My Thai street food exploration started right in the heart of Bangkok…
Sukhumvit street has it all – the Thai fried noodles and tom yam, meat sate (grilled meat). Most of these roadside restaurants are known by their display rather than by their names. I particularly loved the Tom yam (100 Thai Baht, about 3 USD) in an eatery next to Orchid Café, not far from Tune Hotel. Coming out of the eatery, my eyes caught a street vendor preparing eye-watering and very sweet-looking Thai-styled crepes. Cheap and tasty.
I had it for an after-bite as I made my way through the crowds to another part of the city.
The weekend Chatuchak market was my next area for food exploration. I referred to fried noodles earlier when I was at Sukhumvit, but I am going to taste it here. Yes, this is Pad Thai, the most popular dish in Thailand, also the Thai version of the Chinese noodles. Pad Thai is actually fried noodles with bean curd, garlic chives, dried shrimp, tamarind juice and palm sugar. You may add chillies to make it spicy. All along the market there are food stations, but coming out of the interiors of the market you will find the ‘official’ food place by the roadside. Filled with Phad Thai, I walked to a corner where another outlet was selling Nam Kaeng Sai – a combination of crushed ice, jelly, dough, chestnuts and coconut cream on top. Cool for a dessert!
The next day, I set off to Damnoen Saduak, the famed floating market in Ratchaburi, an hour’s ride from Bangkok. Riding on a boat along the market, I bought mango sticky rice from a floating vendor. This is another must try delicacy when you are in Thailand. Food is plenty here as well and as I wound my way back to the starting point of my boat ride, I met with a lady selling fresh ravioli, the name of the food written on a card and displayed next to her.
It’s time to try a bit of street food near a beach area. I headed to Pattaya, a popular beach destination, two hours road trip from Bangkok. I occupied one of the hundreds of empty easy chairs on a Sunday morning. Empty because people are still in their beds after Saturday night’s revelry. No matter what, the vendors wouldn’t give it up and there comes one holding a basket full of steamed crabs and shrimps. I bought a crab and a small portion of Tempura. He also had dried fish, but its smell has always repelled me.
I decided to combine Singapore and Malaysia because of a high volume of similarities in the cuisines – the Malay, the Peranakan and the Indian varieties. I started with Maxwell Food Centre near Chinatown in Singapore where Hainanese Chicken rice is probably the best to taste. Chicken is cooked in sub-boiled temperatures and the rice is prepared with coconut milk and the dish is served with boiled eggs, slices of cucumber, leafy vegetables and soup. In the evening, I headed to Hong Lim Food Centre where Laksa greeted me with its alluring aroma. Laksa is a noodle soup, borne out of Chinese and Malay traditions. Served in spicy soup, Laksa contains rice noodles and prawn, chicken or fish.
Though a tiny state, Singapore has its own diversity as I learn at Little India the next day. At Komala Vilas, I started savouring the south Indian delicacy of Masala Dosa (loosely translated as Indian crepe) served with coconut chutney and sambar (thick lentil soup). Staying within Little India, I took a walk along Serangoon Road and took a bite of curry puff which can be very addictive with its spicy potatoes.
My Malaysian cuisine hunt started at one of the small restaurants inside Central Market in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Nasi Lemak on the table was an exciting sight. Cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf, Nasi Lemak is a typical Malaysian delicacy that is also popular throughout the Malay Peninsula. It is usually served with lamb or chicken curry, boiled egg, peanuts and dried fish and spicy chilli paste, known as sambal.
Walking along Brickfields which is KL’s Little India, I found the ubiquitous roti canai maintaining its inviting appearance. Served with chicken curry, roti canai is the smaller version of the Indian prata (fried flour-based pancake). Another addictive dish.
Malaysia being much bigger than Singapore, has its own regional varieties though they cannot boast of a huge diversity as is seen in either Thailand or Indonesia. I flew to Sabah, the Malaysian part of Borneo to find out how it differs from the capital city. Kota Kinabalu, the provincial capital is an unassuming town with enough food varieties to be one of the food destinations of the country. Staying away from the typical Malaysian delicacies, I started looking for dishes that are unique to Sabah. At Lido Food Square, I came across a Chinese food outlet selling Sang Nyuk Mee which is called Sabah Pork Noodle. If you don’t like to taste the organs of the pig, you should tell the vendors in advance so they will prepare the meat only for you. Sandakan spring noodle and egg dumpling is another dish you must try when in Kota Kinabalu. The delicacy is actually part of Sandakan, very much within Sabah.
What stole my attention on the streets here are the innumerable roadside restaurants selling ‘Muslim’ food. All of them display a rich variety of spicy dishes inspired by Indian recipes. Rice with different types of chicken, meat and fish curries are laid out in buffet style. The colours are mesmerising.
If there is one country which can match the glitz and glamour of Thai street food, it will be Indonesia. Evenings in Jakarta, Surabaya and Bandung – the three biggest cities – are filled with diners sitting on benches of tented makeshift restaurants next to big buildings. What I love the most here is Sate – grilled chicken or meat. Served with the yummy peanut sauce this is a very popular dish throughout the country. Walk around Benhil in central Jakarta in the evenings and you end up drooling at the many varieties of Indonesian dishes that include Mie Aceh ( noodles prepared in the Acehnese style), Nasi Padang (another popular dish in the country, serving rice with fried chicken, potato cake, vegetables, fried egg) and Mie Bakso (noodle soup with meatballs). The street food scene in Surabaya and Bandung are not that different, except that these two cities carry some regional varities. While Batagor Bandung (fried fish dumpling) is popular in Bandung, Surabaya serves its Kue Lapis (cake) as dessert.
While in Bandung, don’t forget to visit the atmospheric, open air Paskal Food Market. This humongous food rendezvous boasts of selling more than 1,000 dishes. Being cheap, it is loved by everyone – from students to international tourists.
You will bump into some of Bandung’s best street food vendors like Sate Maulana Yusuf, a famous satay stall from Dago and the Bola Ubi shop, which sells fried sweet potato balls, originally from Jalan Gardu Jati.
You wouldn’t fancy a culinary tour of Cambodia, but I am sure its humble offerings can be combined with a tour of the ancient Angkor temples in Siem Reap. Mind you, it is possible to find street food in the vicinities of Angkor Thom. As you finish your tour of the Bayon Temple inside the Angkor Thom complex you will find some restaurants close to the Elephants Terrace. Here, sitting under the shades of huge trees, get your Chicken Amok and rice. Amok is Cambodia’s most popular dish, prepared in a curry style with carrots, beans and cucumbers.
As I cycled my way back to Angkor Wat from here, I found a lady on a bicycle with a basketful of tiny bamboo sticks and my guide alerted me to Kallan (or Kelan), coconut rice cake and red beans stuffed into the bamboo pole.Hmm, tasted like heaven!
Right: Kallan and vendor selling it,
Amok and rice, Cambodia’s
My first food experience in the Philippines was at a motel on the way to El Nido from Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan. I had pork adobo (stewed pork meat in a mixture of garlic, vinegar, and soy sauce) and pakbet (mixed vegetables steamed in fish or shrimp sauce) along with rice. Excellent dish and was truly a fitting introduction to my culinary tour of the region.
However, as my tour got into the second day, I found out why Philippines is the odd one out in the region. I was introduced to Tamilok, fresh woodworm which is served with rice. This is a specialty of Palawan. To be honest, I did not have the gumption to try this, but as my friends told me it tastes more or less like oyster.
I didn’t leave Philippines without trying one of its exotic dishes. Crocowali, deep-fried croc meat at one of the many restaurants at Bayview in Puerto Princesa was a thriller. Served with soy sauce it tasted really great. Two blocks away, I found lechon (roasted suckling pig) being displayed for sale.