Street food is certainly big in Australia right now. Every night there is a small army of food trucks touting any kind of street snack you can imagine, and ‘street food’ or ‘hawker food’ restaurants are popping up everywhere. Only a short stroll from where I live there has been a string of ‘street food’ restaurants that have opened up recently, including Radio Mexico, Hanoi Hannah, Si Senor Art Taqueria, Saigon Street Eats and Uncle. Melbourne now even has a big International Street Food Festival. But, long before we in Australia jumped on the street food wagon it has been an integral part of the street life of cities and towns around the world for hundreds of years.
I go out of my way to eat street food when I travel. Yes, it’s partly because it’s cheap and I’m a tight-ass, but I also love trying authentic local fare. I’ve had some of my best food experiences, whether its poffertjes in Vollendam, Pho in Saigon or hot dogs in New York, while standing on the street, or sitting in a gutter, or squeezed into a tiny plastic kid’s chair.
It’s not an easy list to make (because of all the great food over the years), but here are my Top Ten best street food experiences:
Cao Lau, Hoi An, Vietnam
I was staying with an ex-pat friend in Hoi An and on my first night there he took me to his favourite street food stall in town. ‘I’ve tried ’em all,’ he said. ‘And this one is the best.’ It was certainly simple – there were a few old tables and a collection of mix-and-unmatch chairs, while a small gas stove was set up in the middle of the footpath. We each ordered a plate of cao lau, the local speciality. Not that we had a choice, mind you – it was the only thing on the menu. Two minutes later I was handed a plate piled high with steaming noodles, pork slices, bean sprouts, coriander and all sorts of exotic leafy green stuff. It was close to the best Vietnamese food I’d ever eaten. ‘Do you want another plate?’ my friend mumbled through a mouthful of noodles. I was full. ‘Yeah, okay,’ I said. What the heck, I thought. It was not only delicious, it was less than a dollar a plate.
Weisswurst mit pretzels und bier, Viktualienmarkt, Munich
Wunderbar! I do love my German wurst and on my many trips to the Bundesrepublik I have devoured a lot of them. I’ve eaten them at markets, bier halls, restaurants, trains stations and street stalls and I’ve tried bratwurst, currywurst, bockwurst, wollwurst, knackwurst, weisswurst and, of course, the frankfurter. My favourite wurst, and place to eat it, is a weisswurst at the Viktualienmarkt in Munich. Weisswurst (or white sausage) is made with veal and pork and flavored with parsley, onion, lemon, and cardamom. This sausage is boiled and eaten with sweet mustard, beer and soft pretzels. I’ve spent a few afternoons sitting under the chestnut trees getting full on wurst – and maybe fully drunk once or twice.
Espetinho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
In Portuguese, espetinho means ‘little skewer’, and you can find them sold from small charcoal grills all over Rio. You mostly find spiced beef or chicken (although there is a Brazilian joke about what the meat on a espetinho really is – they call it filé meow), but you can also find sausages, shrimp, fish and a non-melting cheese called queijo coalho jammed on to sticks. By the time they add the hot sauce and farinha (a crunchy flour that Brazilians sprinkle on their meat) you have one tasty treat. Or more than one, actually, because it’s almost impossible to stop at one – particularly at 1.00 in the morning after a whole lot of caipirinhas!
Crêpe avec jambon et fromage, Paris, France
France may have invented fine dining, but the crêpe is astonishingly simple and everyone from street vendors to Michelin-starred restaurants serve up the classic dish. And at 2.00 in the morning it is astonishingly delicious. My favourite is the savoury, or galette, crêpe which is made from dark buckwheat flour (as opposed to the sweet white-flour crêpe). I love the smell as it’s been cooked. I love the ham. And, I love the melted cheese (usually Gruyere) – even as it dribbles all over your clothes.
Okonomiyaki, Asakusa (Tokyo), Japan
There was lots of street food for sale on the pedestrian road to Senso-ji Temple, including fluorescent pink sausages on a stick, giant steaming octopus tentacles, large bowls of seaweed and okonomiyaki (a sort of Japanese pancake). Not surprisingly, I went for the okonomiyaki. It’s actually more like an omelette than a pancake and is cooked on a griddle and then drizzled with Japanese mayo and a sweet worcestershire-ish type sauce, then is topped with streaky bacon, veggies and spices. It also helped warm me up. This was hard core street food because it was only three degrees.
Hot Dog, Reykjavik, Iceland
My host in Reykjavik promised to take me to the most famous restaurant in Iceland. Except, it wasn’t a restaurant. It was a hot dog stand in a cold and dark side street by the harbour. ‘The name means the best hot dog stand in town,’ my host Smari told me. It was also, according to the Guardian Newspaper clipping on the wall, the best hot dog stand in all of Europe. There was also a photo on the wall of one of their famous visitors: Bill Clinton. Icelandic hot dogs are unique in that they are made mostly of lamb, with some beef and pork, and a natural casing. We had the ein með öllu (literally ‘one with everything’), which included ketchup, spicy brown mustard, rémoulade, raw white onions, and crispy fried onions. I do love the hot dogs in places like New York and Chicago, but this one topped the lot.
Tostadas y Tacos, Cancun, Mexico
We only had one night in Cancun after a late flight in, before heading over to Isla Mujeres, so we asked the fellow at the hotel reception where a local would eat. We asked that because on the drive in from the airport all we spotted were giant sterile-looking ‘touristy’ restaurants. He sent us right next door to our hotel to Habaneros, which couldn’t have been more different. The tiny street-side shop only had four tables outside and a tiny kitchen where Mario Ruiz de Azua (the owner, cook and waiter) was behind the grill. And it was even a bit grubby in that authentic sort of way. But, the food was amazing. In fact, some of the best we had on the entire trip – and we stayed in very flash five-star resorts. We ate tostadas (tortillas shaped into a small flat disc and fried until crisp) that were topped with refried beans, guacamole, salsa and cheese, plus some topped with a delicious shrimp ceviche. We also had very simple, yet tasty soft tacos. And a few Coronas as well of course. We stayed and ate and drank until they closed and threw us out.
Souvlaki, Athens, Greece
Shakin Stevens must have been to Athens. He sings: ‘All I want to do is join the happy crowd behind the green door’. Behind the green door (near the base of the Plaka) was a tiny shop where a grill and a couple of beefy Greek fellows were squeezed into, and where they created the best souvlakis I’ve ever eaten. And coming from Melbourne, the souvlaki capital, that is quite the call. You order and get your souvlaki (there was the choice of lamb, pork and chicken – all cooked on skewers) from the green door (the top half is open) and stand on the street to eat it. You then step back and order another one. And another. My record was five.
Frites (fries), Antwerp, Belgium
‘I’m going to take you to my favourite place in all of Antwerp,’ my local friend told me. That place was a frituur (or chip shop). There was a frituur on just about every corner, but this shop had the distinction of being called Frituur No.1. ‘French fries are in fact Belgian,’ Joris told me while we waited for our order. ‘In Holland they call them the right name. They call them Vlaamse frieten or Flemish fries.’ I had my mammoth serving of Flemish Fries just like the locals – covered with mayonnaise. It w as so good that over the next four days I went back the same frituur four times!
Tajine, Marrakech, Morocco
Jemaa el Fna, which is the huge public square in the heart of Marrakech’s medina quarter, transforms at night into a bustling food market. The market heaves with grilled meats, delectable dips and chunky tomato soups, and flaky loaves of bread. The brochettes (chicken kebabs) were amazing, but the best dish I had was a traditional tajine, which is named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. This wonderful Berber stew is slowly cooked for hours over hot coals and contains meat (lamb, chicken, or beef), vegetables, fruit and nuts and lots of herbs and spices. I had a crazy good chicken tajine that I got from a small humble eatery in the middle of the madness. You just have to watch out for the square hustlers who put monkeys and snakes on your shoulders while you are eating!