Top 10 Asian dishes

I can remember going into a restaurant in China with a group of new travelling pals. Firstly, we were reminded by our waiter that whoever sat opposite the entrance had to foot the final bill. We sheepishly sniggered as we switched seats as Martyn from Denmark came back from a trip to the toilet. He’d missed our waiter’s speech. Still more surprises for Martyn were to follow. Martyn had ordered what he thought was going to be a mind-blowingly hot local dish. We were travelling in January so a winter warmer was considered well in order. Soon after the young Dane had started to tuck in, he beckoned the waiter back to the table. This is too bland, Martyn said; it needs more of a kick, more fire, more red chillies. The waiter smiled and nodded knowingly “no red, yes; no red”. Martyn looked bemused. It was clear that all traces of heat had been removed from his food in order to satisfy his tender European palette. “Yeah!” Martyn cried. “Where’s the red?”

If you want to avoid Martyn’s predicament and order with confidence then below are our top 10 Asian dishes that lift the lid on the etiquette and origins behind some of the continent’s classic food. From dhal on the streets of Delhi to barbecued sticky pork in Bangkok, we’ve scoured the continent in search of classic culinary creations so you can grab your chopsticks with confidence and tuck in to a world of wonders.

Dhal dishes

This Indian and Nepalese street food staple is all about the lentils and comes served with rice and/or flat bread roti/chapati. A combination of onions, tomatoes and regional spices added to the split peas and lentils whips up a sort of soupy curry often to be found ladled out onto paper plates and bowls on street corners or in little silver buckets if you're lucky enough to be dining in a rooftop restaurant.

Where to try dhal: on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Ganges in Varanasi, India.

Oodles of noodles

You can't move for noodles in Asia; fried, boiled, baked and steamed variations stretch from chubby worm-like udon noodle soups in Japan to skinny glass noodle salads in Vietnam. Slurping is something akin to a sport in Asia as the longer the noodle the luckier the slurper. Note: although pad Thai is a 'must try' in Thailand it’s actually thought to have originated in China – worth bearing in mind before you pucker up.

Where to try: go on then, try a pad Thai in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Charcoal grilled meat skewers

Some of my most evocative memories of travelling throughout Asia are the sizzles and smoky smells emanating from street food stalls selling skewered meat cooked over charcoal. It sounds so simple but from salty yakitori chicken in Japan to marinated meat satay in Sarawak, Borneo, you will never forget the taste and the smell and it could come to define your whole Asian experience.

Where to try: just follow your nose on the streets of Singapore or by a beach in Bali.

Crispy & spring rolls

Although there are plenty of shallow fried crispy vegetable and meat rolls served all over Asia, a far healthier alternative are spring rolls that forgo the frying process in favour of a squidgy and sticky rice paper exterior. Sweet and savoury dipping sauces, such as peanut or soy, give both crispy rolls and spring rolls a bit more bite, and rolling your own is the best way to pack it until it bursts.

Where to try: grab a goi cuon (spring roll) at a Mekong Delta village in southern Vietnam.

Dumplings

Steamed, puffed and dense – often thicker than a doughnut – dumplings are the ultimate comfort food to try on a trip to Asia. Pure white in colour and packed with ground meat, chopped vegetables, spring onions, and sometimes sesame or red bean paste, these tennis ball-sized delicious doughy puffs come accompanied with dark vinegar, soy sauce and chilli flakes, and will have you scouring the streets of China in search of your next fix.

Where to try: head for the hutongs of Beijing and look for a backstreet dumpling shop.

Samosas

Yet another street food staple makes our top 10 – travelling in Asia, especially India and Sri Lanka, just wouldn't be the same without a freshly fried samosa to get us through the day. Often the best samosas can be found in the homes of local people where generously packed pockets of potato, onion, split peas, chilli and spices are eaten with hands, whilst sitting on the floor, just as nature intended.

Where to try: a family home in India or Sri Lanka. Important note: ask if the oil is fresh before tucking into samosas served on the street.

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If you'd like to chat about Asia or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Sushi

Sample sushi in Japan and you'll instantly become immersed in traditions and rituals that are very different to sitting down at a conveyor-belt back home. For instance, dunking sashimi in soy sauce, whacking on wasabi and eating items out of presentation order are not the done thing. Go to a fish market with a guide or just watch how local commuters at train stations tuck in after work.

Where to try: find a fish market in Hakone, Tokyo or Kyoto.

Curries

As long as you remember that green sometimes means hot and red sometimes means mild you won't go far wrong with curries in Asia. Aside from the UK, authentic curry dishes in India, Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Asia are spiced and flavoursome but without blowing your socks off. It's simply not how curry is enjoyed. If you are hoping for more heat, ask the chef but don't expect it unless you're ordering a Thai green curry, of course.

Where to try: Malaysian curries are pretty yummy although a Massaman on a beach in Koh Samui, Thailand takes some beating. In Sri Lanka, tuck into delicate curries made from fish simmered in coconut milk and spices.

Sticky rice

This, for me, has to be one of the finds of my travels in Asia as not only is sticky rice stupidly tasty but it can also be served sweet or savoury as well as stuffed into a banana leaf for packed lunch in the jungle. As sticky rice doesn't need as much water to cook as other rice it's often steamed before being squidged into shape, sometimes after adding coconut milk for an extra creamy taste.

Where to try: the beaches of Thailand or the river banks of Laos are just a couple of Indochina ideas if you're looking to try mango sticky rice in the most authentic of settings.

Dim sum

Often perceived as a slightly middleclass mid-afternoon treat back home, dim sum is not seen in quite the same light when consumed in China. From early morning breakfast dim sum ordered to take away by office workers, to post Tai Chi dim sum eaten by elderly exercisers, these small, very moreish steamed or fried dumplings are ideal for travellers in Asia looking to fit a variety of flavours into one sitting.

Where to try: a brunch restaurant (closes mid-afternoon) or tea house in Hong Kong.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Josh Wilburne] [Dhal dishes: TravelAdvisor] [Crispy & spring rolls: pxhere] [Sushi: Nandaro] [Dim sum: Sher Lyn]
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