Built on an impressive concoction of tantalizing flavours, the cuisine on offer in Southeast Asia is a delectable feast for visitors to enjoy.
Whether you are exploring the hill stations of Vietnam or perusing the menu at a Michelin star restaurant in the Thai capital; each nation in the region has a distinct set of flavours and dishes to offer, the majority of which are based on the abundance of fresh local produce.
You can chow down on tasty street food with the locals, or eat exquisite fare prepared by chefs that once cooked for Kings and Queens. Our writers take a look at some of the best dishes available in Thailand, Vietnam and Burma, and more importantly – where you can get your tastebuds on them.
Classic Thai Tastes – recommended by Tina Hsiao
When it comes to cuisine, Thailand boasts one of the most celebrated menus in the world. The principles of Thai cooking are generally based on creating a dish that comprises four flavours: sweet, sour, salty and spicy. Fresh limes give soups their sour tang, with nam pla (fish sauce) for a salty edge. A sprinkle of brown sugar sweetens curries and sauces, and of course, a generous helping of fresh chillies give Thai dishes their famous kick. Staples include noodles, rice and curry dishes, although with thousands of miles of coastline, Thailand’s seafood dishes are also well worth tucking into.
While Tom Yam Gung (spicy prawn soup) is perhaps Thailand’s most famous dish, Tom Kha Gai (coconut milk soup) provides visitors with a creamier, slightly less spicy alternative. This rich steaming broth is also flavoured with fresh lemongrass and crushed coriander, and traditionally served with fluffy white rice.
If you want to tuck into a traditional seafood dish, Pla Sam Rod is one of the Kingdom’s best. This dish (which translates to “fish with three flavours”) packs in spicy, sweet and sour elements, and often features freshly caught sea bass. Once cooked and seasoned, the fish is often served with mango salad, coriander and crunchy cashew nuts.
If you want to eat authentic Thai food in the same haunts as the locals then street stalls are definitely your best bet. A portion of freshly fried Pad Thai (Thai fried noodles with egg and bean sprouts) will only set you back around 30 baht although be aware of the cleanliness to avoid an upset tummy. Alternatively, if you want to indulge in something a little more upmarket, islands like Phuket and Koh Samui are home to some of the finest restaurants in the land with seafood caught fresh and often complemented by imported delicacies.
Vietnamese Variety – recommended by Rebecca Foster
Just like Thai cuisine, Vietnamese food offers a rich blend of tastes, although generally with less spice. Many dishes are based on a delectable foundation of fish sauce, shrimp paste, herbs and fruit, which is perhaps why Vietnamese cuisine is admired across the world for its fresh, crisp tang. Because the traditional Vietnamese diet features less oil than many other cuisines, it is known as one of the most healthy in the world. On a typical day, a Vietnamese family might tuck into a pot of steamed white rice, stir fried and pickled vegetables, and canh – a clear broth enriched with vegetables and meat. Many meals also come with a zesty dipping sauce made from garlic, pepper, fish sauce, lemon juice and other spices.
If you travel to Vietnam, it is quite likely that one of the first dishes you will sample is Pho. This steaming dish of goodness comes in many varieties depending on the region you are eating it in. Meat (usually beef or chicken) is boiled in water to make a delicious savoury broth, to which noodles, crisp bean sprouts and a generous sprinkling of coriander are added before serving. Chan Chua, a kind of Vietnamese congee, is also a popular dish with visitors. This sour Vietnamese version of the dish is brimming with mouth-watering ingredients including fish, pineapple, tomatoes, tamarind and bean sprouts. If you are not in the mood for soup, but in search of a tasty snack, Banh Bao, a Vietnamese steamed bun, is likely to hit the spot. Banh Bao are often stuffed with onion, barbecued pork and quail eggs, although vegetarian versions are popular snacks often available at Buddhist temples across the country.
Thanks to its colonial history, Vietnamese cuisine also demonstrates a distinctive French influence. If you find yourself hungry in Ho Chi Minh city, why not opt for some freshly fried snails at a local street stall? Your snails are best served with a cold beer, which you can enjoy sipping whilst watching street performers mill up and down the backstreets of the city. Meanwhile, in Hanoi, Vietnam’s northern capital, Wild Rice is one of the city’s most in-vogue restaurants with a menu that offers an enchanting coconut milk fish stew.
Best of Burmese – recommended by Maggie Davies
While the cuisine of Myanmar may not be as famous as the globally known dishes offered foodies by its Thai or Chinese neighbours; the array of flavours and dishes available will still impress visitors.
Burmese cuisine is derived from the country’s rich variety of ethnic backgrounds, from Chinese to Indian, and from ethnic minorities including Chin and Bamar. Like most other Southeast Asian diets, the staple is rice, and seafood is also a common ingredient in many traditional Burmese dishes. Local salads, known collectively as a thoke, are also an important component in the local diet, and diverse ingredients of a thoke include kaffir lime, pickled tea leaves, potato and ginger.
Your specific location in Myanmar will most likely determine the kind of dishes you choose to sample whilst on your travels. The southern part of Burma, for example, is well known for its seafood, and Kat Kyi Hynat is a delis dish to start off with – particularly if you are a fan of Pad Thai in neighbouring Thailand. The dish employs a scrumptious fried mixture of seafood, meat, crunchy raw bean sprouts, fried eggs and noodles.
If you are in the mood for Burmese food infused with a little Chinese flavour, Seejet Khao Swe is a tasty mix of wheat noodles, duck and diced spring onions, all fried up in garlic oil. And to follow up, visitors with a sweet tooth will enjoy Shwe Yin Aye – agar jelly, sago and tapioca in a sweet, creamy dish of coconut milk.
As in most Southeast Asian nations, sampling the local street food is one of the best ways to taste the rich flavours of Burmese cuisine. In Yangon, head to 19th street to discover a bustling pedestrianized area packed to the brim with busy food stalls. The enticing aroma of meat, seafood and vegetables is captivating, and it is well worth sharing a few dishes with a travel companion so you can sample as many as possible.
British poet and author Rudyard Kipling mused on the ‘spicy garlic smells’ that pervaded the streets of Burma’s capital city, Mandalay. Even today, food culture in Mandalay remains fairly traditional, focusing on tea houses and street stalls. However, with the growth of tourism in recent years, a number of impressive eateries have popped up across the city, including Green Elephant, which is a great place to enjoy an authentic Burmese culinary experience.
If you are traveling to any of the above countries to savour the flavours of local food, make sure you understand the local dining etiquette, which can even apply at a street side stall.
- In Thailand it is customary to order several dishes and share with friends and family. When dining in a group you should therefore never use the same spoon that you eat with to serve yourself a helping from the communal dishes.
- In Vietnam, specific sauces accompany certain dishes and if you decide to order a mix of delicacies at a local restaurant, make sure you dip the right food in the right sauce. Failure to do so will draw looks of disapproval.
- In Burma, when sharing a meal, the eldest diners are always served first as a sign of respect. Even when the older members of the family are not present, the first spoonful of rice from the pot is served separately into an empty bowl, which is a tradition known as u cha.