We start from far away, from the Far East. Japanese gastronomic culture pays great attention to aesthetics, form, beauty, and balance, even where street food is concerned. In addition to the now globalized sushi, sashimi and tempura, Japanese cuisine also offers some delicious street food which is less well-known abroad: ramen (Chinese noodles in meat broth), gyudon (a seasoned beef dish), yakitori (chicken kebabs), okonomiyaki (a cabbage, flour and egg pancake), kushiage (kebabs of meat, seafood and greens, fried in oil).
A must-taste is takoyaki
, perfectly regular and round little fried balls of octopus, originally from Osaka but which have now spread and are very popular throughout Japan. They are made by preparing a wheat flour batter and adding little bits of octopus, tempura, ginger and onion. The mixture is poured into a very hot special cast iron pan with hemispherical moulds. The balls are then garnished with various sauces, according to taste, and eaten while still hot. Naturally, the flavor changes according to the ingredients used. One could go for some local Japanese varieties of onions such as the winter yatabe
, which have a sweet taste, the akanegi
, if one is in the Ibaraki
district, the sapporokii
or the winter Amarume
, which are spicy and fragrant.
Mexican antojitos (whims)
We continue our world tour going decidedly west. A long journey takes us from Japan to the Americas. In popular imagination, the United States is the birthplace of modern street food, having brought foods such as hot dogs and donuts to the whole world. Yet there are no American towns in the Forbes list of the world’s best places to eat street food. But Mexico City is there: how could one ignore the traditional tacos
? The latter are handmade corn tortillas stuffed with frijoles molidos
(refried beans), garnished with salsa, onions and cheese (try it with fresh cheese from santa isabel tetlatlahuca made from the milk of cows kept on pasture and alfalfa)
. It is really cheap: one memela costs between 8 and 12 Mexican pesos, around 50-80 euro cents.
On the other hand, if you want to try an “extreme” snack (botana in Mexican), we recommend the chapulines, edible wild grasshoppers which live in Mexican rye and wheat fields. They are cooked in a pan with a little oil and are eaten as a snack with mezcal or other drinks, and also instead of meat, as they cost really little.
Meat-based dishes in Argentina and Peru
On the contrary, meat is an essential ingredient of Argentinian comida callejera (street food): take, for example, choripán, simple bread and chorizo sausage which, like all simple things, is really good. It was the gauchos who started eating chorizo in bread, and the custom spread to towns as well, becoming one of the typical traditional dishes nowadays.
We drive our imaginary van up to the northern provinces, where you can eat choripán accompanied with the local varieties of Andean potatoes from the Quebrada de Humahuaca:
the papa azul
, the señorita
and the cuarentilla
for example, which are ideal sides with meat and vegetables, or the chacarera, which is perfect for fries.
In Peru too, the par excellence comida callejera is meat-based: anticuchos, for example, are cow heart kebabs, barbecued or cooked in a pan. The recipe is very ancient, dating back to the pre-Columbian era. This dish is traditionally prepared by Peruvian women and eaten with potatoes, aji, a spicy sauce made from tomatoes, coriander, chili and onion, and chicha morada, a particular variety of chicha de Jora, the generic term used in Latin America for all fermented drinks made from seeds and nuts. Chicha morada is made from maiz morado, a dark purple corn and one of the many varieties of corn grown in Peru (cabanita granata, yellow, cheqche and white are just some of the others).
An interesting note: in some areas you can try los emolientes
, drinks made from linseed and barley, flavored with herbs. In some regional varieties they add jugo de airampo
, juice extracted from the airampo cactus .
Small-scale African entrepreneurship with msemen and bajias
In Africa, street food is a means of subsistence for some of the most disadvantaged social groups, such as the elderly or women. Consequently, it is an activity which should be helped and supported. But how? By eating their food, of course. Morocco offers a truly amazing range: every corner of towns is bursting with tastes, smells and aromas. Msemen, the Moroccan pancake, is one of the most popular and widely available foods, often together with harsha, a fried semolina flatbread. They are often eaten for breakfast with jam and honey such as the thyme honey from the Ida Ou Tanane region, or that made by the Saharan yellow bee. If you prefer the savory version, msemen can be an excellent accompaniment for olives, or it can be spread with mutton dripping and some tomato sauce.
On the other side of Africa, in Mozambique, street food traditions are equally well developed: in the province of Maputo you will find bhajias, traditional legume-based fritters: beans are soaked for three hours, after which they are ground up with salt and onion. The mixture is fried until it is quite a dark color. This dish is also prepared by the ten cooks of the Slow Food Muteko Waho Convivium, who use products from the Maputo Earth Market. Like many other street hawkers in developing countries, these ten cooks do all the cooking at home and then every morning they jump onto a chapa – the typical overcrowded minibuses used in Mozambique - taking a little stall with them, complete with crockery and everything they need to sell their dishes in the various areas of the capital.
Traditions in the old continent
These far-off countries offer food of many colors and with an infinite range of tastes, proving that a few cleverly cooked cheap local ingredients are the right recipe for unrivalled dishes. And what about Europe? The Old Continent is certainly not going to cut a shabby figure beside the incredible range on offer from overseas. Each country has its own specialty: pancakes in France, French fries in Brussels and fish and chips in England… But when we come to food from the Balkans, where the gastronomic culture has been strongly influenced by the mixture of different traditions which have intermingled over the centuries, above all the Turkish and the Slavic ones, there can be no real national boundaries.
This is even more true of street food: just about everywhere you will find the special puff pastry dishes called burek
, stuffed with local meat, vegetables and cheeses: in Romania they use brânză de burduf cheese,
in Albania, mishavin
, in Hungary ham from the Mangalika pig, in Bosnia Herzegovina traditional Livno cheese, and so on. All of these dishes can be accompanied by a typical street drink, variously known as boza, bosa or bragă
, a thick, beige colored drink with a strong and bittersweet taste made from fermented cereals, wheat bran, corn, millet or oats, left to soak. The bragagiu
, or street bragă seller, who advertised his wares by shouting out loud, was an emblematic figure in Romanian city scenes towards the end of the XIX century, particularly in towns where a lot of trade took place, but nowadays a few, rare, genuine specimens still survive.
Hopping over to India, the land of spices
Of course, this is not the end of our journey through the most characteristic and tastiest street food in the world. There are so many countries left to discover, but our food truck needs a rest and we need a snack: so our last stop is in India. Starting with sweet tastes: in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, cheek,
also called kharvas, is sold on the street. It is a sweet drink made from the first milk a cow yields after giving birth, the richest in protein and least fatty. The milk is sweetened with sugar or jaggery, an unrefined raw cane sugar, and cinnamon, saffron and cardamom are added. Those who produce it, almost always at a home craft level, sell it door to door or from a little stand on the side of the road.
But for a quick snack one can go for amla fruit or Indian gooseberry, or sho plow, sold from street carts and eaten raw with salt and chili pepper or pounded up with ginger and chili to make a chutney. Another fruit which is a very popular street food ingredient in India, particularly in Maharashtra and the Western Ghats region, is the kokum: its pulp is dried and concentrated to make a syrup for a refreshing juice, which is sold and drunk by the roadside.
For those who like savory tastes, there is the batata vada, which means potato fritter. The dish is made using mashed potatoes seasoned with mustard seeds, curry leaves, chili pepper, onion and powdered dry asafoetida exuded by the tap roots of a plant which smells of sulfur and tastes like garlic, but spicier, then dipped in chick-pea flour and fried. A few drops of garlic, add salt and curcuma and it’s ready to eat. And then there are chicken rolls, ragda patties, anda bhurji, mirchi bada, and pani puri…so many dishes that if you were to try them all, you would stay in India forever!