Asian Street Food
Street food mirrors the people and the culture of a country. These are the food people ate to survive, to use their local produce, or to simply create a business. Sometimes, street food becomes so popular that it becomes the country’s identity. You can find them along the street side, at the marketplace, or simply just outside your house. The street food scene is huge in Asian countries. There are even special street food places in other countries, like the hawker stalls in Singapore, the Japanese yatai, night markets in Taiwan, and floating markets in Thailand. Street food is a culture in itself. From skewered meats to sandwiches, these 50 best Asian street food will definitely get your stomachs grumbling.
Some Asian street foods have become their country's icon.
These Asian street food are just so iconic that almost every person has tried at least once. It’s no mistake that once street food becomes popular, it quickly becomes the country’s cultural and global identity.
Shawarma is a pita sandwich.
With giant skewered meat on the streetside, these stalls are hard to miss. Rooted from the Turkish word çevirme (turning), shawarma is a popular street food that first appeared in the 19th century in Turkey. Traditionally, thin cuts of meat (like beef, chicken, goat, lamb, or turkey), are marinated and stacked before being vertically roasted. The meats are then stuffed inside a flatbread with sauces, vegetables, and fries.
One version of this street food is the vegan mushroom shawarma from Tel Aviv, another is the shawarma topped rice from the Philippines.
Tteokbokki used to be exclusive for royals.
It’s sticky, chewy, and really spicy. Tteokbokki (떡볶이) is a stir-fried rice cake dish that can be found in almost every street stall in Seoul, South Korea. The recipe was first found in the 19th-century cookbook Siuijeonseo. In the original royal court recipe, they added sirloin, soy sauce, sesame oil, scallions, and pine nuts to the rice cake.
The modern gochujang-based tteokbokki was sold by Ma Bok Lim in the 1950s. Popular tteokbokki chain Dookki has over 200 restaurants in Korea and has started to branch out to Taiwan, Thailand, and many other countries.
The Pani Puri was mentioned in the longest epic poem ever.
India is the land of curries and naan, but they still have a lot to offer. Pani Puri is a ball-shaped flatbread, hollowed out and filled with potato mash, and seasoned with imli pani (flavored water), tamarind chutney, chili powder, and chaat masala. One version of its origins was traced from Mahābhārata where Kunti tested her daughter-in-law, Draupadi, to create a dish from leftover vegetables and wheat dough that could feed her sons.
Other Asian countries have their own version of Momo.
Its origins are uncertain, but these dumplings are considered a traditional delicacy in Nepal. Momo is a Jin Chinese term that means “steamed bun.” These dumplings are usually filled with ground meat, vegetables, and tofu, dipped in spicy sauce. It is similar to Japanese gyoza, Korean mandu, and Turkic manti.
There are two different types of Tom Yum soup.
There are different versions of hot and sour soups all over Asia, but Tom Yum takes the crown for being the most iconic. The soup is made with nam prik pao, which is a paste of roasted chilies, shallots, and garlic. Aromatics like lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves, as well as Thai chilies, mushroom, cilantro, tomatoes, white onions, lime juice, sugar, and fish sauce, are necessary to create the iconic taste.
There are two distinct types of this dish in Thailand, first is the tom yum goong nam sai which is a clear broth, while the second is tom yum goong nam khon which adds evaporated milk to the broth.
A vendor from Osaka invented Takoyaki.
These round, fluffy balls are a Japan festival staple. Takoyaki is a portmanteau of the Japanese words tako meaning octopus and yaki meaning fried. This delicacy was invented in 1935 by Tomekichi Endo, a vendor from Osaka. The balls are cooked on a special hot plate, and the batter is individually filled with diced octopus, tempura scraps, pickled ginger, and green onion. It is then topped with sweet takoyaki sauce, special Japanese mayonnaise, bonito (fish flakes), and seaweed flakes.
There are 18 types of Baozi.
These steamed buns can be found across China. Baozi originated in the Northern Song Dynasty, around 960 to 1279. Back then, buns are all called mantou. A distinction was made when Chinese statesman Zhuge Liang created a bun with filling and called it a baozi. Out of the 18 types of baozi, the most popular are Guangdong’s char siu bao with barbecued pork filling, and Shanghai’s meat and broth-filled xiaolongbao.
Bánh Mi is a popular Vietnamese breakfast item.
For six decades, France has influenced Vietnam, especially in their choice of breakfast. Bánh Mi might even be considered the precedent of fusion cuisine. The traditional sandwich is a French baguette filled with pork liver pâté, thin slices of meat, pickled carrots, cucumber, coriander, green onion, chili, and mayonnaise. The difference in textures on the first bite may be surprising for some, but it’s what makes the sandwich incredibly addicting. It’s usually sold on a mobile cart and eaten first thing in the morning.
Satay is practically served everywhere in Indonesia.
Skewered grilled meats are nothing new, but the Indonesians love them so much that it is considered as Indonesia‘s national dish. Its name is derived from the Malay word satai (sometimes spelled saté or sate). The preparation of satay varies from region to region, but chicken is most commonly sold.
Bamboo skewers pierce the cubed and marinated chicken meat, and then ultimately grilled to perfection. There are different types of meats and variations of satay, depending on the region it originated, the ingredients used, or the method of cooking.
The difference between Kwek-kwek and Tokneneng is the eggs used.
This Filipino street food is the exact definition of protein for cheap and is quite a popular after-school snack. Kwek-Kwek (quail eggs) and Tokneneng (duck eggs) are hard-boiled eggs covered in orange-dyed tempura batter and then deep-fried. Small barrels of sweet and spicy sauces, along with spiced vinegar, are the usual dipping choices, with a side of thinly sliced cucumber. These are usually sold with deep-fried fish balls, kikiam (a Chinese-style sausage made of fish and vegetables), and tofu.
These Asian street food are so cheap and so fulfilling, they could be a full meal.
These meals created a culture of foodies, sometimes it can even be considered a national dish. People have made a mishmash of local produce to create a meal like never before. It’s not the healthiest choice, but it’s affordable, fulfilling, and satisfying.
Pav Bhaji was marketed to textile workers.
Bombay Cotton Exchange wanted food that can be eaten quickly when the demand for cotton and textile was needed at the height of the American Civil War. Street vendors threw in two buttered buns, diced red onions, and mashed potato curry on a plate. It may not look like much, but the meal packs a punch. The recipe soon spread across the country and people have been eating this for lunch ever since!
The Persian word for noodles is Laksa.
Late American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain called this soup the “Breakfast of the Gods.” Laksa, from the Persian word lakhshah meaning noodles, has been a staple in Malaysian cuisine. Directly descended from Chinese traders, the Peranakans’ wives added chili peppers and coconut milk into Chinese noodle soup. This literal marriage of people and flavors created a fusion of dishes that people still love today. There are nine types of Laksa, the most popular are curry laksa and assam laksa.
Pho got its name from a type of French soup.
Depending on where you are in Vietnam, pho is served differently, but some things stay the same: clear broth, rice noodles, thin slices of meat, and herbs. The rice noodle dish began in the mid-1880s when locals began combining Chinese noodles with French cuisine. In fact, pho was named after the French dish pot au feu. The dish has become so popular that it ranks second as the world’s best noodle dish, followed by Japanese ramen and Korean japchae.
The Hainanese Chicken Rice was made using leftover stock.
Preparing noodles on the streets proved difficult for Wong Yi Guan in the 1920s. He used to carry two bamboo yokes to do his business but it limited the amount of broth he could carry. The remaining chicken stock was then used to prepare rice. This technique was copied and afterward came Hainanese Chicken Rice. Restaurant owner Moh Lee Twee was said to popularise the dish in his restaurant in the 1950s.
Legend says the Jian Bing was cooked on copper shields.
This savory crepe sandwich is usually eaten for breakfast. The millet batter is cooked on a flat, circular surface, then immediately topped with scrambled egg, sauces, baocui (crispy cracker), choice of meat, and mustard pickles, then folded like a neat package. According to historians, Chancellor Zhuge Liang solved his troop’s hunger problem after he instructed his cooks to create a batter and fry it on the soldiers’ shields.
The falafel has Egyptian origins.
This naturally vegetarian dish is a favorite among Israelis. The recipe dates back more than a thousand years in Egypt, but it is considered the national dish of Israel and Palestine. In the original Egyptian recipe, white beans were used instead of the much cheaper chickpeas. Balls of mashed chickpeas and herbs are deep-fried, usually served on a platter with salad and pita bread on the side. The New York food cart The Halal Guys serve the dish with rice and their famous white sauce.
Pad Thai was created due to rice shortage.
Thailand’s rice resources suffered during World War II. In an effort to save rice and feed more people, then Prime Minister and military dictator Phibun (Plaek Phibunsonghram), more commonly known as Phibun, encouraged people to eat more rice noodles as it only uses 50% of the grains. According to Asian Inspirations, the Prime Minister’s son was unsure who made the first Pad Thai before his father turned it into the country’s national dish.
There are several variations of Silog meals.
Garlic fried rice and a sunny-side-up egg is a normal Filipino breakfast. But the meat it goes with varies on whoever is going to eat it. Silog is a portmanteau of sinangag (the Tagalog word for its method of cooking) and itlog (egg). A favorite among the variations is tapsilog, a silog meal with tapa (sweet-salty marinated meat from Pampanga). Other variations are longsilog (with longganisa, a type of sweet sausage), tocilog (with tocino, a type of sweet cured meat), and bangsilog (with bangus, fried milkfish marinated in garlicky vinegar).
Nasi Lemak was an accidental creation.
This dish is a plateful of rice and chicken, sided with a fried egg, nuts and anchovies, fresh slices of cucumber, and a chili paste called sambal. The most recognized story of Nasi Lemak‘s origins can be traced back to the 15th century. Supposedly, Mak’s daughter accidentally spilled coconut milk into a pot of boiling rice, and told her mother “Nasi le, Mak!” which literally translates to “Rice, mother!”
Gimbap is a product of Korea and Japan’s complicated relationship.
Some people call it “Korean sushi.” But nothing could be further from the truth. While sushi uses raw fish, gimbap cooks every filling individually. The dish got its name from the Korean words gim (김) meaning seaweed, and bap (밥) meaning rice. Traditionally, the gimbap is a seaweed rice roll that is commonly filled with carrots, pickled radish, burdock root, egg, and imitation crab stick.
Some call it weird, locals call it a delicacy.
“Waste not, want not” is the Asian household motto when it comes to food. Asian parents don’t want to see their hard work be in vain, which is why food is an important part of the culture. But there are just some you can never imagine eating: an unseemly animal part, preserved eggs, and flying pests. Westerners call it disgusting, but to Asians, it’s the local cuisine.
Balut can also be found in other Southeast Asian nations.
This is a challenge most first-time visitors are (kind of) willing to try, but this is an evening snack to most Filipinos. Those who aren’t familiar with balut are put off with the “broth” and the recognizable duck fetus. This fertilized duck egg, more commonly known as Balut, can be eaten with a sprinkling of salt, a dash of spicy vinegar, or both. Though the egg is high in protein and calcium, it’s extremely high in calories too. Countries such as Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand also sell this delicacy.
Farmers started eating fried insects out of necessity.
Just imaging bugs crawling all over your arm is enough to make you swat the nonexistent fly. But in Thailand, fried insects are popular among Thai locals and tourists. Farmers from the Northeast, the poorest part of Thailand, started eating insects due to the scarcity of crops and the land’s inability to raise cattle. Locals began catching and frying insects to get their needed sustenance. Rot Duan (Bamboo Worms) is highly recommended to first-time bug-eaters, while Maeng Pawng (Scorpions) is recommended for daring ones.
Cambodia’s a-ping is a dying delicacy.
Tourists described that a-ping (fried tarantula) tastes like “cylindrical potato chips” and “tastes mainly of the spices it was fried in.” Fried tarantulas may become a thing of the past due to the massive deforestation and over-harvesting of spiders. Cambodia has lost 20% of its forest since the beginning of the 1990s and tarantulas are losing their places to live.
Tiết canh is served during the Lunar New Year.
It’s pudding, but it’s not a dessert. They consume blood, but they are not vampires. The Vietnamese Tiết canh (raw blood pudding) is prepared by mixing the fish sauce with the raw duck’s blood for it to coagulate. It’s then topped with cooked duck meat, Vietnamese herbs, and peanuts. Its bright red color makes it the perfect side dish for huge celebrations like Lunar New Year, and sometimes, even weddings. People are advised not to eat this dish as it may cause severe bacterial infections.
Century eggs are definitely not buried for a hundred years.
People believe that century eggs got its name because it was preserved for that long. The black translucent egg white, the green-ish yolk, and the distinct almost-rotten smell make the century egg a little bit intimidating, but locals recommend eating it with blanched soft tofu and soy sauce. Chicken or duck eggs were encased in rice husks for a few weeks after soaking them in a salt-lime-ash mixture.
The Imperial Qing royals loved stinky tofu.
Scholar Wang Zhihe realized that the unsold tofu he left in an earthen jar would still taste delicious despite its foul odor. Stinky tofu grew in popularity and after he started selling it. Surprisingly, the imperial Qing Dynasty palace loved the tofu. Stinky tofu served with a dash of spicy sauce and a side of pickled cabbage, sold all over Taiwan.
Even Japanese culture fans aren’t familiar with jibachi senbei.
Rice crackers make a great and healthy snack, especially if topped with protein-rich peanut butter and sliced banana. Jibachi senbei is a rice cracker is baked with digger wasps. These crackers contain 81% of protein out of any edible insect.
A fire paan is similar to a breath mint.
Most people would use toothpaste or mouthwash to keep their mouths fresh. If there’s no time, mints would somehow work. But it can get a little extreme in India. A fire paan is made with areca nut, spices, nuts, and sugar and then lit and pushed straight into the customer’s mouth. Dunya News says the fire paan “looks dangerous but it gives a cool sensation once it is inside the mouth.”
Traditional Javanese medicine believes eating biawak can boost the immune system.
Lizards are probably one of the last things a person would consider eating. But in some parts of Indonesia, sate biawak is one of the best delicacies they could offer. The Javanese eat thousands of biawak (water monitor lizard) each year. Indonesians turned this lizard into satay, their national dish.
The Burmese believe bugs and insects are a miracle food.
Munching on fries and chips isn’t the way to lead a healthy lifestyle. That’s why people in Myanmar ate fried locust bugs instead. The insect is high in protein and essential amino acids. Travel vlogger A Rai of Light described the snack as tough, bitter, and gooey, though not at all disgusting.
Of course, Asian street food isn't just savory dishes.
The dessert culture in Asia is huge. In fact, the ice cream was even said to have been invented in Iran! This just proves that Asians have a sweet tooth. Almost every street corner sells some type of dessert, from fruits soaked in syrup to bread with a sweet filling.
Two specific mangoes can be used for Mango Sticky Rice.
Sweet coconut milk, steaming sticky rice, diced mangoes, and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. Could anything be more perfect? This amazing concoction is called Khao Neow Ma Muang, or most commonly called Mango Sticky Rice. Out of 500 mango varieties in the world, only two can be used for this dish: Nam Dok Mai (the naturally sweet and juicy variety) and Ok Rong (the more fibrous and aromatic kind).
Imagawayaki is the predecessor of the Japanese taiyaki.
Imagawayaki is a Japanese wheel cake filled with sweet red bean paste. Seijiro Kanbei, an imagawayaki seller in Tokyo, started selling these fish-shaped waffles to increase sales in 1909. Sweet red bean paste is the traditional taiyaki filling. Fillings like custard, chocolate, cheese, and sweet potato are popular too. The savory kind is filled with gyoza (Japanese dumplings), okonomiyaki (Japanese vegetable pancake), and sausages. These waffles can be bought everywhere in Japan, including convenience stores.
There are two types of Martabak.
It’s called the “King of Indonesian Street Food” by Serious Eats. Martabak came from the Arabic word mutabbaq meaning “folded.” There are two types of Martabak. First is Martabak Telur, a folded pancake with eggs, minced meat, spring onions, and seasoning. The second is Martabak Manis, a much thicker American-style pancake topped with butter, shredded cheese, chocolate sprinkles, and condensed milk.
Historians believe that baklava came from the Assyrian Empire.
This dessert of layered phyllo pastry, chopped nuts, and honey gained its popularity during the Ottoman Empire. During the 8th century B.C., Ancient Assyria made the earliest form of baklava by layering unleavened flatbread and chopped nuts.
Hong Kong’s famous egg tarts have European origins.
It’s flaky, creamy, and filling. Hong Kong‘s egg tarts are sometimes mistaken for the English custard tart. Coincidence? Well, not exactly. There were records of the coronation banquet of English king Henry IV serving egg tarts in 1399. In the 13th century, Jerónimos Monastery monks created pastéis de nata, Portugal’s favorite dessert, out of discarded egg yolks. These pastries inspired the egg tarts Hong Kong is famous for.
Hotteok originated from Chinese settlers.
These warm, thick pancakes are an iconic part of Korean street food culture. A piece of hotteok is filled with brown sugar, honey, chopped peanuts, and cinnamon. There is also a savory hotteok filled with vegetables and sweet potato noodles. One piece is pretty heavy at 230 calories each! It was in the 19th century when Chinese merchants created and sold hotteok at a cheap price, so coolies (low-wage laborers) would have something fast and easy to eat.
Daulat Ki Chaat is only available for three months.
This heavenly, melt-in-your-mouth dessert is nothing like the normal savory chaat. Made with milk, cream, nuts, dried fruits, and sweeteners and cooled over an icy slab, Daulat Ki Chaat is nothing like ice cream. This dessert is sold exclusively during India’s winter season, in the months of November, December, and January.
Selling cendol is part of a traditional Javanese wedding.
This refreshing Malaysian iced dessert is perfect for hot summer afternoons. A bowl of cendol is usually made with noodle-like pandan green jellies (made with rice flour or green bean flour), palm sugar, and coconut milk, sometimes even topped with sweet azuki beans, durian, or jackfruit.
In a traditional Javanese wedding, the parents of the bride will perform dodol dawet (selling dawet) the day before the wedding. Guests and relatives will be paying for the cendol sold by the parents in this ceremony, and the earnings will be given to the bride as a symbol of family earnings.
The classic halo-halo was inspired by a Japanese dessert.
Shaved ice desserts are quite common in Asian tropical countries. While the days are hot, summers are hotter still. Filipinos like to cool off with a tall glass of halo-halo, literally translated to mix-mix. This street food is shaved ice topped with sweet beans, sweet yam, jellies, sago (similar to boba pearls), leche flan, and ube ice cream, before finishing it off with evaporated milk. The Japanese shaved ice dessert kakigori was the inspiration behind halo-halo, as mentioned by historian Ambeth Ocampo.
Shwe Yin Aye means “golden heart cooler.”
This traditional Burmese is similar to the Filipino halo-halo. According to Backpacker Lee, Shwe Yin Aye is a “combination of cendol, sago, seaweed agar, glutinous rice and white bread served in coconut milk.” The dessert’s name literally translates to “golden heart cooler,” which is fitting because it’s served over ice.
And of course, to wash it all down.
The Asian street food culture wouldn’t be complete without drinks. Whether it’s to kickstart the day or to chill after work, these creative and nutritious drinks will surely keep you satisfied.
An Eastern Han Dynasty stone slab recorded the earliest use of soy milk.
Though plant-based milk became a 21st-century trend, soy milk has been available in ancient Chinese kitchens. Apparently, the first recorded consumption of soy milk was during the Eastern Han Dynasty. The drink reached Taiwan and has become a breakfast staple since. The Taiwanese take their soy milk in both sweet or savory, both paired with a fried bread called you tiao.
The iconic cà phê trứng was improvised.
Necessity is the mother of invention, so the phrase goes. The story of the Vietnamese egg coffee was no exception. In 1946, the milk shortage in Vietnam became prevalent. Nguyen Van Giang, who used to work at the Sofitel Hotel, decided to whisk egg yolk and sugar to create froth similar to milk. He quit his job and opened Cafe Giang where he happily served cà phê trứng. This unique drink is available in every breakfast shop in Vietnam and can be served either hot or iced.
Pulling tea is an art created by teh tarik.
The Malaysian breakfast staple teh tarik, literally translated to pulled tea, is similar to chai. It’s traditionally made with black tea and condensed milk. But it’s not just mixed or blended like how you would a normal drink. This milk tea is made with two pitchers and a lot of artistic pouring. The act of tarik, or constantly pulling, will make the drink creamy and frothy. There are even tea-pulling competitions wherein sarabats show off their tea-pulling moves.
The creation of Cha Yen was influenced by a field marshal.
Tea drinking wasn’t common in Thailand until King Rama IV and King Rama V made it popular. Cha Yen is a unique orange-colored drink made with black tea, condensed milk, and Thai spices. It’s pulled and poured repeatedly, similar to the Malaysian teh tarik. Its origins are unclear, but people point to Field Marshal Pibul Songkram for adding ice and milk to the drink.
Şalgam suyu can both be a chaser and a hangover cure.
Juicing vegetables and fermenting drinks aren’t just trendy in the 2010s. Şalgam suyu is a fermented drink made of water, turnip, purple carrot, salt, and wheat/bulgur flour. It’s always best paired with adana (ground lamb) kebab because it cuts down the saltiness. This drink has a lot of health benefits, including curing hangovers, reduce kidney stones, and help with eczema. Şalgam suyu can also act as a chaser for raki, the traditional Turkish alcoholic beverage.
There are two variations of lassi.
This popular and traditional Indian yogurt drink can be found everywhere in the streets of India, but not a lot of tourist knows there are salty and sweet varieties. Lassi is a yogurt-based drink that originated in the Punjab region. These two varieties are the traditional namkeen (salty) lassi and the sweet lassi. Mango lassi is a huge favorite among Indians and tourists alike.
Bandung is usually served during Iftar.
This sweet pink drink is truly Instagram-worthy. Bandung is a simple enough drink made by mixing condensed milk with rose syrup, which gives it a pink color. This drink is very popular in Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore. Though it sold in street food stalls with grass jelly or soda water, bandung is usually served to break the Ramadan fast.
Kombucha was referred to as “The Remedy for Immortality.”
There are many stories surrounding this fermented sweet tea, but one that stands out the most was the drink being present in 221 BCE, during the Qin Dynasty. “The Remedy for Immortality,” as it was once called, was created by Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Kombucha is made by fermenting the sweetened tea with a SCOBY for weeks before it’s bottled and sold.
The sikhye has very confusing origins.
Some thought it’s an alcoholic drink, while some thought it’s similar to porridge. The Slow Food Foundation describes sikhye as a slightly fermented rice drink that is served and drunk cold. The drink’s origins are unknown but some credit the North Koreans for replacing the fish from the first sikhye with malt, while some point to the ancient Chinese book where the fermented rice drink was made for the upper classes only. Hobak-sikhye (made with pumpkin), Andong sikhye (added with red pepper), and Yeonyeop-sikhye (wrapped in a lotus leaf before drinking) are the three types of sikhye available in South Korea.
Qishr is not a coffee-based drink.
Each Asian country has a unique way of making coffee, but the Yemeni prides themselves on making tea out of coffee. Qishr, the Arabic word for ‘skin,’ is made with the discarded coffee husks, ginger, and cinnamon. The drink is naturally sweet, aromatic drink, and low in caffeine. It makes a great energy drink for non-coffee people.