“Whatever you do, don’t eat the street food!!”
That panicked phrase, often uttered by co-workers, acquaintances and well-meaning relatives, is one that plagues many a traveller. Tales of Delhi-belly, intestinal worms and days that were only salvaged by a packet of Gastro-Stop abound, usually accompanied by “it happened to a friend of a friend of mine!”
But have you ever noticed that the people who tell you these stories are the probably least likely of anyone you know to actually travel anywhere interesting? Those whose idea of adventurous travel is a short shore excursion to a sanitised handicraft market when their cruise ship pulls into a harbour for the day?
Street food is one of my favourite things about travelling. I feel like it brings you closer to a place, to a better understanding of the people and their lifestyle. And I think in many cases you’re actually less likely to get ill from street food than you are from many restaurants, especially mid-low end establishments. Here’s why:
- The best street food is usually cooked right there in front of you. This means you can see with your own eyes what’s going into it, how thoroughly cooked it is, and whether your chef looks like they’ve showered in this lifetime. It also means your food is FRESH – because there’s nothing like sitting in a bain-marie for hours on end to cultivate bugs!
- Street food is usually cooked in small batches, and therefore hasn’t been sitting around for as long as it might in a restaurant. Even if it’s not prepared in front of you, the vendor is limited by what they can carry around. Again, this means the food is fresher and less likely to have nasties growing in it.
- You never know what’s going on in the kitchen of restaurants, even the best ones. Street food is more visible, to you and anyone else who might call someone out on their cleanliness.
- And speaking from personal experience here – I’ve never once gotten sick from street food, and nor has anyone I’m close to. I have gotten sick from mid-low end restaurants and hotel breakfasts, and I know people who’ve gotten sick from other places that should have been ok. (The worst was the sandwich my Dad ate at Johannesburg airport, minutes before boarding a 15 hour flight to Sydney. Not an experience I ever want!) The point is, you never know what’s going to be ok or dodgy, but the more oversight you have on your food prep, the safer you’ll be!
But beyond that, of course the most amazing thing about street food is the taste! The wonderful smells that waft towards you from across the street or market, and the excitement of not knowing exactly what you’re biting into, but it sure tastes good. The other plus is of course in your back pocket – street food tends to be much cheaper than restaurant food, which is always great when you’re trying to make your travel money take you as far as possible!
So with that in mind, I thought I’d share with you some of my very favourite street eats from around the world.
Pad Thai, Bangkok, Thailand
Pad Thai brought from a little street cart with a good crowd is pretty close to magic, I think. Starting at as little as 20 Baht (about 70 cents), Pad Thai makes an amazing breakfast, lunch or dinner, and it’s totally customisable to your own palate. After you’ve chosen your ingredients (typically chicken, prawns, or vegetables), your chef will turn up the heat and add noodles, oils, soy sauce and other kinds of deliciousness to the hotplate. Tossing it all around vigorously, they’ll add an egg which cooks down into ribbons tossed through the noodles, add a good handful of bean sprouts, and pile the steaming result onto your waiting plate. From there, you get to work your own magic as you pile on crushed peanuts, dried chilli, fresh coriander, lime juice, and whatever else takes your fancy. Sheer. Bliss. The most memorable Pad Thai I’ve eaten so far was consumed at about 2am on New Year’s Day on the edge of the street party in Chiang Mai. The slippery, spicy noodles, the delicate crunch of the beansprouts, the pungency of the peanuts and coriander – what a fantastic way to start a new year!
What’s the freshest seafood you can get? Short of catching it yourself, I’d have to say this is pretty close. At the night market in Kota Kinabalu in Borneo, the day’s catch is laid out for all to see, and the market bustles with locals inspecting fish and haggling over the finest specimens. And in true Borneo style, everything is HUGE – I swear some of the prawns were the size of my forearm!! Many of the stands have a BBQ right next to them, and dinner is simply a matter of choosing a fish, which is immediately tossed onto the BBQ, and taking a seat at the table behind the stand. A few of those working at the market chose to join me while I waited for the grinning chef to present me with my fish – I chose the smallest snapper I could find, which was so big it hardly fit on my plate. They shared their own dinner with me – deep friend sandwiches – and nervously practiced their English, while laughing at my attempts to remember Bhasa words I learned in primary school. The fish itself was flaky, moist, slathered in a delicious spicy sauce, and more than I could possibly eat. It set a new standard in seafood for me.
Smoked Omul, Listvyanka, Russia (Siberia)
Sticking with the fish theme, but totally different, is the smoked omul served from steaming vats at the marketplace in Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal, Siberia. The lake itself is one of the most majestic things I’ve ever seen – the largest body of freshwater in the world, and when we visited in early April, frozen solid and glowing pale blue in the spring sunshine. Omul is a species native to the lake, streamlined, fleshy fish about 20cm long and eaten all year round by the locals. Their preferred way of eating them is whole and smoked, which gives the fish a slightly off-putting yellow-brown colour. But despite the appearance, the fish is absolutely delicious, soft and delicate without the strong ‘fishy’ taste of their saltwater cousins. Ours was presented to us with a small loaf of fresh, warm bread, and we ate it at a picnic table on the frozen shore of the lake, the hot flesh of the fish warming our cold fingers. Delicious.
Hotdogs, Toronto, Canada
This one makes the list because it’s one of my first experiences of street food, and I swear I’ve never had a better hotdog to this day. The staff at our hostel were the ones who told us that we simply had to try “street meat” while we were in Toronto – “but don’t use that phrase after 2am!” they cautioned. “It has a totally different meaning then!!” There are dozens of street vendors throughout Toronto, but we were sent off in search of three carts in the CBD. Those, according to the hostel staff, were the best. And despite not having sampled them all, I’d believe it. The sausages were huge, tender and very meaty, the buns were soft, and there were around 10 different toppings to add extra flavour – I don’t know exactly what sort of pickled things I piled onto my dog, but I do know it was tasty!
Roti parcels, Suva, Fiji
Did you know around 40% of Fiji’s population are ethnically Indian? Neither did I before I visited. A few generations ago, the British brought thousands of indentured Indian labourers to Fiji to work the sugar cane plantations. It’s had a huge influence on Fijian culture, and of course food. Indo-Fijian food is neither northern nor southern Indian food, as the labourers came from all over, and it’s been heavily influenced by the South Pacific in the intervening years. Roti and curry is a staple for Indo- and native-Fijians alike, and is sold on the street and at festivals and events wrapped up and ready to go. The curry is usually thick and potatoey, with spices, vegetables and sometimes meat mixed in. It’s wrapped in a roti like a soft flour tortilla, then wrapped in plastic kitchen wrap ready to be sold, looking kind of like a small burritto, for $1-$2. Best of all are the roving vendors who go door to door, or sell through the window to passing buses – street food that comes to me? Yes please!
Stinky Tofu, Beijing, China
Walk through the tourist-focussed night markets in Beijing’s CBD and they’ll have you believing that typical Chinese street-fare is a tarantula on a stick!! That’s just for the tourists though – not once did I see a Chinese person eating such food, and there were no spiders for sale beyond that market. In the hutong district around Nan Luo Gu Xiang, locals prefer to crowd around the stinky tofu vendors. Stinky tofu is an experience. It varies in flavour from vendor to vendor, and yes, it does stink. There’s a certain rotten-egg-sulphur-sort-of-yuck to it, but here’s the crazy thing – eaten with the sauce, herbs, and sights and sounds of a bustling hutong around you, it’s actually pretty tasty. I don’t know what it is about it, but I totally get why the locals love the stinky tofu. (They also love laughing at the expressions on unsuspecting foreigners faces as they try it for the first time!)
Macarons and lattes,Melbourne, Australia
Remember when I said that street food brings you closer to the heart of a place? Macarons and lattes have become totally synonymous with Melbourne’s chic laneway cafes, so it should be no surprise really that the delicate little biscuits and creamy coffees are also sold on the street. I had to laugh the first time I saw a street vendor with an espresso machine and rows of brightly coloured macarons – it just seemed so very Melbourne. Eaten at the tram stop under the scant protection of your umbrella against the drizzling rain, the warmth of the coffee spreading to your fingers through the paper cup, things somehow still seem bright even against the grey weather. The hardest thing about these street eats is choosing which flavour macaron will take your fancy today!
I could go on and on and on, but I’d better leave it there for the moment – I’m getting hungry! Do you have a memorable street food moment, or a favourite place for fresh, cheap, local food? 🙂
Photo credits: the Pad Thai picture is by Flickr user Steven Kohus, I took the BBQ picture, the smoked omul picture is by my sister (that’s me with the fish!), the hotdog picture is by Flickr user Jen Chan, the roti pic is mine, the tofu is by Flickr user Josephine Lim, and the maracons are by Flickr user Chris Schultz.