How to Eat Your Way Through SE Asia

I live to travel, and I travel to eat.

It’s my goal to eat, and I use my best endeavors to devour my way through every country I visit. My favorite cuisines are those of Southeast Asia (SEA), and one way to fulfill my goal is to do a cooking class in each country. It’s a great way to make friends when traveling alone too!

Many classes include a local market tour where you can practice purchasing, using your finest local language skills, and exploring the exotic and intriguing fruits, vegetables, insects, animals, animal parts, or reptiles for sale. You can taste and learn to cook a variety of different dishes and learn loads of local tips and tricks! For instance, in Thailand, after chopping chillies, I learned that mixing salt with hand soap and rubbing your hands together before rinsing rids you of that awful post-chilli burn when you touch anything.

My “must tries”:


Vietnam seafood

So many flavors!

  • Pho – a rice noodle soup, either chicken or beef. The flavors, sauce and broth change from north to south, so try both!
  • Banh Mi – a French style baguette, usually stuffed with loads of pork, Vietnamese pickled vegetables, coriander, chillies etc. A great, cheap meal while on the run! These are on nearly every street corner.
  • Goi Cuon – fresh (not fried) rice paper rolls, served with a fish-sauce based dipping sauce and crushed peanuts. DELICIOUS.
  • Fresh seafood in Nha Trang – I’m talking two massive plates of crayfish/lobsters, crab, prawns, and sea snails. Do not pay western prices! It’s fresh; the ladies get it straight off the boats coming in. Watch them cooking it on coals and don’t forget their secret dipping sauce. I’ve begged for the recipe to no avail – if you manage to get it, please contact me! They also know all of the secret spots to avoid any wastage.
  • Ca Phe – Hope you like your coffee with a lot of sugar! Coffee here is generally mixed with sweetened condensed milk.
  • Hot Vit Lon – fertilised duck embryo. When opened, it smells AWFUL. When cut open you can see the partially developed bird (beak included). Even a local told me that she only eats them in the dark.

Not on my must tries, but you may want to:

  • Dog – I felt too guilty to eat Fido so I didn’t partake, but I did watch someone eating it and they said it’s very “heavy”. If you can’t find it, normally locals can help you out with that one.
  • Snake – I’ve eaten the meat before and it could pass as chicken, but I’m talking about a still beating snake heart shot…I just couldn’t do it, there are animal rights groups campaigning against this practice too.

Recommended cooking class – Red Bridge in Hoi An – we even learned to make rice paper!

vietnam 2


Thailand is one of the best for culinary delights. Eat everything you can!

In Koh Samui driving around the island in a jeep, hunger struck. I found the tiniest place right next to the water and ordered a whole fried fish served with three different flavors. I remembered having a bite and thinking… this is so going to make me sick… (it did hours later) but OH MY GOODNESS, I could not stop eating it. Sometimes it is truly worth weighing up food poisoning vs. taste of food. I know I don’t always help myself… but sometimes it’s inevitable and other times the flavor trumps poison.

  • Whole fish – fried, steamed, basically however it comes! YUM!
  • Pad Thai – personally not my favorite but so many people rave about it – straight off the street in Bangkok is best! I prefer Pad See Eew, which is similar, but I think a better flavor.
  • Thai Curries – any and every flavor! Don’t stop ‘til you get enough!
  • Tom Yum Soup –spicy & sour, perfect with some rice on the side! Also known to bust a cold straight out of your body.

Recommended cooking class – Asia Scenic, Chiang Mai. Learn lots of dishes, cute take-home recipe book and an easy, simplified 1, 2, 3 guide on sauce proportions of your favorites! 


  • Sticky Rice
  • Lao Lao – preferably filled with hornets or snake. This is a ridiculously alcoholic rice whisky essential for Laos partying… usually handed out free in Vang Vieng and commonly offered to share with adorable locals having afternoon picnics.
  • Larb – also found in other parts of SEA and sometimes called Laab, Laap, etc –any similar sounding variation. A spicy, cold salad style minced meat with lime juice, fish sauce, chilli, herbs and some raw veg on the side!


Lok Lak cambodia

One of my favorites! Traditional Khmer food differs a lot from the rest of SEA, as it evolved before the advent of chilli.

  • Lok Lak – beef or chicken (preferably beef) made with a lemon pepper sauce using the uniquely flavored local Kampot Pepper. Usually served with sides of lemon dipping sauce, rice, a fried egg and some cucumber/tomato. This bad boy will set you back around $2 U.S. My favorite place right now is a tiny local place in Siem Reap, diagonally opposite the old market and the big roundabout. They are usually cooking chicken on a BBQ out front and you’ll see locals pulling up at the motorbike “drive through” for some chicken.
  • BBQ Chicken – from the aforementioned place! It’s tender, marinated and delicious – eat with provided sauce. Other places also serve it, wrapped in leaves as takeaway.
  • Khmer Curry – flavorsome, creamy but not spicy.
  • Fried Tarantula – think salty bacon… and the legs are meatier than you’d imagine! Most markets and side stalls in Phnom Penh sell them. To try a more gourmet version and help the local street kids, hit up Romdeng Restaurant (run by Friends International) in Phnom Penh.
  • A variety of other insects – usually available road side, but if you want to glam it up and enjoy with some Friday cocktails, they come tapas style in Siem Reap at Bugs Café.
  • Tarantula Rice Wine – for those who prefer them soaked in at least 40% alcohol.
  • Fish Amok – you can get chicken or vegetarian, but fish is best! A delicious curry using amok leaves, steamed in a banana leaf.
  • Prahok (“Cambodian Cheese”) – salted and fermented fish paste. You will smell this a mile away. I’ve had the misfortune to blindly put my hand into it in a local kitchen. I could smell it for days!
  • Banana, Milo and Condensed Milk Pancakes – thin, soft inside, sweet and almost like a spring roll on the outside. 50c – $1, depending on bartering skills.


Recommended cooking class – La Tigre de Papier, Pub Street, Siem Reap. Intimate, two dishes of your choice, a dessert and includes an old market tour.

These are just some of my many favorites. My parting advice: eat as much as you can, eat as the locals do and be prepared to have the flavors and smells blow your mind!

What’s the most unexpected food you’ve tried while traveling?

About the author:

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As a result of her love for adventure and travel, Emma Turner is often introduced by her mother as “The Gypsy One.” She first started traveling in Southeast Asia in her twenties and refuses to stop – though has in more recent years extended her travels to other continents. She says “it’s the food and the people that make the experience.”After practicing criminal and family law in Australia for a number of years, Emma took the plunge and moved to China to teach last year. She loved the expat life and living abroad so much that when an opportunity to move to Romania arose she fully embraced it. Emma has a strong passion for helping the plight of children and women in developing countries, and it’s strengthened through travel. She also loves new food, cooking, running, fitness and yoga. The only thing she loves nearly as much as traveling is writing or talking about traveling, and inspiring others to take the chance and experience everything the world has to offer. She recently started a blog about expat life and travels – you can follow it at

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