After completing my three month journey in Southeast Asia it’s finally time to talk about STREET FOOD, one of the region’s highlights. I had dozens of amazing, delicious dishes, too many for a single post. So this is gonna be a series, starting with NOODLES. Check the bottom of this post to learn the following topics.
Noodles, my love. I came to Southeast Asia with almost no knowledge about the food of this region. But I fell in love with noodles at first taste. Not so obvious for an Italian used to pasta which although sharing similar shapes (such as spaghetti, linguine, tagliatelle etc) have very different texture and recipes. And surprisingly enough in those three months I never missed Italian pasta, which I just cooked twice for sharing with my hosts in Vietnam and Malaysia.
After three months of Asian noodles I started eating even Italian-style spaghetti with chopsticks!
There are several types of noodle in Southeast Asian countries. Most of them are made with rice flour, sometimes with egg (yellow noodles) or mixed with ingredients (e.g. tapioca); some are also made with wheat flour (like Vietnamese mi). Recipes can be divided in three main categories: soups, stir-fried and salads.
A wide choice of noodles on a street food stand in Bangkok
Fresh noodles in a Saigon’s local market
Noodles hanging for drying in Northern Vietnam
During my journey across Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia I had them almost every day, so here comes the ranking of the best street food NOODLES I had!
#7 Bún tom (Hai Phong, Vietnam)
After ten days in Vietnam I already had bún nooodle soup with beef or chicken several times. That morning in Hai Phong I really wanted to try something different, while waiting for my ferry to Cat Ba island. Strolling around I noticed a lady from a stall with a bucket full of fresh prawns. It was so inviting, I just couldn’t resist and so ordered the soup. It was made with pork bones broth, bún noodles (thin rice vermicelli), some mushroomes and greens and prawns. Topped with chillies and some fresh herbs that go along with any soup in Vietnam (sweet basil, Vietnamese coriander and perilla, etc) it was just awesome.
Stall nearby ferry terminal, Cù Chính Lan street – 30.000 dong (1,20 €.)
#6 Char kway teow (Penang, Malaysia)
It took me a lot to find really good noodles in Malaysia. The ones I had before getting to Penang island were quite disappointing. I can’t describe how happy I was to try these ones. This Chinese-Malysian dish is a balance of several flavours. Ingredients include flat translucent rice noodles, prawns, duck egg, mung bean sprouts, Chinese chives, belachan, chillis, curry, all fried up in pork lard. Spicy and delicate at the same time, it was a joy for my mouth.
Penang road famous chao kuey teow, Keng Kwee street, Georgetown – 6 ringgit (1,30 €)
#5 Khao soy (Chang Mai, Thailand)
This is a iconic Chang Mai dish. I spent some days in this city but found the opportunity to try it only few hours before leaving. I went for a stall widely considered to make the best in town. The bowl was quite small but very tasty. Like other Northern Thai dishes it is very hot, due to the red curry paste combined with a special curry powder made just for this specialty, The yellow noodles get strongly flavored and sticky thanks to the thick broth and they come with some deep-fried noodles on top, giving a nice balance of crispy and soft texture, while lime juice balances the curry spiciness. Overall it is very spicy, so the small portion was really perfect.
Khao Soi Khun Yai, – 30 Baht (0,75 €)
#4 Shan noodles salad (Nyang Shwe, Myanmar)
I have mixed feelings for Myanmar cuisine, but noodles salad are definitely the bright side for me. Basically, as far as I saw there, any noodle recipe can be taken as soup or salad. No surprise because as often in Southeast Asia noodles are quickly rehydrated at order and then put in your bowl and covered with soup or mixed with other salad ingredients. I have no doubt that salads are much tastier. There are some common patterns in all Myanmar noodle salads I tried: chili paste, fried garlic, lime juice, peanuts, some sauce. Shan state noodles are supposed to be the best. Personally I had some very good ones in Yangon too. Funny thing, also salads come with broth in Myanmar! It is just a side small bowl for the noodle salad. But it allows you to combine a sort of soup if you’d like too or just to drink it separately. I had the one in the picture on Inle lake, but frankly the others I had around Mynamar were about as good. I loved the freshness and tastiness given by chili paste, garlic and peanuts.
Stall near the market, Yone Gyi street – 500 Kyat (0,35 €)
#3 Bún cha (Hanoi, Vietnam)
You shouldn’t miss bún cha if you get to Hanoi. This is really “the dish” of Vietnam’s capital, available in all Northern part of the country (in the South they have a similar one called bún thịt nướng). The grilled pork patties are tasty and tender and they come in a little broth for dipping the noodles. Fresh herbs (local coriander, basil and parilla), chillies and garlic can be added at choice allowing you to personalise the dish. Simply awesome.
Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim, 67 Duong Thanh – 30.000 dong (1,20 €.)
#2 Pad Thai Goong (Bangkok, Thailand)
Pad thai is the amabassador of Thai cuisine along with Tom Yum soup (one of my favourites!) and the one I mention here is really a summa of Thai cuisine and street food. A perfect mix of many ingredients, express cooking in front of you, a middle-aged lady cooking with great expertise. It was a stall in a non touristic street in the center, 10 minutes away from the Democracy monument. So no English spoken and ordering was just by pointing (I love it!). Such a nice balance of texture and flavours: fresh shrimps, mixed seafood, tofu, sprouts, tamarind juice, dried shrimps, bean spout, reoasted peanuts. All cooked in front of you in about two minutes. Street food how it always should be.
Pad Thai stall, Phaniang road – 5o baht (1,20 €)
#1 Bún rieu cua (Hanoi, Vietnam)
My very first meal in Vietnam, a rich and delicious breakfast. It is such a popular place in Hanoi that even the Lonely Planet can make a good recommendation (which is so rarely the case in Southeast Asia as far as I saw). As a genaral rule, I think 80% of noodle soup flavour relies on the broth and this one was just amazing! It was made with rice-paddy crabs, fried shallots and topped with shrimp paste giving to it a rich taste. Needless to say, you get a plate of fresh herbs to add at you choice in the soup. One of the best breakfasts I ever had in my life.
Bun rieu cua, 40 P Hang Tre – 20.000 dong (0,80 €)
RUNNER-UPS AND SOME DISAPPOINTMENT
Ranking are always questionable and some may wonder why some famous dishes are missing. Well, first you must consider that when you can try a dish only once or twice you need to be a bit lucky to find a good place where to eat it. Second, it goes with my preferences, I just like some things less than other. For instance, I’m not a fan of boiled meat and fish cake.
Phở bo / phở ga / bún bo / bún ga (Vietnam)
Phở and bún are the most populsr rice noodles in Vietnam. The first are flat linguine-stile and the latter thin vermicelli. You can get them with beef (bo) or chicken (ga) and they both come in a light broth. Hué style is more rich and tasty and I preferred it to the Hanoi version, which is more common in the North. I had them many times because sometimes it was the only thing you could find, but the best was a bún bo Hué I had in a student place in Saigon.
Mi Quang Nha Trang (Nha Trang, Vietnam)
A Vietnamese friend took me to this place, somewhere in in the center of Nha Trang. I was courious to try this dish because few days I had in Da Nang a mi quang which I consider the best noodles I had in Southeast Asia (but it doesn’t rank here because it was in a restaurant not street food!). This version turned out to be quite different. It’s definetely more a soup, with a thick pork broth, pork meat, grilled fish cake, yellow noodles and chili paste. Overall good and spicy.
Can lau (Hoi An, Vietnam)
Cau lau is the signature dish of Hoi An (central Vietnam). The ingredients are good, but to for my taste the boiled pork and fried pork skin don’t fits so well with the noodles, which are otherwise very good (they recall me an Italian pasta from Tuscany called “pici”). A good dish but I’m not a fan.
Hokkien mee, Wan tan mee, Assam laksa (Penang, Malaysia)
Penang island has the best noodles – best food, actually – in Malaysia. Noodles in the rest of the country were disappointing for me. Famous mee goreng (stir-fried noodles) are quite greasy and too often made out of instant noodls. In Georgetown I had some good ones. Hokkien mee has two type of noodles in a shrimp-based broth and pork. Wan tan mee has a lighter broth, pork slices and (delicious) dumplings. They were both nice but as I said the boiled pork is not my favourite. On the other hand Penang’s most famous dish, Assam laksa, seemed a bit overrated in my opinion. Though I like anchoives I think that a broth such diluted is not the tasties way to use them. But the combination with spring rolls to dip in the soup was quite nice as long as the crunchy wanton.
Bahn cahn cua (Saigon, Vietnam)
Saigon – aka Ho CHi Minh City – is renowned for its street food. Bahn cahn are a type of thick noodles similar to Japanese udon, that can be made either with rice or tapioca flour or a mix of the two. In this dish they are cooked with a rich crab soup and served with fried bread sticks (I loved the combination!). Surprise ingredient for me was the red jelly block, which didn’t have much taste. I learned afterwards it’s frozen pork blood! Beside that it was a very good meal.
That’s all for my post on NOODLES! Stay tuned for next episodes on street food in Southeast Asia:
What about you? What are your favourite Asian noodles? Leave a comment!
Guide to Asian noodles
Video: Tasting bún bo Hué