8 Southeast Asian Dishes You Need to Know

By Carolyn Alburger  |  August 26, 2013

Across the country, the best chefs are diving ever deeper into their obsession with hyper-regional Asian foods. They’re going beyond the ubiquitous chow fun and pad Thai, and reaching to approximate new delicacies like xiao long bao and larb moo.

To guide you through this new Asian food movement, here’s the second installment in Zagat’s series outlining the dishes that will define the Asian menus of the future. This primer on Southeast Asian cuisine includes our favorite dishes from Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, all showing up on American menus around the U.S.

  • Khao Soi 

    Forget Tom Yum and Tom Kha: the Thai soup of the moment is Khao Soi, a meal in a bowl served in Northern Vietnam and Northern Thailand, whose turmeric-tinged curry broth shows the Burmese influence in its flavors. This soup starts with a rich and spicy coconut milk base, then builds with fresh egg noodles, sliced meat and a seductive garnish of deep-fried egg noodles, fried shallots, fresh-squeezed lime and cilantro. The contrast of rich and tart elements with crunchy and soft noodles will keep you captivated until the last slurp.

    Where to try: Pok Pok in Portland or Pig and Khao in New York

  • Bun

    While pho headlines menus at hole-in-the-wall storefronts all over the U.S., far fewer diners are aware of its distant noodle-y cousin, bun (pronounced “boon”), an umbrella-group of vermicelli salad dishes. From spring-roll bits and grilled lemongrass pork to tender beef, tofu or chicken, the hearty toppings vary. Then a pile of shredded cucumber, iceberg lettuce, bean sprouts, mint, Thai basil, cilantro and/or scallion freshens each bite, while a light sauce of vinegar, fish sauce, sugar (Nuoc Mam) and crushed peanuts brings everything together. Usually served cold, bun is a great summer alternative to Pho or Khao Soi when you’re craving noodles. 

    Where to try: Mau in San Francisco or CT Bistro in Portland

  • Laab (aka Larb)

    Originally from Laos, this traditional meat salad has become part of the Vietnamese and Thai vernacular as well. Crumbled or shredded pork, beef, chicken, duck or fish is tossed with a sauce of fish sauce and lime juice. The secret ingredient? Rice powder, which is made of roughly ground, toasted rice grain, and which gives each bite an extra dose of umami and tongue-grabbing texture. Although laab is technically an appetizer, there’s enough protein in here to make for a satisfying yet not-coma-inducing lunch.

    Where to try: Kin Shop in New York or Savatdee in Seattle

  • Morning Glory

    Don’t confuse this Thai tropical vegetable with the bright purple flower or the chipper morning muffin. The morning glory on the menu is a semi-aquatic plant that grows well all over Southeast Asia and is used a lot in Burmese, Thai, Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese cuisines. Its spinach-y flavor is above all a great vehicle for sauce. You’ll often see it stir-fried with chiles and garlic as a side dish, but our favorite rendition is the morning glory salad from Jitlada (pictured) in Los Angeles, tossed with red cabbage, red onions, shrimp, cilantro, tomatoes and a light papaya salad-style sauce. It’s also great alongside Plaa Raad Prik (see No. 6 in this list.)

    Where to try: Jitlada in Los Angeles or Nyonya in New York

  • Miang Kham

    These pretty bite-sized packages sold on the streets in Thailand and Vietnam are made from fresh leaves (not to be confused with betel leaves) that are wrapped around shallots, chile peppers, ginger, garlic, lime, crushed roasted nuts and, sometimes, small dried shrimp. The combination really gets your taste buds goin, and has been showing up in the appetizers section of U.S. menus.

    Where to try: As part of the tasting menu at Arun’s in Chicago or Prawn Miange at Sway in Austin

  • Plaa Raad Prik, Whole-Fried Fish 

    Head-on, fins-on and fried to a crisp, a whole Thai-style fish may look unappetizing to some American diners, but the flavors will please a wide range of Western palates. The dish is traditionally topped with a bright sauce of garlic, chiles and tamarind, and it makes a beautiful centerpiece to a family-style spread. Order a noodle soup and some vegetable sides to round out a meal for the whole table.

    Where to try: Brown Sugar Café in Boston or Grill Fish Café in Philadelphia

  • Laksa

    In Malaysia, several different styles of this traditional soup are available. The version found most often in the U.S. has flavors akin to Thai Khao Soi, predominated by coconut curry, lemongrass and chile peppers. In Malaysia, you’ll often find a mixture of vermicelli and egg noodles in the broth, while most U.S. restaurants go with one or the other. The soup is often topped off with crushed or quartered boiled egg, bean sprouts and meat. If a U.S. chef is confident enough to put his or her take on the menu, go for it.

    Where to try: Chicken Laksa at Spices Asian in Washington, DC, or Penang Garden in San Francisco

  • Nam or Naem (Thai Pork Sausage)

    You might think of sausage as an American thing, or the French boudin may come to mind. But in Thailand, a sausage - wherein pork is mixed with glutinous rice, spiced with chiles and garlic, and fermented in a banana leaf for several days - is a particular point of pride. This style of sausage is often thinner than American renditions, with a particularly snappy exterior, a marked chewiness and a spice-laden flavor with a slightly sour finish. They’re often served simply, sliced with a few flavorful garnishes, like crushed peanuts and lime. But you’ll also find them folded into fried rice dishes all over Thailand and Vietnam.

    Where to try: Lers Ros in San Francisco or Nud Pob Thai Cuisine in Boston