The top 10 countries for Asian food

Which Asian cuisine reigns supreme? It's an almost impossible task to separate them. It's like choosing your favourite child – although it's actually far more difficult than that, because there's no innately right answer.

How do you decide which Asian nation produces the best cuisine? How do you weigh up the ramen of Japan against the hand-pulled noodles of China? How do you compare a Thai curry to a Sri Lankan masala? How do you place a Malaysian nasi lemak against a Vietnamese com tam?

The answer, of course, is that you can't. Not really, anyway. This is all subjective, it's wild opinion. Any other day I could come up with a completely different list and still be confident that it was correct. There's almost no bad food in Asia, there's no terrible place to eat (except maybe Mongolia – sorry guys). You're just separating these places in terms of relative greatness.

So here is the definitely-not-definitive list: Asia's finest cuisines, rated and ranked. Any foodie worth their Himalayan rock salt will undoubtedly disagree.

(NB: There's a notable omission on this list: Singapore. And I hear you, the food there is mind-blowingly good. However, a lot of that cuisine is other people's: it's Chinese, Indian, Malay and European. For that reason I've had to miss it out. Let's say it came 11th.)

10. South Korea

<i>Ice cream in Seoul</i>

Ice-cream in Seoul. Photo: Alamy

There's far more to South Korean food than barbecue – though that's a cherished part of it. However, you can't miss chimaek, the beautiful combination of Korean-style fried chicken and beer, plus kongnamulguk, a warming bean-sprout soup, bulgogi, marinated grilled meat, bibimbap, a type of fried rice, and anything with kimchi.

9. Indonesia

Indonesia probably deserves to be rated far higher – it's really only my lack of experience with the cuisine that has landed it at number nine. I'm sure the rice dishes, the curries, the barbecued chicken with spicy sambal, the rendang, the satays, and all of those hundreds of delicious regional specialties deserve far better than this. I just haven't tried enough of them.

8. Iran

This is probably not the country that comes to mind when you think of Asia, but it is part of the continent, and it offers an ancient and complex cuisine that's unlike anything you've ever tasted. Iranian food is all subtly spiced stews and rice pilafs, shish kebabs and fresh breads, dishes that make use of dates, prunes, pomegranates, tomatoes, saffron and more. The best place to get this stuff is inside the home of an Iranian.


7. Malaysia

<i>Nasi lemak</i>

Nasi lemak. Photo: Alamy

Nasi Lemak is the breakfast of champions: a mix of coconut rice, dried anchovies, peanuts, an egg, maybe a leg of fried chicken, and a large dollop of fiery sambal (known in my house as "crack sauce" because it's so addictive). But there's more to Malaysian cuisine: this is the home of mi goreng, of char kway teow, roti canai, fish ball noodles and much more. You'll always eat cheaply, and you'll always eat well in Malaysia.

6. India

If you haven't been to India, you'll be scratching your head at this one. Curry and rice? Chicken tikka and raita? And that beats Indonesia? But there's so much more to Indian cuisine. This is a continent wrapped up in a country, a place of huge regional variation, from the coconut-infused curries of the south to the biryanis of the centre to the fiery masalas of Goa to the creamy dishes of Punjab. Indian food, in India, is so, so good.

5. China

For those of us who grew up with the beef-and-black-bean version of Chinese food, it's a surprise to find how varied the country's cuisine really is: it's Sichuan food, it's Cantonese food, it's specialties of the Yunnan province, of Beijing, of Shanghai, of Shandong and Jiangsu. It's dumplings and noodles, barbecued meat and fried cuisine. It's thousands of years of practice; it's another continent wrapped in a country. I love it.

4. Vietnam

<i>Hot baguette delivery to the market in Hoi An</i>

Hot baguette delivery to the market in Hoi An. Photo: Alamy

Spice lovers tend not to be so enamoured with Vietnamese cuisine – the dishes here are subtler, more dialled down than the smack-you-in-the-face beasts of Thailand or Malaysia. But they're still good. They're extremely good. You've tried pho. You know banh mi, the pork rolls. You've sampled rice paper rolls. But how about banh xeo, the fried seafood crepes? Or bun rieu, the crab, pork and tomato soup? Or ban canh cua, the udon-like crab noodle soup? Or cha ca, the turmeric-infused fried fish? I could go on forever.

3. Sri Lanka

The food in Sri Lanka is so good, and it's so cheap, and it's so readily available. Wander into any old rice-and-curry joint in Sri Lanka and you'll be in for a sensational meal that will cost only a couple of bucks. And then there's "short eats", the deep-fried snacks like spiced tuna patties and lentil-and-prawn cakes available at all times of the day. And don't forget the Tamil-style dosais and crab curries of the north. This is an addiction that will last a lifetime.

2. Thailand

Thai food is far more than coconut-milk curries – though they're pretty great. Spend a little time in Thailand, however, and you'll also find noodle soups, fried rice, char-grilled meats paired with sticky rice, Chinese-style roast pork, duck dishes, oyster dishes, fish dishes, fermented noodle dishes – all of them highly spiced and yet perfectly balanced. Thais are obsessed with food. When Thai people meet friends they don't ask, "How are you?" They say, "Have you eaten rice yet?" That's the level of passion we're talking about, and it has to result in great cuisine.

1. Japan

<i>Chef cooking okonomiyaki in Hiroshima</i>

Chefs cooking okonomiyaki in Hiroshima. Photo: Alamy

It was always going to be Japan. Everything you eat in this country is sensationally, sumptuously good. It's delicious. That ranges from the cheapest convenience-store take-out to the most expensive three-Michelin-star feast. It takes in everything from over-the-counter ramen noodles to immaculately presented, high-end sushi. The food at railway stations in Japan is excellent. The food at shopping malls is extremely high quality. Even sports stadiums serve insanely good cuisine. It's all seasonal too, and it's regionally specific: it's different in Hokkaido, in Hiroshima, in Toyama, and in Kyushu. The common thread is that the produce is always fresh, the preparation is meticulous, the presentation is thoughtful, and the consumption is deeply passionate. Take me back there. Now.

Which country boasts Asia's best cuisine? How about the worst?