Most people agree that one of the best things about traveling to new places is sampling new foods and eating out. But what I miss most about Asia and Latin America isn’t “eating out” in restaurants, it’s “eating out” on the streets.
Long before Anthony Bourdain was doing his No Reservations TV show—which introduced viewers to exotic and delicious delicacies of foreign cultures—many of us were tromping around the globe doing our own tasting. And many of us were backpacking, which meant that we were young, or adventurous, or semi-broke, and usually all three. Street food, the kind that’s served up in a mobile cart, a stand, or a roadside hut, with prices equivalent to pocket change, made economical and logistical sense. But even better, it was the most interesting and flavorful food to be found.
In Thailand, as in many low and middle-income countries with less sanitary red tape than ours, variety, mobility, and an entrepreneurial spirit characterize the street food scene. Sometimes the food comes to you, as it does when a vendor selling mango, pineapple, green guava, and papaya (with or without chili), wanders by. In Oaxaca, Mexico, bellowing hawkers tout their tamales and elotes (corn on the cob covered in cheese and spice) as they wheel them by. Inevitably, the mundane becomes exotic, and it’s not unusual to see fried cockroaches the size of your hand, pig parts, or small mammals being sold as edibles.
More stationary but still non-permanent are the stands that set up shop to cook pad Thai or banana pancakes on Khoa San Road, or baleadas (beans and salty cheese melted between two tortillas) in Honduras, or Bun Cha Gio (spring rolls) in Vietnam. These vendors are there during the day and strategically placed at night, to catch the late night revelers.
And then there are the more established set-ups, the sidewalk shops, wooden shacks, or comedors. In Guatemala, taquerias serve tostadas with mounds of guacamole, while in India you can sit on the street and munch on pakoras (deep fried meat or vegetable) and samosas (potato, onion, cheese in a fried pastry shell) while drinking a mango lassi (yogurt drink).
All of these vendors, hawkers, and burgeoning restaurateurs compete with each other to make the best of what they’re making, and usually what they’re making is exactly how it should taste. After all, you’re getting the food from its source.
It doesn’t seem fair that the pinnacle of fish taco making perfection exists only in Baja, but it does. And you haven’t really had chai until you’ve bought it from a train station vendor in India; the recipe is perhaps generations old. If you’re going to eat one, a chicharon (fried pork skin), should have a few stray pig hairs and taste a bit like bacon, like you find it in Mexico. The best pupusa (thick, handmade tortilla stuffed with cheese) I’ve ever eaten was from a vendor at a bus terminal in El Salvador, the country that invented the pupusa.
Transportation hubs are often the source of good eats, since street food is fast food. And in places where roads are bad and distances long, the need to eat on the go is obvious. In Cambodia, like in Laos and Bali, vendors would stick their arms through bus windows and sell what we liked to call “something wrapped in a banana leaf.” Usually it was rice mixed with chili, a vegetable, and sometimes meat, and almost always it was tasty. Though the atmosphere may have been lacking, the best chicken tacos I’ve had were from a grimy boat terminal in Belize City, huddled under the vendor’s umbrella while rain poured down. At 50¢ apiece, I could afford to go without the ambiance.
Street food can be simple—exotic fruits that you’re not used to at home—or it can be adventurous. Well, it’s almost always adventurous, since eating off the streets usually comes with an element of the unknown. Is this meal going to make me sick? Are those vegetables fully cooked? I’ve never eaten a cockroach—is today my day? And then there’s eschewing comfort for flavor and biting into something my friend likes to call “meat on a stick.”
In Thailand, the meat was usually chicken or pork (or you hoped it was) and served with a peanut satay dipping sauce. In Central America, it was often beef, pounded flat and heavily peppered, served with a few tortillas. In Indonesia, I shied away from eating meat on a stick after the locals informed me that almost all of it was dog. My loss, they told me, for dog is quite possibly the tastiest meat satay there is.
Curiosity and hunger got the best of my friend Molly and me while we were wondering through the streets of Copacabana in Bolivia. A woman was grilling what looked and smelled to be the tastiest and most savory meat we had seen thus far on the trip. I asked her, “Que es eso?” (what is that?). To which she replied, “anticucho.” “Que?” Again, her reply, “anticucho.”
I had no idea what that word was, so I tried asking, through various forms of “what is that” to have her describe what animal or what part of what animal it was. Somewhere along the way we figured out it was not a perro (dog), or cuy (guinea pig, very popular in Peru), but was vaca (cow), so we purchased some.
A small, nicely roasted potato was stuck on the end of the stick. The meat was tough and chewy, but had a pleasant, rich flavor.
When we got back to our room, we asked our friend Heather, who can actually speak Spanish, what anticucho was. “You didn’t eat it did you?” she asked incredulously, which is exactly the question you don’t want to be asked after you’ve eaten “it.”
“It’s beef heart.”
Which, considering what it could have been, didn’t really seem that bad.
Even insects aren’t really that bad, at least when they’re small. While grasshoppers the size of my palm will forever be spared from my palate, a sprinkling of chapulines (dry roasted, heavily spiced grasshoppers) isn’t that unpalatable when accompanied with some molé and washed down with a big glass of mescal.
Vegetarians aren’t spared the strange stuff either. Anyone who’s had durian, the spine covered fruit from Asia, knows that the benign can be threatening. This fruit smells so bad (and tastes so good) that it’s been described as “eating custard in a lavatory.”
There are some street vendors in the U.S.—the taco trucks in California, dirty water dogs in NYC—but somehow they don’t compare. They’re just too clean, or cost more than the change in my pocket, or aren’t as ubiquitous as the street food from abroad. For that, I’ll have to purchase a plane ticket.
Photo courtesy of author
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