Street food, it’s fast to cook, cheap to buy, and created right under your nose as you hover beside a hot wok or a smoky roadside barbecue, watching mouth-watering meals take shape in mere minutes.
I’ve been known to spend entire journeys eating nothing but street food, crouched on curbs beside tiny food carts, chilling with icy beers at balmy, alfresco night markets, and sitting elbow-to-elbow with locals slurping breakfast noodles at dawn at a pop-up bus stop café.
Far more than a fresh, fun way to fill your belly, utterly aromatic street food is loved by locals and guaranteed to inspire the curious chef in you, but street food is also expert food, crafted by individuals who are specialists are their signature dishes.
Food is a huge part of why many people travel and eating where the locals do sates much more than our eager appetites. Deep-fried tarantulas and happy pizza aside, eating street food is one of the most authentic experiences you can have when you leave home, so here’s five reasons why you should shun hotel menus, live locally and change the world.
1. Meet & Mingle:
If you want to know what makes a country tick, take a look at what its people eat: the produce, the spices, when people rise and shine each morning and what sustains them through their day. A hotel waiter might bring eggs and toast to your table, but what’s the chef eating when its time to take a break?
Eating on the street answers this question and much more, providing the opportunity to observe how people interact with each other, how they dress and what the local eating etiquette is, especially when it comes to flavouring your meals.
Do the locals eat alone, do they catch up with friends, are they reading or texting or talking with each other, rushing off to work or relaxing between tasks? Eating locally enables you to strike up conversations, and forces you to flex your language skills if only so that you can order great food and glean advice from locals that might just change the course of your journey.
Whatever our cultural differences, food unites all people and eating locally really ingratiates us with the people we have travelled so far to meet.
2. Challenge your tastebuds:
It’s normal to crave familiar foods, be it pasta in Penang or if you’re Australian like me, Vegemite in New York, but once those hankerings have been sated, it’s time to get local and discover what’s making everyone else’s tastebuds sing.
More often than not, by diving into the local cuisine you’ll discover winning flavour combinations you never considered before, and new favourite snacks that assail your senses.
The huge attraction of travel is that is presents so many opportunities for us to test our boundaries, and you can do this a dozen times a day simply by opening your mouth!
There are plenty of taste sensations I’d be happy never to try again (ah, snake wine in Laos is just one that springs to mind), but the exhilaration of tossing back that dreadful tasting shot is one I’ll never forget.
Food does that to you, so I make a pact to sample something new at every meal when I travel: whether it’s the local breakfast tea, a bag of whatever unknown deep-fried treats workers are snacking on mid-morning, famous dishes, regional specialties and those uniquely local creations that I discover while poking down backstreets where locals crouch on milk crates and stand around stalls eating darn good food.
3. Learn something new:
If there’s anyone who is guaranteed to get my attention when I travel it’s cooks. I fawn over their food, hunger for their recipes and more often than not, ingratiate myself into their tiny kitchens and food carts to hover, observe, toss and stir and ultimately learn far more about local food than I ever could from cooking shows.
Even if you are not pestering the cook, you can learn a lot simply by watching how your meal is being put together, and if you’re bold enough, throwing a couple of questions at the cook as they create.
It’s human nature to be proud of what we do, and don’t we all love a compliment! Returning to a local street vendor meal after meal is a good way to let them know that you love their food, and the next obvious step is to ask if you can learn to cook a favourite dish yourself.
Having done this far too often, I’ve found that most chefs are thrilled and flattered by the attention and only too happy to let me (and now my young daughter) join in.
I have a vivid, happy memory of watching my five-year-old perfect the art of making Nepalese momos in a tiny backstreet kitchen in the heart of Kathmandu, before they were steamed and served to our beaming band of travellers.
Making friends out of cooks is a great way to learn local culinary secrets, but if that’s not your style, sign up for a local cooking class instead.
4. Keep your spending local:
Upmarket hotels and fast-food chains don’t need any more of my money, but local families do and when I eat in their cafes and dine on their street food, I know that I am putting dollars directly into their (apron) pockets.
There’s big power in how every traveller spends his or her money and the best place to start is at the grass roots by supporting the people who need your money and earn it big time too.
5. Safety in numbers:
According to Wikipedia, some 2.5 billion people eat street food every day. Just how many of them come away with tummy troubles I can’t say, but I stand by the belief that fresh local food, cooked right in front of you and especially when it omits meat and seafood, is some of the safest food you can eat.
A big part of eating safely on the streets is dining when and where the locals do. Look for stalls that are busy or have a decent queue of customers that includes some mums and kids (everyone the world over is fussy about protecting kids’ tummies).
Resetting your stomach to local mealtimes and ordering what the locals do means your meals will be super-fresh and served hot, with no time for bacteria to do its worst.
Need some food safety tips? Ask for a glass of hot water to clean dubious-looking cutlery (especially if travelling with kids) or clean it with antibacterial wipes or gel and fresh water; snack on fruit that you can peel, go vegetarian and, if ice is a concern, order hot or canned drinks over shakes and smoothies.