Monday, 16 February 2009

Street food

Whenever you travel you are advised not to eat street food. If you follow this advice you are missing out, it is the nearest thing to eating like the natives, aside from moving into their mother's houses.
Thai fish cakes for instance, I only ever found on the street in Bangkok, sold in packets of 5 or 10, freshly fried and piquant. Here in the UK, Thai fish cakes are a starter, 3 for around five quid, and mostly from frozen ready-made catering packs.
In Mexico the street food is a revelation and I'm quite prepared to risk hep C or whatever disease, although the amount of chili and lime involved may kill off any lurgies.
Behind my hotel in Mexico City I bought little dishes of roasted yellow sweet corn, with red pieces of chili, coriander and a squeeze of lime from one woman, who rinsed our dishes in a bucket of grey soapy water next to her tiny wheelie stall. 
In Oaxaca, expert Indigenous hands roll and stretch Mexican-style pancakes, a kind of tostada, on wok-like charcoal burners, ten's of stalls lined up selling the same dishes. It's hard to choose which one. I randomly pick my stall based on 2 criteria: the expressions of culinary rapture on customer's faces; which woman's apron I prefer. Apron wearing is an art form in Mexico and Guatemala and I bought a couple. Indian women wear them as skirt decoration even when they are not cooking.

I had the vegetarian version of these 'tlayudas' with Oaxacan stretchy cheese, home-made salsa and mole. You can choose from several different kinds of mole, brown, black, red, yellow. Mole is a kind of spice blend and sauce sometimes with chocolate, but used in a savoury way with chicken. 
Indian street food is excellent. But every time you go to a stall a middle-class Indian gentleman will come up and warn you, in a whisper, not to eat it. I didn't care. And I didn't get sick.
I loved the fresh mango and papaya covered with brown salt and lime. (In Mexico they do the same but with lime and chili). Creamy sour lassi's whipped up with a wooden stick and served ice-cold in a stainless steel tall cup...manna! Scoops of spicy chickpeas in bowls made of leaves...breakfast was often spent crouching in a queue waiting for freshly patted-out potato paratha, made kneeling near the ground
I went to India some time ago and sweet chai was still served in clay cups. The railway tracks were littered with shards for there was no shame in chucking them away, being biodegradable.
Recently at an Indian restaurant in Euston I had little fritters with sweet yoghurt tucked inside and a tamarind and coriander sauce. I do think street food should be brought indoors with one exception...
Chip shops in the UK: I know our mothers told us never to eat on the street but a portion of chips, eaten out of paper on a rainy British street is always better than eating the same indoors. Is it the temperature contrast of your fingers briefly dipping into soft warm salt and vinegared potatoes that makes the whole experience so good?
One of my French exes, when he came to live in London, became obsessed with the different chip shops in Camden and Kentish Town. He tried them all. 
One Chinese chip shop guy uttered the immortal phrase "Open or closed?".
My ex:"Excuse me?"
Chinese guy repeats: "Open or closed?"
My ex looks around at the door with it's sign:"but you are open no? I think this place is open..."
Chinese guy, patiently, penny dropping: "Do you want the paper on your chips to be open or closed?"
Selling honey by the jug near Oaxaca, Mexico.

7 comments:

  1. How right you are: our street food eaten in Thailand during our several trips to that country was the best ever.

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  2. Marm's,

    You missed the best street food of the lot - one you don't really see being done properly anymore - Toffee apples - food of the gods when I was but a nipper - and Candy floss.

    Whelks on Brighton seafront is another winner. In fact if ever you are in one of those bleak scottish seaside towns and there is any seafood stall at the seafront, check it out.

    It's probably also worth a mention of some of the home cooked nosh at Carnival.

    My very un PC Dad had a simple theory for street food in the third world - look for big fat ladies selling it because they love food and they are not dead. He worked all over the world as a pilot so knew his stuff. He reckoned Beirut in the 40's was the world capital for street food (and just about everything else).

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  3. I had a saveloy and fried onions outside Wembley Stadium in 1996 when England played Germany. Does that count? It was flipping horrible though!

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  4. Totally agree. In Brazil I virtually lived on 'Milho' (corn on the cob boiled on mobile wheely stands) - available day and night wherever there are crowds of people. The hot dog stands do a dazzling array of salads too, which can be used to make a sandwich. And for the dairy lover there is the griddled cheese, freshly done in front of you on skewers. Never tried it, but certainly looks wholesome.

    X

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  5. Some of the best food I've ever eaten was on street corners. On Reunion Island you can get swordfish samosas, bouchons (kind of like mini chinese dumplings) and bon-bon piment, which are not sweets and vary in spicyness - my friend nearly got hit by a car after stumbling into the road blinded by one of these deliciously little fireballs. There's the same tradition of having restaurants in someone's front room in Guatemala - in Livingston my friend actually cried because the food was so good! Plates of small corn tortillas with refried beans and mashed avocado are another favorite. Here's to street food - what doesn't kill ya makes ya stronger (or gives you a parasite)

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  6. Some of the best food I've ever eaten was on street corners. On Reunion Island you can get swordfish samosas, bouchons (kind of like mini chinese dumplings) and bon-bon piment, which are not sweets and vary in spicyness - my friend nearly got hit by a car after stumbling into the road blinded by one of these deliciously little fireballs. There's the same tradition of having restaurants in someone's front room in Guatemala - in Livingston my friend actually cried because the food was so good! Plates of small corn tortillas with refried beans and mashed avocado are another favorite. Here's to street food - what doesn't kill ya makes ya stronger (or gives you a parasite)

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  7. I ate kebabs on the street in Damascus with my boyfriend and we both got severe food intoxication. He spent 3 weeks in very bad shape.
    I agree it can be nice, but one needs to be very careful. For example as canal explorer said the cheese on the skewers in Brazil - the origin of the cheese is very tricky whilst the corn cobs are great! (I'm from Rio)!...

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