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A guide to the best street food in Asia

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Backstreets of Hanoi. You see a little old lady riding a banged-up scooter down a deserted street, with what appears to be an old popcorn machine attached to the back. It’s 34 degrees outside, so refrigerated goods aren’t on the cards. Yet as you get closer you realise this is not a popcorn machine at all, but a hot box stuffed with bread rolls and plastic containers containing some form of meat. This wouldn’t normally scream ‘snack time’ but here we are.

We can already hear it…you have just told your family that you are going to Asia and they are now screaming at you to be careful of the local food, stay away from the dirty looking hostels, don’t drive a motorbike, and don’t drink the tap water (this one is maybe fair). I say: ignore them! Well when it comes to the street food, anyway. And if you don’t believe me, here’s my short guide to the best street food in Asia.

From dim sum, Pad Thai, Sri Lanka curries, Thai tom yum soup, Vietnamese Banh Mi or Khao Soi street food…Asia is a never ending culinary delight for all. And if you think street food can’t be trusted, think again. You see it cooked in front of your eyes, after all. Food doesn’t get much fresher than that.

Take the little old lady on the banged up scooter. As you approach, you may ask yourself “How long have these bread rolls been in here for?” “What kind of meat is this?” “Will I make it home to see my parents again?”. You hand over 25,000 VND (about 1 USD) and watch she performs her magic. 30 seconds later you are presented with a Banh Mi – a local delicacy in Vietnam: crusty bread rolls smeared with pate, mayo, suspicious looking Asian ham, pickled vegetables, green onion, coriander/cilantro, a mighty whack of fresh chillies and drizzle of seasoning. You take the first bite. Your taste buds explode and you quickly realise this might be the best $1 you have ever spent. Yes, even better than the dollar it cost you to find out if your cousin could really fit 100 marshmallows in their mouth.

This story is not a rare one, and nor is it just exclusive to Vietnam, this is a tale old as time across Asia and it is there to be told and discovered.

Contiki travellers in Hanoi
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In China, you’ll find dim sum, a traditional meal of small plates (think Chinese tapas!) of small delicate steamed dumplings filled with meat and vegetables as well as other delish dishes (normally accompanied by tea). Dim sum can be found in pretty much every Chinese town/village/city, with prices ranging from 30 – 120 yuan (4-18 USD) to way over the 70 USD mark if you are going all out in a top range Hong Kong restaurant. Don’t worry, though. As with all Asian street food, going budget and eating local is just as good. if not better.

A white plate with a plate of food on it.
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Onto Thailand, which has to be one of the street food capitals of the world. Pad Thai has become a fairly staple meal for the western world when we think of grabbing some takeout, but nothing comes close to getting it straight from the source.

A Thai dish of stir-fried rice noodles with eggs, vegetables and tofu in a sauce of tamarind, fish, dried shrimp, garlic, red chilli pepper and sugar, you’ll find this moreish meal in almost any Thai street food market. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a version that’s enveloped in a perfectly formed omelette, which, when prodded with a chopstick, unfolds into a steaming bowl of deliciousness. Garnish with some common condiments such as red chilli pepper, lime wedges and peanuts, and you’re looking at, in my humble opinion, the best street food in Asia. You might expect to pay anything between $12-18 for a decent Pad Thai in the US, but at Thai street carts and simple restaurants you can get it for $1-2. Not bad.

If you’re looking for something a bit more soupy, tom yum Thailand’s most popular – and is easily some of the best street food in Asia. Well known within Thailand for being the go to hangover food amongst the locals (and now you!), it’s packed with tasty shrimp,  heaps of garlic, lemongrass, galangal, lime and fish sauce. Tom yum ticks all the boxes when it comes to top class Thai street food that’s easily accessible everywhere! So next time you find yourself down Khao San Road stitching together the night before…tuck into a big bowl of this southeast Asian delicacy and let the hangover blues sizzle away in a haze of chilli and lemongrass.

Pad thai

Where next? India is an obvious route, so how about we take our tastebuds to Sri Lanka, one of South Asia’s hidden treasures when it comes to street food? If you like curry (and a hot one at that) then you’ve come to the right place.

From fragrant fish ambul thiyal to spicy Kukul mas, if curries are what you’re after Sri Lanka will not disappoint. Not only does this place have some of the best street food in Asia, Sri Lanka is also world famous for its smiles and hospitality, with a mix of cultures living amongst each other. So go and eat your body weight in Roti (and thank us later).

Feeling hungry yet? Asia will forever be the continental street food king, and it’s all out there for the taking!

Sri Lanka Wellness Retreat Contiki

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