The Best Foodie Cities in Asia
Asia is the largest and most populous of the seven continents and, although we may be a little biased, it also has the most varied and delicious cuisine! Indeed, there are so many Asian cities that are renowned for their food that we have found it incredibly difficult to narrow our list down to just 10 – there are dozens more which can rightly point to their own culinary brilliance. So, after much debate in the Bamboo Travel office, here is our list of the best foodie cities in Asia.
Penang is a multi-cultural island with strong influences from China, Europe, India, the Middle East and of course the ethnic Malays. It will come as no surprise therefore that Penang offers a fantastically diverse and delicious selection of cuisine and is considered one of the world’s best foodie cities. In April of each year, food-lovers from around the world descend on the island to enjoy the Penang International Food Festival. But at all times of year visitors to Penang can easily dive into the renowned street food scene and choose from a selection of fantastic cooking classes. Spicy seafood curries, world class biriyanis, unbelievably good noodle stir-fries and tangy peanut satay are just a few of the mouth-watering delights that await you in Penang. The island is included in a number of Bamboo Travel’s recommended itineraries, but for the true foodie, our ‘Taste of Malaysia’ is a good place to start.
With the fantastic food that can be found everywhere in Japan’s second city, it is little wonder that many local Osakans jokingly claim to suffer from ‘Kuidaore’ - the ruining of oneself financially by extravagant spending on food! The city is home to some of the finest restaurants in Japan but sampling Osaka’s specialities doesn’t have to break the bank, as small local restaurants and street food vendors are easily found in many areas of the city especially the famous downtown areas of Dotonbori and Shinsekai. On a street food tour of Osaka you can sample some of the cities famous dishes such as Takoyaki (Octopus balls), Okonomiyaki (a hearty savoury pancake) and Kushikatsu (skewered kebabs served with a variety of dipping sauces). For a mouth-wateringly delicious journey through culinary Japan, take a look at our ‘Foodie Tour of Japan’.
Jeonju, South Korea
South Koreans are justifiably proud of their cuisine and the city of Jeonju is held in particularly high esteem. Jeonju is the home of Korea’s national dish and Koreans travel from far and wide to try bibimbap in its spiritual home.
The hanok village in the heart of the city is one of the best-preserved areas of traditional Korean housing in South Korea and is a haven for foodies. Many of the traditional hanoks have been converted into small restaurants, street food eateries, tea houses, or small museums, such as the traditional wine museum. The city was designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2012 and is a must-visit for any visitor to South Korea with an interest in Korean cuisine.
Jeonju can easily be reached from Seoul on the high speed KTX. The city features on our Taste of South Korea foodie tour, which covers the best of South Korea’s unique cuisine. Those planning to visit South Korea must read our recommended must try Korean food covered in a previous blog.
Lucknow is remembered in the UK for the city’s besiegement during the Indian Mutiny, but in India it is renowned for its thriving foodie scene. Its long-standing reputation for culinary excellence was cultivated over centuries by the ruling Nawabs of Awadh who gave their name to the local cuisine.
Awadhi cuisine is famous throughout India, not an easy feat in a diverse country where each region identifies through its food. The cuisine comprises both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes strongly influenced by the Mughal cooking techniques brought from Central Asia. The city is best known for its wide range of kebabs and Mughal-style curries such as korma. A patchwork of small dining enclaves, or ‘Bawarchi Tola’ to the locals, are dotted throughout the city. A culinary walking tour of a Bawarchi Tola is the best way to sample the traditional kitchens and roadside eateries Lucknow is famous for.
Lucknow is best reached by train from Delhi and has domestic flight connections with most of India’s major cities. Those with an interest in Lucknow’s foodie scene, or Indian food in general, should check out our foodie inspired Gastronomic Heart of North India tour.
The Philippines may not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking of top food experiences, but anyone who has been to this vibrant country will surely not be surprised to see Cebu included in this list. Long before the Spanish colonized the island, Cebu had strong trading connections with China, and influences from both cultures are still reflected in the food today.
The island location means that deliciously fresh seafood is never too far away, and Cebuanos also have a passion for barbecue. Casual streetside stalls and restaurants serving grilled meat, fish, and seafood are found all over the island and along the beachfronts.
The king of Cebu’s food scene is undeniably lechon. Lechon - whole roasted suckling pig - is eaten all over the Philippines, but Cebu lechon is particularly celebrated. Described as the “best pig ever” by Anthony Bourdain, Cebu lechon achieves a perfect mixture of tender and crunchy which, once tasted, will never be forgotten.
Cebu is also famous for its array of fresh fruit, particularly its mangoes, which are available year-round across the island. Bitter unripe mangoes are eaten raw, usually dipped into a pinch of salt or fermented shrimp paste. The ripened mangoes are deliciously sweet and juicy and are added to desserts, pureed into drinks, or enjoyed on their own as a snack both fresh and dried.
If you would like to sample the food of Cebu yourself, our Voyage into the Visayas tour is the perfect place to start.
Hanoi is many people’s first experience of an Asian city, and the hectic and crowded streets of the Old Quarter can be an overwhelming place to start. Dive into the chaos however and you will be rewarded with some of the tastiest (and cheapest!) food and drink in Asia.
How better to start your foodie experience of Hanoi than with a steaming bowl of pho. Usually eaten in the morning as a hearty breakfast, our favourite way to sample pho is as the locals do – perched on wooden stools at a streetside stall, with fragrant baskets of fresh herbs on the table. Hanoi’s second most famous dish is bun cha, brought to the world’s attention by President Obama. This mouth-watering dish of grilled pork, vermicelli noodles, fresh herbs, and the sharp flavours of fish sauce and lime in the dipping sauce contains everything we love about Vietnamese food.
To us, Hanoi is much more about casual than fine dining, and ‘bia hoi’ is another quintessential Hanoi experience. Often referred to as the cheapest beer in the world, in the evening chairs are set up on the streets of the old town and freshly brewed beer is served for less than $0.40 a pint alongside a limited selection of snacks until the day’s supply runs out. Another Hanoi specialty is the egg coffee, which is much tastier than it sounds, using condensed milk and whisked egg yolk instead of fresh milk.
Our Flavours of Vietnam and Culinary Adventures in Southeast Asia tours both include a guided street food tour of Hanoi. If you would like to try your hand at making some of the food yourself, then we can arrange a pho making class, or we heartily recommend the socially responsible KOTO cooking class as well.
Makassar (Sulawesi), Indonesia
Formerly known as Ujung Padang, the city of Makassar is capital of the Southern Sulawesi Province and a thriving port which has attracted a melting pot of cultures over the centuries. The port grew on the back of its central location in the archipelago, acting as a trading hub between the most populated island of Java and Bali in the west and the more remote eastern islands in Celebes, the Moluccas, Papua and the Lesser Sunda Islands. One of the highlights of Makassar, which is not for the feint hearted or those wearing smart shoes, is a visit to Paotere Harbour to see from all over the archipelago offloading their catch at the largest fish market in this region of Indonesia. Here you can wander through a maze of stalls selling a diverse array of seafood in all shapes and sizes, and get up close to the ornate wooden Phinisi Schooners moored up at the dockside.
With such an abundance of fresh fish channeling through the port it is not hugely surprising that the local restaurant scene is dominated by seafood. Indonesians travel to Makassar from all over the archipelago just to visit the city’s legendary fish restaurants. Located on the streets just behind the Losari Beach waterfront promenade the pick of the restaurants have large displays of seafood on ice where you can select your dinner and feast for under £10 per person, such as the ever-popular R.M. Nelayan and Ratu Gurih. One of the most popular dishes is Baronang Bakar – butterflied whole fish (such as grouper, snapper) smothered with a choice of exotic marinades and grilled over charcoal, served with steamed rice and a piquant selection of sambal pickles and crunchy vegetables. Other firm favourites are the Makassar chili crab, steamed prawns, fried box fish, squid, clams and cuttle fish. With such fresh bounty from the sea available at very affordable prices, we think Makassar deserves its place as one of Asia’s top 10 foodie cities. Please take a look at the following itineraries, which all include a visit to Makassar and other areas on the fascinating island of Sulawesi:
The Kingdom of Cambodia is well-known for the Temples of Angkor, yet there are many other places in the country which equally worth a visit. If trying the local food comes high on your holiday tick list then you must head for the seafood mecca that is Kep. First made popular in the French colonial times, Kep is a seaside town backed by the Kep National Park, overlooking the calm waters and idyllic islands of the Gulf of Thailand. Hands up this is not strictly a city, but is certainly worthy of a place in the top 10 Asian foodie conurbations for its abundance of seafood and pepper farms which are gloriously combined to create one of Southeast Asia’s tastiest dishes.
A good starting point for foodies is Kep’s Crab Market to see locally-caught fish on sale alongside different types of fruit and vegetables that are cultivated in the region. This is a great spot for an early lunch at the throng of local barbecue stalls selling freshly grilled seafood, served on rickety wooden tables. Another must-do foodie experience is to visit on the of the Kampot pepper farms such as La Plantation. Here pepper vines have been re-introduced to the region after years of decline since the French withdrew from Indochina and ceased exports, followed by the Khmer Rouge regime which decimated farming. Ideal climatic conditions in the area, combined with a high quartz content in the soil, give Kampot peppercorns their mildly-spiced, fresh and citrussy flavours that combine perfectly with seafood. Many consider Kampot pepper to be the finest in the world, and in 2016 it was given protected geographical indication status by the EU.
There is no better place to sample the match made in heaven that is crab in Kampot pepper sauce than at one of Kep’s local restaurants back at the market, such as Kimly. The star ingredients are the Blue Swimmer crabs, noted for their sweet and tender meat, basted in sauce charged with those aromatic green Kampot peppercorns. Kep is included on our Cambodia in Style and Colonial Cambodia tours, or can be added as an extension on any of our Cambodia itineraries.
Such is Thailand’s love of food that everyone here is a devout foodie and Bangkok is the beating heart of this ravenous nation. The city’s proximity to the coast allows a plentiful supply of seafood to make its way to capital every day, along with a range of other exciting imports from around Asia. Its position in the centre of Thailand also affords easy access for the country’s other food specialities to make their way to a city crammed to the gunnels with restaurants, markets (floating or otherwise) and a population eager to try the latest in delicious sustenance.
As such Bangkok is definitely one of the best cities in Asia for the travelling gourmet or just someone wanting to try Asian food for the first time. The city’s streets teem with vendors hawking handmade delicacies, and every street corner is home to a family restaurant touting delicious wares. Walk around the city and you’ll hear woks sizzling away in every corner and your nose will be tickled by the fragrant aroma of fresh spices. A great place to get a real sense of the Thai passion for food is in China town, close to the Chao Praya River. Here you can take an evening street food tour with a guide who will help you choose a selection of tasty morsels from the myriad on offer.
For the more refined palate Bangkok has numerous upmarket restaurants, many Michelin starred, which offer exquisite food and fabulous views over the city or the river. Anyone intent on mastering Thai food’s culinary secrets can take a half day cooking class at the Blue Elephant Cooking School, and combining Bangkok with some of Asia’s other great foodie cities is easily done as showcased in our ‘The Culinary Delights of Southeast Asia’ tour.
The vast, sprawling city of Chengdu is the epi-centre of Sichuan cuisine - a regional style of Chinese cooking famous for the liberal use of spicy Sichuan pepper, and a style of cuisine that is gaining in popularity around the globe. Amidst the skyscrapers of modern-day Chengdu, you can seek out this fiery cuisine in the city’s ancient heart with a visit to Wide & Narrow Alley where many traditional dishes such as steamed rabbit head, and spicy tofu, are served to tourists and locals alike. Nearby Jinli Street is another famous place for dining out and here you can try a selection of Sichuan delicacies from the numerous stalls that line this lively and atmospheric street.
If you would prefer some assistance in getting to grips with Sichuan cuisine why not set out on a guided Tuk Tuk food tour of Chengdu which will allow you to taste a number of dishes whilst learning more about this fascinating city. No visit to Chengdu would be complete without sampling the local hotpot – a dish of legend in this part of China and something not to be missed whilst here, just be careful not to ask for the super spicy version!
Of course Chengdu is just one part of Sichuan Province and there are plenty more exciting places to see in this diverse and vibrant part of China, many of which you can discover on our ‘A Taste of Sichuan’ tour. For those looking for a wider appreciation of Chinese cuisine in general you might like to consider our ‘Gourmet China’ tour which visits many regions of China allowing you to compare and contrast the different styles of cuisine across this food crazy country.