Southeast Asian street food

A tour of Indochina is going to include food in some way, shape or form and it's basically up to you what you want to eat and where you want to eat it. Air-conditioned sit down restaurants with English language menus might well be more familiar, but will you really be treated to a truly authentic Southeast Asian experience or just a more expensive homogenised alternative?

Getting out into the streets and sampling freshly cooked food will tickle your taste buds in ways you'd never thought possible. The smells of Southeast Asian food are just so evocative and it’s the smoke, steam and sizzle of street food that many travelers keep coming back for. Sometimes all that's needed is to be brave, smile and point to what you want. Pulling up a plastic pew, alongside local patrons at a street food stall in Southeast Asia is definitely an authentic experience worth trying at least once.

It’s the same as anything really, as soon as you break the ice and go for it there will be no stopping you. Street food shopping with a phrase book really opens doors and widens smiles, and it’s easy to learn and practise a few words as you find out your new favourite foods. Organised tours are also an excellent means of building confidence and street smarts as you explore cafes, stalls and markets with a guide before being let loose to go it alone.

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Taste the difference

Traveling through Indochina allows you to taste new and exciting dishes and understand subtle regional variations. As soon as you start to find your feet, and your chop sticks, a fabulous feast of food awaits. For instance, Laos and Thailand share several common rice and noodle dishes such as pad thai and khao neeo (sticky rice). However, the food in Thailand is spicier and sweeter with more coconut milk, seafood and lime juice whereas Laos’ dishes are milder and slightly saltier and certain dishes have a definite European influence, the legacy of French colonial times – egg baguette, anyone?
Some restaurants in Vietnam also have a strong French accent although, if you're looking for far healthier, dairy free alternatives nothing beats the balance of fresh herbs and vegetables found in classic Vietnamese goi cuon (spring rolls). In the mountains of central Vietnam, the local people tend to favour hotter dishes such as spicy beef and vermicelli noodle soup (bún bò Hue). Whereas down south, on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, you'll find hu tieu nam vang (seafood, pork, noodle and egg soup) which actually originates from over the border in Cambodia. Black pepper in Cambodia, especially in the province of Kampot, is the country’s heater-upper of choice and more widely used than in Vietnam where chillies still reign supreme.

It’s worth remembering: these are still very poor countries. Local people, especially in rural areas, live off the land and rely heavily on traditional farming methods for food. Religious and cultural customs, as well as colonial and Communist influence, have also helped to shape many of the dishes that you’ll find today. For instance, the quantity of food production under the Communists was often considered of greater value than the quality, and eating out was deemed a bourgeois act not to be undertaken by the masses. Traveling from one Indochina country to the next is the best way to taste the difference and compare which dishes are same/same but different – as the ever popular catchphrase goes.

Shop, chop, cook, eat

Aside from just eating your way around Southeast Asia, you can take the opportunity to learn how to cook local dishes. Tailor made tours can incorporate as many cooking classes as you wish whilst small group tours often have a cooking class included or as an optional extra.

It’s worth getting to grips with cooking, as well as eating, while in Southeast Asia; you’ll understand the complex ingredients and also be able to recreate authentic dishes when you get home. A visit to the markets of Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, is much more insightful when searching for key ingredients accompanied by a local cooking teacher. The same can be said over the border in Laos where you can travel to Vang Lei village, just outside of Luang Prabang, and assist a local family as they prepare a typical Laotian lunch.

From Khmer cooking classes in Cambodia's Siem Reap to staying with a Vietnamese family in the Mekong Delta, learning how to cook in Southeast Asia uncovers a timeless and industrious side to local life that's easily missed in favour of faster foods.

Southeast Asia's classic dishes

Cambodia

Amok is more of a cooking process than an actual dish and refers to a variety of curries traditionally wrapped and steamed in banana leaves. Coconut cream, fish, pork or chicken, rice, lemongrass, garlic and galangal (similar but not the same as ginger) are all classic amok ingredients to send taste buds soaring.

Where to try: check out the street food stalls in Angkor night market, Siem Reap.

Laos

Laos' unofficial national dish is a meaty salad known as larb or laap that’s served with sticky rice and raw veggies. Chicken, beef, fish and pork are the main meats, accompanied by fish sauce, fresh herbs, lime juice and roasted ground rice. Meat can sometimes be served raw – hopefully not the pork or chicken.

Where to try: Talat Sao Morning Market in Vientiane (which actually opens in the afternoon).

Vietnam

Spring or salad rolls are the quintessential Vietnamese dish and always include raw vegetables, bean sprouts, cooked cold prawns and freshly cut herbs all wrapped up in squidgy rice paper parcels. Peanut, fish, soy or sweet and sour dipping sauce will usually be served on the side – feel the fresh.

Where to try: on board an overnight small ship cruise boat in Halong Bay.

Thailand

There's something about tucking into pad thai in Thailand that keeps travelers coming back for more. Although not actually thought to have originated in Thailand – it's more Chinese in concept – this stir-fried rice noodle dish, topped with chopped peanuts, combines the classic sharp and sweet Thai taste, made everywhere from the beaches of the south to the night markets of the north.

Where to try: conjure up a classic pad thai at a cooking class in Chiang Mai.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Lisheng Chang] [Intro: Frankie Shutterbug] [Taste the difference: René DeAnda] [Cambodia: Ben Yapp] [Vietnam : Louis Hansel]
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