The following are my prognostications on food in S.E. Asia after twenty years of living and travelling in the region. It is in no particular order in any way shape or form. It is written from memory only and some of it closer to twenty years ago than today. So it is a hiddly piddly memoir of some of the best food on the planet. I also gleaned my taste skills under the guidance of a French expert. the food king of the world when it comes to eating. Any non-local who always buys the best durian is not to be ignored when food is mentioned. He can also eat 6 roti chanai every day and not put on weight. Now that’s about as impressive as it gets.
These stories come from Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam & Yunnan.
My first arrival was in Malaysia in 1995 and it is still by far the best place for food overall. Thailand runs a good second and is usually much healthier also. AND! Make no mistake Thailand has by far the best street vendor food even if Malays may not agree. AND! Nobody in the region eats as much chilly as Thailand either. Malays think their food is spicy. Only a dream compared to Thai food. Ok, Malay Laksa has a good bite but not much else. But for pure taste, Malaysia wins overall apart from a few exceptions.
Sorry, no photos. use google images.
Let’s start with the best of the best for breakfast.
The perfect breakfast, first discovered in 1995 begins in Malaysia with one Roti Channai, one Dosai, one Vardai and one Idly all dipped into dahl and other delicious sauces. Broken into bite-size bits with the left hand only and served on a banana leaf it doesn’t get any better than this. Unhealthy with high calories it may be but once a year is ok. Kopi Susu to wash it down and then another coffee with another roti, this time smothered in sweet milk to finish off.
We’ll stay in Malaysia for lunch and dinner also. Curry Laksa for lunch is all you will need after breakfast as it is not so big. The best one I know is in the little vendors’ court at the end of chulia St in Georgetown, Penang. After this, you will again want something sweet so walk down Penang Rd towards Komtar and head into the second last street on the left before the pedestrian overpass and join the locals for the best ICE KACHANG on Penang. Shaved ice with a number of jellies, beans and syrups make this a cooling, sweet and delicious tropical desert. Just don’t forget the scoop of ice cream on top.
Special mention: The best Ice Kachang with ice cream is actually in K.L. in the food court on the top floor of the Kota Raya shopping centre opposite Jalan Sultan in Chinatown.
Not enough calories? Want more?
Dinner time on Penang.
1 of 3. The three-course dinner. Centred on the corner of Chulia st and Love lane.
a. The table that sets up in the evening offering all sorts of yummies on coloured sticks. Each colour equates to the price of that stick. Dip the morsels into either Satay or Chilly sauce and stand with the locals and eat as much as you want before they count up the sticks to pay your bill. This is about as more-ish as it gets.
b. The second course is the direct opposite and not so unhealthy for a change. Fish or chicken rice porridge is about as good as it gets in the porridge stakes. Then go left into Chulia St for some fresh fruit from the vendor who has been there since 1995 also. All this for the cost of a few dollars.
2a of 3. Turn left from Chulia into Penang Rd and the first Muslim Indian restaurant you come to has the equally best Tandoori chicken. Many other equally as good also. Tandoori chicken with garlic Naan bread and a mango Lassi is all that’s required for dinner tonight. Again only a few dollars.
2b of 3. Turn right from Muntri St into Leith St. and a little night food market means yet another choice. Lots of stalls selling Laksa, seafood and a myriad of other choices although geared up more towards tourists so expect to pay a little bit more. Although the Laksa is still a bargain. Waiters will come to your table with a beer also making this an extra special place.
3 of 3. Yes, the best is last. Numerous Indian restaurants all over Malaysia but again Penang has more than its fair share. My fav these days is Jaya. Open 24 hours in Leith St close to the Chulia St, Penang Rd corner. Dozens of pre-cooked plates on display so you can just look and point. Fish, chicken, squid, vegetables in all shapes and sizes in various delicious sauces, curries and spices. Alas no beer is available at most of these places. Mango lassi is how to think. Lastly, make sure you watch what sauces the locals put on their meals and just say same same. It may not look normal to first timers but it is the best.
Special mention: In Little India is Krishna Villa restaurant (breakfast, lunch or dinner), where for a dollar or two you will get a bottomless banana leaf vegetarian meal. If you do not fold over the banana leaf they will continue to give you more of the same. Rice with vegetable dahl with a number of side condiments such as pickles, yoghurt and other sauces all mixed up and eaten with the right hand. Spoons available for novice eaters. Other non-veg and Indian breads are also available along with the best collection of Indian sweets in the area.
There are so many great restaurants in Georgetown at budget prices it would take a year to try them all. Some people from K.L. have been known to drive the 5 or 6 hours to Georgetown just to eat lunch. The best single place for food in the best country for food in the region.
Of all the places I have been to Penang is still my favourite after dozens of visits. The atmosphere and the food says it all. Julia and Grant think so also. So that means I must be right. Hope to see you for a 5.00p.m. pre-dinner drink a at 75 soon.
Very honourable mention: In the middle of Chinatown in K.L. is a food court with mostly Chinese offerings. Right at the front is a buffet table with ECONOMY FOOD. They hand you a plate of rice and you can put on any amount of numerous choices before they add up the price which will be economy for sure. Sit down with the locals and before your first mouthful, you will be asked what you want to drink. Carlsberg beer, please. Sit back and enjoy the English tunes playing such as Limbo Rock and other 60’s and 70’s tunes from Boney M and more. Are we really in Malaysia? Again a sublime experience.
Breakfast doesn’t get close to Malaysia apart from a good bowl of rice porridge. (Jok in Thai). Add minced pork, mushrooms, ginger, coriander and a few other things and it’s also damn good. Most tourists stick to the regular fruit salads, banana pancakes or eggs on toast as a rule. Locals tend not to differentiate between meals so it could be the same for breakfast as for dinner. Fried eggs on rice is one local fav and with a bit of Maggi sauce mixed in is a good and readily available choice also.
Lunch again is usually served on rice and even after twenty years I still only know a few of the very local choices you see from time to time. Often wrapped in banana leaves in markets with most non-thais having no idea what’s inside. Sometimes good and sometimes not. A bit of a lucky dip for those who are game. No real outstanding choices in this area except the one for the grand finale. Usually, a plate of mixed vegs on rice and the best one on the planet for price, size and taste is at Air restaurant in Pai. A hole in the wall place with no sign next door to the also good Vegan restaurant. Air specialises in also great, local Shan food but it is her veggie stir-fries that make her number one in Pai, if not the world even. Yes, she can add meat also. Almost forgot, Air does best Khao Soi in Pai also. Egg noodles with chicken in a coconut sauce with fresh and sour vegetables on the side.
Special mention for Daret’s restaurant in Chiang Mai also.
Daret’s is one of the best overall tourist restaurants in all the region also.
THE MEAL OF MEALS:
Som Tam in Thai or Green Papaya Salad is the best meal on the planet for less than $2.00. probably the best at any price actually. Every Saturday for lunch when in Pai I turn up at the best of the best that I know of. Opposite Aya Service is Penh’s hole in the wall restaurant. 10 chillies and garlic first go in the mortar and are crushed with the pestle before adding tomato, long bean, eggplant, lemon juice, fish sauce, peanuts, palm sugar,(ok it shouldn’t be used ever but just this once please), and then the main ingredient of grated green papaya. Pound and mix well and the taste is sublime. This is a set meal that is eaten with sticky rice and barbeque chicken or pork. Roll a small ball of rice and dip into the juice and some papaya and chomp with a bit of chicken also.
Handy tip. Thai dinners normally add crab to this also. Most westerners don’t like this including myself. It ruins the taste and as they add shell as well a broken tooth is not unusual for first-timers. So just say mai ao puu. (no crab).
Honourable mention to the street vendor behind Wat Chanasongkram opposite the Gecko Bar in Bangkok whose Som Tam is also excellent.
LAOS: Laos is very disappointing in comparison. Tourist restaurants are the norm, SADLY. One dish worth high praise if you get a good one though is Lao Laarp. A spicey minced meat dish that when good is great. Alas, Laos is more expensive and Laarp is also these days. Beerlao is the one exception on prices as it is as good a beer at the cheapest price in the region. Beware of tourist restaurants in Vientiane is the first rule as they are often very expensive compared to all the other countries. Budget food can be found but only after a little effort. Drink more Beerlao to keep the bill down.
If you do want to splurge or are homesick then Pizza and red wine won’t be far away. Scandinavian bakery likewise for a cappuccino and cake. So to sum up; Not as good as elsewhere but still good food to be had.
CAMBODIA: Same same Laos. Very few locals restaurants speak English so hard to get a local meal with the locals. I recently did find a really good one in Siem Reap though near Lucky Mall and their Fish Amok was excellent. Amok is possibly the national dish. Only locals and excellent food three times a day at this local restaurant. Siem Reap though has so many choices these days from Mexican to French and many in between. tourists en masse for the most part though.
VIETNAM: Better than Laos and Cambodia but not as good as Malaysia and Thailand. Western breakfasts for the most part and Pho for lunch is how to go. Locals eat Pho any time of day. the local variety of noodle soup is a fantastic value.
then when it comes to 5.00 p.m. it doesn’t get much better than rice paper fresh spring rolls with the bottle of Tiger. Dipping sauces vary and make or make better the experience.
Need I say anything about Chinese food except that it’s better in China than back home. Usually in bigger than needed portions also. Just one famous dish in Yunnan is Across The Bridge Noodle Soup. Small, medium or large is often the choice. Small is huge from my experience. A large bowl of boiling broth is put in front of you along with a tray of numerous other raw things like quail eggs, vegetables and spices. Throw them in and they cook in the broth. Best noodle soup in all the region for ravenous soup experts. Alas with development arriving in China is it no longer the bargain it used to be. Frugal travellers may give it a miss and head for a mac instead if the price is important. Touristy places in Yunnan are now often well over the top in regards to price. Lijiang was once backpacker heaven. Now it is totally overrun with domestic tourism. The fabulous cheap restaurants have now been replaced with all the major western fast food chains. Harly the cultural experience any more.
AN ALMOST PERFECT FOOD WEEK IN S.E. ASIA: Try to stay a bit healthy also.
Breakfast; Malaysian Indian as above.
Lunch; Malaysian Laksa as above. Ice Kachang.
Dinner; Malaysian as above.
Breakfast; Thai fried eggs on rice.
Lunch; Air stir-fried mixed vegetables.
Dinner; Repeat Monday.
Breakfast; Thai rice porridge. (Jok).
Lunch; Bowl of vegetarian noodle soup at Vegan restaurant next to Air in Pai.
Dinner; Pad Gaprao chicken. Daret’s restaurant Chiang Mai. ( Spicey minced meat on rice). the spicier the better.
Leo beer is mandatory as the side dish.
breakfast; Repeat Monday.
Lunch; Repeat Tuesday.
Dinner; Maybe a Red, yellow, green, Masaman or Penang curry in Thailand.
Breakfast; Baked beans on toast sadly. Western & oriental cafe. Muntri St Penang.
Lunch. Across the bridge noodle soup.
Dinner; Repeat Monday.
Breakfast; repeat Monday but only just a roti and a dosai as must keep empty for lunch.
Lunch; Only SOM TAM can be had when available.
Dinner; A good spaghetti dish with at least salami and olives with a side salad, garlic bread and red wine.
ONE PERFECT DAY:
Lunch; Saturday. Followed by an Ice Kachang.
For the perfect S.E. Asian culture and food tour visit
For a great local Thai market food experience visit:
Or even better again visit: