by the waterfront.
Origin: The Philippines
Why It Made the Cut: This Spanish-influenced dish has been given a Chinese flair in Cebu, and the result is a culinary masterpiece. Slow-cooked pork is a hard thing to hate, but when it’s stuffed full of aromatics and covered in a crispy crackling skin, it reaches perfection levels. The Philippines is a country of foodies, and with such diverse influences (Spain, China, India, and America all factor in heavily), you can get almost anything your heart desires when you visit. But one thing is certain: Filipinos have made pork a protein all their own.
Where to Get It: The Cebuano version of this is the most flavor-filled. The pig is stuffed full of delicious Asian spices like lemongrass, star anise, and garlic, then braised in Sprite (yes, the soda) to get the skin crispy and crackling. Rico’s in Cebu does a spicy one that’s phenomenal, Lighthouse Restaurant has super tender meat, and Anthony Bourdain made Zubuchon at the Banilad Town Center Sunday Market famous (but Cebuanos disagree that it’s the best in the area).
Green Pepper Crab
Origin: Cambodia (Kep)
Why It Made the Cut: Sweet, uber-fresh crab + the best pepper in the world = seafood heaven. What makes this dish special? The Kampot Pepper used is green and must be eaten within a few days of harvest (otherwise it will dry out and turn black). The unripened peppercorns give a spice kick with fruity notes, the sauce is loaded with delicious garlic, and the crab is so fresh it still tastes like the sea. You will keep coming back for more of this one!
Where to Get It: You’ll need to travel to the crab markets in Kep to get this, and it’s worth it. There is a row of ‘crab shacks’ along the market where you can sample the pepper crab dish, and there are a few restaurants around the area that do a nice version of this dish as well. Check out Kimly’s, the most famous crab shack in Crab Shack Row, though some people complain that the quality has gone downhill since their Lonely Planet feature. Diamond Jasmine and So Kheang Restaurant have gotten good marks from expats as well.
Origin: Indonesia (Sumatra)
Why It Made the Cut: So. Much. Flavor. Cardamom! Star Anise! Shallot! Toasted Coconut! Lemongrass! Ginger! Garlic! Galangal! All this (plus about a dozen other ingredients) and hearty kick of chili are stewed with beef until the liquid has been absorbed by the meat. When you take a bite, all those concentrated flavors explode out of the beef in a symphony of deliciousness. It is the best of Asian flavors, all ground up and rolled into one slow-cooked dish. It covers off on every corner of flavor, from tart kaffir lime to sweet coconut milk to plenty of spicy chili. Put this on the must-try list, your taste buds will thank you.
Where to Get It: Each recipe is a little different, but many of them are equally delicious. If you happen to head to West Sumatra, where this dish originated, you’ll get the most authentic version of it. But Warung Bernadette in Bali and also has a great version.
So that’s my list of new favorites after a long stint exploring the food of Southeast Asia! What’s missing? I’ll add it my list for my next visit! Plus, I plan to explore Malaysia, Myanmar, and other parts of Indonesia, so send any recommendations for those countries. Cheers and happy eating!