Great Markets: Southeast Asia

By Robyn Eckhardt

Published on May 26, 2010

Pasar Bolu Market
Rantepao, Sulawesi, Indonesia

This market, on the island of Sulawesi, in central Indonesia, is liveliest on Sundays, when water buffalo traders and their charges congregate on a nearby field. I like to walk around the perimeter of the old central building, where vendors squat before bags of black, red, brown, and white rice and offer tastes of tuak (a frothy drink made of fermented palm tree sap). This is also where I first encountered some of the staple foods of the Toraja, the indigenous people who live in the region, including buah keluak, the pit of a pungent local seed. Fresh coffee beans and baje kacang, addictively good palm sugar balls studded with peanuts, make excellent takeaways. (One and a half miles northeast of the city center, Rantepao.)

Muang Mai Market
Chiang Mai, Thailand

The foods for sale at this huge, mostly outdoor emporium next to the Ping River give a clear picture of northern Thailand's seasonal kitchen: during the rainy season (roughly from June through August), fleshy brown het lom mushrooms and bundles of foraged ferns dominate; drier weather brings lucuma, a starchy fruit that tastes like pumpkin, and ma kwaen, a relative of Sichuan peppercorn that spices up curries and northern-style salads. There are also fresh chiles, of course, and tubs of prepared curry paste, both of which are used to make khao soi, the city's signature dish of coconut milk-based curry and deep-fried egg noodles. (On Wichayanond Road, next to the U.S. Consulate Building, Chiang Mai.)

Pasar Baru Bukit Bintang Market
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Located a stone's throw from Kuala Lumpur's glitzy downtown, this market sells everything from half a dozen kinds of tofu to fresh fish and dragonfruit, but this open-air structure is also one of my all-time favorite street-food destinations. Half of the market is a food court filled with hawkers. I usually start out with an iced coffee and grilled toast with coconut jam, and then move on to the stall selling laksa mee, a dry chicken curry served atop noodles. One of my most beloved market meals is a curious but delicious hybrid called a "Winson berger": grilled pork, sliced cucumber, and sweet chile sauce on a bun. I also adore the old-style vegetarian dim sum, sold by a mobile vendor who has been a market fixture for decades. (Jalan Melawati, in downtown Kuala Lumpur.)

Binh Tay Market
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

This courtyard-style building is the beating heart of Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown. The building houses stalls displaying a hodgepodge of goods: from melamine kitchenware to dried shrimp, plump roasted cashews, and dried fruit. Behind the market lies Phan Van Khoe Street, a busy thoroughfare patrolled by vendors selling fresh fish, vegetables, and aromatics. (Duong Thap Muoi street in District 6, Ho Chi Minh City.)

Talat Pa Kham Market
Luang Prabang, Laos

Situated in the middle of a peninsula formed by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, this market showcases the bounty that fishermen pull from those waterways: fresh eels, fish grilled whole or cut into strips and sun-dried, kai pen (dried algae), and more. I also love to buy fresh herbs like holy basil, and greens like
peppery pakkat, a type of mustard, as well as bowls of curry or jackfruit salad. This is also where I go to taste the northern Lao version of khao soi, which in this corner of Southeast Asia is typically a rice noodle soup enriched with a pork and tomato broth, and to buy a few bags of deep-fried, lime leaf-and-chile-spiked mushrooms to eat with an icy Laotian beer. (At the intersection of Chaophagnakang Road and Siphay Road, Luang Prabang.) —Robyn Eckhardt, author of the blog Eating Asia.

Continue to Next Story

Want more SAVEUR?

Get our favorite recipes, stories, and more delivered to your inbox.