STREET FOOD IN ASIA: MY 5 FAVORITE CITIES
When Americans return from their first trip to Europe they invariably rave about the transportation there: “it was so clean and efficient”. They suggest that the USA could adopt the same system, and then go on to show you some pictures of a cathedral. First-time visitors coming back from Asia generally first mention the fast, affordable and varied food they ate on the street or at the open markets found in every country they visited. They’ll roll their eyes back in ecstasy and describe the pad thai of Bangkok or the grilled pigeon of China. Call it what you want: ‘street food’; ‘hawker fare’; ‘stall food’; ‘food vendors’, there is no formality with this style. Its all about flavor and love. Skip the food courts and five-star hotels in Asia, no care goes into the food there. The street vendors are those that take the most pride and joy in the dishes.
Here are my top 5 destinations for street fare in Asia:
The scene: Thailand is the fulcrum of southeast Asian tourist infrastructure and has been for years. A westernized version of the cuisine is now accessible to most Americans in their hometowns. Thai restaurants may now outnumber burger joints in most US college towns. Any list of Asian street food destinations that omits Thailand will be dismissed. But surprisingly, I’ve found Thai cuisine to lack the satisfactory quality of Chinese cuisine, the subtle complexity of Vietnamese and the versatility of Malay. That being said, I still love eating in Bangkok. There is an endless supply of street vendors and red chili. It’s both confrontational and subtle. It works.
Must try dishes: phad thai; somtham (green papaya salad); tom yam kum (sour soup w/ lemongrass and prawns)
Cost: expensive for Thailand, cheap by worldwide standards. Noodles from 30 baht ($1) and more complicated dishes/soups from 60 baht ($2); beer is more expensive than neighboring countries
HO CHI MINH CITY (SAIGON), VIETNAM
The Scene: Forget your images of defensive, agrarian Vietnam. The sexy, colorful, neon-lit streets of booming Ho Chi Minh City are abuzz with a young, exotic flair. Talent from throughout Vietnam is flocking here for new opportunity. Good news: these newcomers are bringing their local recipes with them and setting up shop on the street corners of Vietnam’s largest city. In Saigon, you can eat Hanoi-style chicken soup (pho ga) for breakfast, Hue shrimp dumplings (banh beo) for lunch and southern-style seafood-stuffed crepes (bang xeo) for dinner. Throughout the day, be the architect of your own snack at one of the countless sandwich carts (French baguettes expose the city’s colonial history) and nibble on fresh spring rolls handmade on nearly every block. Vietnamese cuisine is healthy, elaborate and affordable for every visitor. Though Saigon lacks Hanoi’s head-scratchingly inexpensive bia hoi brew, there are plenty of BBQ restaurants setting up yards of picnic tables filled with beer-guzzling (try La Rue and the local 333 brands) locals relaxing and enjoying themselves after a long day of hustling a living in a city I consider the Miami of Asia (minus the beach and cocaine, of course).
Must try dishes: pho; spring rolls; Hue imperial cuisine; pork sandwiches; seafood crepes; 333 beer; oil-thick drip coffee
Cost: Still cheap, despite the city’s growth. Costs are rising, but you can still enjoy a bowl of soup for $1, $0.75 for a sandwich, $2-3 for a proper meal. A cup of coffee or a beer (both excellent quality) should cost about $0.60 in the outlying districts.
The Scene: In 1947, upon surrendering mainland China to the communists, Jiang Kai-Shek fled with his army to the island of Taiwan, harboring the intentions of overtaking Mao Zedong in due time. He brought with him the reserves from the Bank of China (Taiwan still has the fifth-largest of any nation), the most valuable Chinese art and a whole-hell-of-a-lot-of knowledgeable cooks from the disparate regions of China. This strategy blessed the compact little island of Taiwan with the world’s best assortment of Chinese regional cuisine. Today a prosperous and modern city, Taipei is still a surprisingly affordable city to eat across; and it would take a lifetime to transverse all of Taipei’s street-food offerings. Unlike Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing, Taipei has preserved its on-the-go food choices even in face of today’s urban modernity. Start at Shilin night market, where you can rub shoulders with the infinitely hungry (yet mysteriously thin) locals in search of the latest hawker creations such as bacon-wrapped asparagus and sweet Taiwanese sausage. At Gongguan night market, you can wait in line 30 minutes for the hottest new cup of bubble tea (and not regret it). Near the subway stations, surprisingly good fry stands cook up crispy fresh squid and offer smoked shark into the wee small hours. Take the subway up north to harborside Danshui for sashimi and sausage made with fish eggs or tuna. No matter how much you’ve tried, you’ve barely broken the surface here; even the good-natured locals have their heads spinning with new snack options each day.
Must try dishes: Hakka-influenced beef noodle soup; noodles topped with fresh sprouts, yet swimming in pork fat; surprisingly-good sashimi; oyster omelets; milk “bubble” tea; glass jelly deserts
Cost: Not cheap by southeast Asian standards, yet cheap for north Asian standards. Plenty of snacks for just above $1. Most meals in the $2-3 range. You could snack all night in a night market and barely break $10. For beer, take-out from 7-11 should suffice, as the city’s bars are disproportionately expensive.
The scene: Administratively independent Chongqing, formerly of Sichuan province, is probably Asia’s largest, most significant city that no one has ever heard of. A smoggy (locals will claim ‘foggy’) collection of concrete, steel and glass rising sharply at a million angles over a landscape of steep hills, valleys and meandering rivers, its our favorite Chinese metropolis, as it slowly reveals itself one climb, view and bowl at a time. For the Chinese throughout the mainland, Chongqing means one thing: red, face-numbing, widow-making spicy dishes. Be sure you have your hotel’s business card handy, as taxis are cheap and plentiful, while the city’s public bathrooms scarce and insufficient (at best). For everyone complacent at having tried “Szechuan” chicken at your mall’s food court, Chongqing will make you pay dearly for your illiteracy. Many dishes only reveal their depth of flavor (look for star anise, garlic, chili, ginger) as your tongue undergoes its initial abuse and subsequent beer-aided recovery. During the long, sweltering summertime, do as the locals do: find a plastic stool on a street corner, roll your shirt up past your tits, pop a cool bottle of Tsingdao beer and dig into some duck intestine and pig brain ‘hot pot’ the size of a toilet bowl. Though Chongqing can’t compete with the wide range of #1 Georgetown’s offerings, Sichuan food is uniquely addictive and satisfying to any sweaty, self-abusing food sadist.
Must try dishes: hot pot, hot pot, hot pot; hand-pulled noodles swimming in chili oil; mapo tofu; head, tongue, stomach, intestines, brains, rope- its all going to feel the same in the end
Cost: immensely cheap: from $0.50 for a hearty bowl of noodles to $4 for a hot pot, that can be shared by 3. Upscale restaurants are increasing, but you’re just paying for the curtains.
GEORGETOWN, PENANG, MALAYSIA
The Scene: Georgetown, a mouth-and-brow-watering medium-sized city in northwest Malaysia just south of the Thai border, is the Ellis Island of southeast Asian flavors. The city is often full of travelers making a border run to extend their Thailand visas, many of them not lingering long enough to ride the curry-colored rainbow. Merging the influences of Cantonese, Malay and Thai cuisines into an exotic matrimony known as Nonya (or Peranakan), Penang is where you’ll find the most accessible and impressive collection of dishes in this regional style. Look for creative uses of coconut milk, fragrant leafs and tamarind, all joining forces to give the area’s fresh seafood a character not found anywhere else in Asia. As if you actually needed more options, you can also hit the city’s growing Indian options. We can’t begin to introduce all of the particular dishes and hawker streets, so just wander the steamy old colonial alleys armed with a $0.50 freshly squeezed tropical juice (warning: beer is heavily taxed here) and follow your nostral instinct.
Must try dishes: fish head soup; otak-otak; sour laksam soup; Hokkein mee; fresh juices
cost: cheap. $1.25 for small meals and up to $4 for large seafood dishes, which can be shared by 2. Great value for quality.