Food can potentially be one of the biggest travel expenses. Eating out for three meals a day adds up at the end of a week-long vacation. However, indulging in a country’s food is one of the best ways to experience a new culture. It’s understandable that you wouldn’t want to limit yourself, but you’ve probably got a budget to follow, right? Not to worry. There are plenty of places you can travel that boast cheap eats so delicious you’ll swear the bill was calculated wrong (and in your favor).
Whether you’re clumsily twisting noodles around your chopsticks, gobbling up beachside tacos or scooping a thick curry into your mouth with your fingers on the side of a jam-packed street, the ways to keep your belly and your wallet full are endless in these five countries:
Thailand scores major points on the creativity scale for their unique combination of flavors and ingredients. Who knew that salty fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and smashed up chili peppers would make the tangy dressing for Thailand’s notoriously spicy papaya salad (Som Tam)? Crumbled peanuts and mini dried shrimp top this scrumptious side dish for just $1.50 USD per serving. If you don’t handle spiciness well, ask for the salad sans chili peppers or you’ll end up sweating and tearing up over your meal, like I often did when I lived in Thailand.
Tom Yum, the national dish of Thailand, is another prime example of odd ingredients combining to produce pure perfection. A sour and spicy broth — brewed from chili peppers, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, lime juice and fish sauce — serves at the base for the centerpiece: tenderly boiled shrimp. A bowl of this steamy goodness costs roughly $3-$4 USD.
In addition to all the exotic flavor combos, Thailand is more commonly known for its fried noodle and rice dishes. Plates of sticky Phad Thai (fried noodles) and crispy Kao Phad (fried rice) grace street stalls throughout the country and cost just $1 USD.
It’s hard to imagine a cheaper place with equally delicious food after visiting Thailand, but Vietnam cuisine knocks it out of the park. If you haven’t been to Vietnam, you still may have sampled this country’s signature dish, Pho, in a Vietnamese restaurant at home — and paid 10 times its actual value.
Pho noodle soup, a common street stall dish in Vietnam, combines rice noodles, an herb-flavored broth and chicken or beef. Served with lime wedges and a plate of bean sprouts, cilantro, basil and hot chili sauce, you ultimately decide the final flavor of your pho. A bowl costs roughly $1 USD. Do as the locals do and eat pho at any time of day. As weird as it sounds, I often ate pho for breakfast while backpacking through Vietnam because it was so cheap and kept me full all day.
Other cheap and tasty eats commonly found on the dollar menu at Vietnamese street stalls include banh bao (a soft, doughy, ball of steamed white bread with savory filling), banh mi (pickled veggies and meat or omelet on a toasted French baguette) and goi cuon (fresh spring rolls).
Middle Eastern cuisine fuses seamlessly with Mediterranean fare in one of the world’s only intercontinental countries. Straddling Europe and Asia and bordered by four different bodies of water, it’s likely Turkey’s location that lends the country it’s culinary flair. Meze, small, appetizer-esque side dishes made to share, cost about $2-$3 each and range from pureed broad beans, eggplant infused yogurt, and rice-stuffed grape leaves.
Insider Tip: Non-meat eaters can order 3- 4 meze for a well-rounded vegetarian-friendly meal.
On the contrary, if you do include meat in your diet, you must try doner kebap. This traditional Turkish food is known for its vertical rotisserie style of cooking and is served in a variety of ways. The meat (either chicken or beef) can be stuffed into a pita, rolled up in a thin lavash wrap, or served as a plated portion topped with sour yogurt and light tomato sauce. Doner varies in price (chicken is less expensive), but a decent and ultra-filling plate of beef doner runs anywhere between $5-7 USD.
Fish and seafood are the most expensive meals in Turkey, but it depends where and how you eat it. In a high-end fish restaurant expect to pay $18-$20 USD for a whole Sea Bream or Bass. However, opt for the classic balik ekmek (a soft, crusty chunk of bread stuffed with fried sardines) and you’re full for between $2 - $4 USD.
In a country as culturally diverse as India, it’s only natural its cuisine would follow suit. Options vary throughout the different regions, but the country’s food culture in general focuses around carbs (like rice or fried dough), lentils, vegetables and curries. Luckily, you’ll pay bottom dollar for practically everything which makes it easy to try as many dishes as you want.
Chaat is just one of India’s street side snacks consisting of a fried doughy base served with your choice of crispy potatoes, chickpeas, tamarind and mint chutneys, yogurt and a few dozen other combinations. One serving is well under $1 USD. Digging in with your fingers is fully acceptable.
Vegetable and meat curries served with roti are savory, filling, and bursting with flavor and spices. Ordering a Thali, otherwise known as a huge platter with a bit of everything, is the best way to try a generous sampling of curry, lentils and yogurt dishes. You’ll be stuffed for a buck.
Slip south of the border and set your sights on mouth-watering meals for a fraction of the cost you’d pay for the U.S. copy. The vibrant Mexican culture translates directly into its food with many dishes revolving around corn, beans, fresh herbs, vegetables and citrus.
Tamales, a corn-based dough stuffed with meat, cheese, or vegetables and wrapped and steamed in a cornhusk provide a perfectly balanced meal. Two tamales with beans and salsa from a roadside stand cost around $2-$3.
Meat lovers shouldn’t miss carnitas, shredded pieces of crispy roasted pork used to fill burritos and tacos.
Speaking of tacos, carne asada (beef), al pastor (pork), pollo (chicken), and Baja-style fish tacos can start for as cheap as $0.50 at local stalls. Last but certainly not least is pozole, a hominy and pork soup garnished with shredded cabbage, radish, onion, garlic, and avocado.
Bonus: It’s a locally sworn hangover cure for just $3 USD.