Food is a critical part of my travels. Each country’s culinary habits are unique and immersing in it is one of the best way to learn about their culture. You may have a go-to “authentic” pho place, and yes, they may be as good as you say, but trust me, there is nothing like the experience of eating it in the right atmosphere– in the side of the streets, sitting on the a small plastic stool, while locals pass by you, preferably somewhere in Hanoi.
There is nothing, and I repeat, NOTHING, like the experience of eating authentic food. There’s just something uniquely satisfying about eating a dish where it originated from made by people who’s made the dish hundreds of times. Despite the new flavors you’ll be exposing your palate to, the impeccable ambiance you’ll be getting will be the cherry on top.
As I tried to evaluate my favorite dishes, I came to a conclusion that Southeast Asian food are my favorite kind. But they didn’t become a favorite until I’ve been blessed by their original, authentic form. For a self-proclaimed foodie like me, it’s life changing. So as an ode to my favorite cuisine, here’s 10 dishes, in no particular order, that you must taste authentically.
Disclaimer: This list is highly biased by my personal favorites.
I’m starting you off with my local favorite. If you’ve ever been a fan of ceviche, you must not miss its Filipino counterfeit. Also known as kilawin in some regions, this dish is perfect for appetizers, side dish, snack, or even as your main course if you must. Here’s what many outsiders don’t know though: head down to Visayas for the BEST version ever. The best I’ve ever had was in a resort in Siquijor, a quiet island south of Cebu. Their version, as compared to the others, have an addition of a milky taste, acquired from a special tree sap. It’s a brilliant extra ingredient, balancing out the acidity of the dish. But if there is just no way for you to have access to the Visayan version, you still shouldn’t miss kinilaw nonetheless.
2.) Som Tum (Papaya Salad)
Just like Pad Thai, you can’t miss this in Thailand because of its ubiquity. The best one of course, as usual, are found in the streets, where they toss it in front of you. Packed with staple southeast Asian flavors such as lime and fish sauce, this dish is a mix of tangy, sweet, and spice. Top it with salted egg and it’s golden! I had the best one in Chatuchak market and I’ve still yet to find one that will top it.
3.) Tom Yum
My all time Thai favorite. If your tastebuds are already keen on Tom Yum or you’ve had a taste of this anywhere outside Thailand, you better be anticipating your authentic experience. Tom Yum is a sour based soup– there are two kinds, the seafood kind which has more of a thicker coconut soup, and then there’s Tom Yum Nam Sai, which has a clear broth. Both are freaking good. It was my first meal the first time I ever went to Thailand. It was hot, humid, and I was sweaty, but I didn’t mind the spiciness of the soup. I have about 5 bowls of this each time I visit, and I lost about 5 ibs because of how spicy I like it. On my last trip to Thailand, I learned from a local friend that there’s a dry version of this dish. I never had the chance to try it that way but it’s very intriguing to me. There are no rules on how to eat Tom Yum except one– make sure you get them fresh in the streets! PS; this is the photo of my very first tom yum and my first meal in Thailand!
4.) Bun Bo Hue
I was headed to Vietnam for the second time and I wanted to be more prepared for a food adventure so I did a little research. Legal Nomads led me to this dish. It wasn’t until I was in Hoi An that I had my first taste of Bun Bo Hue (boon boh weh), and though the dish originated in Hue, it was still a very memorable meal for me. Hoi An, after all, is known for amazing food no matter what. As you can clearly guess by now, I do love a good noodle soup. What makes it different from pho is the strength, yet balance of all the flavors– it’s a mix of sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and lots of lemongrass. But of course, a trip to your Pho 32 or 53 or 47 won’t do this dish any justice. I don’t care if the chef is from Hue.
5.) Bun Thit Nuong
I’m not a fan of cold noodles. Unless it’s topped with grilled pork. Add a chunk of different herbs to it and you’ll find yourself a new Vietnamese food favorite. It doesn’t matter if you get it fresh from northern, southern, or central Vietnam. Just get it in Vietnam and you’re good, I swear.
6.) Tea Leaf Salad
I already knew I’d love this dish before I even tasted it. When I finally did in the streets of Yangon, I was sold. Its key ingredient is fermented green tea leaves. It’s a bit on the salty side for a salad, but it sure is delicious. I loved it so much I had to learn how to make it, though that was a futile effort because you can’t really get fermented tea leaf outside Myanmar. With that said, it might be a bit ambitious for you to find tea leaf salad elsewhere. So book that damn flight already. You may end up loving or hating Burmese food, but you know what, you really can’t go wrong with this dish.
Kare-Kare is a local Filipino stew that usually takes hours to make– but you know that only guarantees a great degustation experience. Primarily consisting whatever meat you desire, although mainly oxtail, beef, pork, and tripe, what makes this dish different is its peanut based sauce. It has bits of veggies added to so it’s filled with different texture. It’s not the most attractive dish you’ll see, as a matter of fact, I didn’t eat this when I was young. But once you learn how to eat it properly (which is with rice and bagoong), you might just find a new favorite!
8.) Babi Guling
You can’t go wrong with roasted pig. Especially not with babi guling. Despite the domination of Muslim citizens in Indonesia, the popularity of Babi guling may come off bizarre, but fret not, because Bali’s suckling pig is a memorable dish of its own. Tender, juicy, and loaded with herby flavors, you probably won’t find this dish anywhere else in the world. Bali is pre-dominantly a Hindu island, in contrast to the nation’s statistics. And because of that, Babi guling has become a quintessential Bali must try food.
9.) Char Kweay Teow
It doesn’t matter if you get it in Malaysia or Singapore– just make sure you try it from one of the two. This stir-fried flat noodle dish is basically a heart attack waiting to happen, but trust me, this is exactly what you want to be clogging your arteries. Go to any hawker stall and you can’t miss this national favorite. Forget Pad Thai and everything else you know about stir-fry noodles. Char Kweay Teow is the star. It’s one of the greasiest noodle dish there is, but the taste and fragrance itself will make you forget that.
This is the one dish that inspired me to go to Malaysia. I had no idea what a laksa was, but as I learned that it’s a spicy noodle soup, I knew I had to try it where it originally came from. Laksa is a Peranakan noodle dish that uses coconut milk as the base ingredient (that said, it’s a popular find in Singapore too). It’s very different from Tom Yum as it uses different herbs. The uniqueness of this dish brings quite a blissful balance between flavors. I can tell you this though, the flavors are definitely on the strong side, considering it’s practically a curry type soup. Spicy, sour, and topped with chicken, fish, or prawn, you can’t miss Laksa if you love food in general.
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