With an abundance of local spices, fresh aromatic herbs and sweet tropical fruits ripe for the picking, the many flavours of Southeast Asian cuisine offer a delectable treat for travellers.
Typically, much of the region’s cuisine is based on the complimentary taste of contrasting flavours – sweet and spicy, sweet and salty – and each of the region’s nations employs an assortment of fresh herbs and spices to achieve their unique burst of flavour, entwined with the freshest of local ingredients.
Whether its shrimp caught off the shore of the local beach, or crisp vegetables harvested from nearby paddies, for those in search of a taste sensation, Southeast Asia offers the ultimate menu. A steaming dish of Vietnamese Pho might do the trick on a chilly morning in Hanoi, or the crunch of a barbecued prawn marinated in chilli, lime and lemongrass on an island in Thailand. For succulent poultry dishes with a subtle sweet kick, why not try Indonesian or Malaysian satay? Or wash down some sweet treats with a strong, but equally sweet Khmer coffee in Phnom Penh.
Here is the first part of our contributors guide to the top dishes to be enjoyed in Southeast Asia’s travel hotspots, as well as tips on where you can find them.
Bali Favourites – recommended by Rebecca Foster
As a vast archipelagic nation spread across thousands of islands, Indonesia has developed a whole host of local cuisines. With a population comprised by many Hindus, Bali offers cuisine a little different to the rest of the Indonesian archipelago. While the island boasts many high end restaurants, if you want to savour the true flavour of traditional Balinese cuisine, it is best to head out to the local warungs (markets) and open air restaurants to eat at the same places as the locals. The sights and smells of the local ‘rempah’ (Indonesian word for spice) will bring your Balinese dining experience to life.
Balinese food employs a complex mixture of rempah, from roasted peanuts to nutmeg and cloves. Typically, these spices are blended with fresh vegetables, meat and fish to create a succulent mealtime treat. For meat lovers, satay is one of Bali’s true delicacies. Meat (usually pork or chicken) is flavoured with spices and grilled atop a smoky barbecue and served on a skewer, before being served with a range of condiments that usually include a crunchy peanut sauce and crushed onions. On special occasions, the people of Bali chow down on a local delicacy known as Babi Guling – succulent spit-roasted pig served with vegetables.
To feast on the local flavours, the best traditional eateries are set outside coastal tourist hubs like Kuta and located further inland in places like Ubud. The night market at Gianyar, which is located 20 minutes from Ubud, is a great place to pick up your Babi Guling. Alternatively, head up Ubud’s main road through the Sayan Pass to reach the locals’ favourite open air restaurant which serves up some of the best minced chicken satays on the island.
Malaysian Moments – recommended by David Malabar
Malaysian cuisine is extremely diverse as a result of the different ethnicities that have come to settle in the country over the years. Indian and Chinese dishes abound, in addition to traditional Malay food. If you want to get a taste of all the different cuisines, head to Kuala Lumpur and stroll through China Town for some street noodles before making your way over to Little India for a curry and roti.
If you want to focus in on traditional Malay dishes, the overall tone is spicy tinged with a pleasant pop of sweetness. Lemon grass, pandan leaves and ginger are used generously in Malaysian cooking, and are often accompanied by chilli to provide a spicy kick. Nasi Lemak is one of the most popular Malay dishes, and is based on a bed of white rice cooked in coconut milk. An egg, cucumber slices and salted peanuts and anchovies make up the rest of the dish, and many people add a portion of ‘rendang’ (chicken in coconut milk curry) to top it off. Nasi Lemak is not complete without sambal, a chilli and oil-based dipping sauce that is served with many Malay dishes. Roti Jala is another popular Malay dish, often served as an appetizer at tea time. The crepe batter is comprised of flour and eggs, with a pinch of turmeric powder and butter to add a unique Malay twist to the flavour.
Mamaks (open air restaurants favoured by Indian Muslims) are often some of the best places to sample local Malay dishes. However, as a cosmopolitan city hub of Southeast Asia, Kuala Lumpur also boasts a selection of high end eateries that offer a delicious feast of Malay cuisine. Situated in the Bukit Bintang area of the city, Enak Restaurant is one of KL’s most famous high-end Malay restaurants. The menu unites an impressive selection of old Malay family recipes, all of which are halal (pork free). All of the dishes here ooze a special homemade quality, so it’s a great place to eat if you are in the mood to gorge yourself on some home cooking.
Cambodian Cuisine – recommended by Liam Barnes
Traditional Khmer cuisine is one of the oldest living cuisines in the world and like many other Southeast Asian culinary traditions, the emphasis lies on simplicity and freshness. Each Cambodian dish offers an array of diverse textures, all based on the staple – rice, but the spices tend to be more understated and subtle than those in the dishes of neighbouring Thailand.
If you want to indulge in the authentic flavours of Khmer cuisine, Phnom Penh is one of the best places for a food adventure. The appetizing aroma of burning wood that permeates the streets of the city is likely to entice you to try a Cambodian barbecue, but there is a lot more to try than grilled meat and fish. Amok is a signature Khmer dish which derives its unique flavour from Kroeng – Khmer curry paste – created from lemon grass, galangal, turmeric and shallots. Mixing the Kroeng with coconut milk creates an appealing golden sauce, which is then added to mild white fish and shredded kaffir lime leaves.
Lort Cha is another of the country’s signature delicacies, comprised of short, thick rice noodles served with leafy greens, soy sauce and fish sauce. After the noodles are fried in a wok, they are topped with fried egg and a generous squeeze of chilli sauce for added flavour.
Many of the best places for local-style noodles can be found along Phnom Penh’s Monivong Boulevard, one of the main roads through the central area of the city. However, if you are in need of a protein fix, a Cambodian barbecue is the only way to go. Head to Street 294, which is a 5-minute walk from Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument. The maze of side streets off the main road offers up a host of top local restaurants.
Taste Bud Tips
If you are keen to try the flavors of Southeast Asia its important to remain aware of issues such as food hygiene, spice levels and the use of MSG in many dishes. Here are some tips to keep your stomach as happy as your taste buds.
- Always choose freshly prepared dishes from street food stalls. Some food is made in the morning but left to stand for hours which is only for those with stomachs of iron.
- Avoid seafood dishes if you are not staying close to the coast and if possible, ask when the fish or shellfish was caught and if it was frozen.
- Always make sure you drink bottled water and check the bottles are sealed when you buy from street food vendors to wash down your local food.