A wok sizzles ferociously nearby, searing its contents with wok hei, a coveted flavor known as “breath of the wok.” A curb-side hawker is surrounded by eager locals, all vying to get a creative chef’s savory noodle soup before it runs out. The aroma of turmeric and cumin dances in the air, hinting at delicious culinary treats from a nearby food stall. A dizzying-array of neon signs flash, vibrantly colored produce dazzle and the energetic chatter of food vendors and patrons blend together to form delightful sensations that tickle every single one of your senses. Welcome to the experience of street food in Asia.
While street food differs greatly across Asian countries and even across cities in the same country, there are commonalities to this particular food approach. There is no greater culturally immersive experience than exploring the flavors and food favorites of a region and doing it exactly as the locals do. It’s a pathway to witnessing talented street chefs who make the most of local produce, spices, seafood and meats. It’s a window into food that may be as ubiquitous to locals as pizza is to you, but are preparations that are generations old and virtually inseparable from a region’s cultural identity. It’s also a glimpse into the social impact of food on a culture, especially given that street food is often enjoyed with friends and family or co-workers after work.
Engage your senses by taking a tour of some of favorite street food scenes:
For something savory, try a samosa.
The breakfast 'string-hopper' is a local favorite!
Sri Lanka may be a tiny nation roughly the size of West Virginia, but its food packs a flavorful punch. Somewhat similar to Indian food, yet spicier and lighter, Sri Lankan cuisine’s seafood-forward and vegetarian-friendly variety is best enjoyed during street food exploration where you can sample the nation’s classics.
Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo, is a mecca for the nation’s culinary specialties. Try a samosa (fried pastry with savory fillings) with a creamy curry, often found at various food stalls. You also won’t want to miss out on the nation’s most popular breakfast, string hoppers - a pancake-like bowl often served with egg, dhal and other sauces.
For something beyond pad thai, try moo ping or ba mee and a glass of cha yen.
To us, there’s no utterance of Bangkok that doesn’t conjure up visions of its world famous street food. While the dizzying array of food options, electric energy and throngs of locals and tourists alike may be initially intimidating, a guided street food tour can help break the ice.
When exploring the street food scene in Thailand, venture beyond the traditional pad thai to explore grilled meats on a stick like moo ping (grilled pork), sweet treats like khao niao mamuang (mango sticky rice), tom yum goong (spicy prawn soup) and ba mee (Thai wonton noodles with shredded pork.) If it’s hot out, chill off with cha yen, a creamy Thai iced-tea.
Being the pho capital of the world, this broth bowl is a must
– and a Báhn Mi can't be beat.
Vietnam’s two largest cities, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and Hanoi, are situated at opposite ends of the nation and both have distinct differences in local culinary treasures. While Hanoi tends to elevate traditional Vietnamese cuisine, you’ll find a lot of foreign influence (especially French) in Ho Chi Minh City’s local street food culture. Regardless of where you eat, the red and blue plastic chairs dotting Vietnamese sidewalks as make-shift restaurants is a quintessential element of many curb-sides throughout the country.
The national dish of Vietnam, pho (noodles served in a savory and sweet beef broth) can generally be found anywhere, but Hanoi is the home of this Vietnamese delight. You’ll find hawkers serving pho in many street food areas, each presenting their own version of a savory, sweet and aromatic pho broth. While in Hanoi, you’ll want to try out bia hoi which means fresh beer and also refers to the roadside stands where the brews are enjoyed. The brews are light in alcohol at 3% or less, but they’re generally 25 cents or less per glass.
Keep an eye out for bun cha (pork barbecued on an open-air coal grill), bánh mì (a baguette filled with meats and Vietnamese condiments) and bánh tráng nướng (affectionately known as the Vietnamese pizza.) Lastly, don’t forget to try Vietnamese coffee. Strong, thick and often served with sweetened condensed milk, it’s a tasty treat and morning pick-me-up rolled into one.
Eat like a local by trying the Hainanese chicken rice. For breakfast,
go with kaya on toast.
The ultra-modern city-state of Singapore may seem like an unlikely backdrop for street food, but its permanent food stalls and hawker centers are a testament to the impact of street food in Singaporean heritage. Singaporeans take street food so seriously, several hawkers stalls have even earned the coveted Michelin Star award, along with the bragging rights of the cheapest meals possible at any Michelin Star-rated restaurant in the world.
If you find yourself in Singapore, sample the Hainanese chicken rice, generally considered Singapore’s national dish. For something with a little more sizzle, you’ll find char kway teow (flat rice noodles stir-fried in a wok at searing temperatures) at many hawker stalls. For a traditional Singaporean breakfast experience that tastes a bit closer to home, try kaya (a jam made with sugar, egg and coconut) over some toast as you enjoy a cup of coffee or tea.
For finger foods galore, try the golgappa and dahi vada,
then wash it down with masala chai.
Given regional differences in cuisine that are as different as night and day, summarizing India’s street food culture into a few paragraphs is virtually impossible. Ranging from meat-centric, vibrant vegetarian, seafood-heavy, buttery-thick curries to magical dals made from dried, split pulses, the term Indian food is a truly inadequate description of the nation’s varied regional cuisine. The good news? You’re in store for one of the most exciting street food cultures on the planet.
In Rajasthan’s palace and fort-laden royal cities of Jaipur and Udaipur, you’ll no doubt find a plethora of authentic Rajasthani street food. Delectable street snacks, often referred to as chaat, are often a marriage of differing textures and tastes. These range from kaathi rolls (a wrap with shawarma chicken), golgappa (a crispy wheat ball filled with chutney, potato, chickpeas or onion), aloo tikki (spiced potato pancakes) and dahi vada (fried dumplings with a yogurt sauce.)
If you’re looking to quench your thirst, lassi (a yogurt drink often flavored with spices or fruit) or masala chai (strong black tea with aromatic spices and herbs) will satisfy.
Break away from the typical by ordering the fish amok.
Try the balut for a street food snack.
A stroll through Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, would be remiss without sampling delicious street food. This task is made so much easier with the abundance of food vendors dotting just about every street throughout the city.
While you’ll find skewered pork grilled over charcoal and steamed pork buns just to be a common offering in many food stalls, fish amok, an authentic Khmer snack of fish wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked with curry, lemongrass, turmeric and lime, is an absolute must try.
If you’re prone to taking a walk on the culinary wild side, balut is a pure dive into the deep end of the food pool. On its surface, balut appears to be a standard duck egg. Inside, you’ll find the fertilized embryo of a duck. Often served with herbs and vinegar, balut is a popular street food snack throughout Cambodia.
Sweet lovers should seek out martabak manis.
With nearly 300 distinct ethnic groups residing in Indonesia, its complex cuisine is heavily influenced by China, India, the Middle East and even Europe. This eclectic combination, along with an Indonesian penchant for spices, produces some of the most flavorful street food in the world.
You’ll undoubtedly find the popular kerak telor, a charcoal grilled frittata made of egg and glutinous rice, topped with crispy shallot, dried shrimp and shredded coconut.
To satisfy your sweet tooth, look for martabak manis – a soft pancake packed with a variety of sweet condiments like Nutella, chocolate, condensed milk and peanuts.
One can't go wrong with Shan noodles, or some koh può for a savory snack.
In the largest city of Myanmar (formerly Burma), a population of over 7 million is fueled by a robust street food culture. Myanmar’s food diversity is driven by 135 distinct ethnic groups calling the nation home. In addition, the influence of bordering nations like China, India, Laos, Thailand and Bangladesh are readily apparent in Burmese street food as evidenced by breakfast foods like e kya kway which is similar to Chinese youtiao, a breakfast churro made from dough that is deep-fried.
Skewered meats are often common fare in many street food vendor areas, but it’s the regional food like Shan noodles, a specialty from the Shan state in the eastern part of Myanmar that consists of rice noodles and pork simmered with tomatoes that wows us every time. Other street food treats include mont lin ma yar (muffin-sized rice cakes popularly known as “husband and wife snacks”) and koh può (charcoal-grilled glutinous rice cakes that are savory.)