Jennie and I dedicated the whole month of October 2018 to exploring street food culture in Singapore and Malaysia. We wanted to find out whether we can truly “know” a place and its people by simply walking around and eating our way through it.
Spoiler alert: it’s possible.
Malaysian food is complex, diverse and criminally underrepresented in North America. It’s the perfect blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian influences. In practice, this means shrimp paste and sambal meets soy sauce and lemongrass, rice steamed with coconut milk dates Indian roti and curry.
And as someone not prone to hyperbole:
Malaysian nasi lemak might be the most perfect breakfast dish ever invented.
Street Food 101:
How to Find Good Street Food in Southeast Asia
Maybe it’s an inborn talent of the Taiwanese, but for someone who’s not overly fussy about what he eats, I do have a knack for finding good street food. You can chalk this up to the power of deduction.
Because once you’ve eliminated the tourist traps and places that will definitely give you food poisoning, whatever remains, however rundown-looking, must be freaking delicious.
In this post, I’ve compiled a list of 9 general guidelines (not rules) you should stick to when you have a mental list of foods you want to try, but don’t know which vendors to pick. Where online sources are either non-existent or unreliable, and the only thing you can depend on are your senses and instinct.
9 Non-Obvious Tips for Finding Good Street Food in Asia and Southeast Asia
1. Always arrive late to the meal
Street food is an iterative process that gets better as the night goes on. Like a car engine sitting in a winter driveway, vendors need time to warm up. The first couple of batches are just to get themselves in rhythm. Which is why in Taiwan, no self-respecting local arrives at a night market before 7 PM (usually closer to 8).
2. Do a complete walk-through before choosing a stall
Pay attention to what’s going on both behind and in front of the stall: how old are the cooks (i.e. how long have they been doing this)? How fresh are the ingredients? What’s the average age of the customers? Are vendors getting high off their own supply? What are they feeding their own kids? In Penang, Malaysia, in a food court full of exotic seafood and spicy curry broths, I saw a vendor’s kid ignore his smartphone and inhale a plate of chicken wings and plain white rice from a neighboring stall. So that’s what I had for dinner that night. That kid was onto something.
3. Understand queue dynamics: what kind of line is forming?
Conventional wisdom says to go where people (preferably locals) are lining up. Whichever stall has the longest line, must be serving the best food, right?
Not always. Long lines=good food is the kind of lemming-like thinking that leads to the rich getting richer, until one day, global inequality brings about the collapse of our institutions. Somewhere, at the end of a long, random queue, lurks the future Starbucks of street food.
Here’s a real-life example: Jennie and I were in Tokyo for the first week of December. Passing by Shinjuku on a Saturday afternoon, we saw locals lining up around the block for, get this, Taiwanese bubble tea.
Turns out the Kaohsiung-based franchise Gong Cha recently opened their first stores in Japan. As a Taiwanese, is Gong Cha the best bubble tea ever? Not even close. But it’s definitely the most expensive and trendy. Another example: tourists queuing in front of Ichiran Ramen (ubiquitous across Japan; basically the Mcdonalds of ramen) as if its famous tonkotsu broth offered the elixir to everlasting life.
Editor’s Note: To be fair, Ichiran Ramen is decent (in spite of hype) and the dining concept is pretty unique. But the Fukuoka chain has been around in its current form since the early 90s. When Jennie and I were last in Japan ten years ago, nobody cared about Ichiran. The only thing that’s really changed is the size of the company’s marketing budget.
4. Pay attention to old people
This tip works especially well at lunchtime and in the mid-afternoons. Prime old people hangout times. When you’re faced with the prospect of choosing between hundreds of food stalls selling the same items, you can’t go wrong gravitating towards groups of old men (“uncles”) or women (“aunties”) clustered around that one stall drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.
The same logic applies for the people behind the counter. You’re looking for older vendors with a no-nonsense, take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Avoid bored-looking teenagers and twenty-somethings behind the wok. That’s just slave labor dressed up as filial piety.
5. The more gimmicks the food has, the more disappointing it will be
Gimmicks: your food wouldn’t need them if it was anything to write home about. Delicious food, by definition, should speak for itself. It doesn’t get improved with sparklers, or if it’s shrunk down into kawaii (Japanese for cute) mini-sizes, or if it’s cut into the shape of Hello Kitty. Pretty much any optimization for Instagram is guaranteed to make zero difference to the actual quality of the food - but a noticeable difference to the price.
6. A steaming pot of broth right out front is usually a good sign
Any food that’s cooked in front of you and not carried in from the back is generally a good sign. But something old that’s already boiling in a cauldron out front is even better. Lao tang tou, or “old soup broth,” where fresh ingredients are added daily but the soup is never changed for decades, is history you can actually taste.
7. If a vendor has more than 1-2 specialty dishes on the menu, they don’t understand what the word specialty means
Fat menus lead to thin wallets and disappointing meals. This holds especially true for street food and small vendors, where you know they don’t employ a staff of two dozen specialists in the kitchen. Having more than two specialty dishes means you’re trying to be everything to everyone. Nine times out of ten, you’ve already failed.
8. Avoid the aggressive or over-friendly salesman
A salesman is only as good as the product he or she sells. But the better the product, the more it should sell itself. Especially when it comes to food, where you (typically) don’t need an instruction manual. Therefore, the very presence of an overly friendly salesman is a sign that the food should be avoided.
9. Be careful when choosing “well-rated” and decorated establishment
Say I’m the owner of a hawker center stall in Singapore. I’ve been working at my craft for half a century, sweating away in the equatorial heat. One day, a critic from an unnamed French tire company rides in on his horse to review my life’s work. Based on...what? Do I go into their factories to grade the quality of their tires? Do I look like I’m baking baguettes here?
Now I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Michelin Man is an untrustworthy fraud. If anything, he looks like someone who would know all the good places to eat. What I am saying is that in the world of night markets and food stalls, “prestige” is often not based on the most up-to-date information. Quality and standards in the food world are fickle and subject to change. Margins are low, competition is fierce, and customers are always seeking newer thrills (further reading: how much does it cost to run a hawker stall in Singapore?).
International fame also tends to skew your incentives. When most of your clientele becomes one-time customers (i.e. tourists), instead of people from the block you have to pass by on the street every day, would anyone notice if you raised the prices and cut some corners?
And if someone did notice, would it be your problem?