Food & Drink

Asia’s 50 Best Got More Woke with the Essence of Asia Restaurant List 2021

Street-food stalls, mom-and-pop shops, plant-based menus and community activists. We can’t eat in fancy restaurants every night -- and this new list proves why we don’t want to, either.

By Kee Foong

Apr 2, 2021

LAST WEEK, A BEACON OF CANTONESE FOOD, The Chairman, was named No. 1 in Asia. It was a momentous occasion, in part because the beloved establishment also creates cuisine representative of its hometown (in this case, Hong Kong).

Don’t get us wrong. We love best-of lists: they cut through the information overload and make it easier to navigate unfamiliar destinations. They also, however, funnel travelers to just a handful of places, while omitting many worthy alternatives. In the case of the highly influential Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, its focus on high-end, contemporary and often Western-influenced cooking in a few major destinations can overshadow the incredible traditional and native cuisine on offer all across the region.

Recognizing the issue, the 50 Best academy has launched Essence of Asia, an unranked collection of eateries that better reflect the breadth and depth of Asia’s culinary riches. While still a list, it covers hole-in-the-wall treasures, women-led restaurants and sustainability, community and diversity champions in 20 countries and territories including those rarely lauded in this context internationally, such as Nepal, Pakistan and Laos, so bravo to that.

Here are some highlights that will have you salivating at the thought of travel again.       

Local Icons

Pho Gia Truyen. Photo by Quang Anh

These are the street food stalls, humble diners and revered institutions that you should head to for delectable staples. Many, such as Siam Road Char Koay Teow in Penang, perfect a single dish, in this case a Malaysian-Chinese favorite of fried flat rice noodles with that elusive wok hei, or charred “breath of a wok”. The vendor, known as Uncle Tan, has been firing-up his stove for 60 years. Pho Gia Truyen in Hanoi is renowned for its superior bowls of aromatic pho noodle soup; and Babi Guling Pande Egi in Bali specialises in roasted suckling pig. Others pass recipes down multiple generations; one of them, Honke Owariya in Kyoto, has been serving its renowned soba rice cakes and buckwheat soba noodles since 1465!

Sustainability Champions

Above courtesy of Lum Orng (3)

Eating green is easier and tastier than ever, no matter where you are. You can do it literally at Plants, Taipei’s first 100-percent plant-based, gluten-free restaurant, which is LGBTQ-friendly, to boot; while Lum Orng in Siem Reap claims to be Cambodia’s first farm-to-table restaurant, serving New Mekong cuisine. At Café Kumbuk in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, one of its biggest draws, apart from its airy setting, is the provision of healthy, sustainable fare at affordable prices.

Pillars of the Community

Sometimes it’s not enough to just serve good food, but to do good while you’re at it. Dignity Kitchen in Hong Kong is set up like a hawker center and employs people with disabilities; and Shwe Sa Bwe in Yangon is a culinary school, restaurant and social enterprise that trains Burmese youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. Bengaluru Oota Company, a family-style restaurant in Bangalore is run by women, and promotes the local Gowda and Mangalorean cuisines.

The New Brigade

The traditional cuisines of Asia would be lost without a steady stream of talented young chefs learning to cook the food of their roots, using native ingredients, often in contemporary ways. Botanico in Singapore started as a refined European restaurant, but under the watch of Chinese-Indian chef Sujatha Asokan, has taken on a strong Southeast Asian flavor. Hapag in  Manila sees three childhood friends push the envelope of Filipino cuisine using only ingredients sourced from the Philippines; Locus Native Food Lab in Chiang Rai promotes the food of Northern Thailand’s distinctive hill tribes; and 102 House in Foshan revives old and lost recipes, in the process reminding us why Cantonese food is one of the world’s great cuisines. With its impossible-to-book one-table private kitchen, we wouldn’t be surprised if this gem eventually lands on the official Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list one day.  

Check out the full collection of restaurants at

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