From banana leaves stuffed with sticky rice sold for a few baht on a Thai train to roasted chestnuts proffered in paper cones in Zurich, street food–the cuisine of the people–is found in practically every country. Not all roadside culinary traditions are created equal, however. Forget all fears of Montezuma’s revenge and visit the world’s most delicious street food destinations.
Every evening, the Djemma al Fna, Marrakech’s main square, morphs into a street food mecca. Hundreds of stalls strung with lightbulbs host Moroccan and foreign tourists in nearly equal measure. Locals prefer to eat in their homes, where food is prepared by women. On the street, it’s men who do the cooking. The overall experience is far from calm–vendors will tug on your shirtsleeves or flirt with your girlfriend to entice takers. Any table you choose is the best seat in the house. Dishes such as sheep’s head and couscous are prepped with a dose of theater. Also look for bubbling cauldrons of herb-infused escargots and follow the lead of Moroccans by plucking the snails from their shells using safety pins. For tamer tastes, there are brochettes (kabobs of minced beef) and chicken tagine.
Recommended: Cheap and filling, harira soup is a traditional Moroccan broth of chickpeas, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and turmeric. At the Djemma al Fna, it’s eaten with a scooped spoon made of citron wood. Get upsold on the honeyed tangles of sweet dough called shbekkia, a popular harira accompaniment.
In markets that spill from narrow alleys and ancient squares, vendors shout their prices while they’re boiling fresh artichokes and hawking chickpea fritters called panelle. There’s caponata–a Sicilian eggplant dish made with capers that’s similar to ratatouille–cannoli, and baked rice balls called arancini, too. More adventurous eaters can opt for pani ca meusa, a sandwich made from simmered beef spleen and perhaps a bit of lung.
Recommended: One of the most delicious snacks is fresh octopus. “It’s cooked on the spot,” says traveler Agnes Weber of Lyon, France. “They fetch it out of a big pan full of boiling water, cut a piece for you on a small plastic plate, put a bit of lemon on it all, and you eat it there in the street. I just love it!”
Stone Town, Zanzibar
Come sunset in Stone Town, Forodhani Gardens on the waterfront turns into a spectacle of grill-bound seafood, salivating tourists, and feral cats foraging for leftovers. “It’s a total seafood orgy–I’ve never seen so many fish and crustaceans getting chopped and skewered,” says travel writer Christopher Vourlias. Think lobster, crab claws, shrimp, barracuda, octopus, and skewers of flopping fresh fish. Due to its popularity with tourists, seafood here is pricey by local standards. Expect to pay about four dollars for lobster and one or two bucks for a skewer of snapper. You’ll save cash by feasting like the locals do, opting for goat meat skewers, grilled cassava, spiced naan bread, and samosas.
Recommended: We’ll take four-dollar lobster any day. But for a tasty landlubber treat, try the Zanzibari pizzas–chopped meat and spices between thin layers of dough. Wash it all down with freshly pressed sugarcane juice.
Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico City’s street food is deliciously diverse, from churros–tubes of fried dough powdered with cinnamon–to roasted corn to carnitas and freshly squeezed fruit juices. But perhaps the best dish in the capital is tacos al pastor, found on nearly every street corner. Hunks of marinated pork topped with pineapple are cooked gyro-style on a spit until they’re tender. Then chunks are sliced off and served atop two-bite corn tortillas. Cilantro, chopped onion, and a squeeze of lime make a perfect garnish.
Recommended: Elote–roasted corn on the cob. It’s shucked in front of you, pierced with a wooden stick, and slathered with tangy mayonnaise–the base for a topping of chili flakes, powdery cotija cheese, and a squeeze of lime. ¡Qué rico!
Pushcarts laden with inexpensive eats are practically as prevalent as people in Istanbul, where you can find sustenance for every meal without ever entering a restaurant. For breakfast, take your Turkish coffee or tea with simit–a doughnut-shaped piece of bread covered with sesame seeds that’s lovely with jam or cheese. Köfte–skewers of minced meat shaped into sausagelike forms that are grilled and stuffed into bread–make a good lunch. And you can piece together dinner by hitting vendors selling corn on the cob (grilled or boiled), lahmajun (grilled flat bread topped with a thin layer of meat, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and parsley), and midye dolma (mussels stuffed with rice, pine nuts, raisins, and fresh herbs).
Recommended: Look for the thin cigar-shaped savory pastries called sigara borek–stuffed with parsley-infused feta and fried to golden perfection. Warning: They are habit forming.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City’s street food offerings are staggering. Visit a street stall and pull up a plastic chair alongside the locals to feast on Vietnam’s breakfast of champions–pho. The noodle soup originally hails from Hanoi but is a breakfast and lunchtime staple across Vietnam. Streetside snacks include dried squid strung like flapping laundry outside shops and tiny shrimp stir-fried with their shells on. Both go down well with a Tiger beer, typically served over ice. For dessert, there’s che–soupy sweet bean and coconut desserts proffered in to-go bags.
Recommended: Nothing hits the spot on a hot Mekong Delta day like sweet, syrupy Vietnamese iced café. Called ca phe sua da, it’s a mix of nearly equal parts thick black coffee and condensed milk. You’ll see it prepared everywhere, from a street stall to atop a burner on the curb. The concoction is poured into a plastic bag and topped with a rubber band and a straw for an on-the-go jolt like no other.
Germany’s street food offerings go beyond those ubiquitous grilled bratwursts poking from both ends of their too-tiny buns. And the capital city–with the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey–is the best place to sample the wealth. Döner kabobs at takeout restaurants are found on nearly every corner, particularly in the Kreuzberg quarter. Look for street carts selling rösti–plate-sized portions of fried hash browns, slathered with applesauce or garlic quark, similar to sour cream. And popular festival fare includes schweinhaxe (pork knuckle) served with sauerkraut, French-style crepes, and whole mushrooms sautéed in garlic and butter. For an interesting twist on glühwein, hit Berlin’s myriad Christmas markets, held throughout December, to try Feuerzangenbowle (“fire pliers punch”). The alcoholic beverage is prepared using red wine, orange juice, and spices poured into a large metal bowl and hung over an open fire. Pliers hold a rum-soaked cone of sugar over the mixture. The sugar is set alight and continually poured with rum until it melts into the bowl.
Recommended: Currywurst–slices of pork sausage topped with Germany’s favorite condiment, curry sauce (a blend of tomato sauce, ketchup, and curry powder)–is eaten off paper plates with tiny forks.
Cheju Island, Korea
Korea’s largest island, off the country’s southern coast, is known for fabulous seafood caught and proffered by female divers, a tradition that evolved due to historical taxation on male labor. With little more than a knife and the strength of their lungs, the women plunder the sea bottom for abalone, octopus, urchins, shellfish, and seaweed. At beaches around the island, they emerge from the ocean in wet suits, bearing full nets, and grill their catches on the beach for tourists and locals. Hit the boardwalk in Cheju City, too, where hwae (raw fish) is served alongside the usual Korean street food, including dumplings, caramel candies, and skewered meats.
Recommended: Wherever you are in Korea, you’ll find tteokbokki. Once a staple of the royal court, the starchy dish is now the country’s most popular and ubiquitous street snack. The classic version is rice cakes stir-fried with sticky red pepper paste. Variations include fish cakes, fritters, dumplings, and boiled eggs in the same spicy sauce.
Read more of Terry Ward’s travel writing at www.terry-ward.com. Reprinted from World Hum(Dec. 15, 2008), an online publication “dedicated to exploring travel in all its facets: how it changes us, how it changes the way we see the world, and how travel itself is changing the world.” Find it at www.worldhum.com.