Southeast Asia is comprised of 11 countries from Myanmar to Indonesia and has over 620 million inhabitants. The region is known for its incredible natural beauty, friendly locals, low cost of living, and of course, the unique Southeast Asian food. If you are a picky eater and have a weak stomach, then Southeast Asia will certainly test your comfort zone. It’s important to come to the area with an open mind because the food is so different than what you might eat back home. You’ll quickly realize that in between trying new foods, experiencing mouthwatering spices, and different flavors that there is a reason that many chefs come to Southeast Asia to experiment with new dishes and gain a variety of cooking skills. Here are 4 ways to successfully and safely eat your way through Southeast Asia:
Southeast Asian Food Stalls
What comes to mind when you think of food stalls back home? Cheap? Lower quality food? In Southeast Asia, some of the best places to eat are food stalls at the local market. Although you might think that a restaurant is a better idea and a safer bet, it’s not. At restaurants, you cannot see them cooking the food and you don’t know how long the food has been sitting back there. Be especially wary of a restaurant if it serves Western-style food such as hamburgers or pizza. Those restaurants almost guarantee that you’ll get food poisoning. At Southeast Asian food stalls, however, you can watch your food being prepared hot and fresh. Often times, the food stall is just a family or man and woman cooking food over a fire pit. You’ll want to watch where locals are eating and follow them. If you look out of place, then you know that you are in a good spot. Another thing to look for is the plastic chairs. If a food stall has plastic chairs, no matter how uncomfortable they may be, this is a good sign. There’s nothing quite like eating some Thai street food sitting on a tiny plastic stool while people watching and drinking a cold beer. The simple pleasures in life.
Try New Foods
Speaking of new experiences, Southeast Asia is a different world than any Western country. Some of the first things you’ll notice are the chaos, wild dogs, and of course, the smells. Some are delightful, while others are not so much…Regardless, different types of food being cooked is a part of these smells. Some of the Southeast Asian food you’ll see may not be familiar. Southeast Asia is for adventurous eaters so it is important to keep an open mind about the food choices. Whether it be fried spiders in Cambodia, hard-boiled duck eggs in the Philippines, grasshoppers in Thailand, or deep-fried scorpion on a stick in Vietnam, there are plenty of new foods to try wherever you go. My favorite Southeast Asian food that I tried was actually rat in Thailand. It actually costs more than chicken or pork and is considered a delicacy in the country. It actually had quite a lot of flavor with almost no fat. If you find yourself in Southeast Asia, I highly recommend trying new foods and expanding your horizon. Some foods you may not enjoy, but there may be some that you really love!
Use The Condiments Provided
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If you are already overwhelmed by the food, you might just skip over the condiments. That is a big mistake in my book. To use an analogy that many might be familiar with, it’s like having pancakes without maple syrup…It simply cannot be done. The two go hand in hand. There are quite a few condiments to choose from depending on what you are looking for. You can easily find different sauces from spicy to sweet. In my opinion, however, there are really only three you need to know. The first one is Sambal Belacan. It is a chili shrimp paste that is delicious on almost any kind of food and can be found in most countries throughout the region. Be careful though, I’m not kidding when I say it is spicy…Really spicy! The second sauce to try is called Tuk Trey It is a sweet and sour dipping sauce found in Cambodia and it is to die for! The sauce is mainly used with appetizers, but of course, it can also be used for entrees as well. My final favorite Southeast Asian sauce is called Fish Sauce. The reason the sauce has this name is because it’s created from fermented fish. (In other words, they let the fish get rotten and create a sauce out of it.) Due to the fact that it comes from a fish, the sauce is quite salty and is often used in curries. It can also be used with meat. In Vietnam, for example, fish sauce is often put on Banh Mi beef sandwiches, a local snack, to add some saltiness to the sandwich.
Make Sure Food Is Prepared In Front Of You
When anyone thinks about food in Southeast Asia, they immediately think of getting sick and having their trip be ruined. It’s always a toss-up whether you’ll get sick or not since the bacteria is so different. I’ve heard stories of being sick for a month or others that have lived there for some time and have never experienced food-related sickness. I previously mentioned that restaurants are a no go because you cannot see them prepare the food, To be safe when eating all that Southeast Asian food, it’s important to watch them cook your food fresh. You have to be strict about it. Sometimes you’ll notice that some street vendors just reheat food that was previously unsold. You have no idea whether that food was made earlier in the day or a week ago. Unfortunately, Southeast Asia does not have the same food safety measures that are in place for other countries and it is up to you to protect yourself. I always ask for the freshest meat they have and if I notice that the food sitting out has a lot of flies swarming it, I won’t eat it. If you watch vendors make your food, chances are you’ll be able to safely and happily enjoy your eating adventure in Southeast Asia.
Suggested next reading: 5 Crazy & Delicious Foods I Tried While Traveling