It’s a region that is filled with delectable and interesting cuisines, but there are some local foods of Asia that are totally representative and need to be on your must try list when you venture to this fascinating part of the world. There are some major similarities between the cuisines of each country but there are also features that are unique to each. Here are some of the local foods of Asia that define the various cuisines.
1. China’s Xiaolongbao
Xiaolongbao, Shanghai’s version of the steamed bun, is a staple of Chinese dim sum tradition. Particularly in Shanghai, you can find this dough ball with its range of fillings on every street corner, in every shop, market or restaurant. Commonly, steam buns are filled with pork and a meat stock gel called aspic which, when heated, melts into broth, resulting in a salty and savory snack. But there are certainly variations on the steamed bun filling, ranging from sweet to spicy to savory, and everything in between. This is one of the most simple looking yet totally delicious local foods of Asia.
2. Thailand’s Pad Thai
Though likely more expensive elsewhere, this internationally famous dish can be found for less than a US dollar in its homeland of Thailand. Pad Thai is made with flat rice noodles, stir-fried with spices, egg, shrimp or meat, with the option for adding ground peanuts or bean sprouts to give the dish a little crunch. Lime juice is also sometimes added for some citrus kick, and recipes vary from region to region and from chef to chef, including variations which result in salty, sweet and spicy flavors, depending on the amount of fish sauce or tamarind paste used.
3. Indonesia’s Nasi Goreng
If you’re planning a tour across any one of Indonesia’s 19,000 islands, you’re sure to come across nasi goreng, one of the cheapest and most delicious local foods of Asia. This national take on fried rice with Indian influences, uses chili, garlic and coriander to spice up your taste buds. Don’t let the orangish-yellow color of nasi goreng dissuade you from giving it a try – this dish is served everywhere, from the cheapest of street vendors to the finest restaurants. The rice is cooked and prepared the night prior to serving and is often combined with a crispy shrimp cracker or a fried egg to give it that bit of oomph.
4. Malaysia’s Indian Food
Of all the local foods of Asia, Malaysian Indian food has one of the most interesting histories, having developed through the 10th century migration of Tamil Muslims from South India to Malaysia. This migration introduced new cooking techniques and spices to the Malaysian cuisine, creating a fusion of Malaysian and Indian delicacies. Mamak stalls now sell this fusion all over the country, with dishes such as dosa, bread made from pounded lentils and rice, to nasi kandar, rice with meat or vegetables. This cuisine’s selection is often quite healthy and bursting with flavor, and the dishes are usually served on banana leaves without utensils, as they’re expected to be eaten with the hands.
5. Cambodia’s Num Pang
Some might not associate Asia with French cuisine, but Cambodian Num Pang is certainly the result of leftover French colonial influence, after they abandoned Indochina. Another food fusion, Num Pang is a combination of local ingredients with French flair. Similar to banh mie, its Vietnamese counterpart, Num Pang combines French baguettes, mayonnaise and pate with local deli meats, chilies and pickled vegetables, creating one of the most taste bud tantalizing sandwiches in the world. You can find the most delicious versions of Num Pang in Phnom Penh, where the baguette is particularly crispy, the vegetables are always fresh, and the pate is chilled to perfection.
6. Laos’ Laap
The national dish of Laos is a simple but earnest one. Combining roughly chopped meat – chicken, beef, pork, fish or duck – with toasted rice and fish sauce, laap is optionally served with lime, mint or chili and commonly at room temperature. Eaten with the hands at any time of day or night, laap is one of the must-try local foods of Asia, and can be found in both Laos or in Northern Thailand.
7. Vietnam’s Pho
Vietnam’s famed noodle soup is both hearty and delicious and can fill the place of any meal – breakfast, lunch or dinner. Prepared in advance from meat and bones, pho broth is combined with rice noodles, onions and meat. The light flavor of Pho is a result of the cilantro, ginger and cinnamon seasoning; but if you prefer something more flavorful, you can personalize your pho, as it’s often served with a plate of green onions, basil leaves, bean sprouts, chili peppers and lime wedges. I recently watched a food show with Luke Nguyen, an Australian/Vietnamese chef, who traveled to France and found huge similarities between the Pho and the French pot au feu. Now that would be an interest chicken/egg debate. Which came first? And in which country? Who gave it to whom?
The local foods of Asia are an essential to a travel experience in this region and one of the true delights. Try as much as you can, cram in the variety and eat from street stalls, local cafes and fancy restaurants. Do you have a favorite Asian cuisine?