Up until fairly recently, travelers to Southeast Asia were nervous about eating unfamiliar foods. Those days are long gone! Nowadays just about everyone wants the opportunity to experience street food and local delicacies. Even people who are hesitant to try street food are still excited to learn about exotic spices, unfamiliar produce and Southeast Asian cooking techniques.

Eating street food comes with some risks – but so does eating just about anywhere. In the 30 years since I’ve been traveling to Southeast Asia, the only time I came down with a stomach parasite was from eating at a restaurant here in southern California. (I do appreciate the irony.)

While there  are always risks to eating street food, there are ways to minimize your risks. At Southeast Asia Tours we offer a number of street food excursions with private guides. The benefit to visiting night markets and local eateries with a local guide is that they’re familiar with the various food vendors and know which vendors have the best reputation for fresh food and sanitary conditions. A local guide can also explain the foods you’re eating and suggest the tastiest items to sample.

Though many street food tours involve walking through markets while tasting items from small stands, there are also tours that take you to outlying areas of the cities – away from the most touristy spots. These excursions often incorporate some fun elements as far as transportation is concerned. For example, in Saigon, Vietnam and Siem Reap, Cambodia you can take after-dark foodie tours where you travel from place to place on the back of a Vespa (motor scooter). In Bangkok you can take an 8:00pm to midnight street food tour via tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw). Or, try an evening food tour that involves bicycling along the river to small neighborhoods in Bangkok. In Mandalay, Myanmar your food tour via rickshaw will include resident food enthusiasts explaining  the secrets behind the noodle dishes, pancakes, salads, samosas and sweets that you’ll be tasting.

If you’re looking to experience home-cooked local cuisine that’s a step or two up from street food, consider dining at a private home or home-based restaurant. One of the loveliest home-hosted meals (lunch or dinner) is at a garden house in Hue, Vietnam. In Chiang Mai, Thailand you can head out of town to the home of a Lanna family where you’ll join in the food preparation and will then dine on the second floor terrace of the family’s home. This is a great opportunity to interact with a local family and to learn about Lanna traditions and life. Or, if you’re willing to commit to a long (12+ hours) day, you can travel to Mae Kampong, a rustic village in the mountains outside Chiang Mai. You’ll walk through the forest with the locals, learn about how they conserve the forest, see how they make local handicrafts and how they prepare fermented tea. You’ll then cook your own dinner in one of the village homes.

As for cooking classes, there are a number of options at a variety of Southeast Asia destinations. Most cooking classes are held in the morning and begin with a market visit to select produce and other ingredients. Some cooking schools even have their own herb gardens. Cooking classes range from private, to small groups (i.e. a maximum of six participants) to large groups (i.e. up to 30 participants). Some cooking classes are held at restaurants, some are at cooking centers and some are home-based. Though there are similarities in the ingredients, each country’s foods have unique characteristics and flavors (i.e. the herbs and spices used). So, for people who love to cook it’s not at all redundant to take a cooking class in more than one country.

Food is a big part of a country’s culture. Just let us know how involved you want to be in that aspect of Southeast Asian culture and we’ll be happy to include it in your custom-tour.

Diane Embree
November 10, 2017