Skip to main content

Breakfast in Southeast Asia: What Does It Look Like?

Whenever she visits Southeast Asian countries for work or conferences, Lovelli always samples the local breakfast meals.

Lontong sayur: rice cakes in coconut and vegetable sauce served for breakfast with fried shallots and prawn crackers

Lontong sayur: rice cakes in coconut and vegetable sauce served for breakfast with fried shallots and prawn crackers

Southeast Asian Breakfast and Me

I'm not a foodie, but I enjoy learning about other cultures through their foods. Whenever I visit Southeast Asian countries for work and conferences, I always sample the local breakfast meals. Luckily, it's not so difficult to find affordable restaurants in these countries. In Indonesia, for example, people can easily order a typical breakfast from a Malaysian restaurant, stop at a Singaporean kaya toast stall on the way to the mall, or dine in at a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant for brunch.

Indonesia: All Rice, All Day

People in Indonesia can't live without their rice. They eat rice with every meal, including during breakfast. A large portion of the meal consists of rice, served with vegetables and meat proteins (or the popular plant proteins tempeh and tofu), along with poultry and/or fish.

These are a few popular breakfast dishes, ones that can be found in local restaurants and on the dining tables at home:

  • Nasi goreng, or Indonesian fried rice. A wok-fried rice dish with pieces of meat and vegetables served with eggs, chilli and usually prawn crackers. The rice is fried in vegetable cooking oil with the seasoning of soy sauce, chili, onions, and sometimes shrimp paste.
  • Lontong sayur, or rice cake served in light vegetable coconut curry. Rice is compressed into a solid cake and then sliced and served with the curry, along with extra meat proteins, chili, and crackers.
  • Nasi uduk, or mixed rice is steamed rice cooked in coconut milk served with tempeh, fried anchovies, chili and extra side dish selections of meat, animal innards, and fries.
A bak kut teh dish served in a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

A bak kut teh dish served in a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Breakfast is a popular meal time in Malaysia, with restaurants and food stalls specializing in traditional breakfast foods all around. The food choices are diverse and influenced by Chinese, Indian and Indonesian cuisines. Popular breakfast dishes include:

  • Bak kut teh, or meat bone tea is pork rib dish cooked in broth. The meaty pork ribs are simmered in a broth of herbs and rich spices for hours before serving. Despite the name, this dish contains no tea.
  • Kaya toast is a type of popular breakfast toast served with soft-boiled eggs and iced milk tea. The jam used to make this toast is the native sweet coconut jam, served with butter on the bread.
  • Nasi lemak is a very popular rice dish that comes with many variations. The dish consists of rice cooked in coconut milk, served with anchovies, roasted peanuts, eggs, and chili sauce. Extra side dishes include all kinds of animal proteins, seafood curry, and vegetables.
Lor mee at a hawker center in Singapore

Lor mee at a hawker center in Singapore

Singapore: Tasty but Quick

If a meal is sold in the mornings, Singaporeans will have it for breakfast. The choices of breakfast meals are plenty:

  • Many common breakfast dishes found elsewhere in Southeast Asia: kaya toast, fried noodles, nasi lemak, and rice porridge.
  • Lor mee is a noodle dish inspired by the Chinese. The noodle is a thick flat yellow noodle served in a thick gravy made of cornstarch, spices, and eggs.
  • Chwee kueh. Soft steamed rice flour cakes served with salty radish pickle and spicy chili sauce. A breakfast companion to have with your morning meals.
Khanom or crispy pancakes with egg yolk and marshmallow fluff

Khanom or crispy pancakes with egg yolk and marshmallow fluff

Thailand: Snacks for Meals

It's safe to say that Thais generally eat the same types of meals they have for lunch and dinner during breakfast, and more. The Thai markets have a massive collection of snacks that many people in Thailand have enjoyed exclusively as part of their morning rituals. Here are a few of them:

  • Joke, a type of thick rice congee porridge.
  • Patongo or Thai donuts. The dough blobs are deep-fried (using chopsticks) into crunchy browns that are fluffy on the inside. Patongos can be dipped into a bowl of joke or enjoyed as snacks with coffee.
  • Khao neow sang kaya. Sticky rice topped with a slice of custard and then wrapped in banana leaf. The snacks are available in white or black sticky rice, cooked in coconut cream.
  • Khanom, or sweet snacks that can be found on the streets. They can be simple, deep-fried sweet bananas or more complicated sweet snacks.
Sticky rice served with a meal of steamed fish

Sticky rice served with a meal of steamed fish

Laos: Exotic Breakfast Dishes

The foods in Laos are generally spicy and the same meals can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Very popular breakfast dishes are:

  • Khao niew, or black sticky rice. This is a Laotian staple. The sweet delicacy is a popular breakfast side dish that can also be served for lunch and dinner.
  • Khao soy or khao soi noodle soup. A type of noodle soup made with wide-cut rice noodles. The broth is spicy, and to complete the dish, it is served with chopped porks, bean sprouts, chopped scallions, and cilantro.
  • Khao piak sén. This is a type of chicken noodle soup that uses fresh herbs and ingredients. Sometimes the soup is also made using pork.
Nasi katok is a national dish of Brunei.

Nasi katok is a national dish of Brunei.

Brunei Darussalam: Spicy Everything

Many breakfast foods, such as nasi lemak, fried noodles, and noodle soups that are popular in the neighboring countries are common food options in Brunei. The dishes are generally spicy and served with rice. Two popular breakfast options are:

  • Nasi katok. This is the national rice dish of Brunei. The name katok comes from the sound people make when knocking. The dish consists of a portion of rice, battered fried chicken, served with chili. It is traditionally wrapped in brown paper.
  • Ambuyat. Sticky balls made from sago starch wrapped in bamboo sticks, and then dipped into sour fruit sauce.
A strong cup of coffee in Cambodia

A strong cup of coffee in Cambodia

Amok is a popular Khmer dish made from fish

Amok is a popular Khmer dish made from fish

Cambodia: Unique, Flavorful Dishes

The traditional Cambodian cuisine is a mix of several dishes served with rice. The dishes ideally have contrasting textures, temperatures and flavors, achieved by using a handful of herbs, leaves, fermented sauce, pickled vegetables, edible flowers, with generous garnishes and condiments. A few favorite Cambodian breakfast foods are:

  • Kuy teav, which is a type of noodle soup made from rice noodles with pork stock. This dish can be found in street stalls, restaurants, and almost anywhere at any hour of the day. Served with aromatics, herbs, and spicy condiments.
  • Fish amok, or fish steamed in curry is fish cooked in thick coconut milk and kroeung spices. The food is steamed or baked and then served in banana leaves.
  • Khmer noodles or num banh chock. Rice noodles are served in green curry gravy made from fish stock. The broth is flavored with lemongrass, turmeric, and kaffir lime. The garnishes include fresh mint leaves, bean sprouts, beans, banana flower, and greens.
  • Babor, or rice porridge. Similar to bubur ayam in Indonesia and Thai joke, this dish is derived from the Chinese congee.
  • A strong cup of coffee and sweetened condensed milk is an important part of the Cambodian breakfast.
Sinangag with dried fish and tocino

Sinangag with dried fish and tocino

The Philippines: A Mixed Assortment

The multi-faceted aspects of Filipino cuisine are often described as the East meets West. Like many countries in Southeast Asia, rice is a staple, and most foods are not eaten with chopsticks. Some favorite breakfast options:

  • Champorado or tsampurado is a chocolate rice porridge made sweet with milk, sugar, and cocoa powder.
  • Pandesal, or small bread rolls, and kesong puti, or white Filipino cheese made with carabao's milk.
  • Kakanin, or sweet rice cakes made from glutinous rice and coconut cream. This dish is also served for dessert.
  • Sinangag, or garlic fried rice. The dish is often served with various Filipino meats, such as tapa (cured meat), longganisa (spicy pork sausage), tocino (pork belly bacon), and karne norte (corned beef).
The Vietnamese baguette is called banh mi

The Vietnamese baguette is called banh mi

Vietnam: Healthy and Distinctive

Vietnamese cuisine's distinctive flavor comes from the common ingredients used. They are fish sauce, soy sauce, fresh herbs, shrimp paste, and common spices of ginger, lemongrass, bird's eye chili, coriander, mint, lime, and basil leaves. Raw vegetables are a mandatory part of most dishes.

Some Vietnamese breakfast foods:

  • Pho. Rice noodle soup of clear broth made from meat and spices. Pho is served with onions, beef, vegetables, and herbs. The pho variations are chicken, beef, and pork.
  • Xôi is a breakfast meal made with glutinous rice and a topping selection of fried onions, mung beans, quail eggs, and sliced sausage.
  • Bun, or rice vermicelli noodle soup that has a sour taste and is made with tomato, garcinia cowa, and lemon lime.
  • Bánh cuốn, or a steamed Vietnamese pancake made using fermented rice batter on thin rice sheets. The filling is made of ground pork, shallots, mushrooms and some fish sauce.
  • Banh mi is the French-inspired Vietnamese baguette traditionally filled with pate, mayo, cold cuts, pickled veggies, and various stuffings, such as eggs, pork, tofu, meat, and sardines.

Sources and Further Reading

Questions & Answers

Question: Do you drink milk for breakfast in Southeast Asia? If not, what drinks do people have early in the morning?

Answer: People in Southeast Asia drink their milk in the morning. Many still consider milk to be "the breakfast drink" that can be served on its own or together with cereals and oatmeals for quick, nutritious meals. However, people in Southeast Asia are said to consume less milk than Europeans or Americans. As you can see from the list of breakfast menu I have detailed, many of the meals contain coconut milk, but not milk from animals. Coconut milk is more of a staple, especially among adults. People consume a lot of tea, coffee, fruit and plant juices, and herbal drinks. In Indonesia, we have "jamu," or fresh traditional herbal drinks taken very early in the morning to prevent and treat health problems.

© 2018 Lovelli Fuad