What tops the list when you plan your travel? Food, of course. I’ve always believed that food, especially street food, is an excellent way to understand the cuisine and culture of any place.
Growing up in Lucknow and exploring its cuisine, I’ve come across so many dishes that have travelled between the royal kitchen and the common man. However, what’s intrigued me more are the dishes that have travelled in reverse, from the streets to the royal kitchens.
When it comes to Southeast Asian cuisine, they are all spectacular amalgamations of multiple cultural and culinary influences. The dishes across the regions share some basic similarities, with subtle and some not-so-subtle variations. Malaysia was a British colony; Indonesia had a Dutch influence; Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos still show strains from French rule; Thailand was never colonized by Europeans.
Perhaps the biggest culinary invasion was the introduction of the chili pepper by the Portuguese. Chilies went on to become a core part of the cuisine. This phenomenon is relatively ‘new’, only about 500 years old. Prior to this, the Thai cuisine used pepper and ginger to spice foods. Southeast Asian countries are strategically placed en route major trade circuits and thus, broadly speaking, they were heavily influenced by traders and spice-based cooking.
One of the typical characteristics of Southeast Asian food is that there are no courses. All dishes are presented together with the intention of family, friends and guests partaking in the treats. Also, there is an interesting play of flavours—not always does one get sweet, salty, spicy, sour and umami together in one cuisine. But wait, it’s not all just rice and noodles. I bring you must-try foods from three of the many Southeast Asian countries.
During my last visit to the country I discovered many lesser known aspects to Thai cuisine. It’s broadly divided into the cuisines of Bangkok and Central, North Eastern, South and North Thailand.
Tom yam – The popular sour soup with its characteristic Kaffir lime and chili infused flavours.
Pad Kra Pao – I personally found this very intriguing, being a chili lover myself, the sharp, peppery nuances are worth experimenting with. It’s a great one-pot meal with stir fried meat served with rice and typically fried egg as well.
Sai ooah – A sausage popular in northern Thai street cuisine infused with herbs.
Khao Niew Ma Muang – A must try in mango season, it’s Thai sticky rice drenched in coconut cream and served with mango slices.
Georgetown is an excellent mix of cultures that have contributed their culinary influences. The Chinese food stalls here are a must try if you love experimenting with food. From Chinatown, Little India, hawker stalls and food courts to fine-dining, you have them all here. Here’s what to try when you set out for a Jalan (street) food exploration.
Nasi Kandar - We had this amazing meal at Line Clear. A one-pot meal, it has steamed rice served with spicy curries, both vegetarian and meat-based. A must try, not just because of the ensemble cast, but because of its humble history too.
Rojak – A popular fruit and vegetable salad, the key feature being the spicy palm sugar dressing that it’s served with.
Cendol – Ever heard of a soup that’s a dessert? Cendol or chendul is made with rice flour jelly, coconut milk and palm sugar syrup, with pandan leaves adding the green tinge.
Ayam Masak Kicap – Chicken is poached in a sweet soy sauce and typically served with an egg, which I found extremely interesting. The combined flavours and colours of the soy sauce, oyster sauce as well as tomato sauce are the USP of this dish.
Satays – No trip to Malaysia would be complete without trying Satays. Georgetown street stalls sell these amazing steamed ones, you choose your satays (with colour-coded sticks), they are steamed in a hot pot and served. Vegetarian options are available too.
The island city-state benefits from the vast milieu that constitute its population. And that makes it one of the unparalleled destinations for street food.
Laksa – Singapore does its own version of this popular soup with a coconut curry base, compared to the tangy tamarind base of the Malay counterpart.
Char kway teow or Fried Kway Teow – You just can’t pass this one by. It typically has rice noodles stir fried with eggs, molluscs and Chinese sausages & chives.
Hainanese chicken rice – One of the most popular dishes synonymous with Singaporean cuisine and considered its national dish, the poached chicken with rice is a gift of the Hainan immigrants.
Kaya toast – I had heard a lot about this and actually went looking for it during my last trip. The highlight of this toast is the Kaya, a thick jam made with coconut, sugar and egg. Must try for breakfast!
It’s about eating like a local and not a tourist that makes all the difference.
Read about a Temple run in Southeast Asia