Food and drink

South East Asia’s Classic Dishes

From street food snacks to celebratory treats, these South East Asian dishes are steeped in a sense of place. They satisfy local cravings and will tempt foodies to book a flight


Bali: Babi Guling

Eating pork is a rarity in Indonesia, as it’s the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. Bali, however, is primarily Hindu, so babi guling is a favourite local delicacy at the table – and an increasingly big hit with visitors. The suckling pig is roasted on a hand-turned spit over an open fire and is traditionally served as part of a wedding or other celebratory feast. There are plenty of options to sample the dish in open-air restaurants across the island and one standout is Denpasar’s Babi Guling Candra, known for serving the whole hog, including intestines and tongue.

Bali: Mie Goreng

Don’t be fooled by its modest interior and menu – Seminyak’s Warung Aneka Rasa offers some of Bali’s best stir-fried noodles and curry dishes. The old standard of eating somewhere packed with locals has never been truer than here as communal tables are filled with happy diners choosing from dozens of authentic dishes. One of the most popular is fried noodles or mie goreng, a simple classic that features wheat noodles tossed in the sweet and savoury soy sauce kecap manis, oyster sauce, sautéed vegetables and your choice of protein. Spice it up to your preference with extra chilli as required.

Jakarta: Nasi Goreng

Nasi goreng literally means fried rice, and is usually served with meat, prawns or vegetables. Although there are dozens of other contenders, many view it as Indonesia’s national dish. This stir-fried staple is distinguished from other rice recipes by the use of spices including tamarind, turmeric, chilli and garlic, as well as shrimp paste and sweet soy sauce. Its universal appeal has led the dish to grace everywhere from roadside stalls to top-class restaurants. In Jakarta, Kwetiau Akang Muara Karang upgrades nasi goreng by topping it with crab claws, while it is served round the country with everything from chicken liver to fresh tuna, goat meat and squid ink.


Kuala Lumpur: Bak Kut Teh

Bak kut teh – pork ribs simmered in a spicy, often peppery broth – is a staple of the Hoklo and Teochew communities who emigrated to Malaysia from southern China. The name literally means ‘meat bone tea’ in reference to the oolong tea served alongside the soup; it’s believed to help dilute the fat consumed in the broth. It’s considered a breakfast dish and often paired with traditional Chinese youtiao, fried dough strips. To start your day as a local might, head to Restoran Seng Huat, which has been serving its mild take on bak kut teh for more than three decades.

Penang: Char Kway Teow

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When Malaysians crave noodles, chances are it’s a big helping of char kway teow. These noodles are stir-fried with soy sauce and chilli, accompanied by prawns and fishcakes, and commonly served on a banana leaf, enhancing the aroma. The dish was invented to cater to labourers who appreciated both the high fat content and low cost. You can try it at Ah Leng, which prepares char kway teow with a choice of four tiger prawns or mantis shrimp – a treat found nowhere else in Penang.


Yangon: Laphet Thoke

Commonly known as ‘tea leaf salad’, this dish uses the best tea leaves during harvest, fermenting them to reduce any bitterness. The fermentation consists of packing the leaves into bamboo vats and placing them in pits while being weighed down by rocks. The whole process takes four months. Many restaurants add different ingredients afterwards. At Yangon’s most stylish diner – Rangoon Tea House – the classic dish is mixed with peanuts, garlic, sesame, tomatoes, chilli, onions and lettuce.

The Philippines

Davao: Kinilaw Na Tuna

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Just as Mexico has ceviche and Italy crudo, so the Philippines has its marinated fish dish called kinilaw. The name comes from the Visayan word kilaw, which translates as ‘eating raw’, as the fish is only ‘cooked’ by adding calamansi juice or vinegar. In Davao, in the south of the country, plentiful fresh tuna has made it the fish of choice and Luz Kinilaw Place in Davao City is a casual spot that attracts both locals and visitors in need of a kinilaw fix.


Black Pepper Crab

The Long Beach chain of seafood restaurants might look like 1960s-style fast food joints. Blame the neon lights. But don’t be put off: this is the birthplace of the city’s most popular dish, black pepper crab, invented more than five decades ago as a toned-down version of chilli crab. Its five locations serve up 33 variations of cooked crabs, each with its own taste, cooking styles and sauces.

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328 Katong Laksa, a small place on Singapore’s East Coast Road, is very old-school and still adheres to a generations-old family recipe for its laksa – the best in Singapore. They cut the noodles so that you eat the spicy coconut-milk curry soup with a spoon. The dish is delicious, and that’s down to the quality of the laksa gravy, which has a nice long finish in the mouth. It even inspired the crab laksa on the menu at Hong Kong’s Caprice (the chef de cuisine’s wife is Singaporean). Read more>

Lo Hei

Credit: Jonathan Maloney

Lo hei, also known as yee sang or ‘prosperity toss’, is a raw fish salad eaten during Chinese New Year, popular among Chinese communities in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Everyone gathers around the table as ingredients are added one by one, while saying auspicious greetings. Each ingredient is usually a homonym of a word in a classic New Year saying. For instance, in nin nin yau yu (‘let there be abundance every year’), yu is the pronunciation for both ‘abundance’ and ‘fish’. One of the most decadent restaurant versions is found at Shang Palace, in the Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore. Read more>


Bangkok: Tom Yum Goong Noodles

The most difficult-to-find restaurants often serve the best food. Consider P’Aor, a simple shop on Petchaburi Soi 5 in central Bangkok that has the best kuay teow tom yum goong nam khon, or tom yum goong noodles for short. When the dish arrives, it is creamy and packed with jumbo-sized fresh prawns, coriander, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and a large helping of rice noodles. The flavour is intensely sweet and sour, and it’s so reasonably priced that you’ll be tempted to order a second bowl.

Phuket: Crab Curry

It’s a heady combination: the freshest, most succulent local crab and the myriad spices and heat which distinguish Thai cuisine. Crab curry is a righteous classic in different forms around Asia, but Phuket’s version serves it in a green curry rich with chilli, aromatic sweet basil, coconut milk and more. Tucked behind an alley, Raya House reveals a charming original decor complete with antiques. It’s become one of the island’s most famous restaurants thanks largely to the generous chunks of crabmeat in its own secret recipe.

Phuket: Mango Sticky Rice

There are few desserts from Asia as beloved around the world as Thailand’s mango sticky rice. It’s a winning combination of glutinous rice (which gives it that gloriously sticky texture), the freshest mango, a touch of salt and palm sugar and smooth, creamy coconut milk. There’s no doubting what’s the most popular sweet treat at Absolute Mango Café, famed for how it balances that sweetness and stickiness in its version of the Thai dessert. For even more decadence, try pairing it with coconut ice cream.


Da Nang: Rice Paper Rolls

In the bustling central Vietnamese city of Da Nang, Tran now operates four locations, and the recipe for this success lies with goi cuon. Tran’s version of these make-your-own rice paper rolls come with thin slices of pork and arguably Da Nang’s best spicy fish sauce. Bean sprouts, herbs, lettuce and rice crackers are just some of the ingredients that also figure in this local speciality, where clean and fresh flavours and textures are lifted by an addictive dipping sauce.

Hanoi: Bun Cha

Thanh Berthou

From 10am, vendors across Vietnam’s capital begin sizzling bacon strips on small streetside fires. As you walk through the Old Quarter, the smell of flame-grilled pork will stop you in your tracks and persuade you to pull up a tiny red stool. Directly translated as ‘vermicelli grilled meat’, the purely Hanoian recipe – it has no Chinese or French influences – is a fragrant, tasty combo of sticky white noodles, Vietnamese herbs, barbecued pork burgers and bacon, straight off the flame and into a sweet fish-sauce broth. Add a plate of deep-fried spring rolls to do it the real Hanoian way. Read more>

Hanoi: Spring Rolls

The growing chain Quan Nem has made a name for itself thanks to spring rolls with generous filling of crab meat. The family-owned business focuses squarely on the quality of the traditional dish that originated in the northern port city of Haiphong. Alongside the crab in the enormous deep-fried rolls sit wood-ear mushrooms, bean sprouts and glass noodles, making for a delicious and filling snack, especially when dunked in its signature sauce featuring fish sauce, garlic, chilli and more.

Ho Chi Minh City: Banh Mi

This classic Vietnamese sandwich, especially beloved by the late Anthony Bourdain, is a small baguette filled with a brilliant array of ingredients. It could be barbecued pork fresh from the grill or homemade pâté, sharp Vietnamese pickles or fresh coriander – or all four together. Traditionally enjoyed at breakfast, today it’s popular as a snack any time of the day. Banh Mi Huynh Hoa is an institution, as hundreds of mopeds and long queues prove, but it’s absolutely worth the wait, especially for the signature banh mi thap cam filled with cold cuts and pork roll.

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