5 Best Coastal Cuisines
Homestyle cooking in Southeast Asia means very local must-try delicacies. Once you know where to go, you’ll be swimming in local flavor.
Restaurant: Ngoc Suong
Mui Ne, Vietnam
Dish: Sweet-tailed Slipper Lobster
According to the folks at Ngoc Suong (94 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Mui Ne; +84 62 384 7515; ngocsuong.com.vn), whose pretty seaside outlet in Mui Ne classes up the main strip of this kite-surfing mecca, the best path for fresh, stress-free fish isn’t necessarily direct from boat to truck to table. Upon delivery, their seafood is separated by species and unfed for 12 to 24 hours before being served, ensuring that the tanks from which you pick your dinner are clean and waste-free, and that the animals stay relaxed—and tender—en route to the kitchen. This family-run brand, founded in 1955, also has restaurants near the shore in Nha Trang and in other beach towns, as well as in Saigon. Just look for their signature, completely incongruous windmill. To souse in your muoi tieu chanh ot, the classic Vietnamese salt-pepper chili-lime sauce, get the sweet-tailed slipper lobster and the sun-dried cuttle fish. Both are caught by boats you can see right from your beachfront table trolling Mui Ne’s coast.
Restaurant: Tek Sen
Dish: Gulai Tumis
Thanks to the island’s proximity to Thailand, Penang’s Nyonya cuisine—the culinary descendent of centuries-ago marriages between male Chinese traders and local women— features dishes both spicier and more sour than its cousins in Malacca and Singapore. A prized island specialty is gulai tumis (also known as assam, or sour fish), a hot and sour soup-stew based on a curry paste made with dried chilies, lemongrass, turmeric, garlic and shallots and pungent shrimp paste. The combination packs a delightful punch. This regional favorite is served at popular Tek Sen (18-20 Carnavon Street, George Town; +60 12 493 9424), a cheerful quarter century-old eatery in George Town. The restaurant specialises in wok-fried foods or chu char, which means “frying” in Chinese, though the entire menu is delectable. The Tek Sen version of gulia tumis includes whole lady fingers (okra), for an especially puckery bite. Order it with stingray—the fish’s mild white flesh, which slides off the bone with barely a nudge, is the perfect foil
for the dish’s fiery broth.
Restaurant: Bang Po
Koh Samui, Thailand
Dish: Saraay Khor
The Thais have a well-deserved reputation for making clever culinary use of the items found right under their noses. On the Thai island of Koh Samui, locals need do little more than poke around in the clear shallow waters that surround them to find saraay khor, a type of edible seaweed. At Bang Po Seafood (Ao Bang Po, Koh Samui; +66 77 420 010), a legendary seafood shack found on Koh Samui’s northern shore, saraay khor is cut into thin strands and served as a Thai salad, or ‘yam’, with shredded tart mango and cockles. The seaweed is pleasantly salty—the flavour countered by a spicy/sour dressing—but it’s the satisfying crunch that reminds the locals of their island home.
Restaurant: MilKy Way Café
Luzon, The Philippines
Believed to stimulate the appetite and induce a cooling effect in hot weather, sourness is a defining feature of the Filipino palate. And it’s best expressed in what many consider to be the national dish: sinigang, a beloved stew of meat or seafood and vegetables in a broth made tangy by the addition of a range of ingredients, from calamansi (a mandarin orange-and-lime cross) juice or vinegar to tomato or guava. For a sinigang to remember look no further than the Philippine capital of Manila on Luzon island, the country’s largest. Milky Way Café (2/F 900 Arnaiz—formerly Pasay—Road, Makati City; +63 2 843 7124; café. milkywayrestaurant.com), the stylish present-day incarnation of a popular 1950’s dairy bar, draws locals with its sinigang na salmon, featuring a milky broth tarted with tamarind.
Restaurant: Ta Ouv
Dish: Crab with Kampot Pepper
The heat from the fresh peppercorns grown in the southern Cambodian province of Kampot—long home to the best black pepper in the world—isn’t an acid burn like that from a chili, but a bright, dry, fragrant, almost menthol-like “cool heat.” Piled on a plate with one of the impossibly sweet blue crabs pulled from abundant local waters, it forms a flavor pairing that’s an embarrassment of regional riches. Kep’s Kimly restaurant may be a more locally well-known place to try the dish, but we had a memorable meal at Ta Ouv, a simple riverside shack in Kampot (next to the new bridge, no address; +855 12 820 832). Their crab in tamarind sauce is perhaps even more remarkable, with delicious bits of garlic and holy basil. Wash it all down with an Angkor beer, admire the piles of discarded shells and savor the beautiful mess.