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Asia is such a vast area with many different influences, flavors and cultures, that it’s hard to pick out typical Asian dishes. Fortunately there are Asian dishes that are popular in more than one country in Asia and among Westerners alike.
Some are even so popular, that there are wars among ‘foodies’, who invented what dish and which country can claim credit of its origin.
Let’s have a look at the most popular ones and why they are so delicious:
10. Fish Balls
Fish Balls are probably for Asians what Hot Dogs are for Americans. They are not the testicles of fish, as one could suspect, but pulverized or pressed fish meat, eaten on a stick or as soup, mainly available at Asian hawker stalls or street vendors everywhere in the region. They are served cooked, fried or steamed and are considered as small, cheap snacks for in between or in some countries even as a ‘poor-man’s-dish’.
Although there are restaurants for instance in Hong Kong, which specialize in Fish Balls, which can be then quite expensive as well – I’ve yet to see a Westerner who considers Fish Balls a delicacy.
Nevertheless, Fish Balls are very popular in Asia. Mainly they are eaten on their own, marinated, dipped in a sauce or when coming in a bowl – mixed with ‘kway teow’ noodles, tofu or even rice.
Fragrance and taste is added in the form of vinegar, garlic, sweet soy sauce or spring onions.
Laksa is a spicy noodle soup, which is claimed to be invented by Singaporeans, although it’s more likely to be derived from Chinese/Malay culture. The origin of the name Laksa is unknown, but it’s now widely popular not only in Malaysia and Singapore, but as far as Australia and beyond.
If you tried Laksa, you would know why, as it as mainly an explosion for your taste senses, mixing sweet (coconut) tastes with sour (lemon grass or citrus) influences with more standard fare (thick noodles, egg, tofu). Sometimes Laksa is done more watery like a soup, while some prefer it as thick as possible, with as few liquids as possible. I’m sure Singaporeans can write whole essays about the right essences of Laksa and I hope for plenty of comments describing the proper and one-and-only ingredients.
Most Laksa lovers agree on the following main ingredients: thick noodles, coconut-based curry sauce/soup, tofu, fish sticks, shrimp and bean sprouts. Sometimes the seafood elements are substituted with chicken or hard-boiled eggs are added, although all ingredients can wildly vary. There are Laksa wars out there, where people discuss what are the right ingredients and what not. Singaporeans are famous for driving for 20 Dollar from one end of their country to the other to try out the best 3 Dollar Laksa over there. Just logic among food lovers, isn’t it?
8. Hainanese Chicken Rice
This is a simple, plain and straight-forward dish, mainly eaten in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and China.
It’s boiled, plain-white chicken served with white rice and condiments like cucumber, eggs or lettuce. Hainanese Chicken Rice is one of the lesser spicy Asian dishes, but nevertheless its creation is a science on its own.
It can come with a clear chicken soup or broth as accompanying soup and is one of the signature dishes claimed by more than one country. The chicken is mainly boiled in its own broth or stock – complete with bones and everything – which is used over and over again to gain the desired taste. Sometimes dips consisting of chopped chili, sweet soya or ginger are used to add taste.
7. Spring Rolls
Westerners would associate Spring Rolls as mainly Chinese dishes, but ask any serious chef in Asia and they would probably rate Vietnamese Spring Rolls as the best. That doesn’t change the fact that Spring Rolls are popular in most Asian countries, with China, Vietnam Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia topping the list.
Spring Rolls are mainly fried rolled pastries that are filled with all kinds of raw or cooked meats or vegetables. There are versions which are not fried as well, mainly eaten in Taiwan.
Depending on the country your are in, the ingredients for Spring Rolls can be raw, boiled or blanched.
The most popular ingredients are minced pork, carrot, bean sprouts, fresh garlic chives, vermicelli noodles, shitake mushrooms. Soy sauce, peanut powder or fish sauce are sometimes added to better tickle your taste buds.
6. Dim Sum
Chinese dishes are very popular in most Asian countries. After all, the Chinese as avid travelers and migrants since ancient times form substantial parts of every population in Asian countries.
They brought plenty of their favorites from back home and amalgamated them with local dishes. One of those favorites is Dim Sum, wish are light, but hard-to-describe delicacies, popular in all Asian countries from the Philippines, to Vietnam, Laos or Malaysia and Indonesia. Oh yeah, of course in Singapore with its 60% Chinese population as well.
Dim Sum derived from a Cantonese phrase meaning ‘a little token’ and describes little treasures of food, hidden away in small steamer baskets, various types of filled, steamed buns or plenty of little dishes served on small plates.
Dim Sum are mainly served with tea and can have a hearty, sweet or plain taste. The servings are of small portions but with plenty of varieties.
It seems one of the goals is to try as many different tastes as possible in a very short time. Dim Sum usually can be ordered from a menu, chosen from a buffet or is wheeled around on trolleys by servers.
You take what you like and pay only what you eat. Included are mainly rolls, paus, dumplings, meat balls, sweet desserts, cakes, tarts and puddings – in short an explosion of different forms, tastes and kinds of food.
5. Fried Rice (nasi goreng)
Rice is the staple diet in every Asian country. Mainly it’s cooked plain white, with coconut sauce or saffron added and eaten fresh or right away with whatever meat or veggies come along. So what do you do with the rice leftovers a few days later? You guessed it right!
Simply throw everything into a Wok, fry it nicely with vegetable oil, add some soya-sauce, garlic, shallots or other spicy food to cover the plain taste and serve it as a separate dish. Hah!
While that is certainly done to not let any food come to waste, fried rice is also a delicacy on its own. It’s a cheap and tasty dish in all Asian countries and comes with veggies, meat or different sambals. Add eggs, satay, rice or prawn crackers (krupuk) and you can have a full meal on its own which fills you up nicely and brings you through the day.
Some would say that Nasi Goreng is the Paella of Asia, but I’m sure the Spanish would protest that.
In the western world, the name ‘nasi goreng’ is nowadays connected with any Asian style of fried rice. I remember that my first encounter with it was a canned version in Germany, many years back. Simply heat in up and fill your stomach. Oh man!
4. Tom Yum
Originated in Thailand, this watery something in a bowl, is now very popular all over Asia, but especially in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. It can come as an appetizer, thin soup or main dish, eaten with or without rice, but has almost always a more spicy-sour taste with heavy use of smashed lemon grass, tamarind and lime.
Add different meats of seafoods to it, the most popular like prawns, squid or fish pieces or nowadays even mixed with chicken (who came up with that?) or vegetables, like oyster mushrooms or coriander leaves.
If you a Westerner wanting to boast with your home-cooking skills, but aren’t able to produce that typical hot-spicy-sour taste at home, you can simply buy Tom Yam paste in most Asia Shops back at home and produce a close-to-the-real-thing experience.
3. Chicken Curry
Chicken Curry is an universal dish you can find on almost every menu in Asia. After all the original spice islands some Portuguese sailor named Magellan was looking for in the name of the Spanish crown, are located strategically between the Philippines, Indonesia and Borneo Malaysia.
Curry powder in all kinds of variations, tastes and colors are readily available all over Asia – and heavily used to create those heavenly curry dishes. Though what you will have on your plate later in the name of curry can look and taste surprisingly different, depending on the country you are in.
Everyone knows the heavy masaman (some call it mama-san curry, ahem!) or chicken curries of Thailand, made of heavy masala curries which are used by Indians as well.
Added are usually coconut, saffron and ginger for most distinctive tastes. Indonesians love their ‘Kari Ayam’ thinner, with more watery sauces, while Malaysian don’t seem to be too decisive about their curry thickness, depending if they live closer to Thailand or more to the south of the Malaysian peninsula.
And yes, curry dishes are not only restricted to chicken, but those seem to be the most popular.
Sushi doesn’t need any introduction. It’s popular world-wide and there is no exception to that in Asia. Here it’s considered a higher-class delicacy and mainly eaten in posh restaurants, although you can buy ready-made Sushi in regional supermarkets like Carrefour in Singapore, Indonesia or Tesco in Thailand.
More and more Sushi franchises (Best Denki, Sakae Sushi, Go Sushi) are mushrooming all over Asia as well, bringing Sushi to the masses as well.
Sushi is so much more than just raw fish and creating/forming Sushi rolls is considered a science by many. Although it actually just takes the right kind of rice, seaweed wrappers and soy sauce.
The other ingredients like sweet, pickled ginger and Wasabi (the green, tasty paste similar to horse radish) are sold almost everywhere. However you like your Sushi, self-made at home, delivered to your door step or eaten in a fancy restaurant – don’t forget to drink Ocha (green tea) with your Sushi.
Satay is the undisputed King or Queen of Asian Foods. Of course the spelling is different from country to county, be it sate, satay, satey, sati or whatever – it’s basically meat on a stick roasted over charcoal or open fire.
Available everywhere from Singapore to the Philippines, Vietnam to Papua!
While in Muslim countries Indonesia or Malaysia it’s mainly chicken or beef sticks, Thailand is very famous for it’s organ sate, being it liver, heart or stomach of pigs or chicken. You can also find frogs or even bug meat on a stick, fried in oil or ‘au naturel’, again especially in Thailand, Cambodia or Laos.
Satay usually comes with various dips, peanut sauce is the most popular and mainly you have sticky rice or lontong with it. Most of the time you will have chopped onions, cucumber or other veggies as well.
Seafood satay is popular as well, so yeah – fish, calamari, prawns or other sea creatures come nicely fried on a stick as well, a cheap and delicious way of filling your stomach on the go, or a small snack for in between.
You can’t go wrong with satay during your next trip around Asia. When it’s fried, barbecued or grilled over open fire, it’s generally delicious and safe to eat, so don’t let anyone spoil your appetite!