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A guide to choosing the best dishes in Asia
From Isaan cuisine in Thailand to dalk galbi in Korea, experts serve up advice on what to order to really get a taste of the local flavors
How do you navigate the infinite food choices in Asia? We've gathered food writers and chefs throughout the region to spare you the bewildered flipping through a menu.
From the familiar to the slightly adventurous, these dishes take the guesswork out of ordering and provide the opportunity to enjoy a balanced meal truly representative of local flavors.
Recommendations: Hai zhi tou, malantou, xiao huangyu, honghsao rou, hongshao tipang
It’s an understatement to say that the food in China varies from region to region.
If you find yourself in the bustling metropolis of Shanghai, Crystyl Mo, food editor at Time Out Shanghai, has a few pointers.
“It’s very important to combine textures and temperatures, and also balance a meal between fish/seafood, meat, and soup," she says.
"We start with the small, cold dishes and almost always end with a hot soup which cleanses the palate.”
Mo has a few specific suggestions for appetizers and mains.
Start out with the crunchy hai zhi tou (jellyfish in vinegar dressing). It looks and feels like a cabbage or other hearty vegetable, but it’s not.
A great vegetable is the malantou, a rich, chlorophyll-heavy green indigenous to Shanghai.
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“It’s diced up with teeny weeny pressed tofu dice, seasoned very lightly with sesame oil. Classic,” says Mo.
For something more adventurous, she recommends the xiao huangyu, a deep-fried yellow croaker (river fish).
“It’s like a giant fishy French fry, but more excitingly crispy with all the little bits and edges that get wonderfully crunchy.”
All the fish parts -- bones, eyes, et cetera -- are still in and edible.
Pork is a beloved staple in Shanghai, so for main dishes, get at least one or two dishes heavy on pork.
Most people think of honghsao rou, braised pork belly in a sweet soy-based sauce, but Mo suggests the hongshao tipang (red braised pork shoulder), a slightly gelatinous, braised whole pork shoulder.
“This [dish] has a melting fatty layer on the outside and soft meat inside that shreds at the touch of a chopstick. Luscious.”
Recommendations: Tsukune, morokyu, goya champuru, rafuti, umi budo, mozuku tempura
No visit to Japan would be complete without a long evening rubbing shoulders with salarymen at one of the city’s countless izakaya (taverns).
Tokyo resident Robb Satterwhite, restaurant reviewer for Bento.com and author of “What’s What in Japanese Restaurants” (1988), offers recommendations.
“If there are daily specials, then that’s a good place to start,” says Satterwhite, who is partial to the sashimi platter of the day.
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“If there are four people in your party, get an order for two people, so you have room to order other food.”
Izakaya offerings vary widely, but if you find yourself at a place that does chicken skewers, go for the tsukune -- minced chicken and spices grilled on a skewer.
“It’s worth seeking out an izakaya that does charcoal grilling,” Satterwhite says.
For a vegetable side, he recommends morokyu, sliced fresh cucumbers with a chunky miso dip.
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For a more robust restaurant dining experience, the options are endless in Tokyo. Melinda Joe, author of food and drink blog Tokyo through the Drinking Glass and the Japan Times’ drink column “Kanpai Culture," suggests checking out one of the many Okinawan restaurants that have opened over the past few years.
“The food is a lot closer to Chinese or Southeast Asian cuisines,” she says. “Even Japanese people have a hard time navigating all of the dishes. But they tend to be fun places with sometimes music and live performances.”
Start out easy and typical with dishes like goya champuru (bitter gourd with pork and eggs) or rafuti (simmered, tender pork belly in a soy-based sauce). For something more fun, order the umi budo. Their name means sea grapes, and they come with a ponzu sauce.
“They’re firm, turgid beads, but when you eat them, they pop in your mouth and release this briny, unctuous liquid,” Joe says.
Another dish with a trans-formative quality is the mozuku tempura. This otherwise slimy seaweed makes a delightful, nutty-flavored, batter-fried fritter.
Pair your Okinawan delicacies with a potent long-grain rice wine from the region, called awamori. Or go light with Orion, an indigenous lager.
And when it comes to sake, splurge.
Satterwhite explains what to do even if you can’t figure out the list. “People often choose sake based on the location. For example Niigata sake tend to be dry and clean; sake from Ishikawa are earthy; and sake from Yamagata are aromatic and fruity. If there are monthly specials, they’ll tend to be fresher. And if you see ‘nama’ sake, give it a try, because it’s harder to find outside of Japan.”
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Recommendations: Yukhui, dalk galbi, budae jjigae, tuna kimbap, kimchi mandu
When in Seoul, there’s no better guide to the grub than Joe McPherson, longtime food writer, restaurant consultant and founder of ZenKimchi -- which does non-touristy food tours around the city.
Rather than dive into the barbecue extravaganza Korean cuisine is type-casted as (partially true, but not entirely), look into getting a yukhui (pronounced yook-hway), Korea’s version of a steak tartare, with ribbons of fresh beef mixed with Korean pears, sesame oil, green chilies and usually a raw egg yolk.
“It’s a perfectly elegant balance of savory and sweet,” McPherson says.
On the cooked white meat front, there’s dalk galbi, a spicy marinated chicken dish from Gangwon province usually stir-fried at the table with vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and noodles.
“Everything a growing boy needs,” McPherson says. “I regularly run polls on what Korean foods people like. Dalk galbi always ends up in the top three.”
If you ask him for his own personal favorites, though, McPherson has at least two. Budae jjigae, a spicy, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink type of fusion stew that originated in the Korean War.
McPherson says, “The taste is like American Independence Day in a bowl.” That sort of makes sense.
Depending on the version, expect anything from Spam and hot dogs to baked beans. And speaking of historical foods, McPherson also recommends his favorite cheap lunch food from when he first moved to Korea: tuna kimbap (a maki roll with tuna salad) and kimchi mandu (kimchi-filled steamed dumplings).
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Recommendations: Kappa meen curry, sev bata pur, shorshay bata ilish, dum biriyani
Of all the countries in Asia, the cuisine of India is arguably the most bewildering and diverse. Rather than limit himself, novelist and food writer C.Y. Gopinath takes us from Cochin in the south, to New Delhi in the north, with detours in Mumbai and Kolkata, pointing out must-haves along the way.
The thattukada (roadside eatery) is an institution in Kerala’s port city of Cochin, serving up an endless list of southern standards and some unusual curve balls.
“In just the category of dosas, thattukadas serve as many as 36 different kinds with quixotic names like Volvo, Duck Lasoon and Ruby Pai," Gopinath says.
But don’t forget to get Kerala’s signature dish, the kappa meen curry.
“It’s never better than you’ll get it at a thattukada -- chucks of steamed tapioca with pieces of seer fish in a fiery coconut-based gravy.”
Moving north to Mumbai, where the endless street stalls serve pani puri, sev batata puri, dahi bhalle, and more, both a bottomless stomach and a steel-lined one is required.
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But Gopinath has good news: “You can order all of the above and more at the famous street food chain Vithal’s.”
There he recommends the sev bata puri, “crisp-fried flour roundels layered with chick peas, potatoes with a touch of green mint chutney, all doused with cold sweet yogurt.”
When in Kolkata, try the city’s signature fish, ilish or shad.
“Shorshay bata ilish, or shad in a tingling fiery handmade sauce of fresh green chilies and ground black mustard, is a classic not easily found in standard restaurants,” advises Gopinath.
“The ilish has fine chewable bones, but some restaurants, such as the Oh! Calcutta chain, serve a de-boned version.” (Oh! Calcutta, Hotel Rosewood, Tulsiwadi Lane, opp. Mahindra Heights, Tardeo; +91 (0) 22 23539114/23533115)
Finally, in New Delhi, take a break from the usual tikkas and naans, and go for an oft-overlooked relative.
“A biriyani is a biriyani is a biriyani,” says Gopinath, “except when it’s a dum biriyani.”
He’s talking about a special style of biriyani cooking, where the pot is covered and sealed with dough, keeping in the steam and the flavors of the saffron and spices.
“Arguably the best place to try this dish is Dum Phukt restaurant in the Maurya Sheraton Hotel.”
Recommendations: Tamarind prawns, pork soft ribs, Teochew-style whole promfret, char yoke, Penang wing beans with dried shrimp paste and sambal
A mash-up of Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures, the food of Malaysia is among the most exciting in the region.
Any visitor to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Georgetown in Penang would be lucky to have Robyn Eckhardt lead the way through ordering Chinese, Teochew and Penang-specific food.
“We’d get our appetites going with finger food: tamarind prawns (just one or two each), head and shell-on crustaceans shellacked in a tangy-sweet mahogany sauce, and pork soft ribs coated with a five-spice powder and deep-fried," teases Eckhardt, food writer, culinary tour guide and co-author of blog Eating Asia.
When it comes to mains, Eckhardt is partial to a steamed Teochew-style whole pomfret, which comes with pickled mustard, sour plums, ginger and chopped fresh chilies.
“I’d balance the promfret’s bright tartness with a study in sticky decadence.”
She means char yoke, or roast pork, sliced and fried with black soy sauce.
“It’s a dish I refer to as bacon candy.”
If you can stand the heat, order the Penang wing beans with dried shrimp paste and sambal.
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Recommendations: Som tam, tum sua, kai yang, gaeng om, laab moo
When it comes to Thai food, practically everyone is familiar with the usual tom yam, basil chicken, pad thai, green curry and som tam (papaya salad).
But take a simple, overdone dish like som tam (papaya salad) and explore its northeastern (Isaan) relatives and you have the potential for a simple but very rewarding Thai meal.
Restaurateur Eh Laoraowirodge and chef Korn of new Isaan eatery Somtum Der in the heart of Bangkok’s business district share what goes into a well-rounded Isaan feast.
(5/5 Saladaeng Road, Silom Road. BTS: Saladaeng. +66 (0)2 632 4499)
If you’re going to get som tam, Eh suggests trying something slightly different and going with a tum sua, which is essentially the same thing, but with the addition of rice vermicelli noodles.
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For the fearless, there are versions with pla ra (fermented fish).
“You can find it everywhere in Thailand,” he says, “with different tastes. No matter where I travel, if I’m ordering som tam, I’ll order tum sua.”
Papaya salad is practically widowed without kai yang (marinated grilled chicken). But Eh is even pickier than that.
“The chicken I love the most is kai ban [Thai free-range chicken, literally ‘house chicken’]. It’s very lean, not too big in size, not that meaty. But the skin gets really crispy, and you can really get the salty and herbal taste of the marinade.”
Kai baan is not common, but a lot of places in Bangkok do have it so it doesn't hurt to ask.
The soup, says Korn, “has to be gaeng om. It’s an Isaan soup with a lot of herbs, dill, cabbage, mushrooms, Thai eggplants. They do it with chicken, pork or offal.”
And to round things out, get a laab moo (minced pork salad with raw shallots, mint, lime juice, and roasted ground rice) and have it with sticky rice.
Take a bit of rice between your fingers and squeeze it tightly into a ball before dipping it into the dishes, letting the rice absorb all the gravy.
Recommendations: Fried carrot and radish cake, ba chor mee, satay, ngoh hiang
Singapore’s got everything from hawker stir-fries and hip tapas bars to artisanal coffee shops roasting their own beans.
Shen Tan of The Wok and Barrel (13 Duxton Hill. +65 6220 0595, ), a former food hawker herself, shares what the best hawkers of Singapore have to offer.
For quick nourishment between meals, get the fried carrot and radish cake.
“It is savory-sweet,” Tan says, “because of the preserved radish and dark caramel sauce.”
She also loves ba chor mee, spicy stir-fried noodles with pork: “The minced pork, sliced pork, liver, and meatballs deliver tremendous umami.”
For a different meat extravaganza, get the iconic meat on a stick, satay. There are Chinese versions and Malay versions, so pay attention.
“The tangy pineapple puree in the rice peanut sauce is the perfect foil for the satay sold by Chinese hawkers, while the spiced peanut gravy from the Malay hawkers complement the beef and mutton satay,” Tan explains.
Incidentally, classic hawker fare can also be found at Tan’s own restaurant, of which IS Magazine’s dining editor Jalean Wong is a huge fan.
“She makes everything in house,” says Wong of Tan’s cooking, “including tender beef rendang and full-bodied chicken curry, best when soaked up with some fragrant and coconutty nasi lemak rice, as well as two accompanying sambal chili sauces.”
She also loves Peranakan cuisine as served at her new favorite restaurant Violet Oon’s Kitchen (881 Bukit Timah Road. +65 6468 5430) where she orders dishes like ngoh hiang, bean curd skin–wrapped rolls with deep-friend prawn, crab, pork, and water chestnut.
Recommendations: Siu mai, cheung fun, gon chow ngau hor, char siu, egg tarts
The Cantonese dishes of Hong Kong can be found in the streets (though less and less so), mall kiosks, cha chan teng (HK-style diners) and high-end restaurants.
HK Magazine’s dining editor Adele Wong and food writer and organic market organizer Janice Leung -- of popular food blog e-ting the world -- have recommendations on every front.
Find yourself at a dim sum lunch? Don’t forget to load up on siu mai.
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“Dim sum restaurants all over the world serve this classic, but few have enough competition around them to do it properly,” says Leung, whose feelings for this shrimp-topped pork and shitake mushroom dumpling are rather lust-filled.
“Porky juices ooze out as you bite into it, the slippery, al dente shrimp giving it just enough contrast for both texture and flavor.”
Another dim sum must-have, according to Wong, are the cheung fun (rice noodle rolls).
“The prawn ones are my favorite.”
Meaty, greasy Cantontese options are abundant in Hong Kong, too, at siu mei restaurants and cha chan teng.
Wong recommends the standard gon chow ngau hor (beef friend rice noodles).
“It’s the ultimate comfort food,” she says.
And don’t forget the quintessential Cantonese barbecue, char siu, which is pork loin marinated with Chinese rose liqueur, hoisin sauce and bean paste and roasted at a high heat and glazed with maltose. Leung describes it as “juicy, sweet, salty, fatty -- all at once”.
And while far from the apex of Cantonese cuisine, when it comes to snacks Leung recommends the egg tart, brought over by the British back in the day.
“The local Chinese modified the recipe, creating a super-delicate, eggy custard that has the consistency of just-set jelly.”
Do you have a favorite dish you'd recommend to travelers in Asia? Share your dining tips in the comments box below.