Do you have a favourite dish that, as soon as the flavours hit your tongue, remind you of where you were when you first tasted it? Or perhaps there's an aroma which transports you back to a specific place and time? Taste and smell are so visceral, vividly preserving the memories which go with them, and allowing us to relive our travels through our senses.
Wherever you go throughout Asia, you see markets famous for their street food, each country serving a range of dishes as individual as the language. Once you discover a favorite, you are sure to return to that particular vendor as often as you can.
But what about when you’re trying to recreate that taste back home? Many Asian street foods and snacks are relatively simple to cook - you just need the inspiration and a few special store-cupboard ingredients. Here are the recipes we use we use to recreate dishes from our travels, with a few tips on how to get them just right.
One of the first things which comes to mind when you say ‘Asian streetfood’ are the sweet, sticky chicken satay skewers seen universally throughout Indonesia. So easily eaten on the go, these moreish morsels of rich meat served with a spicy peanut sauce are a favourite market-stall treat amongst our Indonesia team. Globetrotting chef Rick Stein collected this particularly delicious recipe for ‘Satai ayam’ (which includes fragrant lime leaves) when he was in Bali.
There is a traditional Thai greeting that roughly translates as ‘have you eaten yet?’, demonstrating just how central food is to Thai culture - and Bangkok’s street-food markets are legendary. Pad Thai is perhaps the most well-known Thai street-food dish, both delicious and very easy to cook at home, but Gai Pad Prik Gaeng fully deserves a place alongside it. This dish of diced chicken flash-fried with green beans in fresh red Thai curry paste is comforting, quick and almost too easy (although don’t tell your guests that!). Serve on its own for a light lunch or with sticky rice for a more substantial meal, and make your own red Thai curry paste for a really fresh and vibrant flavor.
Staying in Thailand for a moment, there is one dish which has more of a claim to the title of ‘national dish’ than even Pad Thai: Pad Kra Pao Gai, or Chicken with Holy Basil. This dish of chicken blended with the fragrant, peppery holy basil leaves must be one of Thailand’s most evocative tastes, and should be relatively easy to recreate at home, except for one slight problem: holy basil leaves can be extremely hard to get hold of. Many restaurants within the UK use the readily-available Thai sweet basil instead, (which you can of course do to), but, though this creates a delicious flavor, it is not quite the same. Some Vietnamese specialist stores do now get deliveries of the elusive holy basil, or if you’re really keen you could try growing it for yourself from seed, but do try and get it if at all possible; the taste will be well worth it.
Perfect for keeping the cold at bay during the chillier months, this warming dish of king prawns and noodles in a creamy, spiced-coconut broth topped with crunchy beansprouts and cucumber is the Malaysian equivalent of the famous Kosher chicken soup with dumplings said to heal ills and soothe the soul. A key dish in the buzzing food markets of Penang, Prawn Laksa can be made from raw-to-ready in 20 minutes; ideal for those nights when you get in late and need something quick and nutritious, or when you’ve over-indulged and want a meal which feels both virtuous and wholesome.
Another broth-style panacea is Vietnam’s street-cart staple: beef pho. A hot, clear stock enhanced with ginger, chilli, coriander, garlic, and spices (packing a flavor-punch sure to cut through any stuffy nose!) and served over soft, fat noodles and thinly-sliced, tender strips of meat.
Surprisingly quick and easy to prepare (especially as the broth can be made in advance and added to the meat and noodles just before serving) this taste instantly evokes Hanoi’s bustling pho cafes – sanctuaries for noodle-devotees dedicated to the art of preparing this famous dish. You can learn how to cook many authentic Vietnamese recipes, including pho, at our cookery class in Hoi An, picking your own herbs and vegetables for each dish and getting expert tips from experienced chefs.
What’s so special about an iced coffee, you may well ask? Have you ever had one made with condensed milk? Vietnamese iced coffee combines hair-curlingly strong espresso-style coffee with syrupy-sweet condensed milk, served over ice which both cools and gently dilutes the drink as you go along. It is exactly what you crave on humid nights in Da Nang when you don’t fancy a beer; a caffeine-infused milkshake, cold enough to give you an ice-cream headache and keep you awake through the stifling evening heat!
Korean cooking is very distinctive, and often contains gochujang (a fermented soybean and chilli paste) which has quite a kick! But it isn’t all sour pickles and mind-blowing heat (though I’d argue that kimchi is delicious on everything); the considerable American influence on Korean food since the war has led to some interesting fusions. This bulgogi cheese-steak sandwich is an inspired combination of the classic ‘Philly’ dish, substituting the traditional slab of steak with strips of thin, succulent beef marinated in ginger, gochujang, soy sauce, garlic and sesame oil for a fragrant, spicy hit.
Having mentioned kimchi (that zingy, fermented relish somewhere between coleslaw and sauerkraut with, naturally, some serious chilli), another food-merge waiting to happen was the kimchi-dog. Hot-dogs must be one of the top-5 street-foods the world over; cheap, easy to make, satisfying, portable and ultimately customisable. Traditionally served with fried onions and ketchup or mustard, the addition of kimchi instead is not a difficult leap to make, and it lifts an over-familiar dish to another level. Though you can make your own kimchi as the recipe suggests, it is widely available in Asian markets making this fusion-dog a seriously ‘fast-food’ option.
Described by one member of our Cambodia team simply as ‘lush’, this Khmer dish combines the candy-sweetness of ripe corn kernels with the rich, umami flavor of duck-egg yolk, bringing both together with a salty tang to wake the appetite. Made from only 3 ingredients, this must be one of the easiest dishes it is possible to make and still call it cooking! Would make a great side-dish to accompany something spicy, or just on its own in a bowl with a spoon for ‘night-in-on-your-own’ comfort eating, without the carb-bloat from scoffing crisps!
Praised as being ‘the best snack in the world’ by a member of our team (and they should know, having seen a fair amount of it!), this recipe for Khmer nuts is a local recipe direct from Thary, who helps run our office in Cambodia, and it tastes amazing. The humble peanut is given a fragrant, spicy make-over of Asian flavours including lemongrass, kefir lime, garlic and chilli. Chicken powder is added for savory undertones, but if there are vegetarians likely to nibble on them you can leave that ingredient out, or perhaps substitute a little vegetable bouillon powder (worth an experiment!). Put a bowl-full of these down in any room and they probably won’t be there for long!
Hirata steamed buns seem to be very on-trend right now, popping up in celebrity cook-books and fashionable eateries, and it’s not hard to see why they are becoming so popular; doughy, sweet steamed buns wrapped around crisp, hoi-sin pork-belly garnished with cucumber and spring onions gives a similar taste experience to the ever-popular crispy duck pancakes ordered by the tonne from Chinese takeaways. Hirata, which originated in Japan, are also pleasingly simple to cook at home and seem like the perfect comfort snack-food for a family barbeque or a night in front of the telly.
Japanese sushi-style food has a reputation for being difficult and fiddly to prepare, and perhaps not worth attempting yourself. Though this may be true of some of the more intricate sushi varieties, there are some more ‘everyday’ Japanese snacks which contain similar flavours and are much easier to prepare. Onigiri rice balls use the same seasoned, sticky rice as sushi, and are either eaten plain or wrapped around a small amount of simple filling such as salmon, beans or even cheese. They are to Japan what the store-bought sandwich is to the West, as well as being a comforting, home-made after-school snack for many Japanese children.
Another food which has more of a complicated reputation than it deserves is the dumpling. A staple dish of many countries throughout Asia, dumplings can be filled with pretty much anything you like and dunked in whichever dipping sauce you fancy at the time, creating the ultimate customizable snack. These Indonesian chai kue have a light dough, almost transparent when steamed allowing the delicate diced vegetables to show through, and are a handy vegetarian hors d’oeurve option. If you don’t feel confident making the dough, you can use ready-made wanton wrappers and though you probably shouldn’t eat a whole recipe’s worth just to yourself, I have a feeling I definitely could!
When my mum was growing up in Singapore in the ‘60s, her step-mother would often cook gado-gado – a salad made from crisp vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, cooked potato and any other left-over bits from the fridge all smothered in a rich, spicy peanut sauce. A sort-of Indonesian/Malaysian version of salade nicoise, this is more a serving suggestion than a recipe (though each cook would be proud of their own version of the sauce), and is both healthy and satisfying. Still widely served across South-East Asia, this quick dish is a great dinner-party option as it looks stunning and can be easily up-sized to feed many mouths.
As Myanmar opens-up more and more to tourism, so a steady stream of delicious dishes eaten in the markets of Yangon begins to feed back into Western cuisine. These little crispy gyeo du triangular boats (or rockets) made from deep-fried firm tofu stuffed with salty shrimp, sweet papaya, crunchy cabbage and sour tamarind do what all the best street-snacks do: engages every taste in a little explosion of flavor that keep you coming back for more. It is almost impossible to have only one of these!
Many thanks to the team for contributing these recipes and ideas to help us get creative in the kitchen. I’m certainly feeling pretty peckish having written them all up! If you have any favourite street-food venues you’ve visited on your travels around Asia, or recipes you’d like to share, please pop a link in the comments – we’re always eager for recommendations. Of course, there’s nothing quite like experiencing the food in its original setting, and if you fancy learning to cook fish overlooking the Inle Lake or choosing the right spices for Assam Laksa in Penang’s spice markets, talk to a member of our team (+44 (0) 1273 670001) who will help put together a bespoke holiday with plenty of food tours and cooking classes.