A guy friend who loves to eat well and who in fact has owned several successful restaurants, did a 6,000-mile road trip by motorbike from New York to Los Angeles last year. Billy Budd, who shares both the Herman Melville character’s name and spirit of adventure, has done many road trips in many parts of the world. Four years ago he traveled 3,000 miles through southern Thailand on a scooter. If countries are not bike-friendly, he goes by car. He’s done Mexico, much of Europe, swathes of the UK and most of sub-Saharan Africa.
When Budd travels, he pretty much survives on street food.
“Over the years, I realized half the joy of traveling was the street food. Stopping along the side of the road is so much more fun than going into formal restaurants. That’s where the action is. So travel changes. You do the back roads. Go into villages where nobody speaks English. You see life in the raw. You have amazing experiences. You get ideas.”
In part, he uses the trips for inspiration for his menus. So, for example, while he didn’t eat deep- fried tarantula in Cambodia “where the Khmer Rouge forced the people to be inventive to survive, so the food there is really interesting,” he did try the tasty soya-ginger reduction dipping sauce that came with the tarantula. “I took the idea and we invented our own version.”
Street Food USA
The one country, Budd says, where the street food did not satisfy or inspire was when he crossed the United States. The reason? The roadside food he found fell under the general category of “fast food.”
And most fast food — generic and mass produced — is the antithesis of street food, which is typically made from scratch and sourced from fresh, local ingredients. And which, no matter how simple, reflects the traditions and origins of the person making it and, at its best, the city or region it represents. Given that much of the First World nowadays is a cultural melting pot, in some instances just about the entire planet can be represented in a single major city’s street food offerings.
I wish I’d been able to direct Budd when he was in the U.S. I would have pointed him to the streets of the San Francisco Bay Area, New York or Los Angeles where, over the past few years, the phenomenon that can aptly be described as “a street food movement” has been growing.
When I came to California 20 years ago you had, here and there, a Mexican taco truck dispensing a fairly predictable range of tasty staples at predetermined spots along the roadside.
Now, visit a farmer’s market, log onto the websites listed below, or go to any happening — for instance, the Oakland Art Murmur on the first Friday of each month, when the galleries open and parts of uptown and downtown Oakland become party central. You will find a veritable army of trucks occupied by folks serving every imaginable kind of food — always fresh, innovative and top quality — to hungry locals and visitors lined up to purchase what must rate as some of the best street food in the world.
Budd would have had a feast had someone in the know directed him.
Of course this state-side street food phenomenon offers a world of possibility and opportunity to anyone keen to open a restaurant-on-wheels who does not have, or wish to invest in, renting space, hiring staff or taking a bond on a brick-and-mortar formal restaurant space. Any readers with a great idea? This is your chance!
Around the World
Now on from the “why” of street food to the “what” and “where.”
Street food varies around the world. In some countries it’s the tradition. It’s what happens. It’s how people eat.
Some cities don’t have a street food culture. Others, like London, have a street food culture, but get to small UK towns and your call is still the local pub.
Street food in much of Asia is ubiquitous in big cities, tiny towns and for day and nighttime eating. Ditto, but very different, is Africa.
Below you’ll find a fistful of ideas. If you have a favorite street food, please share it in the comment section below. And do click through and browse this inconclusive “world round-up” of street foods on Wikipedia for ideas.
The Streets of Paris and Berlin
Yes, it is oh-so-romantic to linger at a pavement café or to indulge at a Parisian bistro. And, like most European cities that have attracted immigrants from different parts of Africa, the Middle East and the world, these days you will get anything on the streets of Paris from a falafel to a kebab — which would seem almost as much of a shame as eating at a McDonald’s when you’re visiting and have the option of going local.
Can anything beat a French baguette sandwich? I’d say yes. Namely, a jambon et fromage (ham and melted cheese) crêpe or a croque monsieur (hot ham and cheese grilled sandwich with béchamel sauce). I have abiding taste bud memories from both of these from youthful trips to Paris and no return would be complete without a repeat. Life’s a feast on the streets in Paris. Big-time yum.
Meanwhile, when you’re in Berlin — or in fact anywhere in Germany, although Berlin has distinguished the dish via a museum — look out for currywurst, a street food that has been described as a national dish.
The Streets of San Francisco Plus, Plus, Plus
When in Paris, go local. But in the U.S., given that diversity rules, it’s appropriate to think world cuisine.
To see the growing smorgasbord of food trucks and carts that have become part of mainstream food culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, click through to the Off the Grid SF website and click on “show all vendors.”
To follow the street food movement and to check on food trucks in cities throughout the U.S., visit the Roaming Hunger website and click through to wherever you are, or where you’re planning to visit. The site lists links to more than 100 roaming outlets in the Bay Area alone. Ditto for other parts of the country.
Also, keep track of the Los Angeles (July 16-17) and Oakland (Sept. 23-25) Eat Real street festivals celebrating the best and most delicious street foods in the West.
Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia — in fact most countries that falls under the general Southeast Asia umbrella — are street food nirvana. Bangkok, to choose one city randomly, is street food heaven and markets abound. There’s virtually not a spot of sidewalk without a food stall of some sort. As in much of Asia, eating like this is a way of life. A food writer friend who has been there six times, mainly lured by the food, says look for crispy chicken and grated green papaya salad and finish with a distinctive and delicious creamy little coconut custard tart.
On the Road in Rural Africa
I’ve seen barbecued mice on skewers being sold along the roadside in the Cote d’Ivoire and Budd has seen similar fare on offer in Malawi. We both left them to the braver or more adventurous, along with the deep-fried tarantula.
But there’s plenty of street food in Africa, no matter how small the town or simple the structure you come across when you’re hungry.
“Stop anywhere on the road in Africa,” says Budd. “Don’t say, ‘Is there a pub or a restaurant?’ You say, ‘Is there a place to get a beer?’ Often, you buy a round of beers. Then you say, ‘We’d like some food.’ At the very least there’s rice and chicken and you get a perfectly acceptable meal. Then the guys join you — there’s always a guy who speaks English — and you hear their stories.”
And street food is about the flavors, the adventure — and the stories.
Photo credit: Wanda Hennig
Photo captions: Street food fare from the San Francisco Bay Area, Southeast Asia, Africa and elsewhere — plus beer to go with the currywurst in Berlin (a courtesy picture).