The Best Asian Cities For Food, From Kuala Lumpur To Kota Kinabalu
A return to travel may yet be a while away, but Asia’s metropolises continue to offer a tantalising array of culinary options. Tatler Asia picks our favourite food cities in the region and highlight the dishes and dining spots we adore
Asia's many cities offer a host of gastronomic delights, with the opportunity for diners to feast on cuisines from around the globe or to sample outstanding examples of local cuisines, street food favourites and traditional dishes.
Here, Tatler Asia considers the cities in Asia they deem among the finest for food, in terms of both quality and variety, and highlight the best things to eat there, recommend the restaurants and bars to visit, and choose the places––both new and old––that they can’t wait to try when they next get the chance.
It sounds biased because I live here but Singapore is probably the best place to be stuck during the pandemic, especially when it comes to food. Why? While the country is only 728 sq km, you can travel anywhere through your plate. From authentic local hawkers to amazing French bistros and traditional sushi-yas, Singapore has it all in terms of culinary diversity.
My recent favourite finds include the quesadilla Oaxaca, tostadas and churros at newcomer Nixta and basically everything I ordered at Kotuwa, the city's buzzing Sri Lankan joint. If you're living it up, there are plenty of award-wininng fine-dining restaurants to choose from—we have eight on the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2021 List—of which my go-tos are Odette and Jaan. Restaurants aside, Singapore has a world-class cocktail scene and the coffee scene has also noticeably grown. And with its appetite for innovation, Singapore always has something new up its sleeve, whether that's cultured meat and alternative proteins (most of the food tech companies in Asia are headquartered here) or a once-in-a-lifetime pop-up like the upcoming three-month stint of Mirazur at the Mandala Club.
—Kissa Castaneda, Editorial Director, Homes, Travel and Lists, Tatler Asia
When it comes to food cities, Japan’s distinctive culinary capitals would fill up most travellers’ bucket lists and, among them, I have no qualms about the credentials of destinations such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. Fukuoka however, on Kyushu island’s northern shore, has a distinctive personality all of its own—it’s the birthplace of Hakata-style ramen, famed for its unctuously rich pork bone broth and thin, toothsome noodles, as well as more esoteric delights such as motsunabe (offal hotpot) and mizutaki (a kind of chicken hotpot with collagen-rich white chicken broth), that are just the ticket on a snowy winter’s night. In the evening, yatai-hopping is the best way to sample a range of comforting dishes—though with the pandemic, the shoulder-to-shoulder type seating in these tiny pop-up kitchens may well be a thing of the past.
A few years back, the Tatler Dining team were fortunate to explore the riches of Fukuoka with Amber’s Richard Ekkebus and his trusted sourcing expert, Kenji Fujima—it’s where we discovered deliciously plump Ebisu oysters that are grown sustainably on ropes, and Spanish mackerel fished from the frigid waters of Genkai-nada sea off Fukuoka’s northern coast; it’s notable that some of Japan’s best seafood are actually caught in these waters, before they are delivered to Tokyo’s Toyosu Market. It was on this trip that we located Yakitori Hachibei Bekkan, the iconic chicken skewer restaurant by chef Katsunori Yashima that inspired much of the vibe at Matt Abergel’s Yardbird. It’s also a city where you can enjoy a tasting flight of gyokuro tea at midnight—by candlelight—at Yorozu, an unassuming teahouse where the brewmasters wear lab coats and classical music streams through the speakers. Lastly, any trip to Japan requires an extra suitcase just for food souvenirs: and the prefecture’s iconic mentaiko (spicy cod roe) is the perfect item to take back—when we could still travel, I’d stock up on these from Yanagibashi Market and have it stirred into pasta for a quick and satisfying meal.
—Charmaine Mok, Content Director, Hong Kong, Tatler Dining
It seems that in Hanoi, the lower you are to the ground the better the food. At least, this is what a cursory glance at the Vietnamese capital's streets—so clogged with people of all stripes scarfing down meals while sitting on flimsy shin-height plastic stools—would tell you. The tradition is a defining feature of Hanoi's cityscape and a legacy of French colonial rule, a shared custom with the al fresco cafe culture of Paris (indeed, Hanoi is known as "the Paris of the East") that allows diners young and old, rich and poor to huddle together, bask in the warm glow of good food unceremoniously eaten, and watch the rhythms of this maddening city pass you by.
Just some of the hundreds of dishes on offer include bún chả (grilled pork with noodles and dipping sauce) done best by Bun Cha Ta in the Old Quarter; bánh cuốn (steamed rice rolls with pork, shrimp or chicken, mushrooms, shallots, and dipping sauce) from Bánh Cuốn Gia Truyền, also in the Old Quarter; bánh canh (thick noodles with crab meat, crab cake, chilli, lime juice and coconut dip); and of course, phở from the Phở Bát Đàn eatery. Rest assured, however, that the standards set by the Hanoi populace for street food are so high, and the vendors so specialised, that mouthwatering food can be had at practically any hole-in-the-wall stall. All you need to bring is an empty stomach and limber knee joints for some truly down-to-earth dining.
—Gavin Yeung, Editor, Hong Kong, Tatler Dining
When the world thinks of Malaysian food, what’s most likely to materialise in the minds of the majority are: Penang assam laksa, Ipoh hor fun or countrywide nasi lemak—which is why I’d like to shift the focus to Kota Kinabalu (KK) in Sabah, for a change. I’ve formatted my favourites as an eating itinerary:
For breakfast, leave the hotel buffets and start your day with a robust bowl of ngiu chap or beef noodles, preferably at Kedai Kopi Yii Siang. Picture different cuts of beef, offal and slick yellow noodles in curried beef broth; any jetlag from your trip will likely be cured by this life-affirming dish.
As for lunch, embrace something new. Since Sabah’s demographics see more than 42 ethnic groups and 200 sub-ethnic groups, it’d be a shame to stick to what you know. Little Sulap provides a good introduction to Kadazan cuisine in an Instagram-friendly space adorned with fairy lights; look out for the tiny eatery’s pink front door.
For dinner, opt for Oitom, KK’s first fine dining restaurant, which was also featured in Tatler Dining Malaysia’s Best Restaurants Guide 2021; alternatively, try Restoran Jeti, a family-friendly Chinese eatery. As KK is surrounded by some of the cleanest waters and best dive spots in the world, it naturally offers unparalleled seafood, which is expertly presented at both of the aforementioned establishments.
—Samantha Lim, Editor, Tatler Dining, Malaysia
Bangkok is one of my favourite food cities because, just like Singapore, it has plenty to offer from cheap eats to fine dining restaurants. I love getting lost in the city’s bustling streets in search of these hidden gems, and it has led me to eateries such as Jeh O Chula where my friends I queued for an hour in the wee hours of the morning to try its highly recommended Tom Yum Mama, as well Polo Fried Chicken for its deliciously crisp fried chicken topped with deep-fried garlic.
I still have a hundred more eateries on my must-try list, and that includes one-Michelin-starred Raan Jay Fai, helmed by legendary street food chef Jay Fai who is famous for her personal take on popular Thai dishes. The city is home to a plethora of fine dining establishments offering a variety of cuisines; one of my must-visits is Nahm, as I enjoy the new dishes chef Pim Techamuanvivit often comes up with. It’s always a delicious surprise.
—Dudi Aureus, Senior Editor, Tatler Dining, Singapore
One of my top three favourite food cities is definitely Tokyo. It is no secret that this capital tops lists around the world as a culinary powerhouse. Japanese culture sweeps you off your feet with its dedication, precision and respect for cookery and produce. No matter what a restaurant or tiny hole in the wall is cooking-up, you can rest assured that it has been done with a level of passion and pride that will truly leave you satisfied. This bustling metropolis is bursting with vibrancy and variety. Its packed streets are lined with fabulous eateries and the city boasts the most Michelin stars in the world.
Tokyo is the only place in the world I have been to where restaurants specialise in one type of food (in fact, it is more of a challenge to find an establishment that has a menu that mixes its offerings.) This only underscores how focused the Japanese are, ensuring what they serve at their restaurants is a perfect version of the dish. From the masterful artistry at Narisawa, to the stunning food and ambience at La Table de Joel Robuchon, the fine dining scene in Tokyo will not let you down. For a comforting sukiyaki try Imahan, while if impeccable steaks are what you're after pop into Ukai-tei, specifically their gorgeous Omotesando location. For killer tonkatsu, visit Butagumi, and if tempura is what gets you going, head to Ippoh atop Barney’s, Ginza. For simpler pleasures, I totally recommend 7-Eleven’s egg sandwiches!
—Isabel Francisco, Editor, Tatler Dining and Gen T, Philippines
In recent years, Korean culture has been on the rise worldwide. People are not only crazy about Korean dramas and K-pop, but fall deeply in love with mouth-watering kimchi pots and spicy rice cakes. Korean food is right up my alley.
I particularly enjoy bossam (lettuce-wrapped pork and kimchi) in summer, and bibimbap and kimchi hotpot in winter. No matter how the weather changes, there’s always something to suit your taste, which is the magic of Korean food for me––and it's all easily available in Korea's capital. When lingering on the streets of Seoul, I love the steaming stands selling fish cake soup and hotteok (Korean sweet pancakes), which always attract me to make a purchase. Korean street food is definitely an unforgettable memory for me and it sets Seoul above many of its Asian rivals.
—Chelsea Su, Lifestyle Editor, Taiwan
Taipei has much to offer on the food front, and it’s generally all so accessible that you can enjoy a lot in just a weekend. You could fly in on a Saturday morning and head straight to Addiction Aquatic for a fresh seafood lunch, then hit up the area around hip yakiniku hotspot Da-wan for some café hopping, before an early dinner of fine barbecued beef there. End the evening with a ramble through the night markets––try Tonghua or Raohe, making room for some of Taiwan’s traditional night market treats.
The following day, grab dumplings from Taiwan’s own Din Tai Fung, followed by bubble tea from one of the ubiquitous boba stores, before taking the cable car up to Maokong where green tea in all forms is the order of the day––try the tea oil noodles at Yao Yue Teahouse. Still have time––and appetite? Head for an early dinner at Mume, a top spot in Taipei to sample Taiwanese produce prepared with a European touch. I’ve also had fantastic experiences tasting the diverse dishes at Gen Creative and indulging at the now-defunct Achoi, where I lingered over plates made with fine local ingredients while chatting to chef Ming Kin Lam, who hails from Hong Kong. He has since opened ChouChou, Longtail and Wildwood, all of which join my ever-lengthening ‘to-go’ list, which is topped by Andre Chiang’s enduringly popular Raw, a restaurant I’ve failed to get into every time I’ve visited Taipei––and not for want of trying.
But the beauty of Taiwan’s capital is that there are always fantastic places to go, whether for fine dining, casual fare or night market delights. For the latter, I always pick places with a queue, a tactic that last led me to the best spicy fried chicken of my life at Shilin night market. The possibility of peerless products awaits around every corner––a popular scallion pancake stand once emerged out of the pouring rain as I walked through a lesser-known neighbourhood––we had to wait in the wet for the hot, flaky treat, but it was more than worth it. And there are still so many things to try in Taipei––I am yet to explore the city’s beef noodle offerings and check out SunnyHills, which is famed for its pineapple pastries. With a dynamic dining scene, traditional treats and vast night markets, there’s always something delicious to discover.
—Rachel Duffell, Regional Content Director, Asia, Tatler Dining
It's a bit embarrassing, but I don't actually eat a lot when I travel. It’s not because I don’t want to, but more so because of my sensitive stomach and dietary restrictions. Yet when I visited Siem Reap during the summer of my junior year in university, I literally ate until I dropped. While most of my trip was spent exploring Angkor Wat, a lot of it was also spent eating (or as my travel buddy called it—pigging out). I loved Siem Reap because there was a personal touch to everything, whether it was the food, the tuk-tuk ride around the city or the locals recommending the best souvenir.
Pub Street is bliss when it comes to eating––there’s just so much on offer. Amok fish revived my appetite for curry—something I’ve stopped eating after the doctor told me to stay on a plain diet. But Amok Fish—thick yellow curry made with catfish—didn’t upset my stomach. It’s also not spicy, which just right for me. I’m also a big fan of seafood and the fish is soft yet juicy—it's a definite must.
If you’re not a seafood lover, then I recommend Lok Lak, a stir-fried beef dish. It sounds simple but the secret is in the marination: fish sauce, lemon, oyster sauce and pepper. I suggest topping it off with fried egg for the finishing touch. For something sweet, Khmer cakes are the bomb. While not entirely a local food, the desserts at Fresh Fruit Factory is worth a try particularly to quench your thirst when it gets too hot. I remember going back there thrice just for desserts!
—Jianne Soriano, Digital Writer, Hong Kong
Kuala Lumpur is undoubtedly a melting pot of cultures and cuisines; when given a list of must-try dishes, most travellers barely even scratch the surface during their stay. Few cities have as many seasonal dishes associated with festivities: think yee sang during Chinese New Year; rendang daging during Hari Raya; bak zhang during the Dragon Boat Festival; and murukku during Deepavali, to name a few.
Malaysia is also home to Dewakan, which ranked number 66 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants' 51-100 list for 2021, as well as offering countless international cuisines, from Japanese omakase to French fine dining. Meanwhile, many casual restaurants take inspiration from local culture; for instance, neighbourhood café Table & Apron makes a mean ulam rice that is not to be missed.
Café culture has become increasingly popular, with cafés putting sourdough and artisanal coffee in the spotlight. Furthermore, homegrown brands selling chocolate, granola, kombucha and nut butters have popped up, allowing Malaysians to support local while eating heathy. Whether it's sipping a steamy cup of Kopi-O and munching on kaya toast at your favourite kopitiam or enjoying a crispy, buttery croissant with mouthfuls of cold brew, multiple experiences make Kuala Lumpur a food paradise.
—Katelyn Tan, Intern, Tatler Dining, Malaysia
As colourful as its iconic street art, Penang’s dining scene presents an interesting mix of Nyonya, Malay, Chinese, Indian and Thai cuisines that reflect centuries-old culinary traditions seamlessly blending into the modern world. Rise early to beat the crowd at Toh Soon Café, a popular kopitiam in George Town that fills up with locals and tourists as early as 7am. It's nothing fancy, but you’ll get to taste a classic Malaysian breakfast: homemade kaya toast fresh out of a wood-fired kiln, runny half-boiled eggs cooked to precision, and a steaming cup of white coffee.
Another must-try (and must-brave-the-lines) is Line Clear Nasi Kandar, a 24-hour joint on a narrow alley that offers the city’s best and perhaps most reasonably priced nasi kandar. Popularised by Tamil Muslim traders from India, this aromatic dish is a plateful of rice, fried chicken, an assortment of curries, vegetables and telur dadar (sunny side up omelette).
At night, explore the diversity of gastronomic finds at Gurney Drive Hawker Centre—from delightful o-chien (oyster omelette) to char kway teow cooked à la minute and rojak (spicy fruit salad).
And when you want something familiar, there’s always the Starbucks Signing Store on Jalan Burma, which employs and supports hearing-impaired partners in the community. Finally, a tribute to Penang's 66-year-old Air Itam Laksa, which had the most flavourful, rich soup with springy rice noodles and made every slurp worth the calories––a casualty of the pandemic, it's one that we have sadly had to bid farewell to.
—Maritess Garcia Reyes, Senior Features Editor, Philippines
Ho Chi Minh City
Anthony Bourdain loved Vietnam and when I think back to the few days I spent traveling there, I realise that I must have fallen for Ho Chi Minh’s charms in much the same way he did. There is no delicate way to put this, but for me the biggest draw of Ho Chi Minh’s culinary scene, is its price point. Food isn’t so expensive in Vietnam, so even fancy bistros such as Au Parc Saigon are within reach of tourists travelling on a lower budget. This gives many an epicure the chance to explore the different ways food is interpreted in the various enclaves in the city.
And the biggest charms of the Ho Chi Minh are often found in the chaotic back alleys of its multiple Districts. It’s not all banh mi and pho—but also snails and sweet chè. And it's all exciting because of its authenticity. Everything served in Ho Chi Minh City's humble eateries is often cooked right before your very eyes—a testament to the Vietnamese ethos of only serving the freshest food.
Lastly, there's an exciting reinvention of Vietnamese gastronomy that stems from both the traditional and the contemporary, the local and the international. I’ve noticed while in Ho Chi Minh that though the city boasts its own unique taste profile, that eateries are also heavily influenced by foreigners, too—the Japanese and the French especially––and I believe this gives the city an edge when it comes to forwarding their own culinary identity.
—Ryanne Co, Features Writers, Philippines
While I’ve loved all the food cities in Asia that I’ve travelled to––especially Taipei for mala hot pot and Vietnam for streetside banh mi––there’s no city that does it like home. Hong Kong earned the “food paradise” nickname for a reason—you can find 50-year-old cha chaan teng on the same street as buzzing speakeasy bars and fine dining restaurants, as well as street food vendors serving hot bowls of siu mai and curry fish balls right around the corner.
Even if we solely focus on traditional Hong Kong cuisine itself, we’ve got a wide variety: there’s the beloved dim sum at yum cha restaurants; Michelin-recommended bowls of Chinese noodles at dai pai dongs; not to mention the silk stocking Hong Kong-style milk tea, French toast, pineapple buns and smooth egg sandwiches at cha chaan teng.
On a perfect food day (with unlimited stomach space), I’d start the day at Sham Shui Po to try out a new cafe. Previously an area that was only known for its cheap electronics and dense living environments, Sham Shui Po has gotten a new reputation for its vibrant cafe scene and indie bars in recent years. For lunch, I’d pop by a neighbourhood cha chaan teng to hide from Hong Kong’s sweltering heat and for some no-frills comfort food: condensed milk toast and beef hor fun and maybe extra caffeine from a cup of yin yeung (coffee with tea drink). Afterwards, I’d make my way to the Island side and maybe grab a quick tipple at Coa, ranked number one on Asia's 50 Best Bars 2021, followed by dinner at one of the many restaurants I’ve been dying to try—Lung Fu Pao for fusion sushi, Cut Sando Bar for Japanese sandwiches, The Upper House’s Salisterra for their crispy hasselback potatoes, and Ando’s Spanish-Japanese tasting menu for a special occasion.
—Doris Lam, Digital Writer, Hong Kong