One of the most satisfying things about travel is the chance to try new dishes and specialities at the source. Changing up the usual meal plan is getting ever more appealing – and as travel takes off again, we can’t wait to satisfy our cravings in these foodie cities.
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Singapore: A Melting Pot of Flavours
Singapore’s starring role in the Hong Kong–Singapore Air Travel Bubble has shot it to the top of Hongkongers’ must-travel lists. And for good reason: the Lion City’s meshed cultural traditions and cuisines truly come alive in the many hawker centres, which are reason enough for it to make any list of foodie cities. Early immigrants from Guangdong and Fujian provinces made their mark on Singapore’s food scene with barbecued meats and seafood noodle dishes. But the de facto national dish of Singapore is Hainanese chicken rice, a simple plate of rice cooked in chicken fat and topped with slices of poached chicken. You’ll find one of the best versions at Tian Tian in the Maxwell Food Centre.
Laksa, a spicy noodle soup that takes cues from Chinese and Malay culinary traditions, is another favourite. While there are several variations to this classic across the region, Singaporeans usually make theirs with a coconut curry broth, tofu puffs, fish cake and cockles. For a time-honoured traditional take, head to Sungei Road Laksa in the Jalan Besar neighbourhood, which has been serving this flavourful number since the 1950s.
Read more about Singapore’s top 10 dishes here.
Taipei: Late-Night Delights
From bubble tea to stinky tofu, the greatest hits of Taiwanese cuisine are encapsulated in Taipei’s night markets. Any night market-hopping trip of Taipei has to include Shilin Night Market, which first opened in the early 1900s and is the mother of the island’s night markets. A must-order is the supersized fried chicken cutlet from Hot-Star Fried Chicken, which has gone from a single location to a global success.
While it’s much smaller in scale, Raohe Night Market in Songshan district is the foodie’s pick. Near the entrance, there’s a stall you mustn’t miss selling black pepper buns – flaky pastries with a juicy, spice-forward pork filling baked inside a tandoor oven. The queue is always long, but it moves quickly as the buns get snatched up as soon as they’re ready. For something sweet, Xiang Ji in Ningxia Night Market features freshly made Taiwanese mochi coated in crushed peanuts or black sesame. This sticky, gooey treat is served on its own or as a topping for shaved ice bowls or dessert soups.
Shanghai: More Sauce Please
Shanghainese food is summed up in four Chinese words – nong you chi jiang, which roughly translates to ‘thick, rich, red sauce’ – referring to the deeply caramelised sauce commonly served with many of the region’s classics.
Hongshaorou, or red-braised pork belly, takes pride of place in this cuisine. While various regions have their own take – Hunan-style hongshaorou was said to be Mao Zedong’s favourite food – the Shanghainese version is flavoured mainly with dark soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and rock sugar to create a sweet, rich dish. You’ll find one of the best versions out there at Fu 1088, Shanghainese chef Tony Lu’s ode to his hometown’s classic dishes.
But it’s not all rich, rib-sticking food. One of Shanghai’s most classic dishes is spring onion oil noodles, a humble bowl of noodles tossed in soy sauce and spring onion oil, topped with charred spring onion segments. Jianguo 328, a mom-and-pop restaurant in the former French Concession, makes one of the tastiest versions in this foodie city.
Chengdu: Spice Up Your Life
Mapo tofu, dandan noodles and chili oil-topped dumplings: the bold, numbingly spicy dishes of Sichuan cuisine have won over the palates of foodies across the globe. And no foodie pilgrimage to Sichuan’s capital of Chengdu is complete without a visit to the original Huang Cheng Lao Ma. The three-decade-old restaurant is a culinary institution, and serves what locals consider to be the spiciest, most authentic Chengdu-style hotpot in town.
For a more sophisticated take on Sichuan food, try the degustation menu at Yu’s Family Kitchen. Chef Yu Bo is regarded as one of the guardians of old-school Sichuan cooking, and his private kitchen serves beautifully presented plates made with seasonal ingredients, which celebrate the vibrant and dynamic flavours of the cuisine.
Guangzhou: OG Cantonese Classics
Cantonese cuisine puts the emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients and cooking methods that allow the natural flavours to shine through. As the capital of Guangdong province and a major hub for the Greater Bay Area, Guangzhou is the epicentre of Cantonese food and you’ll find an overwhelming number of eateries specialising in every classic.
Yum cha is southern China’s most venerable culinary and social tradition. It involves conversation, copious amounts of Chinese tea and bamboo steamers piled high with dim sum. Dian Dou De (which in Cantonese means ‘anything goes’) has been serving up dumplings in all shapes and sizes since the 1930s. Try the four-coloured prawn dumplings served in a ginseng chicken broth – a new riff on traditional har gau.
Elsewhere in this foodie city, the one-Michelin-starred Yu Yue Heen on the 71st floor of the Four Seasons Guangzhou features upscale Cantonese fare with a panoramic view of the bustling city as the backdrop. Here, chef Mai Zhixiong serves up elegant, classic fare with a touch of international influence.
Ho Chi Minh City: Cheap and Cheerful Street Eats
Fish sauce, fresh herbs, tart citrus, a touch of heat and a dash of French influence: Vietnamese food is a culmination of the country’s geography and history, and the result is a cuisine of bright, refreshing flavours. In Ho Chi Minh City – Vietnam’s cultural and financial centre – there’s no shortage of roadside restaurants and shops specialising in the greatest hits of this vibrant cuisine.
Pho beef noodle soup is the national dish, but the exact recipe varies wildly across the country – and from restaurant to restaurant. For a great Saigon-style bowl, head to Pho Hoa Pasteur. This humble shop has been run by successive generations of the same family for years. Their version features an addictively rich broth and a side of dau chao quay (fried breadsticks) for some crunch.
Another dish that pays homage to French culinary heritage is banh xeo – a crisp Vietnamese crepe stuffed with shrimp, pork, mung beans, bean sprouts and fresh herbs. Order it at Banh Xeo 46A, washed down with a tall glass of chanh muoi – an iced sweet-and-salty drink made with preserved lemons.
Bangkok: Street Food to Modern Thai
Good Thai food is about the balance of the five fundamental flavours – sweet, salty, sour, spicy and bitter – all coming together in every single complex, exciting bite. And in Bangkok, one of the world’s great foodie cities, everything from roadside food stalls to fine dining restaurants delivers that same punch of flavour.
Yaowarat Road – otherwise known as Bangkok’s Chinatown – is said to be where Thailand’s street food culture started, more than two centuries ago. Today, hungry diners queue up for delicacies such as oyster omelettes, duck smoked over sugar cane, grilled seafood skewers and other local treats, all inspired by the cuisines of neighbouring countries.
The Thai capital has in recent years welcomed many young chefs who are bringing their own spin to local dishes by fusing their contemporary techniques and training with the flavours they grew up with. Check out Bo.lan – an upscale, sustainability-focused restaurant by chefs Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava and Dylan ‘Lan’ Jones – and Sorn, chef Supaksorn ‘Ice’ Jongsiri’s ode to the flavours of southern Thailand.