Sup noodles at a Bangkok market stall, devour rotis on a Penang street corner, or nibble on a buttery croissant in Vientiane. Adventurous visitors can embark on an epicurean journey of some proportions in South-east Asia. In fact, tasting the region's street food isn't just a delicious diversion, it also offers an insight into local life.
Just take the following tips. Look for the busiest places – the humblest back-street eateries can be packed to the rafters, queues forming with eager diners. Even if you don't know what's on the menu, get in line because you're sure to find something tasty. Don't be shy – lift up pot lids, poke about a bit, ask questions. Most Asian budget eateries are used to this and it can be a great way to communicate, enabling you to order food exactly to your specification.
Keep testing and tasting – if you're in a food market just buy several small dishes even if you're unsure what you're getting. Most of it is so cheap that it's not going to break the bank. And go seasonal and local. There's a very good reason why most Thais won't eat mangoes out of season – the ones on offer in season are so spectacularly good that the year-round varieties are just pale imitations. So if you're in a fresh produce market, keep an eye out for what's piled high.
The great thing about Bangkok is that the chances of finding good food in the back streets are high. But, if you want the full authentic Thai experience get as far away from the tourist spots as possible.
Start at Chok Chai Si night market on Lad Phrao Rd (Lad Phrao metro and a short ride by taxi or on buses 8, 92 or 44; open 6pm to 10pm). There's also a daytime market here, renowned with the locals. Look out for spicy clam soups and excellent moo krob – crispy pork belly – at street stalls. For amazing handmade Yunnan noodles head to Smile restaurant (Suthisan metro, 302/38 Suthisan Vinijchai Rd) – the beef noodle soup is astonishing.
But the most popular street food in Bangkok hails from Isaan, Thailand's vast north-east region: som tam (spicy green papaya salad), various larbs (spicy minced pork or chicken with roasted rice and mint), grilled meats and sticky rice can be found everywhere. If you're a som tam virgin, the Som Tam Noir restaurant (Siam Square skytrain, Siam Square soi) is a good start, and you can book a table. The grilled beef with nam jim jaew – a chilli, lime and salty fish sauce – is recommended.
If you've visited Thailand before, it's likely you've encountered some form of Lao cuisine – the Isaan food is very closely related. But what you won't have come across is what's just on offer in Laos itself – some of the most affordable French fare in South-east Asia.
Vientiane, the capital, has some excellent, very reasonable French eateries. One of the best is Le Silapa (17/1 Sihom Rd). The set lunch is a bargain, including everything from aubergines stuffed with goat's cheese to excellent rosemary and garlic-enhanced lamb – the wine list is pretty good, too.
For superb croissants, coffee and pastries, make sure you call in at Le Croissant d'Or (96/1 Nokeokumane St; croissant-dor.com). But to sample authentic local flavours, try the family-run Nang Khambang (97/2 Khoun Boulom Rd). The food here can be seriously spicy, but makes for a perfect introduction to Lao food. If you want to dine with a conscience, Makphet (behind Wat Ong Teu in downtown Vientiane; friends-international.org) is a non-profit restaurant that helps raise money for street kids and also serves up premier Lao grub.
The ex-Portuguese enclave of Macau is one of Asia's best-kept culinary secrets. Here, in this minuscule Chinese city-state, Cantonese and the far-flung flavours of Portugal's former colonies in Asia, Africa and India combine to create the unique Macanese cuisine.
Quintessential Portuguese egg-custard tarts, Pasties de Nata, are available everywhere – Lord Stow's Bakery on Coloane island (1 Rua Do Tassara, Coloane Town Square; lordstow.com) is a superb place to sample them. More complete and pricier Macanese dining can be had at Henri's Galley restaurant (4G-H, Avienda da Republica), where you'll find an incredible African Chicken in the shape of an entire bird slow-roasted in paprika, chilli, coconut, peanuts and garlic. Nam Heng, opposite the Sofitel on Rua das Lorchas, offers tasty plates of steamed siu long bao, a delicious pork meat and soup-filled dumpling, and the side streets off nearby Rua de Calderia are packed with budget Cantonese eateries.
Georgetown, a Unesco World Heritage Site on Penang Island in Malaysia, is a foodie favourite, with the beautifully preserved shophouses, chai stalls and vibrant markets creating the definitive exotic backdrop.
Don't miss roit canai, a flaky flatbread. At Sup Hameed (48 Jln Penang), it's served with a variety of soups and curries. This place is famous for its bull's penis soup, "Sup Torpedo Lembu" – which, amusingly, one guide book refers to as "squid". The restaurant also serves up several Malay nasi lemak bungkus – small pockets of coconut rice mixed with anchovies, peanuts and chilli paste, wrapped in neat banana leaves – which you can find everywhere in Georgetown. For North Indian food, Kapitan (49 Lebuh Chulia; penangnet.com/kapitan), on a corner in Little India, is a Georgetown legend. It has fantastic set menus, and serves delicious tandoori meats, chais, and nan breads. Tuck in.
Andrew Spooner is the co-author of Footprint books' Southeast Asia Handbook (£10.88, amazon.co.uk)
How to get there
Etihad Airlines (0800 731 9384; etihadairways.com) offers return flights to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur via Abu Dhabi from Heathrow and Manchester starting at £431. Air Asia offers an extensive network of budget flights throughout South-east Asia (airasia.com).
Laos (tourismlaos.org); Thailand (tourismthailand.co.uk); Macau (macautourism.gov.mo); Malaysia (tourismmalaysia.gov.my).