Set your tastebuds tingling with our guide to the best street food and business lunches on offer in four of our Asian destinations
Whether it’s business or pleasure that brings you to Asia, you’ll likely want to visit again just for the food. Many of the continent’s array of tantalising national cuisines are undergoing global surges in popularity, and once you’ve got stuck in you’ll understand why. Thai food sizzles with chilli peppers and calms the mouth with soothing coconut milk, Vietnamese meals make some fantastically nuanced uses of their long, skinny homeland’s broad range of herbs and spices, and Cantonese cuisine is often as beautifully presented as it is tasty.
With temperatures clement for much of the year, people across southern China and South East Asia have long been accustomed to al fresco dining. While economies are now motoring across the region, the traditions of sociable dining have remained in place, and street stands or hole-in-the-wall restaurants are still the best windows into these various cuisines.
Here, then, is a tale of four cities, taking a look at the street eats on offer in Bangkok, Guangzhou, Hanoi and Hong Kong – as well as some convenient, yet classy and entertaining, lunch options for business travellers on the move.
Now one of the world’s most visited cities, Bangkok deserves every bit of its fame. Studded with gleaming golden spires, criss-crossed by canals and home to famously welcoming people, its tourist draws are manifold, and the Thai capital is also becoming an ever more important player on the global business scene. Walking around this endlessly intriguing city, it’s tempting to think that life here is a series of meals, interspersed with periods of work, rather than the other way around – just one reason why foreign visitors usually come away raving about the food.
Khaosan Road is Bangkok’s prime tourist hub, and features the most adventurous eats in town – everything from fried scorpions to tarantulas in plum sauce. However, more ‘regular’ Thai cuisine is also available street-side around the city – green curry, pad thai noodles and spicy tom yum soup are the most famous dishes, but less heralded options include beefy massaman curry, yen dah foh (meatballs and blood cubes in broth), laab mincemeat salads, and skewers of spicy fishcake.
If you’re not sold on Thai food, head to the Sukhumvit neighbourhood, which boasts a cosmopolitan range of cuisine – not only dedicated international restaurants, but some places serving fusion food, or modern versions of Thai meals. There are also plenty of upscale restaurants in and around the hotels lining Thanon Silom, such as the award-winning Nahm (27 South Sathorn Road, Tel: +02 625 3333). Housed in the Metropolitan Hotel, this glamorous restaurant serves innovative iterations of Thai staples – not cheap, but they’re utterly divine, and beautifully presented.
• Le Normandie Unabashed opulence is on the menu here at one of Bangkok’s top restaurants – literally, given its location atop the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. With chandeliers dangling above and the Chao Phraya river sliding on by below, the three-course lunch sets are a relative bargain. 48 Oriental Avenue, Tel: +02 659 9000.
• Tsukiji Named after Tokyo’s famous fish market, this sells sushi of a quality that justifies the name. It can get pricey in the evening, but the lunch sets are excellent value for this part of the city. 62/19-20 Soi Thaniya, Tel: +02 233 9698.
Fast Facts Bangkok
• Currency Thailand uses the Baht (US$1 = 35 Baht)
• Tel code Dial +66 to call Thailand from abroad
• Getting from Suvarnabhumi airport A convenient rail link sees trains speed to the centre in around 30 minutes, or it’s around 350 baht by taxi (use the official ranks, rather than the hawkers).
Dream destination Fly our Dreamliner 787 to Bangkok daily
Set around the Pearl River, and formerly known as Canton, Guangzhou was once China’s main point of trade with the rest of the world. It has spent much of the last couple of decades trying to reclaim that mantle, with its population ballooning to a whopping 13 million – amazingly, double that number again live in the Pearl River Delta, a giant urban agglomeration surrounding the city, making this one of the most densely populated parts of the world. A giddy feast of teeming crowds, non-stop commerce and buzzing neon signs, Guangzhou is one of the most exciting cities in China, and a great bet if you’re looking for Cantonese cuisine.
The southernmost of China’s four main schools of cooking, Cantonese food lends itself to snappy eating – perhaps most notable are the roast-pork buns, which you’ll find on sale at snack-stands all across the city; and mooncakes, a pastry dessert stuffed with lotus seed paste. Also keep an eye out for smoky stands selling barbecued lamb skewers, a tasty speciality hauled all the way here from Xinjiang province, way up in the northwest of the country.
The most urbane place to head for a meal is Shamian Island, a small, tree-shaded sandbank just south of the city centre and connected to it by umpteen bridges. For dining on the islet, give the Rose Garden of Shamian (3 South Shamian Street, Tel: +020 8121 8008) a go – enjoy their grand Western cuisine out in the garden, from which you’ll be able to enjoy views of the Pearl River.
• Orient Express Swanky French restaurant on Shamian Island; you can either sit yourself out in the garden or aboard a converted train carriage. Not cheap if you’re ordering à la carte, though their lunch deals are usually quite a steal. 1 North Shamian Street, Tel: +020 8121 8882.
• Panxi Built in 1947, this lakeside restaurant looks something like a floating temple, with dangling lanterns, lacquered eaves, carp-filled ponds and profuse foliage. The dim sum’s great, too – try the adorable porcupine-shaped dumplings. 151 Longin West Road, Tel: +020 8172 1328.
Fast Facts Guangzhou
• Currency China uses the Yuan Renminbi (US$1 = ¥6.25)
• Tel code Dial +86 to call China from abroad
• Getting from Baiyun airport Taxis cost around ¥150 to the city centre, or it’s a half-hour subway ride.
Dream destination – Fly Kenya Airways to Guangzhou daily
Lined with lemon-coloured colonial architecture and heady with the aroma of coffee and incense, thousand-year-old Hanoi is one of the most distinctive capitals in South East Asia, a busy place buzzing to the hum of a million motorbikes. Most visitors make a bee-line for its Old Quarter, a busy maze of small lanes teeming with hawkers and visitors, and a superb place to do some shopping. Just to the south is Hoan Kiem, a placid lake boasting a charming temple at its northern end. If you’ve time for a bit of fun here, catch one of the traditional water puppet shows, or enjoy a night at the opera in a glorious building erected during the days of French rule.
It’s no exaggeration to state that Hanoi has some of the world’s best street food – rustic though they may look, some street kitchens have been in business for decades, and are as revered as any restaurant in the city. Vietnam’s most famous dish originated in Hanoi – pho bo, a noodle soup made with beef, leaves, shoots and spices, and garnished with lime and chilli pepper. Other Hanoi-centric yummies to hunt down include banh cuon, a rice-cake roll filled with ground pork, minced mushroom and fried shallots; and bun rieu cua, a crab noodle soup made with tomato, tamarind paste and fried tofu. Lastly, don’t forget to try a super-strong Vietnamese coffee – most ‘cafes’ simply consist of a bunch of roadside chairs, making for a wonderfully local experience.
Almost all of Hanoi’s best restaurants are within walking distance of each other – some inside traditional houses in the Old Quarter, and there’s another clutch set in colonial buildings in the old French Quarter. One highly recommended option is Verticale (19 Ngo Van So, Tel: +04 3944 6317), whose French chef is a spice alchemist of sorts – heady spices are arrayed in test-tubes and beakers on the walls as you enter and his food puts them to good use.
• Green Tangerine Beautiful restaurant set in an Art Deco villa of 1920s vintage. The food is a fusion of French and Vietnamese styles – try pumpkin and coriander soup to start, duck fillet in thyme and red wine for the main, and crème brûlée for dessert. 48 Hang Be, Tel: +04 3825 1286
• Puku So popular that it’s now open around the clock – a grand place to get some work done with great sandwiches, bangers and mash or chicken burritos, and some of the best coffee in Hanoi. 16-18 Tong Duy Tan, Tel: +04 3938 1745.
Fast Facts Hanoi
• Currency Vietnam uses the Dong (US$1 = 20,000d)
• Tel code Dial +84 to call Vietnam from abroad
• Getting from the airport Taxis cost a fixed US$10 for the 30-minute ride to the city centre.
Dream destination – Fly our Dreamliner 787 to Hanoi three times a week
4 Hong Kong
Hong Kong is the ultimate high-rise city, bristling with over three hundred skyscrapers – a total that’s more than double the whole of Europe. British territory until 1997, it’s a pleasing mix of East and West, with the infectious energy of a typical Asian city thrusting from a lattice of European-style order. Hong Kong Island is the focus of proceedings, though its forest of buildings is perhaps best viewed from Kowloon, a short ferry-ride away – come in the evening, when a choreographed light show is performed among the towers.
Hong Kong’s ‘national’ dish is a street food of sorts – dim sum, bite-sized portions served in steamer baskets, or on small plates. Try the siu mai pork dumplings, the har gow shrimp versions, or eggs boiled in tea and spices. For dessert, hunt around for a place serving bobbly egg waffles, or Portuguese-style egg tarts. Special mention must also be made of Chungking Mansions, a gritty high-rise in the Kowloon neighbourhood – its lower levels are stuffed with tiny places doling out Indian food that’s amazingly cheap, yet both authentic and delicious.
Most of the best places to eat in Hong Kong are on the north coast of Hong Kong Island itself, principally the skyrise-dense business district spreading between Central and Sheung Wan – try Luk Yu Tea House (24-26 Stanley Road, Tel: +2523 5464), a deceptively modest-looking restaurant whose ceiling fans and wooden furnishings are redolent of Hong Kong’s early days under British rule; they serve up superlative dim sum amidst rounds of tea. There are also a few fancy places on the way up to The Peak. For a night out, hop on the tram to Wan Chai, a few stops to the east.
• Cafe Deco Deco by architectural style as well as by name, this is a place to impress, with jaw-dropping views over the city. For food, well, there’s a bit of everything – tandoori dishes, barbecued meat, pizza and pasta, and fresh oysters. 118 Peak Road, Tel: +2849 5111.
• Caffe Habitu A relatively cheap option between Central and Admiralty. Their all-day breakfasts and Eggs Benedict go down a treat, or try a bagel stuffed with smoked salmon and cream cheese. 10 Harcourt Road, Tel +2147 2323.
Fast Facts Hong Kong
• Currency Hong Kong uses the Hong Kong Dollar (US$1 = HK$7.75)
• Tel code Dial +852 to call Hong Kong from abroad
• Getting from the airport The speedy Airport Express train (HK$100) takes just 24 mins to Central.
Dream destinations – Fly our Dreamliner 787 to Hong Kong three times a week