Street Food Asia – Luke Nguyen


Whether eating fiery som tum on a bustling Bangkok street, slurping pho in Vietnam perched on a red plastic stool, inhaling the galangal, lemongrass and coconut-infused air of Jakarta, or being seduced by heady wafts of succulent satay as it grills in Kuala Lumpur, there’s nothing more alluring than street food. I love, love, love it, in all its permutations. When I travel, my top priority is hitting the pavement in search of interesting things to eat, making sure I do this at a slow pace and with my ears, eyes and nose on constant red alert. Down alleys and around every bend in the road, there’s a tucked-away kitchen or mobile cart dispensing hot, smoky, freshly cooked deliciousness and I don’t want to miss a single edible thing.

Discovering local street food is the best way I know to understand a place and instantly feel connected to it. It’s my ultimate buzz and the fact that it comes complete with flames, steam, smoke, smells, sounds, colour, heat, energy, good vibes and a ton of flavour, only makes it better. Now I want to take you with me on an adventure to some of my favourite Asian nooks and crannies – places where fantastic street food still reigns supreme.

All over South-East Asia, the street food repertoire is vast. Getting to know every dish and its regional spin-offs would take a lifetime and that’s part of the allure – there’s so much to know and I’m constantly making new discoveries. The adventure isn’t just about uncovering the technicalities of a particular dish though as there are also, invariably, fascinating backstories and compelling snippets of family and food history involved. And then there are the dedicated cooks. I love watching street cooks work; I love hearing their stories, I love seeing the skill, care and passion they put into every dish they make. Cooks tend to be generous people and nowhere more so than on the street – I gain so much in knowledge and in my humanity every time I get out among authentic street food action.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2.5 billion people globally eat street food every day. Street food evolved around necessity; people had tiny living spaces so home kitchens weren’t an option and, in some countries, this still holds true for many. Mobile food hawking is a way to get nutritious, affordable, varied, ready cooked food to the urban masses while supporting local economies; food vendors tend to purchase from the nearest market, stocked with local produce, according to what is in season. Less tangible benefits of street food culture include the preservation of traditional cooking styles and the fostering of community. Yes, street cooking is evolving, particularly in more developed places. But most often, street food dishes are cooked according to strict tradition, often passed down through generations of family stall-owners.

Street food brings people together, as folk crowd onto their neighbourhood streets to share meals and conversation at their favourite stall. Some vendors operate in the same spot for decades, giving a sense of continuation that can span several generations. And while Asian cities modernise at a rampant pace, with glimmering malls replacing gritty old laneways and younger generations becoming wealthier and more sophisticated by the nanosecond, street eating isn’t going anywhere yet. It continues to cut across age, gender, religion, economic status and every other demography you’d care to mention. It’s at the core of the very fabric of cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Saigon, making visits to these place just one giant excuse to eat amazingly good food, outdoors.

In this book, I want to take you with me as I delve into the street food scenes that thrive across some of my all-time favourite Asian cities. You’ll find full recipes, as well as stories about some of the amazing dishes I came across on my travels, and where you can find them when you visit. Even if you can’t be there in person, you can still create the smells, sounds, energy and flavours at home, in your very own kitchen, by cooking these recipes. I hope also that when you read about the vendors and street food cooks that have become special to me, and from whom I have learned so much, you’ll be inspired to seek them out when you do find yourself in Bangkok or Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur or Saigon. Eating their food, in situ, is the best kind of culinary travel experience you could possibly have.

We have 2 recipes to share with you from Luke Nguyen’s Street Food Asia…

  • Vietnamese Coffee with Condensed Milk
  • Chilli Crab Claw

This is an edited extract from Street Food Asia byLuke Nguyen published by Hardie Grant Books RRP AU$39.99/ NZ$44.99 and is available in stores nationally.

Photographer: ©Alan Benson

Crab Claw with Chilli Salt – Luke Nguyen
Vietnamese Coffee With Condensed Milk – Luke Nguyen
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