If you’re a foodie, it doesn’t get much better than Asian street food. The sounds of sizzling woks, grilling meats, bubbling curries, and simmering soups mingling with the fragrant aromas and bright colors of fresh chilies, spices, lemongrass, fruits, and exotic vegetables of all shapes and sizes is a feast for the senses. Experiencing Asian street food is one of the great joys of traveling in Asia! Thai street food may be the most famous, but almost every Asian country has a diverse and thriving street food culture.
Without question, it is my absolute favorite part of Asia. I’d rather wander aimlessly through a vibrant Asian food market than tour ancient temples or sit on a beach. My first trip to Asia was in 2000 when I spent four months in Thailand. I immediately fell in love with Thai street food and the culture of street food markets. Since then, I’ve returned to Thailand on two other occasions and also traveled to India, Nepal, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Indonesia.
These 6 tips for eating Asian street food are specifically meant for foodies traveling to Asia for the first time. While Asian street food culture is slightly different from country to country, most of these tips are applicable to each country, especially the countries that are part of South Asia and Southeast Asia. They might not be as applicable to the East Asian countries of China, Japan, and Korea, as I have not been to that region.
With that in mind, these 6 tips will help you find some really great Asian street food! But without question. this first tip is the most important one of them all…
Some of the best and most interesting Asian street food you will encounter is during the early morning hours. Bustling morning street markets spring to life. Food vendors comb the alleys and backroads. In order to experience it, please, for the sake of God, skip the banana pancake tourist breakfasts that they serve everywhere in Asia. Every hotel, every guesthouse, and even some hostels will offer you banana pancakes, as well as various uninspiring incarnations of eggs and toast.
This is NOT local food. It is meant for western backpackers and tourists.
Banana pancakes for breakfast are so ubiquitous that popular travel destinations in Asia are known as The Banana Pancake Trail, named after the throngs of western-style cafes that cater to the throngs of western tourists.
Look, they’re not always terrible and on occasion, you might just want to have something familiar. I’ve certainly had my share of banana pancakes for breakfast in Asia. Sometimes they do hit the spot. But if you’re from the United States, know that they’re not like the big, fluffy pancakes you get here. They’re more like crepes, which I guess are more European. Nor do they come with maple syrup.
In the early days of my first trip to Thailand, like a complete idiot, I kept asking for maple syrup. None of the Thai people understood what I was asking for. They would all have confused looks on their faces and would repetitively ask me if I meant honey or butter. One server brought me a side of water. Another brought me more banana pancakes.
I realized after about a week or two that there are no maple trees in Thailand.
Know that the banana pancakes are all served with some type of highly processed honey, highly processed butter (if you could even call it “butter”), and either Nutella® or sometimes even Hershey’s® chocolate syrup.
And don’t get me started on the eggs and toast. The bread served in most places in Asia makes Wonder Bread taste like it’s made in a French bakery. I’m telling you with all sincerity that cardboard tastes better. I mean it is the most tasteless, dry, awful thing you could ever imagine.
For non-foodies, this is fine. They will eat these breakfasts every single day. Not everybody is there to eat the local food, which to be honest, kind of annoys me. I don’t understand why you would travel to another country and eat the same food you get at home. Experiencing the real local food of a new country is one of the great joys of traveling. Sometimes, I just want to scream at these people, “Try something different, for God’s sake!”
It’s pathetic to see these western cafes jam-packed with tourists, eating highly processed junk foods and yet, often just a few steps away are some wonderful local real Asian breakfasts. And at a fraction of the price! Seriously, they are unbelievably cheap. Be adventurous and try as many as possible! Here are just three examples from my own travels:
In Thailand, jok (pronounced “joke”) is an intensely flavorful rice congee breakfast soup served with pork meatballs, strips of ginger, scallions, and fried garlic. It is my favorite early-morning Thai street food meal. Here’s a little clip of me eating it on the streets of Bangkok.
Almost every morning in Cambodia I ate this…
It’s called bai sach chrouk which is a popular breakfast street food dish of super-tender BBQ pork over rice. It usually comes with a side of pickled vegetables and a small soup. My picture is kind of lame, but I promise you, it’s fantastic. The pork is so tender and so flavorful. It might seem a little odd to have this for breakfast but in most Asian countries the lines between breakfast, lunch, and dinner are a lot more blurred than in the West.
The other thing I ate was some type of rice or noodle soup.
Equally delicious. Honestly, I can’t even remember what that was but I remember loving it on the streets of Phnom Penh.
Both cost around a dollar.
When I was in Myanmar, I became obsessed with mohinga, the traditional breakfast soup that I still consider the greatest noodle soup ever.
These three examples are just the tip of the iceberg. No matter where you are in Asia, real local food breakfasts are just beyond the comfy confines of wherever you’re staying at a fraction of the price of those banana pancakes.
Seek them out. Eat with the locals. Experience real local Asian street food. You also get to experience a slice of local culture too. It’s part of the joy of traveling.
If you’re new to my blog, know that I’m a soup guy. Most of this blog has evolved into my love of soup, which started in Thailand many years ago. Soups are an iconic part of Thai street food. Duck noodle soups, boat noodles (an intensely flavored Thai beef noodle soup), pork noodle soups, congees, tom yum goong, tom kha gai, coconut curries, and countless more are everywhere on the streets of Thailand.
I could same the same in every Asian country I’ve visited. Everywhere you go, you’ll find big vats of simmering pots of broth and soup with some of the most amazing aromas and flavors you could ever imagine. Some are salty, some spicy, some sour, some sweet, and some contain all four.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s the greatest part of Asian street foods. I even wrote a cookbook, The Thai Soup Secret, about all the wonderful Thai soups based on my travels in Thailand.
Transform Your Health with Thailand’s #1 Superfood!
Includes 40 restorative recipes for broths, congees, and soups. All gluten and dairy-free!
Someday I hope to write a more comprehensive one spanning many more countries. All I can say is eat as many as possible. Eat them for breakfast. Eat them for lunch. Eat them for dinner. Eat them all, if you can.
These have become super popular with many choices in all the major cities. Simply google search “Thai street food tour” or better yet, “Bangkok street food tour” or whatever Asian city you’re visiting and you’ll find plenty of options. They’re also a great way to meet fellow foodie travelers.
Another great thing about food tours is that the tour guide will speak English. This can be a barrier sometimes when you’re on your own. I’ve had many occasions where I’ve just had to point to what I want without knowing exactly what I was getting. Sometimes it’s nice to ask questions and get a deeper understanding of your meal!
Of course, you can’t do a street food tour every night. Sometimes you will be on your own and sometimes it may be hard to ascertain whether some places are serving real, authentic Asian street food or some watered-down version for tourists. The latter is very common in more tourist-heavy areas. The remaining tips are visual clues to look for to help you identify more authentic places.
You’ll see them right on the tables as you walk by. The places that cater to tourists will ALL have this on the table…
That’s ketchup on the left, flavorless processed chili sauce on the right, and Golden Mountain® seasoning sauce in the middle, which, for reasons I don’t understand, is wildly popular in many Asian countries with both tourists and locals. It’s basically fake soy sauce.
Everywhere I go in Asia, I see these three condiments over and over and over. This is a good sign you’ll be getting some really bad Asian street food.
Real local food places will have REAL condiments on the tables, like this…
That’s from a great local place I stumbled upon in Kampot, Cambodia. The owner makes them herself. The one in the front is a chili paste with garlic, on the left is pickled chiles and on the right is dried sauerkraut. Other places have their own homemade versions of various pastes, relishes, and sauces.
In Thailand, the real Thai places have a caddy of condiments on the table which almost always includes chiles in fish sauce, chiles in vinegar, and dried chile powder.
These real condiments add wonderful flavors and contrasts to soups, noodles, and rice dishes!
I’m not saying you can’t get some good Asian street food here. You can. But a lot of the local food served here is watered down for western palettes. More often than not, I’m highly disappointed when I order local food at these places.
There’s not enough spice and not enough flavor. And of course, there are no good condiments on the table to adjust the taste to my liking.
These places try to cater to everyone and are almost always owned by westerners. The menus are almost Cheesecake Factory-like in length with pages and pages devoted to pizza, pasta, burgers, sandwiches, and then a section with local food.
I just don’t trust these places and I mostly avoid them.
Here’s one last good indicator…
If you’ve never been to Asia, this probably looks ridiculous.
Well, that’s fine dining compared to this place in Myanmar…
No, it’s not always comfortable. Yes, you’ll feel like you’re eating in a dollhouse.
But this is the way it is all over Asia, especially Southeast Asia. Most local people can’t afford to open restaurants. They have these make-shift places on sidewalks with a few coal or gas-fired burners serving as a kitchen but they’re cooking up some REALLY great stuff.
Seek out the little plastic chairs and you’ll often be rewarded with some great real local Asian street food.
In my three trips to Thailand, I never got sick from eating Thai street food. In Cambodia, I got sick once, at a really nice restaurant. Go figure.
In India, I was sick for three weeks straight but can’t say exactly if it was the Indian street food or just India itself. Almost everyone gets sick in India at some point. I never had any issues anywhere else. But that’s just me.
Chances are, if you travel for long enough in Asia, you will deal with some minor traveler’s diarrhea at some point. And yes, it could come from even nice restaurants. But certainly, there are a few basic tips to decrease your chances of getting sick from street food.
Just pay attention and look at the overall cleanliness. Some Asian street food vendors take great care and some do not. Notice the cooking tools, the pots, the plates and bowls, and even the tables, if they have tables.
Many places have consistent foot traffic. Those are well-regarded places by locals, typically with great food. That’s always a good sign. The local people certainly know what’s best.
Like soup! High heat will kill many potential bacteria.
Contaminated water is one of the biggest problems with Asian street food. Raw or undercooked food can be contaminated. Same for ice. Many Asian cities are now doing a better job when it comes to water quality. Some modern cities use water that’s been purified, including ice in drinks.
I feel pretty safe in Bangkok. This is good because one of the great joys of Thai street food is the fresh fruit. Those heavenly slices of pineapple, mango, and papaya, especially when you’re tired and hot, are just so wonderfully rejuvenating and of course, so sweet and delicious. [The same goes for the mango sticky rice, papaya salad, and so many more dishes where raw vegetables and fruits are part of the dish.]
But I might exercise more caution in other countries. It depends on where you are. Some places have higher standards than others. Do a Google search ahead of time to see about local water quality standards in your destination.
Thai street food is probably the most renowned, but really, there is no “best.” Each country has its own unique cuisine which is showcased in the street food. That said, to experience a wide variety of choices, many cities feature renowned street food districts and markets. Again, a simple Google search will list where these locations are, including places outside cities like smaller towns and islands. Some of my favorite street food experiences were in off-the-beaten-path locations.
Again, it depends on your location, but generally speaking, it is significantly cheaper than cafes and restaurants. Most Asian street food is not more than a few dollars. You will save A LOT of money by eating on the street!
I knew you were going to ask me that! 🙂 Without question, it is mohinga. I fell in love with it and craved it every morning in Myanmar. Sadly, the political situation has deteriorated and it is currently not safe to travel there.
So, I’ll give you my second favorite. It is the noodle soups of Thailand. Big surprise.
I love them all. I especially love the noodle soup carts which feature a big vat of broth, usually partitioned into three segments, each segment with a different type of broth, like chicken or pork broth. And then there’s a section of the cart with everything else – the meats, noodles, veggies, seasonings, etc. I love watching the vendors put everything together so quickly and efficiently!
I hope this article helped if you’re considering or planning a trip to Asia soon. Please share in the comments if you have any other insights or questions. And remember, most important of all, stay away from those damn banana pancakes!
Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.