Street food on Lebuh Chulia, Penang, Malaysia. Image © Mike Aquino, used with permission.
Seniors visiting Southeast Asia be warned: the region invented spicy food. But the local chefs do more than just put chili in everything; the cuisines of Southeast Asia draw from a surprisingly versatile palette of spices that make the food taste like nothing you've experienced back home (and yes, that includes the poor copy of "Thai food" you've tried in your hometown).
Another constant of Southeast Asia cuisine is rice - from rice noodles to sticky rice cakes to white rice with everything, the food in the region depends on rice as a foundation. Put spices, rice and the locally-available meats and vegetables together, and you'll find a different culinary experience in every city, ranging from Bangkok's abundance of street food to Penang's multicultural cuisine.
We've put together our top picks for the region's best (and best-value) food - go to these places and try something completely different!
Hawker Centres in Singapore
With over a hundred government-owned hawker centers spread out over the island (and twice as many privately-owned ones), the modern city-state of Singapore boasts of an obsession with food completely out of all proportion to its size.
Singapore's hawker centres came about when the government began banning ambulatory street vendors. Placement in permanent stations allowed these vendors to practice better sanitation while improving their output. Some of these hawkers have become living legends of street food, from the chicken rice in Maxwell Food Centre to the satay at Old Airport Road.
Other essential dishes to try when eating at a Singapore hawker centre include char kway teow, a type of fried noodle; "carrot cake", or an omelet liberally laced with white radish; and satay bee hoon, noodles drenched in peanut sauce that Singapore food expert K.F. Seetoh proudly proclaims to be "totally invented in Singapore".
Kopitiam at Penang, Malaysia
The Malays, Chinese, Indians and Europeans who settled in Penang each brought distinctive culinary traditions to the table, making this former Straits Settlements city (and present-day Malaysian cultural powerhouse) one of Southeast Asia's most famous food zones.
The fusion of cuisines can best be found in George Town, the European-influenced capital of the island that now hosts a kopitiam (coffee shop), restaurant or café at every alternating street address. Stop by Sri Weld Food Court for their nasi lemak (coconut-infused rice with anchovies), or go to Lebuh Chulia's street stalls for a taste of Penang's famous laksa (Peranakan-style curry noodles).
Don't forget the Indian-style dishes - famous foods of this sort include nasi kandar, or a buffet of curry-drenched white rice; and mee goreng "Mamak", fried noodles made with Indian spices.
The spread in a Padang Restaurant, Jakarta, Indonesia. Image © Mike Aquino, used with permission.
Padang Restaurants in Jakarta, Indonesia
Spanning over 10,000 islands and over 300 distinct ethnic groups, Indonesia's cuisine can be difficult to pin down. A visit to Jakarta is your best hope of getting a grip on the archipelago nation's multitude of culinary traditions.
It's all here, brought to the capital by immigrants from all corners of the country: Padang restaurants serving the traditional West Sumatran Minangkabau eat-all-you-can feast; street stalls serving the Jakartan Betawi frittata known as kerak telor; the spicy, Yogyakarta-derived fried chicken known as ayam goreng; and pushcarts vending the hearty meatball soup known as bakso.
You'll find most of these favorites at ambulatory food stalls all over Jakarta. Nasi padang joints, on the other hand, are located in permanent restaurant outlets, but can be found throughout the city as well.
Ancient Quarter Eats in Ha Noi, Viet Nam
Ha Noi's Ancient Quarter may look confusing to the first-time visitor to Viet Nam, but culinary treasures await the adventurous foodie that plunges in.
The street foods found in the Ancient Quarter's narrow, bustling thoroughfares reflect a millennium of local experimentation and outside influences - from the classic pho noodles to bun cha (fish with rice vermicelli noodles), banh ran (a type of doughnut made with sticky rice), trung vit lon (fertilized duck egg), and cha ca la vong (a turmeric-infused fish dish that is proudly Hanoi-born, best enjoyed on Cha Ca Street, which takes its name from the dish).
On weekend evenings, a three-kilometer stretch of the city, from Hang Dao to Dong Xuan, transforms into the Dong Xuan Night Market. On these busy nighttime streets, you'll find the best of Ha Noi street foods and more besides: souvenirs, handicrafts, and cultural activities like ca tru music and and quan ho singing.
Selection of Thai food favorites. Image courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand
Street Food Stalls in Bangkok, Thailand
Thailand has perfected the art of street food, most especially its practitioners in Bangkok. Almost every street hosts a series of small sheltered stands serving fresh fruit; cooked food and rice; noodle dishes; and refreshing drinks.
If you're a fan of Thai food, eating the stuff at the source is a revelation:Thai dishes like tom yum taste much better using original spices and traditional techniques. Go outside your comfort zone and sample other traditional foods like phat tai, or stir-fried rice noodles; laap, or Isan-style minced meat and sticky rice; and phat kaphrao, or basil-infused fried meat served with white rice.
You'll find great Thai food outlets at almost every district in Bangkok, but three particular places are especially famous: the Victory Point street market at the edge of the Victory Monument; Yawolat in Chinatown; and Ratchadmri Road at Lumphini Park.