Food and travel, one of life’s great experience intersections. Although we enjoy our share of refined cuisine and elaborate meals at restaurants, it’s often our street food quests — raw on-the-ground journeys that convey authenticity — that yield some of life’s most revealing moments and enlighten us in unexpected ways.
Food generally serves as a natural gateway to a more profound understanding of culture and history, people and place. Street food draws us naturally to explore, to press further afield than we otherwise might, allowing us to make greater personal discoveries not only about the flavor of local foods, but also the essence of the cultures they represent.
The following is only the tip of the street food iceberg of possibilities, in alphabetical order so we don’t get into arguments as to whose is better. We include some traditional dishes as well as a few unusual suspects.
Although empanadas (stuffed pastries, usually savory) can be found throughout Argentina, the best ones are from the Salta region in the northwestern part of the country. It is also the only region where hot sauce is common. Hurrah!!
Singara are spiced potato and vegetable mixture pockets wrapped in a thin dough and fried. What distinguishes a good singara is how flaky the texture is. Some are so flaky, as if they’re made with savory pie crust. Singara are ubiquitous and inexpensive (as cheap as 24 for $1).
3. Bali (Indonesia)
Nasi campur is essentially a Balinese mixed plate served with rice. Most restaurants will make the choice for you, but at warungs, the more local food outlets on Bali, the nasi campur selection is up to you. You can choose from delectables such as sate lilit, spicy tempeh, chopped vegetables, spice-rubbed meat, chicken, and tofu.
We found our tuk-tuk driver having breakfast with other drivers when we exited the temples at Banteay Srei. He invited us to join him and he introduced us to a fantastic morning soup. It consisted of a subtle yellow curry fish broth with fresh rice noodles, paper-thin chopped banana blossom, cucumber, and cabbage — all topped off with a spoonful of dark sweet sauce. A bowl of bitter herbs and long beans circulated our table for the final touch.
When we arrived in Chile, we were on a mission to eat a proper completo (hot dog). Although we usually practice hot dog avoidance, these beauties were hard to resist. The one pictured here merges avocado, tomato and mayonnaise in the flag-like completo italiano.
Selecting just one street food dish from China borders on the impossible, but we’ll go with the crowd favorite Chinese dumplings. Of the hundreds of dumplings we sampled in China these pork, shrimp and leek dumplings at Da Yu dumpling joint near the No. 6 bathing area in Qingdao stick out. Fresh, delicious and perfectly steamed.
It seems like each country in Latin America serves its own unique style of ceviche, so we found it necessary to try it in each country we visited. While we have to admit that Peruvian ceviche is our favorite (see below), this bowl of shrimp ceviche with from the Central Market in Quito ran a close second with its fresh shrimp, plentiful herbs, and bits of tomato. Oh, and we were big fans of the popcorn as a side.
The first time we visited Cairo, Egypt was in December 2011 when demonstrations were still taking place on Tahrir Square and news channels around the world were lit up with scenes of violence and protest. But our experience in the almost 8-million person city was filled with encounters like this one, with a friendly sugar cane juice master of Old Cairo. And in case you’re wondering, we did not get sick.
A traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony will likely take at least twenty minutes from start to finish for the first cup of coffee, but it is absolutely well worth the wait. You need to sample a few, and perhaps only then will you begin to fully comprehend how important coffee is to Ethiopia, the purported birthplace of the stuff.
10. Georgia (Republic of)
Khachapuri, the ubiquitous signature Georgian cheese-stuffed bread oozes gooey goodness. A common site on the Georgian table — at breakfast, lunch or dinner. Because the cheese inside is mildly brined, it’s salty goodness is like a diet-demolishing siren call.
11. Germany (Berlin)
Everyone knows about döner kebabs in Berlin. But Mustafa’s is not your typical döner. Rather than flakes of beef or veal, shavings of chicken pressed with roasted vegetables fall from Mustafa’s spindle and are served with a fabulous mélange of potatoes, sweet potatoes, salad, cheese and mystery sauce. If you are vegetarian, you can also opt for pure veg. You’ll know you’ve arrived at Mustafa’s when you see the long line snaking down the street.
12. Greece (Crete)
On the Greek island of Crete, it sometimes seemed as though all we did was eat. In the island’s main city of Heraklion, just prior to our departure, we were recommended to try bougatsa, a pastry filled with cream and/or cheese, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. The most famous bougatsa is served at Kipkop, a bakery founded in 1922 by Armenian immigrants whose descendants dish the same original recipe to this day.
How can anyone resist fried bread smothered in sour cream? That is why the Hungarian langos is an easy favorite. Make your way into just about any market in Hungary and you are sure to find langos, if the signature aroma of it doesn’t find you first. Try garlic langos and you’ll be vampire-free — and probably friendless for a few hours.
There is so much street food goodness in India, but we’ll have to go with this aloo tikki (spiced potato snacks) stand in Varanasi as one of our favorites. Note: if you do venture to eat street food in India, stick to the cooked products and be wary of fresh herb and vegetable toppings that may have been washed in unclean water.
After all the kebabs and meats in Iran, we were thankful to find this vendor selling a big pile of steamed, spiced fava beans in the mountains near Kermanshah. Delicious with a dash of vinegar and red pepper. I think he found our vegetable-deprived group a bit odd as we kept coming back for additional servings.
I’ve already talked highly of Knafeh in a previous post and I’ll take the opportunity to praise it again. Knafeh is a decadent Middle Eastern dessert made from a gooey, white cheese base with semolina bits baked on top and covered in sweet syrup. Though we take every opportunity we get to eat the stuff, we have yet to find a knafeh better than what is served up at Habibeh (Habiba) in downtown Amman, Jordan. Every person we’ve spoken to who has visited Amman mentions this knafeh with a longing sigh.
17. Myanmar (Burma)
Geographically, Myanmar sits at the intersection of South Asian (Indian), East Asian (Chinese), and Southeast Asian (Thai). Culinarily, it does too. This was a pleasant surprise for us and Burmese food exceeded our expectations.
It’s hard for me to resist dumplings anywhere, and Nepal’s momos were no exception. Served steamed or occasionally fried, momos are a staple in and around the areas of the Tibetan plateau, including all over Nepal.
When it’s brutally hot and humid and you’re waiting hours for the bus, a shot of tereré, the national drink nay, the national sport of Paraguay, definitely helps. And yes, that’s a metal straw! The straws have a filter at the end to prevent any solid pieces for going through Tereré looks like yerba mate, but it is served cold and can be enjoyed for hours.
20. South Africa
Bunny chow is essentially a hollowed out piece of plain, white sandwich bread stuffed with curry (or masala, if you like). Rumors have it that it was designed this way to make it easy for plantation workers to take their lunch to the fields. Bunny chow serves as culinary evidence of South Asian influence in South Africa, and more specifically in the city of Durban.
There’s a lot of bad and soggy borek (stuffed thin pastry) in the world. During our visit to Istanbul en route to Iran, we became regulars for this man’s crispy cheese-stuffed borek. Convenient, too, as his shop was right across the street from our flat in Beyoğlu.
If you ever find yourself hungry in Kampala, head to the Mengo Market for some kikomando. Kikomando is a filling dish made of beans mixed with slices of chapati. It is said that if you eat a lot of it you will be strong like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Commando. Not sure about that, but a plate of it will stuff you for the rest of the day.
Plov is the Uzbek national dish. Think rice pilaf with fried julienned carrots, red pepper, caraway seeds, and chunks of meat. Plov is so ubiquitous throughout the region that self-described local connoisseurs can discern differences that are imperceptible to foreigners, much like the relationship Americans have with pizza and chili. We’ll keep our radar tuned for the first Central Asian plov cook-off.
24. Xinjiang (China)
We place Xinjiang street food in its own category as the region is a distinct ethnic blend of Turkic and Mongolian. So although Xinjiang cuisine shows some hints of what one might call “traditional” Chinese influence, its dishes are often quite different from mainstream Chinese food. One of our favorites was pulled noodles, or laghman, which we enjoyed not only for the taste, but also for the flair of its preparation. Pulled noodles are tossed, beaten and pulled to ensure the right consistency before being dunked in soups and suoman, a blend of noodles, vegetables and meat.