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Experience an awakening of the senses quite like nothing else with these Asian street foods, showcasing the creativity, heritage, and incredible flavor of humble dishes from all four corners of the continent.
No continent does street food quite like Asia, and a trip to a food, fish, night, or street market, or a happening across a street vendor, is nearly always a memorable experience that will speak to all parts of you.
From the sizzle of salty-fresh fish on an open flame grill to the mesmerizing sight of a vendor skillfully spooning and shaping batter on a hot plate, street food in Asia is an experience like no other.
Eager to discover more? Guided by Sharleen, a food expert and Asian writer, here are 20 dishes from across the continent to get you excited about Asian street food at its purest.
Asian Street Foods
1 – Taiwan – Bubble Tea (珍珠奶茶)
In recent years, the popularity of bubble tea has been rapidly increasing all around the world. However, this sweet drink has been around in Taiwan since the 1980s. Originating from street vendors in Taichung, this street drink was originally marketed towards school children, but today is beloved by people of all ages.
This drink consists of a blend of milk, black tea, and fruit syrup with honey-covered tapioca pearls. Initially, this drink only contained milk tea with fruit syrup and no tapioca pearls. Recently, the high number of vendors and businesses making bubble tea has led to the creation of many new bubble tea flavors like matcha, coffee, tiramisu, and Cheese Foam cap, among many others.
2 – Hong Kong – Egg Tarts (蛋撻)
Egg tarts are a staple of Hong Kong street bakeries and dim sum restaurants and are a must-try when you visit the city. This specialty originated from the British chefs who worked in the tea houses in Guangzhou but migrated to Hong Kong in the 1950s because of the cultural revolution.
The tart itself has an egg paste filling consisting of a combination of egg, milk, and sugar and is baked until the filling is golden yellow.
There are two types of egg tarts, which are differentiated by their tart crust: the soft and flaky meringue crust and the cookie-like butter crust. Both, in my humble opinion, are equally delicious!
Read more: 23 Best Foods to Try in Hong Kong
3 – Japan – Takoyaki (たこ焼き)
Takoyaki is one of the most recognizable street snacks, both within and outside of Japan. This popular snack hails from Osaka, which to this day still has one of the biggest street market scenes in Japan.
Meaning “grilled octopus” in Japanese, takoyaki are balls of dough filled with octopus, sliced pickled ginger, and fried tempura bits, cooked on a takoyaki grill and topped with spring onion, seaweed, bonito flakes, mayonnaise, and takoyaki sauce.
In recent times more modern recreations of takoyaki have come to the street food scene, swapping out octopus for bacon, cheese, kimchi, and many other fried delights.
Read more: 21 Japanese Foods You Need to Try
4 – South Korea – Tteokbokki (떡볶이)
This traditional dish made its appearance early on in Korean history, being a staple in Joseon royal courts. However, the tteokbokki of the past looked quite different, with a sweeter, non-spicy flavor profile, cooked with beef.
The tteokbokki we know today came to be during the post-Korean war era, opting for the spicy taste of gochujang, a spicy Korean sauce, over sweet, marinated beef. Today’s tteokbokki are long, cylindrical rice cakes cooked with fish cakes, scallions, hard-boiled eggs, sausage, and spam, covered in gochujang.
Recent years have also seen many Koreans swapping out the gochujang with a white sauce or a rose sauce and topped with cheese.
Read more: 16 Korean Foods You Need to Try
5 – Singapore – Kaya Toast
Kaya toast is a must-try when visiting Singapore. It is a popular breakfast food that is sold in hawker centers. This dish simply consists of kaya jam, a combination of sugar, coconut milk, and pandan leaves, spread on 2 slices of toast, and it is commonly served with a side of eggs and coffee.
To turn this Singaporean breakfast staple into a snack, feel free to swap out the toast for crackers instead. Because of its proximity, this dish is also very popular in Malaysia as well.
Read more: 20 Mouthwatering Foods to Try in Singapore
6 – Thailand – Mango Sticky Rice (ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง)
Mango is a well-loved fruit across South-East Asia, so it’s no wonder that mango sticky rice has become one of the region’s most beloved desserts.
Thailand is most synonymous with this dessert, sold by street vendors throughout the country. The dish consists of glutinous rice and mango, with coconut milk drizzled overtop and served hot.
Mango sticky rice can be eaten all year long, but the best time to eat it is during mango season, between April and June. Each also country has its own take on this dish. For example, Laotian people serve this without coconut milk, while in the Philippines, it is served with hot chocolate as well.
Read more: 20 Thai Foods You Need to Try
7 – Malaysia – Satay (Sate)
Satay is Indonesia’s national dish and has become very popular in most Southeast Asian cuisines, including Malaysian cuisine and Thai cuisine.
Like the shish kebab of the Middle East and the yakitori of Japan, satay is the Southeast Asian take on skewered meat and vegetables. The meat of choice for satay is often beef, but you are still able to find other meat options, like veal, venison, fish, shrimp, and chicken available.
These skewers are grilled over charcoal by traveling vendors and served with a special satay sauce made from peanut paste and shallots.
While there is no definitive source of where satay originated from, the common belief is that this street specialty is rooted in Javanese cuisine, which in time spread to other parts of Asia.
8 – Vietnam – Summer Rolls (Gỏi cuốn)
Summer rolls are the lesser-known cousin of spring rolls but are still hugely popular in Vietnam. Like spring rolls, summer rolls are filled with cooked pork or prawn, vegetables, and vermicelli.
However, unlike spring rolls, which are deep fried, summer rolls and instead served at room temperature with an uncooked outer shell. The rolls are then served with a dipping sauce made of brown sugar, rice vinegar, and chili sauce.
This dish has many names across Vietnam and Asia. For example, the rolls are called salad rolls in South Vietnam, new rolls in North Vietnam, rice paper rolls in Central Vietnam, and Vietnamese rolls in Hong Kong.
9 – Pakistan – Pakora
Popular in Indian cuisine, Bangladeshi cuisine, and Pakistani cuisine, pakora is the perfect street food for any lovers of deep-fried foods. This is a dish of vegetables dipped in chickpea flour batter and then deep-fried at high heat. Once deep-fried, pakoras are served with ketchup or chutney.
These delicious fried goodies are not only served by street vendors but also sold in restaurants as appetizers or side dishes.
10 – Nepal – Panipuri (पानी पुरी)
Panipuri is considered chaat, a family of snacks originally from Northern India but popular in other parts of Asia, often served by the roadside. The name of this dish literally means “water in fried bread,” and consists of a round-shaped bread dough hollowed out to add a spicy potato-based filling.
It is eaten by first opening a hole in one of the dough balls and pouring a combination of tamarind, chutney, and capsicum into it.
11 – India – Samosas (समोसा)
Originating from the Middle East and Central Asia, samosas spread to South Asia and have been a mainstay for many cultural cuisines, including India.
Samosas are pyramid-shaped fritters that are either deep-fried or baked. These fritters are typically stuffed with the previous night’s leftovers, which include anything from vegetable curry to rice and potatoes, and served with chutney.
Each country has its own unique take on samosas. Samosas from the Maldives, for example, are filled with fish and tuna stuffing, Indonesian samosas are similar to empanadas and have a lighter taste, and Israel’s samosas are semi-circle shaped and filled with hummus, fried onions, and spices.
12 – Bhutan – Jasha Maroo
Bhutan has cold winters, with temperatures commonly dropping below zero. Hence, soups are hugely popular across the country, especially during the wintertime.
Jasha maroo is a popular chicken soup that contains diced chicken, garlic, ginger, tomato sauce, and many, many chilies. Bhutanese cuisine is known for being spicy, so the Bhutanese people are very liberal with using chilies in this recipe. Jasha maroo is served with rice to make it even more of a filling dish.
13 – Iran – Falafel (فلافل)
Falafel itself is a deep-fried round-shaped patty comprised of beans, chickpeas, herbs, and spices.
Falafel originates from Arabic cuisine and is very popular in many Western Asian countries. It grew in popularity as a street food in the 1950s and is eaten as the filling of a pita bread sandwich. This sandwich is served with tahini, a sesame sauce, hummus, vegetables, and pita.
Read more: 21 Persian Foods You Need to Try
14 – Lebanon – Shawarma (شاورما)
Nowadays, shawarma is a popular street food everywhere, but its popularity is very much centralized in the Middle East.
Shawarma is a dish of meat, typically beef, lamb, or chicken, marinated with cinnamon, cumin, coriander seeds, cardamom, turmeric, and garlic. It is then stacked on a large vertical rotisserie traditionally grilled over an open fire (or other types of heat, such as coal or gas flame, depending on the eatery).
Pieces of the meat are then thinly sliced with a sharp knife, and the shawarma comes together with flatbread, tahini, and vegetables.
15 – Yemen – Murtabak (مطبق)
Murtabak is a sandwich that is a popular street snack in Yemen, sold at the stalls of street markets. It is filled with minced meat, egg, and leeks. This sandwich is then topped with mutton, garlic, eggs, and onions.
This snack made its way to Southeast Asia during the Delhi Sultanate. In Southeast Asia, specifically Indonesia, there is a sweet dessert version of murtabak as well. This sweet sandwich is filled with bananas, chocolate, and nuts, and it’s called sweet murtabak.
16 – Turkey – Donair Kebab (döner kebap)
The Turkish donair kebab is a delicacy that, similarly to the shawarma, puts thinly sliced rotisserie meat in the spotlight. Served with onion, tomato, and salad, donair kebabs tend to have less sauce and vegetables than shawarma and put more emphasis on the less spiced juicy meat.
Donair kebabs can be served wrapped or unwrapped in a pita, usually with cabbage and cream or sriracha. It may also be enjoyed with fries.
Read more: 20 Turkish Street Foods You Need to Try
17 – Kyrgyzstan – Lagman
Lagman is a specialty from Kyrgyzstan. This dish originated from China, brought over from the nomadic Uyghur minority, which is evident in its taste and preparation.
As its name suggests, Lagman means “pulled noodles,” which means that the dough is hand-pulled into thin strands rather than cut. These noodles are served either in a spicy mutton soup or stir-fried with vegetables.
Each ethnic group in Kyrgyzstan has its own variation on how to prepare lagman. The Dungan people fry their noodles, the Kazakhs add omelet into their soup, and the Tajiks eat lagman with a milk-based soup.
18 – Kazakhstan – Manti
Like many other countries in the world, Kazakhstan has its dumpling specialty dish that is unique to their culture, like the Japanese gyoza, Chinese jiaozi, and Korean mandu. The widespread nature of the dumpling and its variations is believed to be linked to the global migration of the nomadic Turkic people.
In Kazakhstan, this dish is called manti. Manti are dumplings stuffed with a filling comprised of mutton or beef, onions, and black pepper. The dumplings are then steamed in a device called the Manti Qasqan and are eaten with vinegar, sour cream, tomato sauce, or yogurt.
Manti are popular in many cuisines, including Central Asian cuisines, Afghan cuisine, Turkish and Armenian cuisines, and Bosnian cuisine, although their preparation varies from country to country.
Read more: 20 Kazakh Foods You Need to Try
19 – Uzbekistan – Achichuk
Salads are very popular in Uzbek cuisine, and the achichuk is very much one of the country’s most popular. It is a salad consisting of very finely sliced tomato, chili, and onions.
Because of its simple and lighter taste, it complements some of the more seasoned Uzbek dishes. Hence it is commonly served alongside plov and other meat dishes. This salad is the most delicious during tomato season when the tomatoes are sweeter and richer in flavor.
20 – Turkmenistan – Ishleki
Ishleki is a meat pie that is a staple in Turkmen cuisine. This is Turkmenistan’s national dish and is commonly known as Turkmenistan’s answer to a shepherd’s pie, with a thin crust more akin to that of a Calzone.
It consists of a flatbread crust with a lamb or beef filling. Traditionally, it was baked in the hot sands of the Turkmen deserts, but today an oven is far more commonly used. Ishleki is also commonly eaten across the Middle East.
Asian Street Foods Summary
Both natives and tourists alike will often tell you that if you truly want to see the magic of Asian cuisine, head to the roadside vendors and food markets and see for yourself the wonder in motion.
Naturally, my cross-continent rundown barely scratches the surface of all the delicious foods you could spend a lifetime trying. However, this list should at least whet your appetite for Asia’s humble and sumptuous street food scene, no matter where you are heading.
From street vendors to night markets, embrace them, feel them, and try as many of the foods as your stomach will allow – you will not regret it, I promise you!
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Contributor: Sharleen Kwok is a copywriter with a wealth of knowledge about Asian cuisine and regional variations.