By Stephen Bugno
Sitting down for a sidewalk pad thai along a busy Bangkok street. Trying piping hot fried bananas in Indonesia. Popping into a takoyaki stand after a night of drinks and karaoke in Osaka. Most of us associate food with culture. The reason we travel is to experience new places and cultures, and a big part of that is trying new foods.
Besides home cooking, street stalls are the next best place to get the most delicious and authentic foods. They’re also usually the cheapest. I’ve been scouring the night markets, street stalls, and hawker centers in cities across Asia for the past few years. I’ve put together a list of my favorite street foods and snacks and where to find them.
Tteokbokki — Seoul, South Korea
Food is very much central to the national identity of Koreans. Their cuisine is incredibly diverse and meals are generally high quality, of generous portions — cooks here pride themselves on their best dish. After you finish walking around Gyeongbokgung Palace or one of many museums of Seoul, dig into one of the country’s beloved street snacks. You’ll find food carts in different areas of the city offering treats like umok (fish cakes in broth), sundae (blood sausage), and dried octopus and squid. But the most loved, especially by kids, is tteokbokki. Tteokbokki are tubular rice cakes and fish cakes in a sweet red chili sauce. They make a great snack to tide you over until you go out for a more substantial Korean classic like bibimbap, samgyatang, or Korean BBQ.
Mohinga — Yangon, Myanmar
Myanmar has been opening up more to the outside world over the past few years, and the tourism infrastructure is quickly developing. To many the draw is that it still feels like the Thailand of 30 years ago: people are genuinely friendly, bus rides are long and difficult, and the food is delicious. Spend only a day in Myanmar and you’re likely to come across mohinga, the national dish. You can get it at tea shops, cafes, and especially at street stalls and hawkers. Vendors will set up along the sidewalks in the early morning and dole out bowls of mohinga for an inexpensive, quick breakfast. Mohinga is a rice noodle and fish-based soup. The main ingredients are chickpea flour and/or crushed toasted rice, garlic, onions, lemongrass, banana tree stem, ginger, fish paste, fish sauce, all garnished with a squeeze of lime, crisp fried onions, coriander, and spring onions.
Char kway teow — Penang, Malaysia
I would fly halfway across the world just to eat in Penang. Penang is the real deal: a world heritage site that is still being true to itself. In Penang you want to head straight out to the street to eat. The same food carts serving up the same specialties open up each evening: laksa, fried oyster omelet, cendal, wanton noodles, curry noodles, the list goes on and on. Char kway teow has a special place in my heart. This dish can be found across Singapore and Malaysia – but Penang’s version of these broad flat noodles stir-fried in pork lard with prawns and cockles, beansprouts, Chinese chives, egg, soy sauce, chili, and shrimp paste, is without par.
Ramen — Fukuoka, Japan
Growing up, ramen noodles were always a quick, cheap lunch. Not the case in Fukuoka, Japan, where the dish originates. Here, the city’s famous Yatai street stalls line the nightlife districts to feed the hungry before and after a night out. Ducking out of the cold and into one of these tarp-covered food truck stands is just about the most Japanese thing you can do. Order a bowl of tonkotsu, ramen with pork bone broth, and a piece of delicious, juicy, fatty pork on top, and dig in. Follow with a couple Asahi Super Drys, the local beer in these parts, and then spend the night in a capsule hotel for the ultimate Japanese experience.
Puri and Channa masala — Delhi, India
After all that meat, here’s something vegetarian friendly. I’m not a vegetarian, but when I go to India, I become one. Most Indians eat veg only, and it’s not bad to consider following suit. The streets of India are a visual and sensory assault. Among the action are the many food and drink vendors. Puri, a deep fried unleavened bread. is common for breakfast. It is often paired up with channa masala, a sometimes-spicy dish of chickpeas that originates in the Punjab. After such a heavy breakfast, find a nearby tea man with portable stove, to brew you up a personal miniature cup of India’s famous thick masala chai–milk tea with a mixture of aromatic Indian spices and herbs.
Hainanese Chicken Rice — Singapore
Singapore has a well-respected food culture. It’s one of my favorite places in the world to eat. Although it has a number of high-end eateries, I tend to stick to the thoroughly authentic hawker centers. For sanitary reasons, all Singaporean street food was moved inside to these centralized open-air covered spaces decades ago. Changes are inevitable, but the good news is that the taste is still there. Even better, the prices are cheap, even by local standards. Any time of day you’ll see retired men sharing a Tiger Beer or Guinness and woman chatting over coffee and kaya toast. So what dish makes me travel all the way to Singapore? A lot of them actually, but the first thing I get is chicken rice – a very flavorful, but unseasoned, roasted or boiled chicken accompanied by savory rice and bowl of broth.
Wonton noodles — Hong Kong
Hong Kong doesn’t have as much of a hawker culture as it used to. But in certain busy neighborhoods, street carts are wheeled out nightly to cater to the evening and late-night crowds who finish happy hour and need a quick bite. A wide variety of menu items are cooked up, but wonton noodles are a standby. The dish is usually served in a hot broth, garnished with leafy vegetables, and wonton dumplings. In Hong Kong they are generally shrimp dumplings but may contain some pork as well. You’ll be able to find wonton noodles both in soup and dry throughout Guangdong (China), Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.
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