Guide to Street Food: Southeast Asia

by Royal City Travel Guelph -

We've put together a street food guide for Southeast Asia, one of our favorite travel destinations. This is a region where low prices do not mean low quality, and you can feast like a king or queen with a few dollars and some street smarts. 

Let's get started!


Hot food should be served piping or steaming hot - not lukewarm. Fried is usually fine provided the oil looks like it has been recently changed.

As recommended by Phnomenon’s article, Food in Cambodia, stick to “drinking ice” - small, tubular pieces of ice - rather than the “cooling ice,” which comes in massive rectangular blocks that are then chipped down for your drink. The latter is where you’re more likely to pick up a microbe like Giardia.

Check to make sure your ice looks clean before drinking. In Cambodia, you can ask for anamay, which is “hygienic ice” that’s round with a hole in the center.

Avoid ice cream from street vendors, as it’s typically repeatedly unfrozen and re-frozen.

Another Cambodia recommendation (but probably true for most regions) is to go for food carts that are family-run. If more than one member of the same family works at the stall, likely the stall is lucrative enough to support the entire family - meaning it’s a top notch venue.

In Thailand, one dish you can’t miss is the Som Tam (papaya salad). It’s a sweet, sour, salty salad made from shredded green papayas, garlic, shrimp, tomatoes, peanuts and chili peppers.

As you can imagine, it’s super popular, and locals like it served spicy - and I meanspicy. Like many dishes you’ll try across Southeast Asia, the spice barometer is likely different than what you’re used to.

Play it safe. At least in the beginning, ask for your food served mild and work your way up.

Know When to Eat
Similar to the dining schedule in Mexico that's based on certain cultural nuances, in Southeast Asia there is a rhythm to how and when the food is served.

In Phnom Penh, the traditional rice and pork breakfast is served by 8:30am. Lunch starts at 12pm and runs until about 2pm. For both meals it’s a good idea to show up early, in order to eat fresh and avoid the dregs and rejects.

Once you’re there for a few days your tummy will sync up but until then, ask around and try to get a feel for the local schedule.

Take a Tour
Whether you’re still a little intimidated by all of the options, or just want some context for your food, a Walking Food Tour at the onset of your trip can set you up for successful food experiences for the rest of your stay.

Not only do you get to sample a wide array of food and drinks, both on the street and in restaurants, but you’ll learn some local history, food traditions, detailed dish descriptions, recommendations, and more.

You can find a Walking Food Tour in almost any major city. Here are some top picks:

Hoi An, Vietnam: The Last Great Taste of Hoi An: Understanding & Appreciating Vietnamese Foods in Hoi An

Bangkok, Thailand: Food Tasting & Cultural Walking Tours

Singapore: Joo Chiat / Katong Districts Food Walk

Jakarta, Indonesia: Culinary Food Tour of Traditional Street West Javanese Food

Culinary Tours by Globe Taste in Thailand, Cambodia & Laos

Know the Lingo
It’s common for food carts to serve only one dish, meaning that to order, all you’ll need to do is point and indicate how many servings you want.

Even if language isn’t your thing, a few words here and there will give you an edge when it comes to ordering, eating and enjoying the local fare. If you have food allergies or dietary preferences, this is a must.

For example, in Vietnam, any food with banh in the name means that it’s flour-based. And if you’re trying to order vegetarian, you’d say khong an thit - “don’t eat meat,” or, an chay - “vegetarian.”

Use Common Sense
We say this a lot, but that’s because ultimately it’s up to what you think is right and feel comfortable with.

Over the past couple of decades, there have been huge improvements in hygiene and sanitation standards across Southeast Asia.

Most of the street food comes from small stalls and vendors who have little space to refrigerate and little capital to invest, meaning they buy their ingredients fresh at the beginning of every day and serve until they run out.

These cooks have perfected their food and want it to be safe and delicious because that’s how they make their income. In places like Thailand, most people get at least one of their daily meals from a street cart, which creates competition among the vendors and a bigger, better selection for you.

Try to avoid carts stationed along the side of busy roads where traffic and wind can stir up dust. And consider using your own chopsticks - some vendors boil theirs to sterilize while others aren’t so hygienic.

More Resources
The Off Track Planet complete guide to Vietnamese Street Food

The Best of Singapore Street Food by Venere Travel Blog.

Q & A on Street Food in Hanoi, Vietnam by SavourAsia.

Guide to Eating Through Cambodia by Wanderfolly.

Thai Food Words.


For more information about food in Southeast Asia - or anything else - contact us at Royal City Travel!

Here's 1 comment for "Guide To Street Food: Southeast Asia"

As an Asian lover and traveller, I would also recommend trying the markets and their foodstalls - they are usually super fresh, super authentic and the guarantee for a great experience.
In Kuala Lumpur my favorite is definitely Imbi market with its poppiah, bak kut teh, nasi lemak and kaya toasts
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over 5 years ago

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