As connected as we are in today’s society, one thing that traveling throughout Southeast Asia made me realize and appreciate is that there are still many foods that you can only try by traveling. Take Thai food for instance. Sure, you can go to a Thai restaurant in most major cities around the world, but chances are that what you’ll see on the menu is just the tip of the yellow curry. In fact, Thailand’s most popular noodle dish from the north — Khao Soy— is ubiquitously absent from most restaurant menus outside of its place of origin. So despite Thai cuisine’s strong international restaurant presence, it is clear that there are some dishes that you can only taste by booking a flight.
This is true not only of Thailand, but for the region as a whole.
Truth be told, after over a year of traveling through Southeast Asia, I was shocked at how many different dishes or even entire categories of food I never heard of. My personal culinary lexicon has grown exponentially, as has the experience of my taste buds. Just thinking about the foods and restaurants I’m about to divulge to you is making me hungry. So, without further ado, below are some of my favorite dishes and places to eat from five select cities — Penang, Siem Reap, Hanoi, Chiang Mai, and Ubud.
The moment you land in Penang you are inundated with braggadocious boasting. This island state off the northwest coast of Malaysia has no qualms about declaring itself the food capital of the nation. The cocky attitude continues as you explore the nooks and crannies of Georgetown (their Old Town area). You will read it on signage and you will hear it from every other cab driver — Penang has the best street food in all of Southeast Asia.
So is it true?
In my humble opinion — NO.
Does that mean it’s not worth exploring?
Of course not.
There are lots of delicious dishes and restaurants in Penang. I wouldn’t include it in this list if I didn’t think so, but to call it ‘the best’ is a stretch. They definitely give themselves one-too-many pats on the back.
If it will be your first time in Malaysia and you are unfamiliar with the cuisine, a great entry level introduction to it is a bowl of asam laksa. You can even get it right at the airport when you land. Penang’s signature fish soup has some interesting and nuanced layers of flavor. The word asam is Malay for tamarind, which imparts a sour characteristic to the soup. Besides tamarind, you will also find notes of lemongrass, galangal and chilly peppers. Pineapple slices may find their way into your bowl too. Ultimately, the dish varies slightly from chef to chef. There is a certain baseline flavor that you’ll notice after having it a couple of times, but there is plenty of room for experimentation too. This makes it a fun dish to start with and continue trying as you spend time there — well that’s if you like it of course.
If you don’t like it, don’t worry. There is plenty more for you to choose from.
Due to Penang’s beautiful cultural diversity, visitors and locals alike have access to all sorts of foods. I don’t need to tell you about the Indian food or the Chinese food though. You can find those anywhere. What you can’t find anywhere is Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine. Those are not two different kinds of food by the way. The two terms are interchangeable. They refer to a style of cooking that combines elements of mostly Chinese and Malay cuisine, but with sprinkles of other influences. I never heard of it until I arrived in Malaysia, but man-oh-man is it delicious. There are a healthy amount of Nyonya restaurants scattered throughout Penang, but especially in Georgetown. Believe it or not, one of my favorites was actually inside the local Queensbay Mall. For a mall restaurant, Little Nyonya Cuisine had some really tasty food. If you don’t care to go to the mall though, there are plenty of Nyonya options all over the island. Just do a Google search for ‘Nyonya Cuisine + Georgetown’.
I do have to mention one more typical dish, or dessert rather, and that’s cendol. This unique post-meal offering is also great as a snack in the hot Malaysian weather. That’s because its main ingredient is shaved ice. You can try it at many locations, but for a truly authentic experience, I recommend leaving Penang altogether for a day trip to Malacca. Aside from being a cool cultural excursion, it offers you the chance to stop at Min Chong Ice Cafe and try cendol made the old school way. The man who owns the cafe inherited it from his father and still makes the cendol in the same way that it was made before the advent of modern ice shavers. He claims it makes a difference in the final product. For what it’s worth, his cendol was the best I tasted during my entire three month stay in Malaysia so perhaps he’s on to something. (While you’re there, give the rojak petis a try too.)
Lastly, if you happen to be in town during the right time, there is a week long international food festival that has something for everyone. It functions like a pop-up shop. Every day for the duration of the event, the organizers and vendors set up somewhere different along with changing the theme (street food, fine dining, vegetarian meals, etc). It’s a fun experience that’s sure to leave you in a food coma — and I say that in a good way.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Let’s face it, people aren’t coming to Siem Reap for the food. 95% of tourists are there to see Angkor Wat. Even though I made up that statistic, it’s probably close to being true. I wouldn’t be surprised if the real percentage was closer to 100%. However, that doesn’t mean that this Cambodian city doesn’t have lots to offer in the way of culinary delights. If you want to just randomly try restaurants then head down to Pub Street and walk around. You will see plenty of food options ranging from street food, to bars, to higher-end restaurants.
One of my personal favorite dishes while there was amok trey.
It’s hard to go wrong with steamed fish and thick coconut curry. Amok trey is exactly that. It was also my daily dinner staple in Siem Reap for the duration of my time there. I mean what better way to refuel after a long day of temple hopping at the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park?
I tried a few other Cambodian curries and they were tasty as well. They were similar to Thai, but still nuanced enough where you could tell they were doing their own thing. Another dish you should try if you come across it is bok l’hong. It is the Khmer version of green papaya salad. While this popular selection can be found in many other countries throughout the region, this one is distinctly Khmer. Needless to say, it’s very good.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, a fresh coconut will set you back a whole dollar pretty much everywhere in Siem Reap excluding the temples. There you might pay $2.
Not too shabby.
This might come as a surprise to some, but in my personal opinion, I think that Hanoi could be a contender for best food city in Southeast Asia. It certainly deserves more accolades than it gets. There isn’t necessarily one singular dish that stands out above the rest, but there are just so many amazing and unique restaurants there. Below is my highlight reel summary.
If you love chocolate — and I mean who doesn’t — then Maison Marou is a must. Try their signature hot chocolate or any of the single-origin bars. If you’re into vegan food, then you would be missing out if you didn’t go to Ưu Đàm Chay. Go for the durian pizza or the bánh chưng. There’s even a Belgian restaurant in Hanoi that serves up some of Belgium’s best brews. The food isn’t that exciting honestly, but the wide selection of tasty beers is the real draw. Speaking of brews, the craft beers in Hanoi are top-notch. If you visit the Craft Beer Pub in the Old Quarter, you really can’t go wrong with anything they’ll have on tap. If you’re craving great views and top-quality food at budget prices, then head on over to Avalon BBQ and order anything on their extensive menu. All of it is good.
I could go on and on, but in the interest of time, the last place I’ll mention is Cafe Đinh. It’s kind of hard to find, but go there and ask for the egg coffee. Yes, you can get egg coffee at other cafes in Hanoi, but it ain’t like this my friend. It ain’t like this. Thank me later.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
The Chiang Mai food scene is sprawling. I mean really sprawling. Its street food reputation is well-known, but beyond that, Chiang Mai also has an extensive coffeeshop selection and lots of multi-cultural restaurants to suit everyone’s tastes. Price-wise, the dining options range from budget-class to first-class. Beyond everything, it’s a city of choice. You can choose to eat a delicious, healthy (or unhealthy) meal from a street vendor for $1.50 — $3 USD, but you can also choose to eat at a fancy restaurant like David’s Kitchen (named one of the Top 10 Restaurants in the World by TripAdvisor in recent years). You can be a carnivore and survive off nothing but ‘Northern Style’ Thai Sausages, lots of pork dishes and other meats, but you can also easily be a vegan here because there are lots of restaurants that will cater to you.
Khao Soy, which was mentioned earlier, is a must try. The best place to get it is at 100 cups. Another favorite even outside of Thailand is mango sticky rice. It might become your favorite dessert if you spend long enough in Chiang Mai. The downside is that quality can vary drastically from vendor to vendor. By quality, I mean specifically the sticky rice. Many peddlers of this tasty treat are too lazy to make actual sticky rice and they substitute some other kind of rice instead. It’s still good, but when you have the real thing, you don’t want to downgrade after.
Aside from actual meals and desserts, Chiang Mai also has an amazing fresh fruit selection that includes lots of regional favorites like mangosteen, sapodilla, rose apple, passion fruit, mango and the controversial ‘king of fruits’ — durian.
Their coconuts and coconut water also happen to taste better than any other country in Southeast Asia. Not only that, but they’ve mastered processing it into all sorts of things you can’t find anywhere else. For example, there is something called a ‘snowball’ where someone meticulously peels the hard shell off of the coconut to reveal the white ball of meat with water inside. You get all the coconut with none of the work. If you truly want the coconut experience of a lifetime, then make your way to Coco Corner. You will pay a premium for everything on their menu, but do it anyway.
Coconut Pro Tip: When you shop at 7–11 (which will be frequently) keep an eye out for Nam Hom Coconut Water. It will change your life. If you’re asking yourself why I would assume that you will be shopping at 7–11 frequently...let’s just say that you will understand when you get there.
Ubud (Bali), Indonesia
I had to save my favorite for last. Admittedly, it’s hard to choose a favorite, but if absolutely pressed, my vote goes to Ubud. I have to also acknowledge that this is largely due to the fact that I mostly eat plant-based meals and Ubud is vegan paradise. From a broader appeal standpoint, Hanoi or Chiang Mai might beat out Ubud. That’s not to say that carnivores won’t feel at home here, but the culinary appeal isn’t as strong as it is for a vegan or vegetarian.
If you are a meat lover, then I’d say go for Bali’s signature slow-cooked duck dish. It’s called bebek betutu. I didn’t personally try it because I don’t eat meat, but one of the things I love about Balinese food which applies across the board is the freshness factor. Every day when I’d walk to my favorite warung (the Balinese word for restaurant), I would see ducks and chickens roaming the fields. These animals were living their best life…well, until a local caught them for someone’s dinner. That someone could be you! You can’t beat that. This isn’t frozen chicken that’s been sitting in a storage facility. The animal on your plate was probably alive when you were getting a massage yesterday.
This same level of freshness is true for the fruits, veggies and coconuts that wind up on your dinner table. Two of my favorite spots in Ubud where you can try a wide variety of Balinese dishes are Mesari and Gapet. They have plenty of meat options, but for my vegans and vegetarians out there, go for the gado-gado and nasi goreng at Mesari, and the tempeh skewers at Gapet. For dessert, go to Saka Graha and have a Balinese crepe called dadar gulung. You won’t be sorry.
If all of that doesn’t excite you, then perhaps the fact that the local Bintang Supermarket has 7 different species of mangoes available will.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Interestingly enough, four out of the seven come from Thailand, but I didn’t even see them while I was in Thailand. Maybe they’re grown for the export market only. Who knows and who cares. The point is that you can indulge in all the mango deliciousness that your heart desires. That’s in addition to all of the other fresh fruits like soursop, dragon fruit, mangosteen, durian, passion fruit, pineapple and more.
Are you drooling yet?
There are many great reasons to visit Southeast Asia. The culture, the cheap housing, the amazing sub-$10 massages, the natural scenery…all of these contribute to the awesome vibes, but food is the glue that holds it all together. I hope that after reading this you get inspired to book your flight to one of these awesome cities. I’m confident that you will not only love the cuisine, but that your overall experience will make you wonder why you didn’t go sooner.
Happy travels and bon appétit my friends!
Thanks for reading.
See you on the next one.
Photographs: All pictures were taken by the author.
Links: The author has no relationship with any of the businesses linked from this article. They are for informational and convenience purposes only.