If you’re anything like me, discovering new flavors is one of the things you love about traveling. As I found in my recent trip across the region, Southeast Asia food is fresh, diverse, rich in contrasting textures and flavours and, more importantly for the budget-conscious traveler, quite cheap compared to Western standards.
Here are, in no particular order, eight of my favorite dishes from this part of the world. Please note that prices are mostly based on what I payed and saw, but expect to find variations just like you would at home:
1. Nasi Campur (Indonesia)
Rice (“nasi”) with a mix (“campur”, pronounced “champoor”) of dishes in small portions: lamb, chicken, vegetables, shrimp, peanuts and krupuk (indonesian shrimp crackers). This particular version shown here came with rice noodles instead (at least that’s what I assumed: I’m positive it was called “nasi” on the menu). As with many other dishes in SE Asia, vegetarian versions are widely available. If it doesn’t come with it and you like spicy, as I do, order some “sambal” (Indonesian spicy chili sauce).
Where you can taste it: Bali, Java and elsewhere in Indonesia.
How much you will pay: around 40,000 IDR (that’s €2.50, or $2.80).
2. Lab Gai (Laos)
Minced chicken (“gai”, or “kai”: as usual in this region, you’ll find all kinds of different spellings in Latin-alphabet characters for the same word) salad with fish sauce, chili, lime juice, mint and other herbs. Here you can see it served with sticky rice in a typical bamboo basket.
This is probably my least favorite among these eight dishes, but it’s still quite nice and very filling. I had the Northern Thai version in Chiang Rai and didn’t like it as much; maybe I was unlucky.
Where you can taste it: Luang Prabang, in Northern Laos.
How much you will pay: about 30,000 LAK (€3.30, or $3.80).
3. Deep-fried River Weeds (Laos)
Locally known as “kai pen”, this savoury, crispy snack is made from river weeds. The weeds are first pressed into flat sheets, then sun-dried with a seasoning of garlic, onion and sesame seeds, cut into squares and deep-fried. I had it several times in Laos with a cold local beer while waiting for my main courses. Loved it!
Where you can taste it: Northern Laos, near the Mekong river and its tributaries, from where the weeds are harvested.
How much you will pay: around 15,000 LAK (€2.20, or $2.50) at a hotel restaurant, probably less elsewhere.
4. Shan Noodle Soup (Myanmar)
A rice noodle soup with vegetables and/or meat (chicken or pork). Hearty and very filling, it got me through the worst night of a rather nasty cold I had when I arrived in Nyaung Shwe, near Inle Lake (you can find read about that experience here).
Where you can taste it: this is typical from the Shan State, in eastern Myanmar, but you can find it in Yangon, and possibly elsewhere in the country.
How much you will pay: around 1,500 MMK (just over 1 euro/US dollar) at the Sunflower restaurant in Nyaung Shwe.
5. Hakka Char Yoke (Malaysia)
Braised pork with black fungus and other vegetables, stir-fried in a finger-licking good fermented red tofu (“Nam Yue”) sauce. This was my first meal in Malaysia and it blew my mind. In the next few days I’d discover that Malaysian cuisine is probably my favorite in the whole region. The cross-fertilization among Indian, Chinese and Malay culinary traditions makes for a most appetizing and diverse cuisine.
In fact, the “Hakka” word in the recipe’s name makes reference to its Chinese origin, since 24 per cent of the Malaysian population is of Chinese “hakka” descent.
Where you can taste it: I can wholeheartedly recommend a restaurant called “Loke Fatt” near Kuala Lumpur Sentral (the city’s main train station).
How much you will pay: I payed around 20 RM (€4, or $4.50), which is not exactly dirt-cheap, but then Malaysia is probably one of the most expensive countries in the region.
7. Mee Curry Chicken (Malaysia)
Another Malaysian-Chinese dish I loved. Please note this is actually an egg noodle soup, but I botched the only photo I made after pouring the broth into the bowl, so I’m using this one instead. Anyway, the combination of sweet, sour, salty and spicy seemed perfectly balanced and made for a truly succulent dish.
Where you can taste it: Malaysia, with variations depending on the region. I had it at the excellent “Food Republic” food court in Kuala Lumpur.
How much you will pay: around 3.50 RM (€0.70, or $0.80) at a “hawker” (street) food stall. I payed a lot more for this one at the food court, but at 10.90 RM for a huge bowl it still was insane value for money.
8. Tamarind Sweets (Myanmar)
Ok, these are more of a treat than a dish, but very much worthy of this list. I don’t think I’d eaten anything tamarind-based ever before, but I absolutely loved its taste.
Tamarind seemed to be a big thing in Bagan, where I had a delicious tamarind chutney at an Indian restaurant, and these delicate sweets at two different restaurants. I can’t say I looked hard for them, but I didn’t find them anywhere else in Myanmar (or indeed, in SE Asia).
Where you can taste it: restaurants in Bagan, and I’m sure they are sold at shops.
How much you will pay: can’t say; they were complimentary!
Have you tried any of these dishes before? Do you have any other favorites? If you’d like to share your views, do leave a comment below!