Everyone loves some good Chinese takeout on the right occasion, but there’s a whole lot more out there than Kung Pao chicken and beef-and-broccoli. Depending on where you travel in Asia, people eat just about everything that moves, and a big part of the secret is that they learned how to make it delicious. Without dabbling too far into the bizarre, there are a handful of absolutely decadent dishes within Asian cuisine across the continent that you’d do yourself a disservice not to try.
Nasi Lemak – Malaysia
Nasi Lemak is the national dish of Malaysia. The literal translation of its name is “oily rice,” but “creamy” makes for a more accurate (and appetizing) contextual translation. The preparation of the dish starts with soaking rice in coconut cream before it’s steamed with pandan leaves. The fragrant rice is served wrapped in banana leaves with garnish of cucumber slices, fried anchovies, roasted peanuts, and fried egg. This is a popular breakfast food.
Kare-Kare – Philippines
This Philippine stew derives its name from the word "curry," but it’s nothing like anything you’ve had at an Indian or Thai restaurant. The broth is made from stewed oxtail, beef, and tripe, though it can sometimes be made with seafood, vegetables, or offal. The broth is mixed with savory peanut sauce to make a thick and complex flavor profile.
Char Kway Teow – Malaysia
If you don’t know about Asian pork buns, then you need to find your nearest dim sum restaurant as soon as possible—but this lesser-known Malaysian street food is just as delicious, though not quite as portable. The name translates to “stir-fried rice cake strips,” which is a somewhat straightforward description. The noodles are browned with soy sauce and served with meat, fish cake, egg, and sausage to create a stir-fried street-food delight.
Amok Trey – Cambodia
To celebrate the Water Festival in Cambodia, the locals serve their traditional dish, Amok trey—a light and colorful dish. The preparation involves coating a fish with thick coconut milk and freshly ground spices known as kroeung, though many dishes offer variants served with chicken, beef, and other alternatives. It’s then steamed in banana leaves to form a thick curry that features noni leaves and fingerroot.
Gamjatang – Korea
This spicy Korean soup uses a broth made from pork neck bones with red hot peppers. The high heat of the broth-making softens the meat to its ideal tenderness. Potatoes, cellophane noodles, radish greens, green onions, and perilla leaves are added to the soup to make a savory-spicy treat. Though it used to be nearly impossible to find the soup outside of Korea, these days it’s featured prominently in Korean restaurants in the United States and abroad.
Babi Guling – Indonesia
There’s a hint of irony to be found in that one of the most delicious pork dishes has its origins in a Muslim-majority nation, but the Balinese know how to cook a pig. The slow-roasted pork is seasoned with ginger, galangal, turmeric, chilies, and shrimp paste to make a sweet, spicy, and savory profile that compliment the tender-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside porcine.
Rendang – Indonesia & Malaysia
This food of the Minangkabau culture sits on the fence as to its status as a curry, but its classification has no bearing on its flavor. There’s a whole laundry list of ingredients that goes into rendang, including ginger, galangal, turmeric, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, chilies, anise, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and lime leaves among others. The ingredients are slow-cooked until all the liquid is gone and the meat is well-done, which makes for hefty absorption of the intense flavors.