Street food: Five top finds

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ST. HELENA, California — Street food — whether kebabs in Istanbul, pho in Hanoi or tacos in Mexico City — is immediate.

It’s urgent. It’s mobile.

The aromas and flavors are gutsy and bold.

You have a direct connection with the person who is actually cooking your food.

And it’s usually a big value.

All of the above makes street food the most relevant and responsive culinary trend in cities around the world.

Istanbul kebabs
Fruit kebabs finish street meals in Turkey.
(Cathy Huyghe/GlobalPost)

That’s why the 12th annual Worlds of Flavor conference held at the Culinary Institute of America campus in St. Helena, Calif. in November turned its spotlight on street food and the people who cook it. Far from the realm of celebrity chefs or television personalities, the expert cooks leading demonstrations and tastings throughout the three-day festival were more modest in their focus — not because of a lack of skill but because they had been cooking a single dish in the same environment every day for decades.

Street food has been around as long as cities have. But our top five tell a story about the world today:

1. Fish kebabs in Turkey. Fishermen return to port in Turkish cities like Istanbul and Izmir with the day’s catch of mackarel, sea bream, anchovies or other catch of the day. They fillet the fish then pan fry or grill it, and hand it over to you from the decks of their small boats.

Peruvian food
Peruvian vendors show their creativity with the spiced honey they serve with picarones.
Courtesy of the Culinary Institute of America

No marinade, no salt, just a kebab of fish with a piece of bread. Pure and perfect. Round out the meal with bits from other vendors on the street, like watermelon, cherries, cucumbers and finally something sweet.

2. Picarones with honey in Peru. Peru’s capital Lima has long been at a cultural and geological crossroads, with influences flowing from the Andes, the Amazon, the Pacific Ocean, the Spanish, indigenous peoples and transient populations. Picarones are hand-rolled doughnuts deep-fried in the Spanish tradition. But each vendor-chef makes a unique accompanying sauce or honey. Chef Marilu Madueno, for example, infuses honey with dried figs, raisins, clove, cinnamon and anise seed. It tastes like something from the Spanish Middle Ages. 

3. Beef pho in Vietnam. The main ingredients of this dish are echoes of the main cultural and political influences of Vietnam: beef from the French and rice noodles and ginger from China. It’s the signature dish in Vietnam’s vibrant street food repertoire. It is common for a chef-vendor to make only one dish for nearly their entire life: The same woman, for example, has parked herself on the same corner in Saigon for the past 30 years with her sticky rice flavored with turmeric and coconut and served on a banana leaf. But Vietnamese street vendors face a modern threat: Their government (like Singapore’s) is pressuring street vendors to relocate away from well-traveled streets populated by tourists. Chef Bobby Chinn said the move will alter the nature of the food. “When the market stops coming to the people is when you’ll see the change,” he said.

Beef pho vendor
A woman prepares pho at a roadside restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam, Nov. 28, 2008. Pho or noodles is one of the most popular traditional dishes for breakfast in Vietnam.
Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters

4. Sfenj in Morocco. Street food in Marrakesh, Morocco originated with poor, working class people who traveled to the city from outlying areas for work and had no car or means to return home for meals, and would treat themselves to sweets like sfenj, a type of doughnut, and hearty meals like kefta, spiced ground meat. Today, residents — working class or not — are choosing to go out and eat street food for dinner rather than stay at home and cook. It’s cheap and simpler than the preparation and cleanup at home. But the trend to eat away from home reflects another class shift, said chef Mourad Lahlou. “Ten or 15 years ago people had maids and cooks in their homes. No one wants to do that anymore. They’re there from 8 to 5, and then they go home to their own families.”

Moroccan doughnuts

Sfenj, Moroccan doughnuts, are made with an unsweetened yeast dough.
(Cathy Huyghe/GlobalPost)

5. Laksa from vendors at a 24-hour hawker center in Singapore. Ten thousand itinerant street food hawkers used to crowd the one-square mile that is central Singapore. Fifty years ago the government swept them all into 120 hawker centers the size of a football field, each of which houses 200 tiny kitchens measuring no more than 8 feet by 8 feet. Today some 35,000 licenses have been issued to hawker center vendors. The secret to their food? One chef-vendor does one dish and one dish only. For Laksa, a spicy noodle soup, the chef prepares each component in the morning — makes broth, blanches noodles, cooks shrimp, shreds cucumbers and grinds chilies — and sells it until it runs out.

Eating a bowl of laksa
Chef Bobby Chinn sips from a bowl of Laksa, a spicy noodle soup, in Singapore, April 6, 2009.
(Vivek Prakash/Reuters)

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct two photo credits.

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