Food culture in South East Asia

February 21, 2020

Food culture in South East Asia

No matter how fussy you are, South East Asia is one of the best places to tantalise your tonsils (if, unlike me, you still have them). There are so many options, from your expected rice and noodles to insects to some combinations that you’d never try at home.

It also has a slightly different food culture than at home. You don’t have to eat in a certain way- in Malaysia you’re supposed to eat with your right hand but I never got told off for using my left- but you may purchase your food from different establishments than you usually expect.

By the way, you’re not going to find a McDonald’s down the road from the hostel. There are fast food outlets in all of the countries, but according to some of the group, Thai KFC is horrible!


Of course, you’ve got restaurants. These can be your usual high-style place you’d go to at home (for an example, we had our first group meal at Goodsouls in Chiang Mai, which was slightly expensive but the quality made up for it). Or, you may find yourself in other random locations. One road away from our Chiang Mai hostel was a small establishment and it looked like the owner lived there as he had a hammock and television in the corner.

Don’t just go for the places that look more refined. You’re more likely to taste authentic food in these smaller hidden places at a much better value. It also helps support small local businesses! You’re also more likely for a wild experience- Ngoc Chi in Da Nang was a place I frequented, and if there was a staff changeover while I was there, motorbikes would literally drive straight through the café!


If you don’t go to a night market during the South East Asia semester, two things: 1) Why not? And 2) You are missing out! Some of them occur every night whereas others are only on certain days. Here, you can find food that is cheap in cost but not in taste. There’s usually a lot of local dishes including huge Thai spring rolls and Vietnamese Bahn Mi, although you can try other global dishes too.

You can also get fairly small portions from the stalls if you so wish. That means you can try loads of delicacies without getting too full. Go out and explore yourself or ask the Location Managers/Student Ambassadors which stalls to check out.


Food stalls are usually what make up the night markets. Especially in Thailand, a lot of people make these their full-time business. You’ll spot these all the time- if they’re in more hidden locations, expect to pay half the price you would in the night markets.

My main word of advice: Go to where the locals go- they know what’s good both in taste and for your stomach.

If you do, you’re in for a treat!


In Malaysia, I tend to head to a Food Court between the Petronas Twin Towers of all places(!) for lunch. These contained some big brands (Subway) as well as some Malaysian-exclusive companies. I found these a little more expensive than the Night Markets but they were still just as good! I never even had a Subway before Malaysia but it was near the bottom of my favourite places to eat at. There are so many other alternatives!

Whether you’re veggie, vegan, have allergies or are just a fussy eater, you’ll find something. Even if you don’t like foods at home, you may surprise yourself that you love it when it’s authentically made.


Hawker Centres are like food courts but are open air and are found in Malaysia and Singapore. My advice for the few days of the semester you’re in Singapore is to eat in these- Singapore is expensive but these places are not. You can find some awesome local dishes for less than a Singapore dollar (56p).

Make sure you try at least one new thing in each country or you’re missing out. I’ve gone from a fussy eater to a lover of tropical and spicy food since stepping on the plane to Chiang Mai. There’s so many local, exotic fruits, vegetables and spices to try- you’re in for the trip of a lifetime, why limit it just to sightseeing?

About the author

Jasmin Dawling is one of Global Grad’s January 2019 students and is completing a full-time Bachelor’s degree with the Open University in International Studies. While this is her first time formally blogging, she has had plenty of writing experience in the past, from novel writing since the age of six to working on the school newspaper. Apart from seeing the sights of South East Asia and working on her degree, Jasmin spends most of her time either procrastinating or writing down her novel ideas, be it on her travelling-inspired new ideas or the 7-part series she’s been toying with for almost ten years.

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