South east Asian street food can legitimately claim to be some of the best cuisine in the world. It is literally famous for being a foodie paradise! But with so much to choose from how do you know what dish to go for? Don’t worry, here are the absolute best street food dishes in south east Asia to help you choose!
From Pad Thai to Nasi Lemak, backpackers have raved about street food in south east Asia for decades, so it is hardly surprising that the region has become well known for it! I remember my very first night on my very first gap year, arriving in Khao San Road starving after a long flight, just sitting down by a street food vendor and ordering bowl after bowl of amazing pad Thai! Read on for some of my favourite south east Asian street foods, as well as some top tips for getting the most out of the famous street food scene!
The Best South East Asian Street Food!
Pad Thai (Thailand).
Is it even possible to talk about south east Asian street food without mentioning the quintessential backpacker favourite, Pad Thai? Thailand’s most famous national dish has a fascinating history with origins in China and comes in its current form with noodles thanks to a huge rice shortage and a patriotic urge to save the country through not eating rice! It is made from rice noodles, eggs, fish sauce, tamarind paste, garlic, palm sugar, chilli pepper and dried shrimps or sometimes chicken, which is my personal favourite! It is then topped with crushed peanuts, chilis and vinegar. You can find it in almost any street stall or restaurant in Thailand.
This dish is famous in Vietnam and is essentially a hot noodle soup made of a broth with rice noodles, spices and either beef or chicken. You will find regional differences depending on whether you are in the north or south, with the southern version a little sweeter and spicier!
Nasi Goreng (Malaysia and Indonesia).
This dish is an absolute staple in both Indonesia and Malaysia and is basically just fried rice with some garlic, sweet soy sauce, tamarind, chilli and shallots, and then whatever meat, seafood or vegetables you want! It was traditionally a great way to just use up all the leftovers, but became a tasty meal in and of itself! I could honestly eat this dish all day every day, and quite often have!
Nasi Lemak (Malaysia).
This traditional Malay breakfast is the national dish of Malaysia but is so popular it can be found pretty much everywhere in every hawker centre and street food stall in south east Asia. This coconut-infused rice dish is served with the spicy sambal sauce, peanuts and a fried egg, and is cooked with pandan leaves which gives it its flavour.
Hainanese Chicken Rice (Singapore).
Hainanese Chicken Rice is one of my all time favourite staple street foods, and I eat this for breakfast or lunch most days when there. Created by immigrants from Hainan in China and adapted from Wenchang Chicken, it is now one of Singapore’s many unofficial official national dishes! (Really, the food is so good in the foodie capital of the world they just can’t pick one!
A simple dish made of poached chicken and seasoned rice, it is served with chilli sauce and cucumber, but variants can also be found in Malaysia, Indonesia and beyond.
Spring Rolls (Vietnam).
This famous Vietnamese staple is found in almost every street food vendor stall in the country, and is so popular it even has local variations all over the region! But any visitor to Vietnam will have some of these on a daily basis! Traditionally they are made from pork or prawns, vegetables and rice vermicelli, and are then wrapped in rice paper. There are two basic versions in Vietnam; gỏi cuốn, which is served fresh, or chả giò, which has been deep fried.
Banh Mi (Vietnam).
These ubiquitous Vietnamese sandwiches are second only to spring rolls in food carts all over Vietnam and are a hangover from French Colonial rule in the country. The sandwiches are traditionally made using crusty baguettes and a mix of meat and vegetables and are usually a very cheap and tasty way to fill up on the go!
Sticky Rice (Thailand and Laos).
Sticky rice is a common sweet snack or desert in Thailand and loas, often coming with a slice of mango and coconut juice, and is perfect for travellers with a sweet tooth! It is made from glutinous rice, not normal white rice, which is what makes it sticky, but does not contain gluten for those travellers who have intolerances.
Char Kway Teow (Malaysia and Singapore).
Originating in China, this stir fried noodle dish has become an absolute staple food in Malaysia and Singapore, and literally translates to stir fried flat rice noodles. Apart from the noodles itself it is made from chilli, dark soy sauce, bean sprouts, prawns, Chinese sausage, chives and shrimp paste, and is the perfect fried, greasy hangover cure for anyone staying up too late in Singapore’s famous bars!
Tteokbokki (South Korea)
You can’t go to South Korea without trying one of these ubiquitous and delicious rice cakes, often paired with fish cakes or boiled eggs and then seasoned with a spicy chilli paste, they are served in street stalls and snack bars all over the country!
Although originating from Indonesia, this backpacker favourite can be found pretty much everywjhere all over south east Asia. Basically a sauce made up of peanuts and soy sauce, and then served on top of skewers of chicken or beef. They really are the absolute perfect snack food!
Bao (Malaysia and Singapore).
Originating in China, these steamed buns are found in street stalls and hawker centres all over Singapore and Malaysia. Basdically steamed dumplings with a meat or vegetable filling, they are usually accompanied by a dipping soy sauce.
Tom Yum (Thailand).
Not for the faint hearted, this spicy Thai soup is made from chilli peppers, lemon grass, lime leaves, fish sauce and galangal, and then filled most commonly with shrimp it can have other meats too. If Thailand were to be described as a taste, this is it!
Chilli Crab (Singapore).
Singapore’s unofficial national dish, chili crab is found an hawker centres and food courts all over the country, and given its popularity in one of the most famous foodie destinations in the world, you know it is good! Made from local mud crabs and served with a spicy chilli sauce, you will get messy digging into these treats but it is so worth it!
Another soup on the list, this Malaysian staple is popular at every food court across the country, but can also be found throughout Singapore and Indonesia as well as a few other places too. Made from rice vermicelli, spicy broth and then either chicken or prawn, it makes an ideal lunch or late breakfast.
This list is far from exhaustive, believe me there are literally hundreds of other dishes I could have included here, but these are my absolute all time go to favourites! If this article has made you hungry, and it should have by now, then why not plan a trip to south east Asia to go and taste some of these dishes for yourself?
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Thailand is without a doubt the street food mecca of the world! Backpacker heaven!
I’d find it hard to disagree Laura!
Second and third that vote for Pad Thai! It always tastes better sitting on a little plastic stool on a crowded street!
It really does, doesn’t it? I don’t know why!
I still miss the spring rolls from Vietnam! I think I ate them every day I was there at least once!
Me too Melissa.
I’m so hungry now and I’m on my way to work! Thanks a lot!
Haha, sorry about that Dave! Hope you can grab a snack before you start!
Chilli crab from Singapore is underrated as a street food. Probably because its a little more expensive than average but then what isn’t in Singapore?
So true on both counts!
Aw that little panda bun! Where was that from?
That was from the River Safari cafe in Singapore, in honour of the Pandas they have there!
This brings back so many memories from my gap year (in 2018)! Wish I could be back there right now. 😭
I know what you mean Kate!
Laksa! Definitely the best dish on there.
It is amazing!
You should definitely include Rojak in the list, it is Indonesian I think but popular all over.
There are so many I had to leave off for logistics sake, but yes Rojak is awesome!