Food to Eat (and Not Eat) When Backpacking in Southeast Asia

I’m really hungry today, so this is happening.

There are a lot of things I miss about Southeast Asia. Food will always be one of those things. Yes, it’s delicious. It’s spicy. It’s dirt cheap. I knew those things going in. Once you’re there, though, and you’re tasting that Pad Thai on the streets of Bangkok as tuk-tuks zoom by, or eating those fresh greens and rice overlooking actual Balinese rice paddies, it’s different. There’s nothing like it. (Believe me, I’ve tried half these recipes upon arriving home, and they just don’t measure up).

Without further ado, here’s a list of some notable dishes I definitely don’t dream about every night of my life:

 1. Street food

Street food comes in many delightful forms. It might be greasy, sometimes unbearably spicy, and utterly questionable, but as long as it doesn’t look like its been sitting there all day I say go for it. YOLO. I only got horrendous food poisoning once in Southeast Asia. It was from a restaurant. If the food is sitting out, the vendors usually throw it back on the heat real quick for cleanliness sake, anyway! I once read in a travel guidebook that as long as your street food stall isn’t literally under a tree full of monkeys crapping on it, you’re probably fine, and I have taken that advice thoroughly to heart.

The vendor who makes these oyster dishes in Penang was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show, No Reservations. He even had a picture of them together in that same market.
Yes, seafood street food. Don’t overthink it, just enjoy. Phuket, Thailand.
Pro-tip: any Thai dish involving basil is probably going to blow your mind. Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Pad Thai from the street vendors on the infamous Khao San Road. Not the most authentic ever, but a damn sight better than anything I get back home, and for less than a buck.

2. Thai Curry

Shut. Up. And. Take. My. Money. I love everything about the curries in Thailand–how no two bowls of curry will ever, ever be the same. How those bowls differ more and more the farther you go geographically. I love the pretty little elegant rice balls next to the fragrant spoonfuls of veggie/meat/tofu/nutty happiness. It would be impossible to pick a favorite, but I have definitely tried to replicate them all at one point or another on American soil. My advice? Eat up while you’re there, because hours of trying to perfect recipes in my kitchen only scrapes the quality of your most basic, authentic Thai curry in Thailand.

I believe this was a fall veggie medley, at a goat farm outside of Vang Vieng. Not actually in Thailand, but Laos!

3. Beer

Not because it’s particularly good beer, but because it’s insanely cheap beer (particularly in Lao, Cambodia, and Vietnam). I could get a massive Beer Lao with lunch for less than a dollar. All of the Southeast Asian beers are light, so a cold one is refreshing in the heat. Sometimes on hot and humid days I still crave a Bintang…

4. Rujak

If I had to pick one standout dish that I had never heard of, let alone tried before, it would be rujak. Rujak is really simple; it just comes as a street food in Indonesia as a bag of fruit (e.g. mango, pineapple, jicama, pomelo, etc.) and tiny bag of sauce. Oh, my word, is it addictive. The fruit is sweet and refreshing in the heat, but the palm sugar dressing adds a LOT of spice. The degree of spice varied by vendor, but there are always notes of sweetness from the palm sugar, chili pepper, and peanuts. If it wasn’t so spicy I would eat it on its own, because the flavor was just out of this world.

Apparently it’s also a Malaysian dish, I just never happened to eat it in Malaysia. I hear they make it with tofu or crackers there, which I can’t imagine really enjoying since the fresh fruits are really what make this dish for me.

“Rujak” means “eclectic mix”! Rujak is really important in ceremonies for expectant mothers, some even thinking it can help predict sex of the baby.

5. Soup

There’s a lot of soup in Southeast Asia, all countries and even regions have their own specialties. I was also amazed at the number of people who eat soup for breakfast and lunch–the hottest part of the day?! But it’s A Thing.

A typical breakfast in Northern Laos!
You get to pick which greens and spices you want to add; all of that comes on its own plate.

6. Fruit

Just fruit. Whenever you can get your hands on it. I’d say this is probably especially true if you’re from the USA, and when in the USA you can’t afford organic fruit. For example, I had eaten mangoes before in the states… but I swear I tried mango for real, for the first time, in Thailand.

A fresh fruit smoothie that would run you $8.00 in a big city back home, is easily less than a dollar on the streets of many Southeast Asian cities.
This is the only common Western breakfast I’d recommend; fruit with yogurt and granola. The fresh tropical fruit will make this seem totally unique to what you’re used to at home.

7. Fresh whole coconuts.

Do these count as fruit? These might count as fruit. But even if they do they deserve their own category because they’re legit what I miss eating most in Southeast Asia. They’re healthy and a ton of fun; you get the whole coconut, with the top chopped off. You drink the liquid inside (ask for it with ice cubes, if you aren’t squeamish about consuming the ice in whatever city you’re in). Then, with the included spoon, you scoop out the cool juicy coconut meat from inside. If I ever felt dehydrated this was such a godsend snack.

Hydration break on the beach in Banyuwangi, Indonesia.

8. Thai Iced Tea

It’s milky, it’s insanely sweet, it’s pinky orangey deliciousness. ‘Nuff said.

9. Mangosteen.

All hail the mangosteen. I don’t even care that I already said fruit. I want to write a blog post just about mangosteen, and have it be just a hundred pictures of mangosteen. There was a classic Indonesian meet-cute between me and the mangosteen. A local woman approached me on the beach of Gili T and offered to sell me a pretty big bag of what appeared to be fruit. She was hella persistent so whatever, I bought it. Long story short, they were mangosteen, and once I actually figured out how to eat these sweet little chunks of naturally encased heaven, my life improved dramatically.

Bonus round!!! Things not to eat when backpacking Southeast Asia…

Why the snakes, Lao-Lao? Just why? I would rather just drink the cobra venom, thanks.

1. Lao-Lao. Fucking Lao-Lao.

Lao-lao is basically savage backyard Laotian moonshine. I do not recommend it if you enjoy remembering things/being functional the following day(s). This rice whiskey is the cheapest liquor, like, ever. The creepy tiny dead cobras they sometimes stick in the bottles are probably worth a lot more than the liquor itself. Ever heard of all those tragic river floating accidents in Vang Vieng? Blame it on the Lao-Lao. Some really sadistic bartenders will offer you free shots of Lao-Lao when you buy something benign, like beer. DO NOT DO IT.

I really wanted French toast at my hostel in Kanchanburi. I think this is deep fried bread with a little bit of jam and a tomato. They tried.

2. “Western food”

If a place has a Western menu, I really do not care how much you miss hamburgers, it’s not gonna be the same. And that’s okay. You didn’t come to Thailand to eat hamburgers. Inevitably along the banana pancake trail there are tons of Westerner-geared options, including its namesake hostel breakfast staple. I’m obviously a gigantic hypocrite since I ordered all of these things at some point, probably. I promise I regretted it every time. Be better than me.

 

3. This ramen burger

It’s a ramen burger. I can’t believe I ate a goddamn ramen burger. I did it in Penang, too, which is tragic because Penang is such a Southeast Asian foodie paradise and I wasted a whole meal on this ramen burger. Tbh, it wasn’t horrible. It’s so absurd I almost couldn’t decide which list to put it on.

Yeah, there’s bacon on it.

My list of things not to eat in Southeast Asia isn’t super long. You do you. Eat whatever you want, and happy Bali belly!

Just kidding.

 

Did I miss anything? Let me know what you think of this by no means exhaustive list!

3 thoughts on “Food to Eat (and Not Eat) When Backpacking in Southeast Asia

  1. Oh my goodness this makes me so nostalgic! Give me all of the food from Southeast Asia. It’s so funny because the one food I find myself dreaming about now that I’m home is chicken and rice balls from Malaysia which I only had a few times but were SO amazing! I’m sad I never tried (or heard of!) Rujak but now I’m dying to try it. I will just have to go back.

  2. From one foodie to another, I appreciate you! Seriously! This gave me some serious memories. I love the street food, those hot soups (I love tom yum) and I actually live for baby coconuts 😀 more of this please.

  3. My mom’s favorite is Penang Rojak but she’ll also eat Indonesian Rujak too of course! Looks like you had a good foodie trip to Southeast Asia. After a week of eating Asian food, I start to crave salads, pasta, sandwiches, pizza, and my favorite Scandinavian knäckebröd. So what happens is.. when I’m in Asia, I crave European and American foods then when I’m in Europe, I start craving Asian food. Thankfully, I can cook decent Asian and Italian dishes (with a few French dishes and Swedish dishes as well).

    p.s. the ramen burger intrigues me.

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