The best cheap eats around the world

written by Freya Godfrey

updated 23.09.2018

No matter where in the world you're headed, we bet you're looking forward to a delicious meal or two. And many of the dishes easiest on the pocket are the tastiest on the tastebuds too.

From noodles served up at street markets in Bangkok to bubbling pizza eaten in pocket-sized Roman restaurants, here’s our pick of the tastiest cheap eats around the world.

1. Kaiten-zushi, Japan

Japan is renowned for being expensive – but it's possible to get great-tasting food without burning a hole in your pocket.

Chains such as Yo Sushi are relatively dear in the rest of the world, but Japan’s kaiten-zushi restaurants (literally meaning “rotation sushi”) are some of the best – and most economical – places to dine out in the country.

In many spots, dishes arrive for as little as 100¥ each. Just take your pick and stack your plates at the end of the meal.

Kaiten-zushi in Japan

Kaiten-zushi © Madrugada Verde/Shutterstock

2. Nasi goreng, Indonesia

Indonesia’s popular stir-fried rice, nasi goreng, is cooked before your eyes at mobile stalls (kaki lima) and night markets across the country. Warung restaurants also dole it out cheap as anything.

The fried rice, mixed with shreds of meat and vegetables and topped with a fried egg, is a filling way to fuel up before a day spent exploring.

Nasi goreng in Indonesia

Nasi goreng © sasaken/Shutterstock

3. Bunny chow, South Africa

The charmingly named bunny chow has an interesting history that has its roots in the Great Depression. At the time, a dried sugar-bean curry made by an Indian caste known as “Bania” happened to be the cheapest meal in Durban.

When the curry became popular with workers looking for a bargain lunch, it started being served in hollowed-out bread as a waste-free, on-the-go meal. As Chinese food was known as “chow”, the two combined and, somehow, the name stuck.

4. Fish and chips, England

Once a staple of the working classes, fish and chips can still be found the length and breadth of England, and remains one of the country’s best-value meals.

There’s no better antidote to a cold, rainy walk than a steaming portion of fish and chips from the local chippy – park yourself on a bench by the sea and gorge on thick batter, flaky fish and chunky chips doused in salt and vinegar. And don’t forget the mushy peas.

Fish and chips in England

Fish and chips © Kollar Peter/Shutterstock

5. Thali,India

One of the very best ways to enjoy India’s delectable curries is with a thali. These platters tend to contain three different curries, plus a couple of other additions such as raita or curds (yogurt), pickles, or a sweet treat like gulab jamun – and invariably both rice and chapatti.

Not only does this mean that you get to try three curries in one, they’re often a steal, sometimes costing just 100Rs.

A thali in India

Thali © Sergii Rudiuk/Shutterstock

6. Pho, Vietnam

Vietnam’s delicious pho originated in Hanoi, where it was eaten for breakfast or as a late-night snack. During the partition of Vietnam, northern Vietnamese people escaping over the border brought pho to the south, and the southern Vietnamese added their own influences to the dish.

Today, the warming broth is eaten at any time of day, and is best bought from a hole-in-the-wall vendor, where it probably costs less than the raw ingredients back home.

Street pho in Hanoi, Vietnam

Street pho © JNEZAM/Shutterstock

7. Ice cream, Cuba

Due in part to trade restrictions and food-supply issues, Cuban cuisine doesn’t tend to be as exciting as many of its Caribbean neighbours. Eating at local restaurants, outside of the most touristed areas, is certainly cheap, but it’s rarely a gastronomical delight.

But, for a mouthwatering, inexpensive treat, go to one of the popular Coppelia ice-cream shops – here you can buy the sweet stuff for next to nothing.

Ice cream in Coppelia, Cuba

Ice cream from Coppelia © Inspired by Maps/Shutterstock

8. Tajine, Morocco

One of the most delicious dishes in Morocco, tajine is also fantastic value. Interestingly, the word “tajine” describes the vessel that the meal is cooked in – a tall, earthenware pot – rather than the food itself.

Tajines tend to include slow-cooked red meat with dried fruit, vegetables and nuts, or chicken with lemons and olives, and can cost just 30dh. It’s a good idea to seek out small restaurants in the Medina for the best prices.

A line of tajines in a Moroccan market

Tajines © Peter Wollinga/Shutterstock

9. Lunch packets, Sri Lanka

If you’re a fan of fiery food, try a Sri Lankan “lunch packet” for the cheapest afternoon meal around.

These packets, served between 11am and 2pm, stacked up in towers of boxes outside stalls and cafés, tend to include steamed rice, curried meat or fish, vegetables and sambol (a coconut dish often sprinkled over meals). Try one and you’ll feel like a real Sri Lankan local.

10. Shawarma, Oman

While its roots are in the eastern Mediterranean, shawarma is one of Oman’s most popular meals, and some shops sell thousands of portions each day.

Marinated chicken, beef or mutton is spit-roasted before being wrapped in bread with layers of salad. In the evening, shawarma shops teem with people tucking in at tables or queueing for bargain-priced takeaway orders.

A shawarma shop in Oman

Shawarma outlet © Nadir Keklik/Shutterstock

11. Tacos, Mexico

The tacos in Mexico are a little different to their western namesake – rather than a hard shell, they’re encased in a small, soft, round wrap.

Find a street-corner kiosk and you may be able to purchase these tasty little parcels for just 60 pesos. Along with the meat filling, you'll discover all sorts of toppings on offer, including fresh vegetables and, of course, Mexico’s most famous export: salsa.

Taco stand in Mexico

Taco stand © Kartinkin77/Shutterstock

12. Pad thai, Thailand

Just visiting Thailand’s colourful, crowded, food-stall-packed markets is a tantalising, sensory experience in itself – and then there’s the food.

Pad thai,a tempting stir-fried noodle dish, is one of the best-value options. It is even said to have promoted unity in the country in the 20th century, when the then-Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram used it to encourage patriotism by hailing pad thai a national dish.

Pad thai served in Bangkok, Thailand

Pad thai © Room98/Shutterstock

13. Jerk chicken, Jamaica

While jerk chicken now pops up from London to Los Angeles, the fiery wings’ roots are in Jamaica. Cooked over an open fire, the spiced, marinated chicken or pork (or even fish) is at its best flaking off the bone, eaten as the sun goes down.

Or, for a street feast, try pan chicken. Fired in the same marinade over coal in an ex-oil barrel, it pops up on street corners on weekend evenings.

Jerk chicken being fired in Jamaica

Jerk chicken © VisFineArt/Shutterstock

14. Ta'amiya, Egypt

Egypt’s answer to falafel, ta'amiya is made from coriander- or parsley-flavoured, deep-fried fava-bean patties. Using fava beans rather than chickpeas makes it moister and arguably more flavoursome than its Middle Eastern cousin.

Indeed, it turns out that Egypt was probably the first to create these balls of veggie goodness, as evidence of the recipe has apparently been found as early as 3000 years ago, during the time of the pharaohs. Sandwiched between pitta bread, it's one of Egypt’s tastiest street foods.

15. Pizza, Italy

Pizza, pasta, gelato, espresso: Italy’s gastronomy is one of the best in the world. And, while pizza is a relatively cheap eat the world over, it’s at its most flavoursome and, naturally, most authentic in its home country – and in Italy you can find margheritas for a few euros. Stay off the beaten track for the very best.

Pizza being prepared in Italy

If that's tantaliised your tastebuds, and you're into trying local flavours, you might want to discover weird food from around the world.

Pizza preparation © Monika Wisniewska/Shutterstock

Freya Godfrey

written by Freya Godfrey

updated 23.09.2018

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