Exploring Southeast Asian Street Food Culture
There’s no greater place on earth to experience authentic and exciting street food than Southeast Asia. From Malaysia to Thailand, from Vietnam to Cambodia the food and culture are lively and complex.
Many of the dishes served in Southeast Asian countries have basic similarities, but they vary greatly in their international influences. For instance, you’ll find French connections in Vietnamese cuisine. For Malaysia, you’ll find subtle hints of British cuisine in some of the most popular dishes.
When traveling to these areas, tourists are often skeptical of street food because of its abundance and how cheap it is. However, Southeast Asian street food, or some call it hawking, is some of the most delicious and diverse flavors you’ll find in the world.
In this article, we will discuss some of the most popular street foods by region. Fortunately, many of these dishes – or at least a version of them – can be found in the US today. We’ll take you on a culinary journey that will inspire you to find a Southeast Asian kitchen near you.
Most Popular Southeast Asian Street Food
One popular fruit and vegetable salad is the rojak, served with a spicy palm sugar dressing. Unlike in the States, salad is often the main and only course. Many Southeast Asian cultures serve the entire meal in one course rather than individually. It is believed that this encourages fellowship and a livelier experience among friends and family.
A couple of particularly popular meals are nasi kandar, and ayam masak kicap. The nasi kandar is a one-pot meal that can be vegetarian or meat-based as it is served with versatile steamed rice & spicy curry.
Ayam Masak kicap is chicken poached in a sweet soy sauce and typically served with an egg.
Is it a soup or a dessert? Cendol is both! Don’t be alarmed by its green hue as it uses pandan leaves for color. Basically, it’s rice flour jelly, coconut milk, and palm sugar syrup perfection!
Perhaps the most famous street food in Thailand is pad thai. Most Americans are familiar with this popular dish as it starts with meat like chicken or shrimp and then stir-fried with rice noodles, tofu, and eggs. It is most often served with red chili peppers and chopped roasted peanuts.
Satay is another well-known dish around the world. Its simplicity is what keeps people coming back. Meat, usually chicken or pork is wrapped around a bamboo stick, grilled, and then served with peanut sauce. Even though satay is believed to be originated in Indonesia, Thailand has owned it in the street food arena.
Tom yam goong is a very popular spicy and sour soup. Many locals enjoy a bowl on a warm day, which seems counterintuitive for the rest of us. The lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves give it a refreshing yet satisfying flavor. It is usually served with shrimp, fish sauce, and chili peppers for a subtle kick.
A one-pot meal in Thailand that is sought after is pad kra pao. Stir-fried meat is served with rice and a fried egg. The chilis are the star of the show here, with less heat and more sharp peppery notes.
One must-try, especially if it’s mango season is khao niew ma muang. This classic sticky rice concoction is smothered in coconut cream and served with fresh mango off the tree.
Southeast Asian street food is available nearly any time of day. One particular breakfast favorite is kaya toast. Toasted bread topped with a thick jam made from coconut, sugar, and egg. It may sound basic, but it’s a must-have!
A well-known soup in Singapore is the laksa. They may have taken influences from Malaysia, but this sour fish noodle soup has a coconut curry base giving it an almost creamy-like texture.
Hainanese chicken rice is considered the Singaporean national dish. What might be thought of as simple with just poached chicken and rice, this dish is filling and satisfying. Perfect for a mid-day meal after a long morning of sightseeing.
Char kway teow or Fried Kway Teow is another popular Southeast Asian street food. You’ll likely find multiple vendors featuring this flavorful dish of stir-fried rice noodles, mollusks, eggs, Chinese sausages, and topped with chives.
You’ll discover as your travel across Vietnam that many of their dishes are heavily influenced by the Chinese. However, there are many Vietnamese street food dishes that stand out all their own.
Pho has found popularity here in the United States, so it’s no surprise that pho is a staple in this part of Southeast Asia. This clear broth with rice noodles is usually served with beef or chicken. The overall flavor will vary within regions. Typically pho is more savory in the north and sweeter in the south.
Banh mi is another quintessential Vietnamese street food. Showing off its French influences, this baguette sandwich will be served in many different combinations depending on where you are. Typically, a banh mi will consist of meat, carrots and radish, cilantro, and chilies.
The Role of street food in Southeast Asian Culture
Street food in Southeast Asia has seen an increase in popularity among tourists. Thanks to travel and culinary shows, there’s been a curiosity for street food and the culture surrounding it.
And while there are plenty of street vendors that are placed only to appeal to outsiders, hawking has a long history with the locals. Many street food vendors can be traced back to migrant workers. The food they serve is a representation of past cultures and traditions. Whole generations have relied on the making and selling of street food for their livelihood.
Around 2.5 billion people eat street food every day. These are not the “food trucks” that you think of in the States. Street food is an amalgamation of societal, beliefs and economic trends that impact the community. Preserving the authenticity of the street food vendors has become of utmost importance for those that live and work in the area.
Street food etiquette in Southeast Asia
Many tourists are overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle that takes place around street food vendors. While it can be intimidating at first, don’t let your fears keep you from some of the most amazing food on the planet.
Watch what the locals do. Keep in mind that street food is not just for tourists. Many people seek out a particular street vendor because that is their daily routine. They are contributing to society as well as finding nourishment.
Keep in mind that some actions could be considered rude or offensive. Many street vendors just offer one thing and do it well. Respect the vendor’s time and those waiting in line as they make their money by serving the most people in a short amount of time as possible.
Do your research and come prepared if possible. Ask questions about customs and learn the names of popular food in the native language. Don’t get discouraged if one dish isn’t quite to your taste. There are so many different kinds of food to be had, you’re sure to find something that will rock your taste buds.
Safety Considerations When Trying Southeast Asian Street Food
Is there a greater risk of eating street food versus dining at an established restaurant? No.
Understandably, you may have doubts about the cleanliness of the stalls. However, to further ease your mind, choose a street food vendor that is popular with the locals. This way you know the food is safe and genuine. Locals always know the best places to go!
Also, choose food that is served hot, not warm. Germs are unlikely to survive high temperatures or frying. Avoid foods that look as though they have been sitting around for a while. Politely ask to be served something fresh if the food looks like it was made earlier that day.
Finally, the food from a street food vendor is more likely to be fresh if the stall is busy. Again, another benefit of finding busy street food stalls means you’re likely to find something really delicious. Why not, you read a Detailed Guide to Southeast Asian Restaurants?
Southeast Asian street food is a fantastic way to explore the culture and traditions of the region. If you are traveling to Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, or any of the other beautiful Southeast Asian countries, get out and eat as the locals do.
If traveling across the globe isn’t in your near future, get out and explore some of these popular dishes in your neighborhood. Char’d Southeast Asian Kitchen has taken inspiration from many of these street foods and incorporated them into our bowls.
Thai Chicken Curry, Banh Mi, and Tantali Tofu Salad are just a few of the Char’d dishes that have been influenced by Southeast Asian street food. And if you’re ready to create your own international creation, our build-your-own-bowl allows you to mix and match these regional delights.
Add a fried egg like in Thailand, or be inspired by Malaysia and add a hint of sweetness by adding pineapple to your bowl. We believe that you create the journey that you’re inspired by, so we let you mix and match the flavors that appeal to you.