Top 10 street food – The National
Judging by the polystyrene flotsam that litters the kerb sides of the world, humanity is in the grip of an addiction to food eaten on the street.
Fortunately, there’s a rival to McDonald’s and Burger King, and it doesn’t have to mean fried chicken intestines or skewered grasshoppers.
Quick, fresh, cheap and often surprisingly wholesome, proper street food is imbued with a region’s traditions and history.
Sampling it can convey the essence of a place, but many travellers miss out because street food has something of a bad reputation thanks to lurid tales of traveller’s illness. Yet don’t let fear stop you from the excitement of eating outside a normal restaurant or hotel, which may not be as clean as you imagine.
By following the crowds, scrutinising a stall’s cleanliness and ingredients, and having food cooked or peeled freshly in front of you, travellers can experience one of the great joys of the road. Look for stalls with a high turnover of customers and food, and enjoy.
After all, what would a visit to Singapore be without a visit to a night food market, or Vietnam without a steaming bowl of pho? From mango and sticky rice in Thailand to nasi kerabu in Malaysia and vada pav in India, your trip isn’t complete without a sampling of the local fare.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Stalls and carts ply delicious foods in towns and cities across Thailand, but the street-side cuisine of the northern city of Chiang Mai is renowned. Somphet Market, just off Moon Muang Soi 6 in the heart of the guesthouse district, is a hodgepodge of stalls selling fruit and vegetables. It’s a great place to visit early in the morning for a fresh juice and a glimpse of locals and cookery school students buying produce, or late at night for noodle and rice dishes from mobile stalls. For an evening meal, head to Chiang Mai Gate Market in the Wua Lai district in the south of the city around 5pm to 6pm. Loads of stalls cram on to the roadside and serve a wide range of dishes, some of which you might not find elsewhere.
What to eat: Noodle soup is a staple. Sticky rice with coconut cream and mango slices is lovely. Try som tam, a spicy salad made from papaya and beans with chili and lime.
Well before dawn every morning except Sunday, Tsukiji Shijo, the world’s biggest fish market, gets underway in the centre of Tokyo. Lorries, workers and tourists mingle on the wet, concrete concourses where thousands of tonnes of fish are sold every morning. Stalls in the alleyways of the outer market sell noodles, but fish is, of course, the dish of choice. The market’s tiny vendors, with their single counters and stools for mere handfuls of people, serve some of the best sushi in the world from dawn until after lunch time. After a morning spent watching the briny theatre of the market, it is wonderful to walk just a few metres and sample the produce. There are lots of great stalls to choose from. Sushi Dai is justifiably famous and often has hour-long queues around the block.
What to eat: Trust the chefs to serve the best dishes according to the season, which might include tai (red snapper), toro (tuna) or uni (sea urchin).
Founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, the city of Palermo on the north coast of the island of Sicily has been a fulcrum of Mediterranean trade for centuries. This position at the crosswinds of many cultures from North Africa to Greece has created a deep, rich and complex food culture, which you can sample at the city’s markets. Most are tucked off the main streets and hidden down labyrinthine alleyways. Ballarò Market, near the church known as the Martorana, is more than 1,000 years old. Residents shop here for fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, but a range of tasty snacks are also on offer. Vucciria market, stretching from the busy Via Roma to the sea, is not as vibrant as it once was, but is still worth a visit for some calamari.
What to eat: Try panelle, which is fried chickpeas with lemon juice served in a bread bun, or pani cà meusa, a sandwich filled with fried beef spleen.
Mumbai is the most populated city of the world’s second-most populated country and with plenty of mouths to feed, food is on every corner of its frenzied and frenetic streets. Beaches, railway stations and colleges are particular culinary hubs. Eating at Chowpatty Beach is a Sunday-night tradition with people crowded around car bonnets as makeshift tables. A diverse range of food is on offer from roti to sandwiches to grilled meats. To limit the maladies that often accompany such delights, try to pick stalls which look clean, and use mineral water rather than non-potable water and choose freshly cooked, hot snacks. In recent years, a number of vendors have moved indoors, and places such as Jumbo King sell vada pav in sanitised surroundings.
What to eat: Vada pav is a spicy potato dumpling in bread. Known elsewhere as chaat, pani puri are bite-sized, fried puffed rice filled with tamarind, potato and chili.
Street food is an important part of life in Istanbul. The city is teeming with snack shops, stalls and vendors. From carts selling crispy rolls covered with sesame seeds called simits, to stalls around Galata Bridge offering balik ekmek (grilled fish with onions and lemon juice in a roll), the fare represents the gamut of cultures in this famously diverse city. Pastry shops are great places for a brisk breakfast or lunch with fillings including meat, spinach, cheese or potato. Of course they also sell baklava, the rich, buttery, super-sweet cubes of layered pastry and nuts, which is best enjoyed with a strong coffee to counter the cloyingness.
What to eat: Who could forget the kebab, the quintessential Turkish dish? It comes in a myriad of forms including the famous döner, which was actually invented in the 1970s by a Turkish man living in Berlin.
The Vietnamese capital has a startling range of street food on offer from noodle soup to pancakes to sticky rice. Most of it costs less than a few dollars. Head to Hang Dieu Street in the city’s old quarter for mien luon, a bowl of noodles made with eels and seasoned with ginger and lemon, or go to the area around the West Lake for bun oc, a noodle soup with snails, or nearby Duong Thanh Street for bun cha, seared pork served with noodles and herbs. Coffee is an important part of the culinary culture. Made from strong coffee and condensed milk, it is a sweet and syrupy mixture served cold. There’s a wide range of sweet dishes on offer. Ché is a kind of rice pudding served cold, while kem xôi is a delicious combination of sticky rice, vanilla, ice cream and coconut. In many cases, the stalls are little more than tiny plastic chairs clustered around grills and stoves on the pavement.
What to eat: Pho bo is an aromatic beef noodle soup, which is a breakfast staple.
The nightly carnival of Marrakech’s main square, Djemaa el Fna, is famous for its chaotic array of street food, but for a calmer, more charming meal head to the coastal town of Essaouira, less than three hours’ drive away. Stalls selling grilled fish fringe the road to the port - Place Moulay Hassan. Select a fish from the brightly coloured displays, haggle a price and take a seat at the picnic tables. The fish are grilled over coals giving them crisp skins and a smoky flavour. They are served in plastic dishes with simple accompaniments such as bread, tomato and onion salad, olives and lemons. The stalls are open for lunch and dinner, but the sun setting over the Atlantic makes an atmospheric backdrop to your dining experience.
What to eat: The fish depends on the catch of the day, but there’s often red snapper, calamari, shrimp and prawns.
Kota Bharu, Malaysia
The city of Kota Bharu is the capital of Kelantan state, the north-eastern region of the Peninsular Malaysia near the border with Thailand. Thanks to its geographical position, Kelantanese food is a unique mix of Malay, Thai, Chinese and Indian cooking. Travellers often pass through the city on their way to the Perhentian Islands, but few stop to sample the culinary delights on offer. They are missing out. Stalls with red and yellow roofs line the streets. Some are crammed with big silver pans and dishes, others have hot coals for charring beef. Some of the dishes, such as one containing blue rice, are surprising and special. The city sits near the mouth of the Kelantan River, so fresh seafood is a popular ingredient.
What to eat: Try nasi kerabu, a dish of blue rice, coconut, fish and herbs, or ayam percik, barbecued chicken marinated in chili and turmeric.
It’s a strange thing to do to a fish: douse it in batter and beef dripping, boil it in oil, drench it in vinegar and blanket it in salt. Served with book-thick chips and a dollop of gluey peas, it becomes fish and chips (known as a fish supper in Scotland, even if it is being enjoyed for lunch), a staple British street food since the 19th century. The Fish Bar in Anstruther, a fishing village on the east coast of Scotland, is famous for this dish and has won many awards in recent years. At US$10.76 (Dh40), it is no longer cheap enough to be the meal for the proletariat it once was, but it remains a delicious and inexpensive dinner. Take your fish and chips to the seating area in the harbour opposite and eat them with a view of fishing boats bobbing amid the waves. Don’t forget to wash down your meal with some fizzy Irn Bru. What to eat: Haddock is the traditional Scottish choice of fish, while cod is the English fish of preference.
The night markets of the Taiwanese capital are literally a melting pot of gastronomical influences from around the region which meld to create a unique food culture. Shilin Night Market, near Jiantan Station on the metro, is the city’s most famous and largest. It starts at around 4pm, becomes crowded and busy from 8pm to 11pm, and ends around 1am. Stalls sell a wide variety of food known locally as xiao-chi or “small eats”. Like Spanish tapas, it’s a blanket term which encompasses a wide variety of dishes including omelettes, sausages, squid, noodles, dumplings and tofu. Other night markets with excellent food are Shida Night Market near the National Taiwan Normal University and Tamsui Night Market in New Taipei.
What to eat: Oyster omelets are a popular snack. Stinky tofu - deep-fried, fermented curd made from mashed soya beans - is more appealing than it sounds or smells.
Published in The National.