Southeast Asia has been drawing crowds from around the world for a host of reasons—from exuberant natural wonders and remarkable diversity in cultures to a wide range of cuisines known for their distinctive tastes and flavours. Whether you are island-hopping in Langkawi or traversing untrodden paths in Hanoi, the street food landscape changes every few kilometres and you are bound to find something that catches your eye and piques your curiosity.
Street food is one of the best things about travelling to Asia. But it is also a place for people to test the limits of their palate and sample some of the oddest delicacies the region has to offer. Do you have the stomach for trying a cracker that looks like a wasp’s nest? Or indulge in lesser-known sources of protein, like spiders? Even if you don’t consider yourself a picky eater, Asia’s fair share of bizarre street food eats will definitely make your stomach churn a little. So, here’s a list of mouth-watering—and sometimes eye-watering—Asian delicacies you will want to dive headfirst into.
Braised chicken feet is said to have been originated in Isan—a northeastern region of Thailand where food shortages were both a threat and a reality. This compelled the locals to make the most of every little piece of meat they get while struggling to make a living. But considering how many places it’s eaten in today, including most of China, perhaps it’s unfair to deem this bizarre. This Thai street food, also found in plush restaurants and luxury resorts these days, is often paired with noodles or boiled rice and cooked for hours on low flame with condiments such as lemongrass, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, and spring onion. It is then served up with various seasonings to add flavour.
When it comes to weird eats, it’s hard to leave out Japan. After all, Japanese people are known to relish things that are difficult to imagine, let alone digest. For the people from the west, and shiokara (塩辛) is a classic illustration of that. If the sight of anything gooey and the smell of fermented food seems revolting to you, then you should probably look away right now. Shiokara is literally the whole of ocean served in one dish. It’s a Japanese delicacy made up of meat taken from a selection of sea creatures and left to be fermented in their own viscera with heaps of salt. And if this didn’t seem bizarre enough, then know this: It’s all served raw and often gulped down in one go, followed by a shot of strong whiskey to wash off the strong odour of rotting seafood.
For those who haven’t heard of or seen a fertilised duck embryo, this is going to be a real shocker! Balut is pretty commonly found on the streets of the Philippines. In fact, it’s a delicacy, and most restaurants serve it as fancy appetisers. It’s usually polished off with a few beers or shots of vodka. And as incredible as it may taste, know this before shouting out “Keep the baluts coming!” the next time you’re in Philippines—balut is prepared by boiling a developing duck embryo alive inside the eggshell.
People devour it when it is still warm inside the shell and topped with a dipping sauce made of chillies, pepper, and fish sauce along with some shreds of ginger and sprigs of fresh mint. You start off by drinking the soup or the broth, followed by consuming the creamy egg yolk and finish it off by eating the embryo.
Here’s another freakish-looking egg dish on the list, and this one looks like a fossil straight out of Jurassic Park. Assuming that these eggs are a century-old would be getting a little ahead of yourself. These are simply preserved eggs—just not for a century. In fact, the entire process takes anywhere from a few weeks to a few months and involves preserving eggs in a saline mixture made of clay, ash, and quicklime. The result is a dark brown translucent jelly with a slimy exterior, emitting a pungent odour of sulphur and ammonia. The Chinese usually prefer to accompany it with some bland rice porridge, or congee, topped with pickled ginger root and lemongrass for a slightly herby taste.
Arachnophobes, this is the time to look away! And if that doesn’t deter you from continuing to read then know this—it involves biting into on an extremely chewy abdomen that essentially contains a deep brownish coloured paste of eggs and organs. For most of us, fried spiders might seem like a snack of nightmares, whereas in Cambodia, it’s a cuisine born entirely out of necessity. It was during the Khmer Rouge regime when chronic food scarcity drove locals to forage for spiders. Today, the Cambodians take pride in transforming something as repulsive as these creepy-crawlies into a somewhat agreeable delicacy cooked with soy sauce, garlic, sugar, and salt.
If you travelled to Southeast Asia in the hopes of taking on energetic and lively adventures, this one’s for you. Goong ten (กุ้งเต้น), or dancing shrimps, is how Northern Thailand comes alive on a plate (quite literally)! The dish earns its name from loads of lime juice, chillies, fish sauce, garlic, and onions being sprayed on top of live shrimps. The burning sensation from this seasoning is what makes them jump about in a complete frenzy. Yes, as evil as it sounds, it is quite a titillation for people who constantly seek the freshest seafood! And it literally could not get any fresher than this.
Trust Vietnam to come up with ideas on how to tackle the persisting issue of food wastage as they know how not to let good food go to waste. The only catch is that their food includes all the internal organs of cows and pigs known to an average human being. On the surface, phá lấu is a deceptively humble-looking bowl of soup, but the ingredients are anything but simple.
Chunks of liver, heart, stomach, ears, lungs, kidneys, and intestines are cut, thoroughly cleaned, and stewed in coconut water for hours before adding in the spices, curry powder, and some greens until they are tender, juicy, and incredibly flavourful. Although phá lấu has managed to garner international fanbase for its fork-tender meat and the sweet smell of herbs, it’s certainly a no-go for the unadventurous.
Like the freshness of seasonal fruits and the tenderness of tuna? Combine the two and you get the best of both worlds. While most of the world pairs fruit salads with scoops of ice cream or whipped cream dollops, Bali prefers to use gravy made of pindang fish. In your mind, perhaps you can already tell something “fishy” going on, but the Indonesians take a notch higher by adding an extremely pungent-smelling fermented shrimp paste to it. Grab a mouthful of this salad and you will be greeted with an explosion of sweet and sour crunch from the fruits and spicy and savoury taste from the unconventional fish broth, heaps of chillies, and lemongrass in your mouth. Now that’s one bizarre food pairing that might taste strangely good!