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Southeast Asia is a food-lover’s paradise, offering endless dining options — from high-end haunts to local dives and best of all, street food! The cuisine scene can be overwhelming at times, so TPG International Contributor Lori Zaino guides us through some of the most delicious choices you can make. (Photos by the author, except where noted.)
Southeast Asia is full of delicious, spicy food at rock bottom prices, but you’re spoiled for choice and faced with language barriers at every turn — so when you find yourself hungry in this region of the world, where do you even begin? The following is by no means a comprehensive guide to the foods of Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, but more of a beginners guide to some of the region’s tastiest dishes and some great spots where you’ll find them.
1.Bánh Xèo Nhan Bo — Quan An Ngon in Hanoi, Vietnam
A savory, crispy pancake stuffed with shrimp, duck, pork, seafood or beef, as well as onions, chives and/or sprouts, the Vietnamese name bánh xèo literally translates to “sizzling cake,” thanks to the loud sounds its rice-flour batter makes when poured into a skillet. My favorite version the bánh xèo nhan bo, which is stuffed with tender beef, can be found at Quan An Ngon. As with any bánh xèo, cut the pancake into pieces, add mint or basil leaves, wrap it all up in rice paper and consume it like a taco. (50,000-100,000 Dong / $2-$5)
Stay: The Hilton Hanoi Opera hotel is located next to the city’s famous opera house. Room rates start at $90 or 40,000 HHonors points per night.
2. Mango Pork Curry — Minglabar Restaurant in Mandalay, Myanmar
Burmese curry has a deceptively simple recipe: a spice or two, some oil and a healthy portion of meat. At Minglabar, you follow your enthusiastic, friendly server to the kitchen, point to a pot filled with whichever meat you desire and then sit down and wait for a massive assortment of plates to be delivered to your table. Ordering any curry here means you’ll also get rice, soup, salad, raw vegetables, beans, about six different sauces and spices and dessert — so be sure to arrive hungry! My absolute favorite here is the mango pork curry, a rich stew of sweet fruity mango flavors mixed with savory, juicy pork. Blend it with steamed rice and be sure to try some of the various accompanying sauces, but beware that some are extra-spicy — so be sure to ask which ones these are. Consider eating your feast with your hands, as many locals do. (6,000 Kyat / $4-$5)
Stay: While you can’t use points at the Hotel Sahara, it offers fabulous views of the Royal Palace, and room rates start at just $25 per night.
3. Mango With Sticky Rice — Tongue Thai in Bangkok, Thailand
Mango with sticky rice is a simple but flavorful dessert perfect for a hot Bangkok day. A ripe, fresh mango is sliced alongside sweet sticky rice, topped with warm coconut milk and sesame seeds. Give it a try at Tongue Thai restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand, where it comes beautifully prepared with a fresh orchid garnish. The restaurant is a peaceful oasis, decorated with local art and photos, furnished with traditional teak-wood and Thai vintage artifacts. Other specialties include deep-fried pork balls wrapped in egg noodles (140 THB/$3-$4), and the basil leaf fried rice with beef, chicken or seafood (120-170 THB/$3-$5).
Stay: The Royal Orchid Sheraton Bangkok is a Starwood Category 3 property that offers riverside views, a gym, spa and two outdoor swimming pools — and is set about a 10-minute walk from Tongue Thai. Room rates start at $89 or 7,000 Starpoints per night.
4. Lao Fondue — Dyen Sabai in Luang Prabang, Laos
Fondue doesn’t have the same meaning in Laos that it has in Western Europe, so don’t expect a small cauldron of bubbling, melted cheese. Laotian fondue is actually a dish of fresh vegetables, noodles, egg and meat that is served to you raw, and you’re meant to cook it on your own hot pot right at your table. Dyen Sabai, an intimate eatery with an outdoor deck surrounded by a forest of bamboo, is a great place to cook your own Lao fondue while relaxing on plush silken pillows.
Choose between chicken, buffalo, pork or tofu fondue (one order for two people — 80,000 Kip / $10). Use your chopsticks to grasp the raw meat and cook it to your liking on the hot pot. Then add the vegetables, egg and noodles to the hot water circling the hot pot stove. Essentially, you create your own “soup” with the noodles and vegetables and then feast on the cooked meat or tofu, adding sauces for extra spice and flavor.
Dyen Sabai is located accross the Nam Khan river, near the Wat Phan Luang temple. You can pay 10,000 Kip (roughly $1) to take a boat over to the restaurant from the Luang Prabang city center – just make sure to save your boat ticket because the restaurant will discount the cost of the trip from your bill.
Stay: A five-minute walk from the restaurant, the idyllic My Dream Resort is set on the riverside, providing an ideal spot to watch locals giving alms to the monks at sunrise. Room rates start at $62 per night.
5. Pad Thai Wrapped in Egg — Pantip Night Market in Thong Sala, Koh Phangan, Thailand
Pad Thai may be one of the most well-known Thai dishes, and quite possibly the most delicious, especially when purchased on the street. Pad Thai is a stir-fry rice noodle dish typically fried up with eggs, vegetables, fish or soy sauce and shrimp, chicken, pork or beef. Shallots, bean sprouts or peanuts can also be added. The dish is especially yummy when wrapped in an egg, creating a sort of “noodle omelette.” I’ve sampled Pad Thai all over Thailand, and the Pad Thai at the Pantip Night Market takes the cake for being the most flavorful, with a perfect balance ration of nuts, noodles, meat and vegetables. (80 THB / $2)
If you have any reservations about eating street food, toss them out the door and order the Pad Thai (this one comes with your choice of shrimp or chicken) immediately, best washed down with a Singha Thai beer. The Pantip Night market runs daily from about 4pm-11pm on the island of Koh Phangan near the Thong Sala Pier, and the Pad Thai stall is located on the side nearest the 7-11 shop. The many stalls here feature a wide array of delicious Thai dishes, including Penang curry, Tom Yum soup and (for those of you who are feeling brave) fried insects.
Stay: The nearby Angkana Bungalows are just what you need to relax and rejuvenate. Rates for your own hut on the beach (hammock included) start at $47 per night.
6. Seafood Amok — Marum Restaurant in Siem Reap, Cambodia
A fish curry made from coconut milk and a Khmer curry paste containing spices like lemongrass, tumeric, garlic and more, seafood amok can be served as a soup, a mousse or steamed in a banana leaf. The particularly stunning complex seafood amok you’ll find at Marum is served steamed in bamboo ($6.75). This popular restaurant also offers a variety of other delectable Cambodian dishes, such as fresh rice paper rolls and vegetarian options like Kor Ko Stewed Vegetables with wontons. You can choose to dine in the lovely outdoor area or inside in the teak-wood house.
Dining at Marum won’t just please your palate, it’ll also help young people. As part of the Tree Alliance, it invests some of its profits in training underprivileged Cambodian kids to become chefs, waiters and other skilled workers at the alliance’s affiliated restaurants and shops.
Stay: Le Meridien Angkor is a gorgeous property located in between the town of Siem Reap and the world-famous Angkor Wat temple site. Room rates start at $120 per night or just 4,000 Starpoints.
Notes on Cash and Credit Cards
In Southeast Asian countries, most street food stalls and some smaller restaurants won’t accept credit cards, so make sure to have local currency on hand. When credit cards are accepted, however, keep in mind that the Chase Sapphire Preferred offers double points on dining and hotels, while the Citi Prestige Card offers double points on dining and 3x on hotels. Both cards incur no foreign transaction fees.
What have been your most memorable dishes, favorite restaurants and/or street food stalls in Southeast Asia? Please share with us in the comments below. Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.
Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.