Despite a score of other reasons to love Southeast Asia, the amazing food is always a highlight for any traveler. Southeast Asians are particularly proud of their world-famous food -- and for good reason.
Southeast Asian food is often more flavorful and spicier than what we eat in the West. Once you have spoiled yourself with authentic Southeast Asian food, meals at home will suddenly seem a little less exciting!
1. Nasi Goreng
Nasi goreng -- the omnipresent national dish of Indonesia -- is a pleasant twist on fried rice. Cheap and delicious, nasi goreng is enjoyed by locals and travelers alike throughout Indonesia's 19,000 islands.
Yellowish-orange nasi goreng is prepared with firm rice cooked the night before. Spices such as garlic, chili, and coriander lend the famous dish an Indian influence. A fried egg and crispy shrimp cracker add a little extra excitement to the meal.
Nasi goreng knows no social boundaries; the dish is both served in the finest restaurants and eaten in the poorest villages. Even President Barack Obama was served nasi goreng during his 2010 visit to Indonesia!
- Read more about other food in Indonesia.
2. Pad Thai
Perhaps the most well-known of food from Southeast Asia, Thailand's famous pad thai is enjoyed around the world. A delicious plate of pad thai can be enjoyed for less than a dollar in Thailand.
Flat rice noodles are stir-fried with egg, spices, and meat or shrimp to create a dish full of flavor. Bean sprouts and optional ground peanuts give a crunchy texture to the noodles; lime juice adds a citrus zest. Recipes vary, but tamarind paste and fish sauce blend to create a slightly sweet, salty, and spicy flavor -- an addictive combination!
- How to make chicken pad thai at home.
Pronounced something like “fuuuh,” no one is quite sure of the origins of Vietnam's famous noodle soup. Nevertheless, all can agree that pho makes a great meal anytime day or night.
Pho broth is prepared in advance from bones and meat. Rice noodles are then added along with onions and your choice of meat. A light-but-complex flavor is created by seasoning the soup with cilantro, onion, ginger, and cinnamon.
Pho is traditionally served with a plate of basil leaves, chili peppers, bean sprouts, green onions, and lime wedges; customers season the broth to their own liking.
- Read more about Vietnamese pho noodles.
Laksa has a fanatical following in both Malaysia -- particularly Penang -- and Singapore. While the thick noodle soup has evolved from region to region, two primary adaptations stand out: asam laksa and curry laksa.
Curry laksa uses sweet coconut milk as a base while asam laksa -- the default in Penang -- is made from sour tamarind paste. Both are rich, thick, and filling; the texture is slightly gritty. Lime juice offsets the somewhat fishy taste, while lemongrass and other spices season the soup to perfection.
Tamil Muslims migrated to Malaysia from South India during the 10th century, bringing with them new spices and cooking techniques. Today, their delicious cuisine can be found throughout Malaysia at eateries known as Mamak stalls.
From nasi kandar (rice topped with meat or vegetables) to dosa (bread made from pounded rice and lentils), vegetarians and halal eaters will delight in the multitude of healthy and flavorful choices.
Food in authentic Malaysian Indian restaurants is often served on banana leaves and eaten with the hands, eliminating the need for washing and lowering the environmental impact.
Much of Cambodia's Khmer cuisine shares a unique flavor courtesy of prahok -- a pungent, fermented paste made from local fish. While prahok is commonly added as a protein and flavoring to other dishes, it can also be eaten on its own as a side or snack.
Although some of Cambodia's cuisine borrows influences from neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, amok shines above other dishes. Fish or chicken is cooked inside banana leaves, then made into a unique curry. Coconut milk acts as the base; amok is seasoned with a blend of local and Indian spices including tumeric, nutmeg, cloves, chili, and others.
- Read about Khmer food in Cambodia.
Sometimes spelled “laab” or “larb,” laap is regarded as the national dish of Laos. Simple but delicious, laap is made of roughly chopped meat blended with toasted rice and fish sauce. No trip to Laos or Northern Thailand is complete without sampling a few different varieties of laap.
Laap can be made from chicken, fish, beef, pork, or even duck. Optional lime helps to offset the fish sauce; chili and and mint add a zest to the chunky dish.
Laap is traditionally served at room temperature and is eaten with the hands any time of day.
- Read more about food in Vang Vieng, Laos.
8. Durian Fruit
Either deeply loved or vehemently hated, the infamous durian fruit is available throughout Southeast Asia. The durian is renown for its pungent and overwhelming smell -- sometimes compared to body odor or vomit. The fruit has even been banned on public transportation and in shared spaces. Once you prepare yourself psychologically for the smell, durian fruit is actually creamy, delicate and delicious.
Durian is grown all over Southeast Asia; however, the Balik Pulau region in Penang, Malaysia is famous for growing quality durians. If you sample one bizarre specialty in Southeast Asia, make it the “king of the fruits.”
- Read more about the strange durian fruit.