Street food is one of the main reasons why I travel. Cities bare their food souls through its markets, its ingredients, its vendors, its street cooks and its makeshift street kitchens. To me, it is the best way of getting to know a new city, a new culture and make lots of new friends.
Street food might be uncomplicated, convenient, cheap and fast, but as long as it is fresh, I’ll take it any day over a restaurant meal. No matter how special the ambiance, the food or the award-winning chef, nothing beats the fresh, raw energy of the streets. Pure and simple. Finish-en-klaar.
Many fear the dreaded ‘travellers’ stomach’. “I do not want to ruin my trip” all to quickly becomes the convenient excuse for avoiding local markets and rushing to global fast food franchises. And this, in my humble view, is the surest way to ruin what could have been a wonderful trip.
To avoid getting sick, use common sense: eat where lots of other people eat, ask locals for their favorite markets, vendors and dishes, wash your hands and sanitize them, avoid ice and drink bottled water, ask the vendor to cook your food from scratch and watch whilst he or she cooks it and eat it with your clean hands.
Remember, no street food vendor is going to be in business for very long if they sell rotten food, so relax, follow the crowds, be adventurous and try something different.
Here are three of my most memorable street food experiences to date.
Rice pancakes stuffed with green leaves, and freshly made deep-fried spring rolls at Damnoen Sudak Floating Market outside Bangkok. The pancake-lady could have been a hundred years old or more and has been baking pancakes on her boat from a very tender age. The pancakes are soft and fluffy and served with just a bit of soya sauce on the side, and a huge toothless smile.
The wrinkles on her face resembled the furrowed surface of a makut lime and I just wanted to hug her as she sat with her chin on her knee folding the next pancake. She worked the canals of the market with her granddaughter – each with their own boat with cooking utensils. The granddaughter makes the best vegetarian spring rolls I have ever tasted.
This meal brought tears to my eyes.
A bowl of Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) in Ho Chi Minh City. After an extended party through the city’s waterholes, I had a row with my travel companion. I felt lonely and hurt. Low on blood sugar and emotionally depleted I headed for the streets.
A friendly lady waved me past the nearest pho vendor to the best one. Every mouthful brought calmness and nourishment for body and soul. It was hot and fresh. To this day, Pho Bo is one of my favourite dishes, and selfishness the human trait I despise most.
Stamp-and-Go. These are Jamaican salt-cod fritters made with garlic, spring onion, scotch-bonnet chili peppers. Another few bits and pieces provoke impatience even among the most docile of eaters. They are that good. Seriously. No-one wants to wait so it is customary to stamp your feet and wave your arms to get the vendor’s attention. As soon as your fitters are ready, just go …. to the nearest bench and enjoy. This must be the best fritters … ever … but watch out for those scotch-bonnet peppers.
They will – to paraphrase the Rolling Stones – blow your nose and then blow your mind. A Jamaican friend’s mom took me out to escape “da baldheads” and taste some authentic Jamaican food. Curry goat, rice-and-peas – I could hardly understand any of the words spoken around me – it was as if I had walked into the land of strange-speak. The land where ‘buddy’ means male genital and ‘boots’ are condoms. I cannot remember where we went or what conversations we had.
There were too many distractions: smells, sounds and colours. Yet, everything was “cook and curry” (everything is just fine). After some ‘bodderation’ we arrived at our rather “chaka-chaka” (messy and untidy) destination. Just a small hole-in-the-wall. My elderly guide glanced at me, shook her ample frame a few times and said: “Im sey im des fi a food” (I am desperate for food).
And with that she stamped her feet and held out her hand. In no time a whole heap of fritters from heaven landed on her palm. Whenever I get salted cod, I still make these and even then do I stamp my feet. Without it, it just would not be the same.
The very same lady taught me our dish for this week. Jerk. No, not the kind of jerk that cuts in front of you in peak traffic, the Jamaican spice marinade called jerk. One can use this on any protein – fish, chicken or meat – as long as it is marinated for at least 24 hours.
Traditionally, the Jamaicans cook their jerk over open coals or jerk-pits, but she made hers in the oven. Use scotch-bonnet chilies if you can find them, but be warned there are seriously hot. If you cannot find them, use ordinary chilies. Jerk could be made as a dry or wet rub (I have used the wet version here) but made some extra and save some for a later day.
There is a Jamaican nursery rhyme that you should learn. It goes like this: “One part sour, two parts sweet. Three parts strong and four parts weak.”
Learn it and make your own Jamaican rum punch accordingly: one part lime juice, two parts sugar syrup, three parts rum and four parts water. Add some mint and serve to friends with caution. Otherwise you might end up with much “bodderation” at your “bashment”.