The street foods in Asia are as diverse as the cultures of the continent. An appetising aroma, flavours that awaken your taste buds, and a unique preparation style lure food lovers from every corner of the world to vendor carts, roadside eateries and restaurants dotted across the region.
Like anywhere else, food in Asia is influenced by its many cultures and geographies. So, no two dishes are exactly alike, even though many may have the same roots. And over several decades, many things — including trade and migration — has led to the exchange of recipes among the Asian countries, spreading their renown to faraway lands.
Exploring this outstanding diversity, CNN, in partnership with Turkish Airlines, released a list of 50 street foods in Asia that the publication calls the best.
However, CNN notes that the list is “far from exhaustive” and “just a small sampling of the region’s wonderful food traditions and where to find them,” because it feels it is impossible to narrow down Asian cuisines to only 50.
The list also excludes the Middle East and Central Asia, each of which deserves a separate list in its own right.
Meanwhile, China has the highest number of dishes with five, including one from Tibet. Several other countries and territories, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand, clocked three each. Nations such as India, which alone has a plethora of cuisines, had two entries on the list followed by several others with their best street foods.
Achcharu is a pickle made using vegetables, especially carrots, beans, green chilli, capsicum and onions. Specific ingredients of the spicy, sweet and sour-tasting snack might differ according to the region and unique variations made to the original recipes by the households they are prepared in. In any case, it always accompanies meals on events such as Sinhala and Tamil New Year.
Asam laksa is a fish-based soup served with rice noodles, vegetables and, at times, some more fish of the kind of wolf herring or chub mackerel. A Penang delicacy, the ‘asam’ in the name refers to ‘tamarind’. This gives the dish a spicy and tangy flavour. It tastes best with Malaysian shrimp paste and can be eaten on any day — even when it is hot and humid.
Although it looks similar to a baguette and may have been born during the French colonial rule in the country, banh mi is uniquely Vietnamese. With ingredients for its filling ranging from meats to an assortment of vegetables, such as sliced cucumber, crisp cilantro, jalapeño with pâté, butter, mayonnaise or soy sauce, it is a highly customisable item.
To make banh mi, you can choose ingredients depending on their availability in the region.
Taiwan’s street food export to the world, bubble tea can be made by anyone anywhere. It was created in the 1980s, using tea and tapioca balls — both of which remain the standard version of the drink.
Bubble tea can also be made with several other ingredients, depending on the country or personal choice. Some of these include matcha, sweet potato and oreo.
Vendors in Karachi and Lahore place a tasty meat-based patty, known as kebab, between the halves of a seared bun. The taste is absolutely heavenly, especially because it is normally eaten at roadside stalls after a long day of work.
The spicy snack has numerous variations, depending on the region and vendor’s choice. So, they can be vegetable patties instead of those made with chicken, beef or mutton. Condiments can range from tamarind sauce (or chutney) to spicy yoghurt dip known as raita.
Although the name translates into “intestine noodles,” cheong fun has no such thing present in it. One of the most famous Cantonese street foods, it is basically a dim sum roll. A thin sheet of steamed rice noodles covers a filling which is usually made with pork, dried shrimp, beef or vegetables. It is eaten with a mix of sauces, ranging from soy to chilli. It is easy to prepare and one of the best dishes that can be tailored to suit the taste buds of vegans or vegetarians.
From high-end restaurants to street food stalls, chilli crab is widely available in Singapore.
Unlike some of the best street foods on this list, this dish has a rather humble origin as it was invented on a pushcart in the 1950s by Cher Yam Tian. All that she did was replace her usual tomato sauce with chilli sauce, and stir-fried chilli crab was born.
It has to be consumed in the right way to experience a burst of flavours. Although the meat goes best with bao buns, the most important part of the cooking process is getting the sauce right.
Considered one of the most popular items in Thailand’s street food scene, crab omelette is a speciality best enjoyed at the Michelin-starred Jay Fai. It is just crab and omelette and is crispy and soft. The fluffy appearance of the delectable dish makes it all the more appealing to the senses. One bite and people become fans forever.
Counted among the tastiest street foods found anywhere in Asia, this unique Hong Kong delicacy is made of pounded fish, which is then simmered in a thick, flavourful curry sauce. The fish balls can be eaten on bamboo skewers or on a plate, whichever way it pleases you.
Ema datshi is Bhutan’s national dish. As such, people from all walks of life can be seen enjoying it anywhere in the landlocked Himalayan country. The spicy stew is made of chilli and cheese — the two items which are the literal translations of ‘ema’ and ‘datshi,’ respectively. A wide range of chilli peppers can be used to prepare the dish, which is served on a bed of red rice with onion and garlic.
Also known as gai daan jai, egg waffles arrived at the Hong Kong culinary scene in the 1950s when vendors came up with the idea of using unsold broken eggs as edibles. And it quickly became a favourite among people of the region.
Egg waffles are easy to make. Mixed into a batter comprising flour, sugar and evaporated milk, the preparation is poured onto a waffle iron and cooked over charcoal flame. It can be enjoyed with a wide range of combination items such as fruits and ice cream, or eaten plain. There are also savoury variants that taste equally delicious.
A cold drink of Persian origin, falooda was brought to the Indian subcontinent and beyond through traders. A particularly loved drink in Pakistan, it looks beautiful because of the myriad colours its ingredients produce.
While it is generally made using dense milk, ice cream, basil seeds, jelly and rose water syrup, some variations are also garnished with vermicelli noodles. Pistachios and dried fruit can also be added to the dessert.
Fuchka is a crispy snack made of wheat flour and is usually eaten with a filling of boiled chickpeas and potatoes and spicy tamarind water. The filling can change according to the server and region. It can include onions, cucumber, green chillies, lime and even grated boiled eggs.
It is essentially the Bengali word for gol gappa or pani puri — the names by which the street food is known in most parts of India. In March 2005, the Oxford English Dictionary added the word ‘pani puri’ to the lexicon.
The literal meaning of the dish is ‘mix-mix’. The name sits well because gado gado is nothing but mixing a variety of vegetables and other ingredients to make a super salad. Fresh and cooked vegetables, such as beans, cabbage, carrots and potatoes, are mixed with fried tofu and peanut sauce. A boiled egg or two is added as a garnish.
It takes a handful of minutes to prepare and is incredibly healthy. Like several other dishes, there can be variations of gado gado depending on the vendor’s personal style.
Getuk is a dessert that has many variations, but all of them have one thing in common — cassava, a root vegetable rich in starch and is nutty to taste. The cassava is boiled, mashed and mixed with ingredients, ranging from coconut and banana to taro, cheese or yam. The dessert can be in multiple hues, owing to the use of natural colourings.
Halo-halo looks like falooda, but it isn’t so. Its name translates into the act of mixing in Tagalog language. The dessert has a wide range of ingredients, including condensed milk, crushed ice, ice cream, coconut flakes, tapioca pearls, flan, cubed yam, sweetened beans, taro, jackfruit, nuts and coconut jelly. All ingredients are stirred to get the best version of the varied flavours before serving.
Here is one dish that may not have originated in Sri Lanka but is, nevertheless, incredibly popular in the island nation. Also known as appa, the crêpe is made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk batter. It is shaped like a bowl, with the outer edges crispier than the inner part. It can be eaten plain or with an egg in the middle.
Locally known as cà phê, iced coffee is served with condensed milk or even without it.
Vietnamese iced coffee owes its uniqueness to how it is prepared. The milk is usually at the bottom of a glass tumbler with the coffee dripping into it from a filter. Ice is then added to the concoction.
Cà phê is commonly found anywhere in Vietnam.
Jalebi is one of the most famous breakfast-time sweet dishes but can be eaten almost any time of the day. It is made almost anywhere in India — from the swankiest of restaurants in metropolitans to the smallest eateries in bucolic villages.
A batter of maida — a type of flour — is deep-fried in the shape of concentric circles and then plunged into hot thick sugar syrup to soak its sweetness.
Jalebi is usually served without condiments. However, many relish it with curd in parts of the country, while others love it with a condensed milk preparation known as rabri.
Jianbing is a pancake that resembles a crêpe. It is an extremely loved breakfast preparation and is sold by street food vendors across the length and breadth of the country.
The pancakes are usually made with a mix of mung bean, black bean and wheat flour. To make the filling, eggs are tossed in sauces such as hoisin and chilli for an enhanced flavour.
Along with the egg, the pancakes are topped with other ingredients like fried crackers — known as bao cui — spring onions, radishes, scallions, cilantro and Chinese sausage or chicken. They are then folded and served warm.
This is essentially a type of dumpling, which has thinner skins than wontons and is filled with meat. It is primarily consumed during the Chinese New Year festivities and, as such, has immense cultural significance. Vegetables such as scallions and Chinese cabbage are commonly added as filling. Jiaozi is usually served with soy sauce.
Sometimes shortened as kavab, the deep-fried Maldivian fish fritter is made using a mix of rice, curry leaves, hot peppers, shredded coconut, ginger and lentils. The fish is smoked tuna. The ingredients are rolled into balls and covered in flour. They are then fried until dark golden brown, ensuring the kavaabus are cooked thoroughly.
Kaya toast is a snack created by the Hainanese in Singapore. It became popular owing to establishments such as Ya Kun Kaya Toast and Kheng Hoe Heng Coffeeshop. Though loved primarily for its sweet taste, kaya toast has a savoury version as well. The bread is grilled or toasted on charcoal and served with a spread of kaya — a traditional jam made of eggs and coconut. Soft-boiled eggs can be accompaniments.
This egg-based dish is a speciality of the Betawi people in Jakarta and West Java. It is essentially an omelette, which is cooked over charcoal. Consisting of duck eggs and glutinous rice, it is garnished with fried, shredded coconut and dried shrimps.
The best time to eat it? The annual Jakarta Fair, where several street vendors give their own twist to this delicious dish.
Another rice-based delicacy from Laos, khao jee has a thin egg coating and is cooked on the grill. This gives the glutinous rice patty a golden colour and its chewy centre. The dish is usually eaten as breakfast or a quick rush-hour snack.
Khao soi is a northern Thailand dish made of hand-sliced, egg rice noodles in a thick coconut broth. The fried noodles are usually served with chicken or beef, along with generous toppings of sliced lime, chopped cilantro, chopped or sliced shallots and Thai chilli sauce.
Khuushuur is a Mongolian meat pastry whose origins can be traced to China. Ground mutton or beef is covered in wheat flour dough and deep-fried to make savoury delicacies that are extremely delicious and healthy for the harsh life of the steppes. Vegetarian options are also available, but they are not as popular as the meat-filled ones. The khuushuur is usually served with hot cups of Mongolian tea.
Also spelled as gimbap, this famous Korean street food is like Japanese rolled sushi. It is made at almost every home and street food corner. While ingredients usually include vegetables, cheese, meat or fish can also be added. All ingredients are placed on a bed of sticky rice and seaweed, which is then rolled and sliced into small portions.
The name literally means ‘ring cakes,’ and the dish is best enjoyed as an after-dinner treat. Red palm sugar, coconut-based melaka sugar and rice flour are its key ingredients. The sweet-tasting dish is shaped like flowers and is crunchy.
Kwek kwek is deep-fried quail eggs. The colour of the eggs is orange because of the batter, which contains annatto powder obtained from the achiote tree.
One of the most incredibly delicious Filipino street foods, kwek kwek is crispy and eaten with vinegar or sweet chilli sauce. It is mainly consumed between noon and evening and costs less. This is why it is particularly popular among students and workers.
Also known as laphing, the spicy noodle dish is served chilled and primarily consumed during the Tibetan summers. The noodles are made from mung beans and look like jelly. Its flavour is brought out by a combination of sesame oil, soy sauce, vinegar and spring onions, along with green onion sauce.
While the world around might favour tea leaves to prepare tea, people in Myanmar also use it as an edible item for a salad, which is known as lahpet thoke. Pickled or fermented Assam tea leaves are mixed with roasted nuts and sesame seeds, cabbage, chopped tomatoes, fried garlic and dried shrimp. The unique feature of this dish is that it can be customised by the guests themselves as ingredients are sometimes served as condiments.
The main ingredient in lort cha is short and squat rice pin noodles. It is mixed with Chinese broccoli, garlic, spring onions, crunchy bean sprouts and beef. Fried egg and generous helpings of Cambodian fermented red chilli paste are added to bring out the best in this spicy dish.
Usually eaten for breakfast, mohinga is a de facto national dish of Myanmar. It is a fish noodle soup containing, usually, fresh catfish with lemongrass, ginger and garlic. Toasted rice is also added to the dish.
Its toppings may include cilantro, lemon, more fish sauce, thinly sliced red onions and hard-boiled egg.
It doesn’t matter which part of Nepal or even India one is in, you can find momos everywhere. Usually served with chilli tomato sauce and mayonnaise, momos can be of any size, shape, colour and taste. The fillings generally include a mix of cabbage, onion and ginger but can also be replaced with cheese or any kind of meat, including yak and pork.
Add a dash of tamarind or any Nepali spice, and each serving of momos will seem different from the other.
The Laotian crispy rice salad is traditionally made using dried coconut, fresh herbs, red curry and sour pork. Egg is also used in some variations, all of which are notable for the aroma and the deep-fried cooking of the rice balls. It is served with fresh lettuce leaves.
Though believed to have originated in Vientiane, the dish is quite famous in neighbouring Thailand.
Nasi lemak is one of the most famous street foods in Asia. Due to its enduring fame and ubiquitous presence, it is known as Malaysia’s national dish. It includes coconut milk rice, sambal, toasted peanuts, cucumber, fried crispy anchovies and boiled egg. Some vendors add chicken, fish or shrimp to nasi lemak as variations, too. An authentic nasi lemak is always served on banana leaves.
The Vietnamese comfort food is broth containing noodles and chicken or beef and is garnished with bean sprouts, herbs, lime and chilli slices.
Pho is designed to beat the cold but is eaten all year round, usually for breakfast, at numerous street-side stalls in Vietnam and countries with a Vietnamese diaspora.
It is believed to have originated in North Vietnam, where it differs in style and composition from the pho found elsewhere in the country.
The Indonesian salad is truly a pan-Southeast Asian delicacy, with its fame ruling the taste buds of Malaysians and Singaporeans alike. It is incredibly simple to make — fruits, such as apples, pineapple and mangoes, are mixed with cucumbers and fried tofu. This is tossed in sticky black sauce and topped with ginger flowers. It is served with a sauce, which is made of fermented prawn paste, lime, sugar and chilli paste.
Although roti prata is of Indian origin, it is a staple across Southeast Asia where the Indian influence on cuisine is particularly strong.
Roti prata is nothing but flatbread, which is usually eaten with a combination of other dishes, including mutton, egg, fish or vegetable curries. It is sold almost anywhere across the region and is a very common preparation in households. Other innovative varieties of the roti prata include combinations with bananas, sugar and chocolate.
Think Chinese hamburger; that is rou jia mo. As one of the most famous street foods in the country, the dish is absolutely basic — a bun (known as bai ji mo) stuffed with pork belly braised in onions, ginger, soy sauce and sugar. Herbs such as cardamom, cloves and Sichuan peppercorns are also used to make it flavourful.
The dish originated in Shaanxi. While the bread-making style for this dish is believed to date back to the Qin dynasty (third century BC), the braised pork cooking style goes back even further to the Zhou dynasty (10th century to third century BC).
The delicious dish gets its name from the Isan region in northeastern Thailand, where it originated. Sai krok Isan is pork sausage, which tastes garlicky and sour.
As one of the most famous street foods in Thailand, it can have variations depending on the vendor and the region where it is being consumed. The dish is essentially fermented sausages filled with sticky rice, chillies, cabbage, ginger, salt and pepper, which are then dried for several hours to days under the scorching sun.
It is popularly known as popcorn chicken because of its bite-sized shape resembling the snack made with corn kernels. The chicken is double fried after coating it in sweet potato flour. The crunchy snack can be quickly made for munching on road trips or just a walk around the streets.
Think an ice cream softy — that’s sofuto kurimu, the Japanese way of saying ‘soft cream.’ This simple dessert is made with fresh cream and milk. It comes in a multitude of flavours, ranging from classic chocolate to matcha, red bean, wasabi and squid ink.
As it’s name suggests, stinky tofu isn’t for all. The dish has a pungent smell — in fact, as strong as dirty socks, some would say. However, it is a delicacy that street food lovers in Taiwan swear by.
Made in a variety of ways, the common theme is fermentation. Bean curd is soaked in brine from a few hours to a few months.
The brine holds the secret to the taste. Usually, fermented milk, vegetables and meat, along with dried shrimp, amaranth greens and Chinese herbs can be used to make the brine. The tofu can be grilled, deep fried, braised, stewed or even steamed before serving with a few dashes of garlic sauce, chilli sauce and pickled cabbage.
Takoyaki is grilled octopus. The savoury dish is made by filling a batter of flour and eggs with diced octopus, tempura flakes, spring onions and pickled ginger. This is then cooked on specially designed pans and grills until golden brown, cooking it evenly on all sides. They are garnished with mayonnaise, bonito and seaweed flakes before serving.
The comfort food is loved by all in South Korea, even K-pop idols such as BTS who included this dish in their upcoming cookbook — BTS RECIPE BOOK: Book of Tasty Stories.
So, what is tteokbokki? A simple cylinder-shaped rice cake, which, in its modern avatar, is spicy. The traditionally stir-fried dish can have multiple variations, including a less spicy one named gungjung tteokbokki and a noddle-based version called rabokki.
The street foods in India vary as widely as the country’s culture. Vada pav is one of the many everyday foods that people in India love as a morning breakfast or an evening snack. Native to the western state of Maharashtra, vada pav is basically a spicy deep-fried potato placed between a sliced bun. It is like a vegetable burger served with condiments such as tamarind paste or chilli sauce.
The name of this dish comes from the small bamboo baskets it is prepared in. Like jiaozi, xiao long bao is a dumpling. Famous in Shanghai, each of these small-sized dumplings is very carefully and artistically folded with a filling of gelatinised broth of pork or chicken.
The preparation is so delicious that xiao long bao finds a place everywhere — from street food stalls to Michelin-starred restaurants. In 2006, the local government of Shanghai listed the dish as a protected national treasure.
Essentially grilled chicken, one version of yakitori can be different from the other, depending on what part of the chicken is being cooked.
For instance, tebasaki is a type of yakitori in which chicken wings are grilled, while chicken liver yakitori is called reba. Any part of the chicken can be grilled as yakitori. The process of preparing all variations is the same — the chicken pieces are skewered and slowly cooked over white charcoal. Yakitori tastes great with soy sauce and is often served with beer.
(Main image: Devi Puspita Amartha Yahya/@deviyahya/Unsplash; Featured image: rajat sarki/@rajat_sarki/Unsplash)
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