Eat if You Dare: 6 of Southeast Asia’s Most Weird and Wonderful Dishes

Published 11 November 2016

Lottie Croker

My favourite thing about Southeast Asia is the ambrosial food. Fragrant flavours, creamy curries and exotic fruits: every day guarantees to be a culinary adventure. Sampling the local food is a great way to experience the culture and that includes delicacies that we might consider ‘weird’. Though it’s all down to personal taste… so if you’re an adventurous foodie, go sample these dishes yourself!

A Discovery Plate at the Bugs Cafe, Siem Reap (image: Lottie Croker)

Creepy crawlies, Thailand and Cambodia

Critters aren’t just consumed on I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here; in many Asian countries they’re part of the daily diet. In Bangkok, under the glistening lamp of a street vendor’s cart you will find a variety of fried mini-beasts like grasshoppers or scorpions. Asia’s answer to a packet of crisps, they’re a crunchy and unusual snack worth trying. As well as being tasty, they are surprisingly nutritious and very high in protein. A fusion of French and Khmer cuisine, my favourite place for insects is The Bugs Café in Siem Reap, Cambodia. A ‘Discovery Plate’ ($14) includes five insect-infested items such as tarantula doughnuts, ant pastries and cricket and silk worm stir-fry. The flavour combinations are superb and they’re not deep fried to obliteration so the bugs retain their flavour and texture. Be sure to stop by after a long day exploring the temples of Angkor Wat.


Durian, Malaysia

The first time you encounter durian is an experience you’ll never forget. The name is derived from the Malay-Indonesian word for spike, in reference to its thorny exterior, however it’s what’s inside that so strongly polarises people. Prepare to hold your nose; this is arguably the world’s smelliest fruit. I would equate the stench to rotting onions, overripe cheese or sewage on a summer’s day. So why did I try it? Well everyone says you have to - it’s a traveller’s rite of passage. The strange creamy texture mixes with an indescribable flavour. My sense of taste and smell are inextricably linked so I struggled to ignore the offensive odour. Durian is so pungent that it’s forbidden in many public places including hotels and Singapore’s subway. And beware: Asian folklore says eating durian alongside alcohol will lead to death!

Balut (duck embryo)

Balut, Philippines

With a vein-laced yolk and embryo staring back at you, this ugly duckling is reserved for the most open-minded and daring foodies. Created by hard-boiling a fertilized duck egg that has been incubated for 17-21 days, this affordable appetiser is commonly loved in the Philippines and mainland Southeast Asia. After seasoning, you crack open the shell and slurp the soup (...well, amniotic fluid), before enjoying the yolk, white and foetus. Just like insects, it’s protein rich. It’s coming face-to-face with the recognisable features of the ill-fated baby duck that puts me off. Thus I've never tried it myself, but my brother tells me: “the odd feather gets stuck in your teeth but overall it’s surprisingly normal and tastes like a chickeny egg”.

Halo halo

Halo halo, Philippines

Literally translating as ‘mix, mix’, this popular Filipino desert takes your taste-buds on a unique journey. Piled high in a tall glass, it’s primarily made of evaporated milk, shaved ice, coconut, fruit and ice cream. All sounds good right? Well, one extra ingredient distinguishes this from your average sundae: beans. Ingredients vary widely, but it may include kidney beans, chickpeas or sweetcorn. It is incredibly refreshing making it the perfect dish for the torrid afternoon heat, but I couldn’t shake a certain level of confusion whilst I ate. Does it work? I’m still not sure. Other countries have similar treats, such as cendol in Malaysia where the star of the dish is impossibly-green, jelly-like spaghetti.

Bird's nest soup

Bird’s nest soup, Philippines

You’d never knowingly eat spit in your soup, right? Well, think again. Small birds called swiftlets use their glue-like saliva to build nests which then dry and harden. Painstakingly harvested from inner cave walls, the nests are softened in broth and sold as soup. Availability is widespread across Asia, though I first heard of the phenomenon in the town of El Nido in the Philippine province of Palawan, which aptly translates as 'the nest'. Apparently the soup has an exquisite flavour though I’m afraid I wouldn’t know… as bird’s nest soup is considered the caviar of the east, my backpacker budget wouldn’t stretch far enough! Amongst the priciest animal products consumed by humans, a single bowl can cost up to $100. One reason it carries such a hefty price tag is the strong belief it improves lung health as well as enhancing complexion and beauty. And guess what: it’s also high in protein.

Luwak coffee

Kopi luwak, Indonesia

Just like bird’s nest soup, this highly regarded coffee comes from a questionable animal source and is considered one of the world’s most expensive coffees. It’s produced from coffee cherries that have been digested and excreted (yes, pooped out) by small Indonesian cat-like animals called civets. I first tried luwak coffee near a rice terrace in Ubud, Bali. Having awoken at 2am to hike Mount Batur in time for sunrise, a strong coffee was in order! Robust and nutty in flavour, it sure hit the spot. Even so, I think its superiority is a load of crap (no pun intended...). It's certainly something of a novel item to entice tourists, yet many coffee connoisseurs will agree that the taste isn’t exceptional. Sadly with prices and thus demand high, some wild civets are kept in caged conditions and force-fed coffee beans. If you are a responsible traveller, that can be hard to stomach.

Eat your way around Southeast Asia with Round the World Experts' Asia itineraries, all of which can be tailor-made to suit you.

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