Published on December 7th, 2016 | by Passport & Plates
Eat first, question later: Top food in SE Asia
Read time: a bit over 6 minutes
What is it about South East Asia that makes us so obsessed? For some travellers, it’s the friendly people, stunning beaches and thrifty shopping. But for me, it’s pretty simple: it’s the food in South East Asia.
I recently returned from Geckos Adventures’ Discover Bangkok to Singapore tour, where I spent the better part of two weeks sampling every delicious dish I could get my hands on. The first thing I did on arrival in Bangkok was exchange money. The second thing was purchase a mystery treat from a street vendor on Sathon Tai Road. Naturally, I verified it didn’t have pork before purchasing. Thanks to the power of social media, I found out that I was eating “Kanom Buang,” a Thai crepe. This approach of “eat first, ask questions later” is probably the best way to dive into food in South East Asia.
And once I joined the group tour, things got even tastier. My food adventure didn’t begin and end at mysterious street snacks. Our Geckos Adventures group ate like locals at hawker stalls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Totally up my alley. I ate so much great food in those two weeks that I could probably write a short novel. Instead, I’m going to share with you my top ten dishes I ate in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Fair warning: don’t read this on an empty stomach.
If you’ve ever been to a Thai restaurant in your hometown, chances are you’ve seen green curry on the menu, probably smack dab between penang curry and red curry. Green curry is by far my favorite, made with a mix of chilies, spices and coconut milk. It’s like a spicy yet slightly sweet chicken stew. Usually green curry is eaten as part of lunch or dinner with a side of rice, but locals actually sometimes eat it for breakfast. Who would have thought?
Mango sticky rice
I’m not much of a dessert person. But if I am eating dessert, I don’t want to feel like I just downed a bag of sugar. Enter mango sticky rice, the quintessential Thai dessert. It’s best described as a scoop of coconut-flavored sticky rice served with a side of mango. If you go to a cooking class (which I highly recommend), you get to control just how much sugar goes into it and it’s guaranteed to be better than the versions you’ll find elsewhere. Travellers can find mango sticky rice in pretty much any restaurant in Thailand or even at some street stalls.
Pad see ew
Most people have heard of pad Thai, but I’d ignore pad Thai in favor of pad see ew any day. Made with flat rice noodles, Chinese broccoli, egg, and your protein of choice, it’s far less nutty and sweet than its famous cousin. Stir-fried to perfection, pad see ew is a perfect balance of savory and sweet – definitely a must-try dish in Thailand. I ate it off a random street cart in Bangkok but you can easily find it in any restaurant or café in Thailand.
Roti prata, where have you been all my life? I’ve been eating eggs for breakfast this whole time, when I could have been eating fried flatbread served with a variety of curry sauces. Now I know better. Although this dish is actually made by the Indian population in Malaysia (and Singapore), it’s a popular breakfast item served across the country. You can order it plain or with egg (the plain version is crispier). And it’s usually served with both fish and chicken curry on the side. Is it worth the inevitable food coma? Absolutely. Actually, make that all food in South East Asia is worth the food coma.
Pulled tea (teh tarik)
Your breakfast isn’t complete without an order of “pulled tea” (known as teh tarik to the locals). This mix of black tea and condensed milk is poured from cup to cup several times, resulting in a frothy, delicious drink. It’s SO cool to watch. I mean, how does one train to do that anyway? No matter what kind of mystical skills go into making it, this drink is a must-try. Pro tip: teh tarik can be on the sweeter side, but you can easily request a less sugary version if you’d like.
When it comes to staple food in South East Asia, look no further than mee goreng (fried noodles). It’s found throughout Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Malaysian version is one of my favorites, made with egg noodles, sambal (hot sauce), bean sprouts and a bunch of other ingredients. One thing I love about mee goreng is that each country and city has variations of the dish. That means you can try it in a different place, and never get the same version twice. Translation: get your eating pants on.
If you ask a Singaporean what the national dish is, I can almost guarantee he or she will say chicken rice. Singaporeans are huge foodies, which is evident in their wide variety of delicious dishes. Chicken rice looks deceptively plain, but I promise you it’s packed with flavor. It’s made with ginger, chicken stock, onions and spices and is served at every hawker center I visited. As with pretty much all food in South East Asia, it’s served with a side of sambal hot sauce, because apparently it’s only a good meal if your mouth is feeling the burn.
Somehow I managed to eat laksa three times in less than two weeks, but my favorite bowls were in Singapore (they also eat laksa in Malaysia, but I wasn’t a fan). Laksa is a semi-complicated noodle dish made with coconut milk, fish cake, tofu and a bunch of spices. It comes in various forms (curry, asam or combination) but the curry laksa is hands down my favorite version. In fact, I liked this dish so much I learned how to cook it! The dish is on the heavier side, so plan for a post-meal nap while you’re at it.
When I first looked up what murtabak was, I remember thinking that it sounded very similar to a Middle Eastern dish I’d eaten in the past. Only then I realized that they were the same thing, and that it’s wildly popular. Not only is murtabak served in Singapore, but you can also get it throughout South East Asia and even as far as Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Made by the Indian Muslims of Singapore, murtabak is essentially a thin piece of savory dough stuffed with meat and egg. It’s spiced with both Indian and Arab spices, which is a flavor combo I highly recommend. You’ll find murtabak on the aptly named Arab Street.
At first glance, I had no idea what otak otak was. I ordered it at the recommendation of a friend, and was handed a tied banana leaf with grill marks all over the outside. Upon opening it, I quickly realized that it consisted of a fish cake, covered with a variety of spices. After doing research (eat the food in South East Asia first, ask questions later, am I right?), I learned that otak otak is comprised of chopped fish, rice flour, and a spicy paste that results in slightly liquid mixture. This mixture is scooped onto the banana leaf and subsequently grilled. The result is a spicy yet flavorful fish cake that would satisfy even the pickiest eater. Locals often eat otak otak as a snack, and it can be found at hawker centers throughout Singapore.
If you’re an adventurous eater, then truly the best way to approach the food in South East Asia is to eat it first and ask questions later (unless you’re me, in which case I have to ask if it has pork first). You’ll discover dishes and flavors you never knew existed, and may even find yourself purchasing spices and recipe cards as souvenirs to take home. So what are you waiting for? Pack your bags with your eating pants and go on a foodie adventure!
Eat your way around South East Asia like Sally on our Discover Bangkok to Singapore Tour.
Photos in this post taken by Sally Elbassir.