The Green Plate: Street Eats

Column10 global street foods to try.

When a real vacation isn’t possible, a virtual food vacation can be just the (plane) ticket. Join us as we survey 10 mouthwatering street foods with links to recipes that you can make at home.

One thing is certain, every culture around the world has some sort of street food scene. As we continue to develop our street food culture here in the US, it’s fun to see how long-standing street food traditions elsewhere may have influenced our new local food vendors.

1. Banh Mi in Vietnam

My traveling companion once crashed our motorbike into a curb as I yelled “Duck Banh Mi” and pointed excitedly at a cart parked on a busy sidewalk in the city of Hoi An Vietnam. The accident prevented us from trying that particular Banh Mi. Thankfully the country is full of chicken banh mi, pate banh mi, pork banh mi, and more. The classic sandwich is generally some type of protein piled onto a mayonnaise slathered, fluffy crumbed, crackly crusted baguette. What really makes the meal are the cilantro, sliced chiles, and pickled carrots and daikon tucked into the roll.  Want to make your own? Vietnamese food authority Andrea Nguyen provides a great master recipe on her blog.

2. Gorditas in Mexico

Tacos may be the ultimate street food and Mexico may be justifiable famous for its elote (corn on the cob smothered with mayo, chile, lime, and queso) but I’ll be going back to the Cuernavaca market for these gorditas—delicate, pillowy, freshly fried discs of masa dough filled with beans or meat and then topped with fiery green salsa, crema, and queso.  Try this recipe from Rick Bayless.

3. Burek in Turkey and the Balkans

These meat or cheese-filled hand pies are the best portable food imaginable. What’s not to like about flaky pastry filled with savory goodness? They’re great for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I haven’t had the pleasure of trying them in their countries of origin but I did luck out last time I was in Portland where I dined on Burek at a Bosnian stand called Ziba’s Pitas. The versions vary by country. Here is an authentic sounding Turkish Burek.

4. Satay in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore

When people think of satay, they usually think of Thailand. However, according to James Oseland in his book, Cradle of Flavor, about Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, satay were first introduced to Indonesia by Middle Eastern spice merchants. Satay are the most popular street foods in these countries. Versions and proteins vary but all have in common a savory, spicy, sweet, richly seasoned paste rubbed on before grilling. Here is a recipe for a Malaysian style chicken satay.

5. Green Papaya Salad in Thailand

Sweet, spicy, fishy, and pungent, a good green papaya salad is a wonderful thing to behold. Though I’ve never visited Thailand, I’ve been told that this salad is one of the country’s beloved street foods. Unfortunately, many versions of the salad found in restaurants here in the US are lackluster, too sweet, or just not fresh enough. When gauging a recipe’s authenticity, look for fish sauce, palm sugar, and some type of dried (or fermented) fish. These items are generally readily available in any urban area with a Southeast Asian grocery store. Here’s a recipe that looks authentic. The trick is to balance the sweet, spicy, hot, and tart elements in the dish.

6. Bhel Puri in India

India is famous for “chaat,” or street food of all types. Bhel Puri is one of the most fun to eat. Crunchy bits of puffed rice mixed with tiny diced tomatoes, cilantro, and maybe some mango, along with tamarind chutney and spices. The combination is irresistible. Crunchy, sweet, spicy, tart, and lively in the mouth. A chorus of flavors! I had a great version by Soul Cocina at last year’s Eat Real Festival. This recipe is a good one to start with.

7. Arepas in Venezuela or Colombia

There is some debate as to the origin of the arepa, but no disagreement on their utter deliciousness. Arepas are masa cake sandwiches made from a special corn flour fried, split, and then stuffed with a variety of fillings (though sometimes the fillings are cooked inside). I’ve heard friends wax poetic on their virtues, but have never experienced them in either of their home countries. I did, however, have the good fortune of visiting the famous “arepa lady”, a street vendor in Queens, several years back. It was worth the subway trip. This recipe might have to satisfy my next arepa craving.

8. Falafel in Israel

Bus stations all over Israel sell crisp falafel balls stuffed into either half or whole pita breads to travelers on the run. The difference between falafel here and falafel in Israel is the abundance of salad-like accompaniments that eaters pile on themselves to their liking. You’ll find tomatoes, cucumbers, pickled beets, spicy salads, fried potatoes, eggplant, yogurt, harissa, and more. Here’s a video recipe for falafel.

9. Squid on a stick or Ika Sugatayaki in Japan

This street snack is a whole squid body marinated and grilled over wood. It’s traditionally eaten during the Festival of the Ancestors (Obon) during which the ancestors return to the villages of their birth. Here’s a simple recipe featuring homemade teriyaki sauce.

10. Snails in Morocco

I’ve never had the pleasure of trying the snails in Morocco, but they sure are lovely to look at. Sold at street stalls in small bowls accompanied by steaming hot broth, they are one of the classic street foods of Morocco. Learn how to make them from two Moroccan women and learn how to eat them with this video.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.


Top: flickr4jazz via Flickr

Bahn mi:  Stu Spivack via Flickr

Gorditas: Vanessa Barrington

Burek: Dear Barbie via Flickr

Satay: Jensen Chua via Flickr

Green Papaya Salad: Avlxyz via Flickr

Bhel Puri:  _foam via Flickr

Arepas: Bob B. Brown via Flickr

Falafel: Meaduva via Flickr

Squid: Jerone2 via Flickr

Snails: Special krb via Flickr

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.