Street Food in Asia: Not Your Typical Fast Food

Explore Asia's Nancy Harkrider shares personal experiences and recommendations for Asian travelers who want to experience food the locals eat.


Yes, it’s fast, but the similarities end there. You can watch it being cooked. You can be guaranteed that all or most of the ingredients are local, making your food fresher and more sustainable.

It’s also the heart and soul of Asian communities where business suits sit next to jeans, all happily engrossed in conversation while they slup their noodles. And in places like Thailand and Singapore, the rich, complex blends of Indian, Chinese, Malay, Lao and Cambodian cooking traditions make food experiences especially seductive.

Sometimes it’s just a cluster of cart vendors with table and chairs spilling out onto the sidewalks. Other times it’s a covered pavilion with a sea of red tables and chairs, surrounded by as many as 40 to 50 food stalls. “Hawker Centers," found in all of Singapore’s neighborhoods, are often connected to a "wet market" selling fresh produce, meats, fish and spices to the island’s thousands of food stall vendors.

In Thai culture, people eat more frequent meals so dropping by a food stall is a great way to keep their chili energy going strong.

On the other hand, Singaporeans, according to their own definition, think about food all the time, not just when they are eating.  Every office building in Singapore becomes a mass exodus at lunch time where their favorite topic is food recommendations for their next meal, punctuated with the Singlish expression, “die, die, must try.”

Once I got the cadence of following Singlish, I always kept a notebook of recommendations from friends or the conversations I would overhear between neighboring diners. As I got bolder, I would wander by other tables and, if I saw something interesting, I would ask what it was. Occasionally, someone would even insist on taking me over for a personal introduction to the food vendor.

Is street food safe for your travelers? Our experience is that it is and in some ways safer than restaurants where mass food preparation can breed nasty bacteria.

We advise travelers who want to experience the culture of street food to stay away from peeled fruit and shellfish as well as anything undercooked. An exception is Singapore, where food is safe everywhere.

So encourage travelers to give it a try. They will learn more about the culture they are visiting in a single street food experience than inside chain restaurants that are sadly becoming more common everywhere in Asia. Because food is linked to the Asian’s DNA of heritage, religion and health, you can be guaranteed that if you have a meal where most of the people you see are Asian, you know it’s likely to be memorable.

In case your customers ask, the term “hawker” comes from British colonist days where locals would cook food, pack it in stacked containers, then walk the streets, calling out their specialty to potential customers. And if your travelers are going to Singapore, a must see is the Singapore National Museum where the exhibit on heritage foods offers a treat for the senses.

To get a feel for Southeast Asian food culture, check out, Singapore Tourism’s website, Singapore’s National Museum, or Thailand tourism’s website

For more information, contact Explore Asia, a supplier for culinary tours to Asia [email protected].


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