Southeast Asia is home to some of the most delicious food in the world. While every country offers various wonderful dishes, in our opinion, Thailand and Vietnam, with Malaysia coming a close third, are the standouts in the region.
Of course, what makes for good food is a very personal thing—for example, we’re in the minority (it seems) in loving oily, rich curries of Burma—but in both Vietnam and Thailand you’ll really struggle to have a bad meal.
It would be a mistake to think of cuisines existing in distinct, strictly nationwide blocks, as there are regional and even provincial variations on staple dishes. The above represents very broad strokes, with a few highlights. This is just the beginning!
Yangon, Burma’s commercial capital, is the best place to try a wide variety of regional dishes, while the northern capital of Mandalay offers a rich melting pot of options too. As is the case culturally, in many ways Burma’s varied cuisine explains the transition from India and Bangladesh to Thailand. Think rich, thick and oily curries, fresh noodles, and iced teas and coffees.
Must-try dish: Mohinga, arguably the national dish.The base comprises fish paste and rice noodles, usually mixed with garlic, onions and lemongrass, with optional extras like banana tree stems, chickpeas or fishcake—but the variations are endless.
Cambodia’s food scene, and not necessarily a Khmer one, centres on Siem Reap. Khmer cuisine is arguably the most understated of Southeast Asia’s. Fishy soups and curries sidle alongside barbecued beef, chicken and fish. Pungent prahok, or fermented fish sauce, is a base for many dishes and the underlying spice is often softer on the palate than in Thailand.
A lot of knowledge of Cambodian cuisine was lost during the genocide of the 1970s and in the ongoing turmoil for years afterwards, but many people have worked to painstakingly recollect memories of traditional dishes.
Must-try dish: Amok. Filleted freshwater fish is set in banana leaves and covered in a coconut custard of eggs, fish sauce, palm sugar and a curry paste of spices like lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, kaffir lime zest, garlic, shallots and chillies, and then steamed, creating a scuffle-like texture.
The archipelago nation of Indonesia is home to a vast array of regional cuisines. Standout dining destinations include Medan in Sumatra, Yogyakarta and Semarang in Java, and Bali. Stretching more than 5,000 kilometres from east to west (as the crow flies), and comprising more than 13,000 islands, the food is naturally incredibly diverse. Just a few noteworthy dishes are beef rendang, barbecued fresh fish, grilled goat satay, rich chicken curries, crispy suckling pig and, of course, steamed vegetables drowned in peanut sauce—gado gado, or gado2 on many foot carts.
Must-try dish: Nasi campur, a selection of mixed dishes, perhaps a curry, an egg, some veggies and a fritter, served with rice.
In Laos, both the capital Vientiane and Luang Prabang are home to an excellent array of restaurants serving both classic Lao fare as well as good French food, thanks to the colonial years. Many standard dishes in Laos are adaptions from Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese food, but Laos does have an indigenous cuisine: You might just have to look a little harder than elsewhere to find it.
Luang Prabang is renowned for its cooking classes, which highlight a cuisine little known outside its borders. Popular Lao dishes include searingly spicy salads served with the staple of sticky rice in restaurants, French baguettes stuffed with raw papaya and pate to takeaway, and steaming bowls of noodle soup served streetside.
Must-try dish: Larp, a salad of meat such as chicken, pork, beef, buffalo, duck or fish (mushroom or tofu for vegetarians), dressed with lime, garlic, fish sauce, mint leaves, spring onions and ground toasted rice, with raw veggies and sticky rice on the side.
The street food of Penang and Kota Kinabalu’s seafood are highlights in Malaysia, where the cuisine, reflecting the diversity of its population, is a smorgasbord of South Asian, Chinese, Indonesian and Malay dishes. As with Thailand and Vietnam, this is a country where it is very hard to have a bad meal.
Keep an eye out for Indian restaurants, where sometimes dozens of bainmaries will be loaded with of fragrantly tempting dishes, with saffron rice on the side. On the street and in the hawker centres, freshly prepared one-plate dishes of char kuay teow (oh, the lard!), steaming bowls of laksa and sublime chicken rice, just for starters.
Must-try dish: Char kuay teow, flat rice noodles traditionally stir-fried in pork fat over smoke-point high heat with soy sauce, chillies, shrimp paste plus usually some seafood and beansprouts. There are as many version nowadays as hawkers selling the dish but there's one thing linking them all: They are delicious.
Singapore is all about chilli mud crab (watch the price!), laksa and chicken rice (well, for starters). Catering to both ends of the budget spectrum, cosmopolitan Singapore does high-end fancypants eateries just as well as it does hawker centres offering the basics. You can plan your day around food in this city-state: Start your day with roti prata and coffee; perhaps chicken rice from a hawker centre for lunch; come evening head to Chinatown for anything from Vietnamese pho to Szechuan beef, chased up with a hand-built cocktail at a speakeasy.
Must-try dish: Chicken rice, brought to Singapore by immigrants from Southern China, is now a classic in its own right here. Traditionally, the whole chicken is boiled in a broth laced with garlic and ginger, though today it may be steamed or roasted. A single plate comes with sliced chicken along with rice cooked in a herbed broth plus a chilli sauce on the side.
In Thailand, we’d be aiming for Chiang Mai in the north, Krabi in the south and Ubon Ratchathani in the northeast—and Bangkok, of course. Thai food is justifiably famous for its heat, which can, quite literally, leave you gasping for breath.
Do make the effort to try Thai food outside of the key tourist areas to get a more authentic experience—it's often as easy to do as strolling a few streets away from the tourist strip to find where the locals actually eat. Curries range from mild to explosive and sweet to sour, soups from translucent to bloody. From the street to royal cuisine, you could spend a lifetime exploring all the dishes made in Thai kitchens, including a mind-boggling array of sweets and desserts.
Must-try dish: Khao soi, a bowl of soft and crispy wheat noodles in a mild coconut curry soup, garnished with pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime juice and chillies—a popular Chiang Mai dish.
Hanoi, Hue and Saigon, the Vietnamese triumvirate, offer an astonishing variety of exquisite cuisine. Hand-wrapped fresh spring rolls containing rice vermicelli, a few shards of cucumber, perhaps some prawns, fresh herbs, served with a sweet dipping sauce on the side: Mmmmmmm. The staples of pho and bun bo Hue come in a staggering variety of regional variations—there is no such thing as a standard bowl of pho! Dishes expect to be drowned in condiments and lashings of leafy herbs. As with Thailand, the food is cooked fresh and on demand.
Must-try dish: Pho, or noodle soup, has an impossible number of variations but think of a bowl of steaming, herbal broth with fresh flat rice noodles, perhaps beef, and green onions, with optional additions of herbs and sauces.
It is worth pointing out that almost any visit to a wet market, anywhere in Southeast Asia, will pay dividends by giving you an inside look at food, from preparation through to eating. Find where the locals are eating, grab a chair and point at whatever the person next to you is eating!
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.