Street food is not for the fainthearted. It takes guts, a sense of adventure, and a strong constitution to indulge in foods sold on street stalls, dearly loved by locals. But if you’re a curious traveller, the sort who likes to get under the skin of a place, you will invariably be drawn towards street food. It is, after all, the shortest route to the heart of a destination.
Asia is a wondrous amalgamation of cultures with intertwining history, European colonial influences, and ancient techniques. Food too has evolved over centuries, a testament to the fact that authenticity is overrated. Take Vietnamese Egg Coffee from Hanoi for example. It was invented when the French brought with them a love for coffee, but dairy was nowhere to be found. The scrumptious Samosa may have travelled to Southeast Asia from India, but its roots are hard to identify. Traces of its journey can be found in the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa. In fact, the present-day version which is stuffed with a spiced potato mixture was itself a spin on the meaty classic from the time of the Mughals. We have the Portuguese to thank for that, as they are the ones who brought potatoes to India for the first time.
These winding lanes of history and the days of yore are endlessly fascinating. But if you prefer a crash course, street food is a delicious way to get acquainted with a destination’s history and present.
Picking favourites is close to impossible when it comes to Asian street foods. Every country, and each city within it, offers a range of treats. But if you must choose only one dish from each of these countries, these are the ones that we suggest you absolutely do not miss when travelling here.
1. Pad Thai (Thailand)
If street markets conjure images of wiggly creatures, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Thai street food is packed with flavour and often easily palatable. Pad Thai, a sloppy flat noodle dish stir-fried on a hot wok with egg, tofu and peanuts, offers the perfect balance of spicy sweetness from chilli and palm sugar, and an underlying sourness from tamarind pulp and lime juice. The premium version may come with prawns or chicken.
Others: Close contenders for must-try Thai street foods include Rolled Ice-Cream, Khao Niaow Ma Muang (mango sticky rice), and Gai Tod (fried chicken).
2. Satay (Indonesia)
Grilled meats are popular across the world but no one does them quite like Indonesia. Essentially grilled skewers of any kind of marinated meat, satay can be found in any Indonesian street, alley or beach. The skewers are usually served with a peanut dipping sauce and are best eaten hot.
Others: Nasi Goreng (fried rice) is another eternal favourite, along with its cousin Mie Goreng (fried noodles), and the crunchy Gado Gado salad.
3. Pani Puri (India) – also called Golgappe, Batashe, Puchka and Pakodi
It is almost sacrilege to pick one dish from a vast country like India, given that street food is a way of life here. Pani Puri, however, transverses across the country’s domestic borders, and versions of it can be found in almost every part. Fried shells filled with a potato mixture and spiced water (with or without tamarind paste), each ball has to be eaten in its entirety and there is no sophisticated way to do that. The burst of flavours in your mouth though, makes up for any lack of elegance, rendering it highly addictive.
Others: Trips to India are not complete without sampling Samosas (fried potato dumplings), Chole Bhature (chickpea curry with fried bread), Chaat (various varieties), and Vada Pao (an Indian take on a burger).
4. Takoyaki (Japan)
Japan is big on street foods and markets spring up occasionally in every town, peddling delicacies that leave you wanting more. Though one may gravitate towards the all-too-familiar Yakitori, we suggest you give Takoyaki a try. These fried balls of batter contain octopus, green onion, ginger and tempura pieces, and are served topped with mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce and fish shavings. Octopus may sound alien to some, but these balls are delicious and great palate pleasers.
Others: Jostling for attention are Yakitori (grilled meat skewers), Gyoza (potstickers), Korokke (potato croquettes), and our favourite – Okonomiyaki (cabbage pancake with bacon).
5. Egg Hoppers (Sri Lanka)
Hoppers are the quintessential Sri Lankan pancakes, perfect for mopping up those delectable curries. Egg Hoppers are usually served in the morning for breakfast, though they can be eaten at any time of the day.
Others: Kothu (chopped up roti, vegetables, egg and meat), Vadai (savoury doughnuts from South India), and Acharu (pickles).
There are no correct answers here. Each one of the above can easily be replaced by at least 25 other equally good contenders. But as far as personal favourites go, these street food delicacies are sure to woo your taste buds and ignite your curiosity to want to try more.
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