One thing that travelers often talk about in Asia is the wide variety of street food that’s available. From India to Thailand, you’ll be surprised at the combination of spices and local essences that are all efficiently and quickly put together for those craving a bite on the go. It’s the very practical nature of street food that makes it intriguingly tied into events and places in a country’s history. In other words, the street food is part of a country’s — and people’s — history. Let’s take a look at some of these classic dishes that have filled bellies and elicited smiles from millions of people for many, many years.
This tasty and filling bowl of soup has come to epitomize Vietnamese street food. The dish is said to have first appeared around the early 20th century in northern Vietnam, reportedly in the villages of Vân Cù and Dao Cù in the Nam Định Province. The simple pho evolved over time. From being just boiled beef, noodles, and broth, it was later embellished to the raw beef version (pho bo tai). When beef was scarce, resourceful cooks developed chicken and pork versions as well. So go ahead, next time you’re in a bustling Saigon market, grab a cheap bowl of beefy, brothy goodness, and enjoy a taste of Vietnam!
While India‘s regional street food is too vast to single out just one favorite, we have a soft spot for samosas. These fried or baked, usually triangular, snacks are filled with vegetarian (potatoes, onions, or chickpeas) or meat (beef or chicken) and can be found on any busy street corner in India. They are eaten along with a green chutney and sometimes with pieces of green chilies. Now spread across the Subcontinent, and to far away places like South Africa, this Indian favorite actually has its roots in the Middle East. Iranian historians mention it in the 10th century, and it was probably brought to India through traders in the 13th or 14th centuries.
Char Kway Teow
A firm favorite in Malaysia and Singapore, char kway teow is a dish that consists of flat rice noodles, traditionally sauteed with pork lard, and flavored with a mix of sauces, bean sprouts, deshelled cockles, Chinese chives, and shrimp (other meat options are also made). The name comes from the Hokkien term for ‘fried’ which is ‘char, while ‘kway teow’ refers to the ‘flat rice noodles.’ Said to have originated in the Penang island of Malaysia, it was a hearty meal for Chinese laborers who needed the most amount of fat they could get for the least amount of money. Grab a plate of this dish if you’re ever in Kuala Lumpur – you won’t regret it!
It can’t get more basic than grilled meat on a stick. That’s basically the simple story of the satay. You’ll find it throughout parts of Southeast Asia, but it is part and parcel of Indonesia‘s colorful street food culture. This specialty is believed to have appeared as a street food in the early 19th century, inspired by recipes for Indian kebabs that were brought to the area by Muslim traders from the Subcontinent. Chunks of meat are skewered and grilled and commonly served with peanut sauce as a side.
Before being given the hipster-chic makeover by America, the humble bowl of ramen was a quick snack for most busy commuters who are bustling to and from work in Japan‘s many large cities. Strangely, Ramen is actually Chinese in origin, although the exact origins of the dish are still a matter of hot debate. Made as an affordable street food for laborers, the dish has now spread to international fame, and can be found in trendy eateries in most major cities in the US. While it has branched out into different types, Miso ramen, created in Hokkaido, is a uniquely Japanese variety.
Basically a battered and deep fried quail egg, you’ll find these heavenly bright orange balls at street vendor stalls throughout Manila or any other large city in the Philippines. The battered eggs get their unique orange color due to the anatto powder (known locally as atsuete) that’s mixed into the cornstarch batter. This spice was first introduced to the Philippines by Spanish settlers, who first arrived in the 16th century and proceeded to rule the country for 333 years. Don’t forget to try it with the tangy vinegar sauce it’s usually served with.
Tteok-bokki is one Korean specialty that can be found widely on the streets, but has its roots in royalty. These stir-fried rice cakes were first recorded in a 19th-century cookbook that detailed Korea‘s royal court cuisine. Although many add-ons and modifications were made over time, you’re most likely to come across the the chewy cakes served with a spicy red chili sauce or on skewers. If you’re ever in Seol, make it a point to visit the Sindang neighborhood, which is famous for its tteok-bokki alleys.
This list made you hungry? Slurp, pick, and crunch your way into the amazing street food of Asia. Plan your trip there NOW!
Like what you’ve just read? Click here for more great Asian American and Pacific Island stories!