No matter where you go in Southeast Asia, “Have you eaten?” is the most common way to greet someone, a testament on how much we love our food. But the question we would like to ask you today is: have you tried the foods we have on our list? If you haven’t, would you try them? Each Asean country has its own acquired taste, but every foodie knows that it pays to be open-minded when it comes to “exotic food”.
What did the people of Asia eat as staple food before rice came to be common? The answer can be found in Brunei’s national dish, ambuyat. Despite its status, you can only find it on special occasions as making sago flour is a tedious process. Preparation is simple, though. All you have to do is mix the sago flour with water and stir it until it coagulates into glue-like consistency. As ambuyat has a bland taste, it needs to be consumed along with various side dishes such as strong-tasting kangkung belacan (water spinach in shrimp paste) and assam pedas (sour and spicy stew).
Where to find it: Aminah Arif Restaurant, Simpang 88, Bandar Seri Begawan.
travel 3Sixty° Pro Foodie Tip: The sticky and starchy porridge is impossible to eat with a spoon. Whenever possible, eat it with a chandas (v-shaped stick) or a fork. Twirl the starch around your chandas or fork, dip it in your relish of choice, then swallow in a single gulp.
Cambodia: Kang Kaeb Baok
You are walking along the street when your eyes catch something that appears to be grilled chicken, only smaller. On closer inspection, you find out that they are actually…frogs. Now, some of you might prefer to kiss a prince than eat slimy amphibians, but really, kang kaeb baok (កង្កែបបោក) tastes just like chicken! It takes quite some time to prepare this popular street food and the frogs are usually skinned alive on the same day for freshness. First, the entrails need to be cleaned out. Next, the frogs are sun-dried before being stuffed with minced pork. Finally, they are taken to the grill. The result is a tender and light dish that can be enjoyed as a proper meal when eaten with rice or a snack, depending on how hungry you are.
Where to find it: Along Pub Street, on your way from the town to Angkor Wat and basically everywhere in Siem Reap.
travel 3Sixty° Pro Foodie Tip: Aside from frogs, it is also common for grilling stands to offer snake and crocodile meats. If you want some texture, try to have fried ants with your rice dish. They give that extra crunch, and of course, extra protein as well! You can also go for spiders, crickets and other insects.
Indonesia: Paniki Rica-Rica
Almost all Indonesians like their food spicy, but when asked which one of their 300-odd ethnic groups who love spicy food the most, they usually point to the Minahasans (also called Manadonese). The people of this ethnicity also have an obsession with bushmeat. A favourite is paniki (fruit bat) sautéed with a mixture of kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, basil leaves, ginger, red chilies and bird’s eye chilies to make it rica-rica (hot and spicy). Make sure you like it hot! For the Minahasans, if a dish does not make your tongue go numb and get your nose running, then it’s not good.
Where to find it: Any rumah makan Manado (Manadonese eatery) all over Indonesia. In Jakarta, try Beautika at Jl. Hang Lekir.
travel 3Sixty° Pro Foodie Tip: If eating bat is not your thing, there are other types of meats in “Rica-Rica” style, including chicken, pork, fish, beef (rare), wild boar meat, wild rat meat and snake meat. You can wash them down with saguer (palm tree wine), which is traditionally an aperitif.
Laos: Koi Khai Mod Daeng
Some people stay away from koi (raw meat salad), a cousin to the more well-known laap (minced meat salad), out of the fear of food poisoning. As a foodie, you should know that you can steer clear of raw meat and opt for koi khai mod daeng (ກອ້ຍໄຂ່ມົດແດງ; red ant eggs salad) instead. If you ever want to get back on those pesky ants in your Vientiane hostel room for biting you, this is your chance. Both red ants and the eggs are “cooked” with lime juice, mixed with spring onions, mint leaves, chili and padaek (ປາແດກ; freshwater fish sauce, considerably more pungent than neighbouring countries’ versions). Red ants eat mango leaves, so they taste refreshingly tangy, like a zest of lime. The eggs have a fluffy texture and the delicate taste of butter. Go on and have a bite! Just be aware that some live ones might decide to bite you back in the process.
Where to find it: When in Luang Prabang, try Tamarind at Ban Wat Nong.
travel 3Sixty° Pro Foodie Tip: The lowdown of Laotian food is khao niao ( ເຂົ້າໜຽວ; sticky rice) which is eaten with every meal. Don’t try eating them with chopsticks, it would be an ordeal. Instead, knead your sticky rice into a small ball with your hand, and dab it with a relish. Try jeow bong (ແຈ່ວບອງ), a sweet and spicy chili paste with a surprise ingredient of dried water buffalo skin.
Malaysia: Nasi Kerabu
There are very few naturally blue foods on earth and colour psychology even recommends putting blue dye on your food if you want to lose weight. But you will find yourself disagreeing after having this Kelantanese favourite. The name says it all: nasi means “rice” and kerabu means “salad”. The most eye-catching feature of this dish is the blue-tinged rice, naturally coloured with bunga telang (butterfly pea flowers). The flower itself has a very mild taste which doesn’t affect the rice’s flavour that much, but it does give it its distinctive look. The salad is very fresh, with a combination of different vegetables and herbs such as cabbage, winged beans, bean sprouts, Vietnamese coriander, wild betel leaves, onions and other spices. On its own this rice dish is beautiful and healthy, suitable for vegetarians and models alike.
Where to find it: In Kuala Lumpur, go to Patatimo (Jalan Wangsa Delima) or Chun Buri Seafood (Jalan Raja Muda Musa).
travel 3Sixty° Pro Foodie Tip: You don’t have to go vegan with nasi kerabu, as you usually will be given a choice of accompaniments: daging bakar (grilled beef), ikan goreng tepung (batter fried fish), solok lada (stuffed chili), ayam goreng (fried chicken), telur masin (salted egg), keropok ikan (fish cracker), serunding ikan (fish floss). So much for the blue food weight loss plan.
Myanmar: Lahpet Thoke
A simple invitation like “let’s have tea” can be confusing especially in Myanmar, where people drink and eat tea too. Yes, the idea of eating tea leaves might be strange to most people, but it is normal here. To make lahpet thoke, tea leaves are soaked in hot water to reduce the bitterness, and squeezed together by hand with salt, lime juice, garlic, ginger, chilies and other ingredients before you leave them to ferment. The final product has a puree-like consistency with a slightly acidic flavour and subtle tea flavour in the back of your tongue. Lahpet thoke is highly versatile. You can have it as an appetizer, dessert, snack, or even a proper meal if you have it with rice and other side dishes.
Where to find it: You can’t really escape lahpet thoke, it’s everywhere from street stalls to sit down restaurant. Have it at the fancy Rangoon Tea House at Pansodan Road, Yangon.
travel 3Sixty° Pro Foodie Tip: Create your own tea leaf salad by grabbing a handful from the separate piles spread in front of you. By adding crunchy roasted peanuts, chopped tomatoes, deep-fried beans, sliced chilies and garlic oil to the fermented tea leaves, you are creating your own symphony of flavours and textures.
To get their children to eat this dish, many Filipino parents say that the gravy is actually chocolate sauce. The idea behind this was by the time they realise that it’s actually not, they would have fallen in love with it anyway. The chocolate-like colour of dinuguan actually comes from pig’s blood simmered with pork, pig entrails, pieces of pig ears, garlic, chilies and vinegar in the mix. If you’ve tasted adobo, dinuguan has a similar taste, but richer and with a tangy aftertaste. So leave your reservation on consuming blood behind and have serving of dinuguan. Don’t worry, eating it won’t turn you into a vampire. We think.
Where to find it: Try to get yourself invited to dinner with the locals in Manila. If that fails, you can go to Kamay Kainan (Bonifacio Global City) or Kanin Club (Ayala Triangle Gardens).
travel 3Sixty° Pro Foodie Tip: There are many kinds of puttu (steamed rice cake) around Asia and they are mostly seen as sweet dessert or snack. The sweet Filipino puto, however, is commonly paired with dinuguan. It seems like an odd combination, but take it from the locals when they say that it really works!
Singapore: Sang Cheong
Local Chinese aunties will tell you that eating sang cheong (生肠) boosts your fertility, makes your skin smoother and even gets rid of those wrinkles! All you have to do is to stir-fry some pig fallopian tubes, chop them up, mix them up with some vegetables and serve with sweet and spicy kung pao sauce. Texture-wise, the fallopian tube is firm and springy, but otherwise the only flavour you’ll taste is the sauce used in the cooking. Disclaimer: we’re not sure if these supposed benefits also apply to men.
Where to find it: Old Mother Hen Traditional Herbal Soup, Sims Avenue, Singapore.
travel 3Sixty° Pro Foodie Tip: When they tell you that it’s pig intestines or uterus, it’s most probably fallopian tubes. If you are having a hard time with the idea of eating a part of female reproductive system, just imagine that you’re having calamari rings as the texture is quite similar.
Thailand: Pak Ped Tod
If you’re a fan of Donald Duck, you might want to skip this one. Duck meat is a big thing in Asia as it is flavourful and leaner than chicken, but people usually skip the beaks. But not the people of Northeast Thailand. They must have followed the nose to tail eating philosophy to minimise the amount of waste when they created pak ped tod (ปากเป็ดทอด). All they had to do was marinate duck beaks in sweet soy sauce and take them to the grill. Chewing the tough cartilage and getting all the fatty parts is half the fun!
Where to find it: In Bangkok, go to Thai Lao Yeh (Sukhumvit Road).
travel 3Sixty° Pro Foodie Tip: Sold at night markets, this Isan-style crispy treat is usually taken as snack, but you can also order it in a restaurant and have it with sticky rice.
Vietnam: Thịt Bò Nướng Lá Lốt
Beef is significantly more expensive than pork in Vietnam, that’s why it is considered a privilege to be served Bò Bảy Món (seven courses of beef) in a wedding as it is a sign of wealth. Out of the seven, Thịt Bò Nướng Lá Lốt (beef wrapped in piper lolot leaves) is the most famous one and can be easily found in many eating establishments. It is basically ground beef mixed with garlics, shallots, lemongrass, ngũ vị hương (five-spice powder) and peanuts rolled inside lolot leaves, grilled over charcoal, and served with a sprinkle of ground peanuts. What makes the dish special is the use of piper lolot, a relative of betel whose leaves are used by other Asians for chewing and medicinal purposes. When charred, it releases a deep and strong flavour which accentuates the smoky flavour of the grilled beef.
Where to find it: Street vendors along Tôn Đức Thắng in Hồ Chí Minh City.
travel 3Sixty° Pro Foodie tip: Thịt Bò Nướng Lá Lốt, or Bò Lá Lốt for short, can be eaten with rice, rice vermicelli, or wrapped in Bánh Tráng (rice crepes) with fresh herbs.