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Asia's 10 greatest street food cities

Asia's 10 greatest street food cities

Penang, Bangkok, Singapore, Hanoi, more -- the best street dishes from the best foodie cities
By Lina Goldberg 22 February, 2013
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Food is one of the most enjoyable things for travelers in Asia. But do you know where to find its best street dishes?

Now you do, with this collection of best street food from 10 of the top food cities in Asia.

While the nature of mobile street carts and movable market stalls means pinpointing every dish isn’t possible, the listings below indicate roads in each city that are more than likely to have someone selling.

Start your Asian street food journey by clicking on a city on the left.

Vote for your favorite Asian street food here.

First published March 2012, updated February 2013.

Penang, Malaysia

Penang is one of the world's top eating destinations.

Street food--or hawker food, as it's locally known--is the city's big draw.

Penang hawker food reflects the multicultural makeup of the town, which has citizens of Chinese, Malay and Indian descent.

There'sl also a distinct Nyonya cuisine in Penang, the fusion food that has resulted from the intermarriage of Chinese and Malay immigrants.

The streets of Penang are lined with hawker stalls, coffee shops and hawker centers where multiple vendors offer their specialties.

 Penang’s personality in a bowl.

1. Penang assam laksa

Assam laksa is so closely associated with the city that it's often called Penang laksa. The fiercely contrasting flavors of this soup -- fishy mackerel, sour tamarind and fiery chili -- come together perfectly in assam laksa.

It's served with chewy white noodles and garnished with fresh mint, shallots, cilantro, cucumbers and sweet pineapple.

You can find assam laksa outside of Penang, of course, but it's never as sour and certainly never as delicious.

Try it at: Cecil Market Food Court, Lebuh Cecil, Penang

 Chinese goes Malaysian.

2. Hokkien mee

It may have its roots in the Fujian province of China, but the Hokkien mee you'll find in Penang is different.

The soup is a fragrant, fatty prawn-and-pork-bone-based broth served with a combination of chewy yellow egg noodles and thin, white rice vermicelli. Topped with hard-boiled egg, small prawns, fish balls, crispy fried shallots and spicy sambal, the dish is a perfect breakfast food.

Try it at: Beach Street (between Magazine Road and Prangin Road Ghaut), Penang

 All together now.

3. Wonton mee

You'll find variations of wanton mee, a dish of Chinese origin, all over Asia, but the one in Penang leaves them in the dust.

Springy egg noodles are served al dente with a sticky sauce made from soy sauce and lard oil, with a spoonful of fiery sambal on the side. It's topped with pieces of leafy green Chinese kale, sliced green onions, pickled green chilies and wontons. The wontons are either boiled or steamed, as you'll find them elsewhere in Malaysia, or fried, in a unique Penang twist.

If you prefer, you can also order wanton mee "wet," meaning the noodles are served in a rich broth.

Try it at: Lebuh Chulia (in front of furniture shop), Penang


 Rich flavor for not-so-rich eaters.

4. Nasi kandar

Nasi kandar, a dish of Indian Muslim origin that’s now a Penang specialty, used to be peddled by men carrying containers full of rice and curry on poles balanced on their shoulders.

Today it’s most often found in small restaurants that spill out onto the street.

This richly spiced meal features various meat curries and gravy over white rice -- prawn curry is especially popular.

Try it at: Line Clear, Alley next to 177, Jalan Penang, Penang

 Fruit salad, Penang-style.

5. Rojak

A dish that sounds unappetizing but tastes wonderful, rojak is a fruit salad with pieces of fried crullers and topped with a thick, sweet sauce made of black shrimp paste and crushed peanuts. Sweet pineapple, green mango and papaya, rose apples, jicama, cucumber and guava are tossed in to the dark sauce, which has the consistency of molasses.

The combination of sweet fruit and savory seafood is surprisingly good.

Try it at: Gurney Drive Hawker Center, Persiaran Gurney, Penang

 So tasty, you don’t even need the dipping sauces. But try 'em anyway.

6. Lor bak

A Nyonya dish that is a specialty of the Chinese of Penang, lor bak is minced pork that has been marinated in five-spice powder before being wrapped in soft bean curd skin and deep-fried. Lor bak is served with two dipping sauces, a spicy red chili sauce and a gravy thickened with cornstarch and beaten egg called lor.

Try it at: Jalan Johor (near Jalan Dato Keramat), Penang

 More ingredients, more taste. Forget about the more calories.

7. Curry mee

Sometimes called curry laksa, curry mee is an amazing spicy coconut curry soup with yellow egg noodles and rice vermicelli.

The soup is rich and a bit sweet; it's definitely not for calorie counters. Each bowl has at least a few of the following: chicken, tofu puffs, prawns, pork blood, cockles and cuttlefish. Garnished with fresh mint leaves and a spoonful of peppery sambal paste, curry mee is, at its best, transcendent.

Try it at: Lebuh Cintra between Lebuh Campbell and Lebuh Chulia, Penang

 Even better when served on a banana leaf.

8. Char kway teow

A Penang specialty, char kway teow consists of long, flat rice noodles stir-fried in a hot wok with soy sauce, fresh prawns, cockles, scrambled egg, bean sprouts and green onions. The dish is commonly served on a banana leaf and is one of the most popular hawker dishes in town.

Try it at: Pulau Tikus Night Market, Jalan Pasar, Penang

 Taste the adventure. And the ears, tongue and blood.

9. Koay chiap

This fragrant pork and duck soup is flavored with star anise and cinnamon and filled with the parts of the duck and pig that many prefer to avoid: ears, tongue, liver, intestines, blood.

The rice and tapioca noodles, or koay chiap, are handmade and the soup is served with a hard-boiled egg, sliced green onions and spicy chili sauce. Usually served at night, this is a delicious dish that rewards the adventurous.

Try it at: Kimberley Street Duck Koay Chiap, Lebuh Kimberley, Penang

 Beans and corn for dessert? Some might say.

10. Ice kacang

The perfect refreshment on a hot day, ice kacang is a shaved ice dessert topped with red bean, grass jelly, sweet corn and attap chee (palm fruit). Sugar syrups and condensed milk or coconut milk are then poured over the ice to sweeten the dish. A Penang variation on this Malaysian dessert is the punchy addition of shredded nutmeg, a native fruit.

Try it at: Gurney Drive Hawker Center, Persiaran Gurney, Penang

 

 

Taipei

One of the best street food cities in Asia, Taipei has streets that teem with vendors serving savory noodle soups, dumplings and steamed buns.

In the evening, night markets open all over the city selling a plethora of clothes and household goods, but their real draw is the food.

Much of Taipei's street food has its roots in mainland China, but the people of Taiwan have put their own spin on the dishes. Flavored with star anise, Taiwanese basil, chilis, pickled vegetables, white pepper and cilantro, the street foods of Taipei might not be strictly native to Taiwan, but they just seem to taste better there.

 Who doesn't love a nice set of oiled buns?

1. Sheng jian bao

These small pork dumplings topped with nutty, toasted sesame seeds are worth waiting for. They hail from Shanghai, where they are commonly eaten for breakfast.

In Taipei you'll find them at night markets being cooked in oiled, shallow pans while people line up -- sometimes 40 deep -- to get the chance to savor them.

Try it at: Linjuang Night Market, Tonghua Street, Taipei

 Smells like sewage; tastes great.

2. Chou doufu

Famous around the world for its unmistakable odor, chou doufu, or stinky tofu, is a Taipei night market specialty.

Fermentation gives the tofu its distinctive odor and delicious taste.

Although it's available elsewhere, it's best from street vendors, who usually make it by hand in the traditional (rather than mass-produced) way. It's served deep-fried or grilled and topped with pickled vegetables.

Those new to the dish often find that deep-fried chou doufu is less intimidating and less, well, stinky.

Try it at: Raohe night market, Rahoe Street, Taipei

 Taiwanese vermicelli: slightly gooey, very oystery.

3. Oa misua

A Taiwanese specialty often seen in the night markets, oyster vermicelli, or oa misua, is a soup made from misua, a thin Chinese wheat-flour noodle.

In Taiwan these noodles are steamed until the sugar in the noodles caramelizes and turns the noodle brown. The thick, rich broth is topped with fresh oysters, finely minced garlic and cilantro and a bracing splash of vinegar.

Try it at: Shilin night market, 101 Jihe Road, Taipei

 A burger good enough to make you forget about the fries.

4. Gua bao

Gua bao is the sort of street food that inspires big name chefs to serve knock-offs at posh restaurants for inflated prices. But this pork belly bun (or "Taiwanese burger," as it's sometimes called) tastes even better on the streets of Taipei.

Braised pork belly is served in a steamed bun with fresh cilantro, pickled mustard greens and pulverized peanuts, creating one of the world’s greatest snacks.

Try it at: Gongguan night market, Luoifu Rd, next to the Gongguan MRT station, Taipei

 Like having a pepper plant in a pie.

5. Hujiao bing

Baked in a clay oven, hujiao bing may not look like much, but they’re a deceptively delicious, meaty snack. They're wheat buns (more accurately, pies or pockets) topped with sesame seeds and filled with minced pork, caramelized green onions and lots (and lots) of ground black pepper.

The name translates literally to “black pepper pie.” The baking method gives them a crisp bottom; the contrast with the steaming, savory filling is impossible to resist.

Try it at: Raohe night market, Rahoe Street, Taipei

 Taiwan's signature soup.

6. Niu rou mian

A Taiwanese specialty, niu rou mian is a spicy beef soup with hand-pulled noodles.

The aromatic broth has subtle hints of cinnamon and star anise and the beef is cooked until it is ridiculously tender.

Served on the side is a mixture of finely chopped ginger and garlic, chili flakes in oil and tart, pickled mustard greens. The Taiwanese like to sprinkle these spicy pickles on top.

Try it at: LaoPai Niurou La Mian Da Wang, Chongqing Nan Lu Yi Duan 46 Xiang, Taipei

 Soft and silky, like eating melted butter. Well, nothing could be that good -- but this is close.

7. Douhua

A popular Taiwanese dessert made from the softest, silkiest tofu that you can imagine, this dish has its origins in China, where it's a savory snack. But in Taiwan, douhua is a sweet dessert often served with large, chewy boba, or tapioca pearls, and simple sugar syrup.

In winter it's served warm, in the summer, over crushed ice.

Try it at: Shilin night market, 101 Jihe Road, Taipei

 A meatball inside a rice ball wrapped in delicious.

8. Ba wan

They're often called Taiwanese meatballs, but these savory snacks are more like dumplings, with a glutinous outer wrapper stuffed with bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms and pork. Sticky, chewy ba wan are served with a sweet and spicy sauce and topped with cilantro.

Ba wan are a traditional Taiwanese snack food considered by many to be the country's national dish and can be found at every night market in Taipei.

Try it at: Shilin night market, 101 Jihe Road, Taipei

 The ultimate scallion recipe.

9. Cong you bing

Another dish with its roots in China, cong you bing is a flaky scallion pancake made with hand-rolled dough. The Chinese rendition of this flatbread is usually thicker and doughier than its Taiwanese counterpart and sometimes stuffed with meat.

In Taipei you’ll find vegetarian versions that are light and fluffy, the result of many thin layers of dough being folded over each other.

Try it at: Shilin night market, 101 Jihe Road, Taipei

 Proof that anything can be made into a sausage.

10. Da chang bao xiao chang

Found at every night market in town, dachang bao xiao chang is a popular snack. The name literally means "big sausage wrapped around small sausage," and it's served in manner similar to a hot dog.

A sausage casing stuffed with sticky rice acts as the bun -- it's split open and a tender ground-pork sausage is inserted. Topped with garlic and basil, it's also available in different styles flavored with butter, chili or black pepper.

Try it at: Shilin night market, 101 Jihe Road, Taipei

 

 

Bangkok

Bangkok is a street food heavyweight; one can eat well in the city without ever setting foot inside a restaurant.

The street food scene in Bangkok is an integral part of the culture and locals know that the cuisine you'll find on the sidewalk is often the tastiest.

Bangkok street food culture is built around the Thai habit of eating many small meals throughout the day.

The sheer variety of street food options in Bangkok can be overwhelming -- from fried noodles to creamy coconut and tropical fruit desserts -- but those who choose to indulge are amply rewarded.

 Despite the name, there¹s nothing "ew" about this dish.

1. Pad see ew

Fresh rice noodles are stir-fried with Chinese broccoli and dark soy sauce to make pad see ew, a dish that's considered comfort food by many Thais. The wide, flat noodles are added to a protein or two -- in Bangkok it's usually chicken or pork and a fried egg -- and cooked on a sizzling hot wok.

You can try to make this at home, but it will never be as good as what you get on the streets of Bangkok.

Try it at: Ran Guay Jab Jaedang, Ratchawithi Road, Bangkok

 Shredded papaya, chili, som tom ... if only every salad were this exciting.

2. Som tam

Many travelers have found themselves unable to leave Thailand due to a serious som tam addiction. The refreshing salad made from unripe green papaya is similar to dishes found in Cambodia and Laos, but the Thai versions, like som tam Thai, a mild, sweeter variation with peanuts, are better known. The combination of sour, sweet, salty and spicy makes for an unbeatable afternoon snack.

Try it at: Sukhumvit 38, Bangkok

 As long as the pork is this good, the tiny stick industry will never suffer.

3. Moo ping

Often served with sticky rice, these grilled pork skewers are a fragrant, smoky and inexpensive snack.

Pork that's been marinated with tangy fish sauce and cilantro is brushed with rich, creamy coconut milk while being grilled over hot coals.

You can easily find mu ping vendors by searching for the clouds of garlicky, porky smoke coming from their grills. Moo ping is often served with a spicy chili dipping sauce called jaew.

Try it at: Sukhumvit 38, Bangkok

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