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Street Food Rules!

Street Cart, Penang

It seems that “street food” in all it’s variety is the hottest trend in eating these days. Both the Food Network and the Cooking Channel have shows and specials about street stalls and food trucks, which have proliferated immensely in recent times in cities all across America.

Of course, street food didn’t get its start here. I’m pretty sure the ancient Egyptians started the whole thing; or maybe the Babylonians or Sumerians.

One of my early Christmas gifts is a cookbook: “The World of Street Food” by Troth Wells. It’s a pretty book in all but its cover, which is, to put it mildly, hideous. If you buy cookbooks by their covers, then this one won’t register on your awareness. I see what the designer wanted: An active street-stall area, with mounds of food, flashing flames and people. They got that, but the color; surely they could have found something else? And I know they could have; just look at the beautiful illustrations inside.

Like Limburger cheese or ripe Durian, once you get past the shock of the cover you find a nicely executed book of street food recipes from around the world. And the pictures inside are so much more appealing and intriguing! The food looks good too.

The pictures and descriptions of these tasty eats brought back fond memories for me. I’ve traveled a fair bit and even posted here on the Underground about street food experiences in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere. I had actually developed an interest in street market food years before I read a caution in a travel guide urging tourists to stay away from the carts. I was surprised, actually. The only time I ever got an upset tummy eating overseas was eating in a fancy restaurant; the street stuff was always tasty, interesting and safe, in my experience. Maybe I’ve got cast-iron digestive equipment, but I think I’m not much different than most folks who travel internationally.

Thai Seafood

Oh, I think you have to be selective, and I always have been. But in a food hawker area such as Gurney Plaza in Penang, Raohe Street Night Market in Taipei or Amoy Street in Singapore, there’s always plenty to choose from. Besides, if any of these places got a reputation for poisoning their customers they wouldn’t be around long. I seldom ate uncooked anything, and had drinks from a can or bottle. There are some precautions worth following, of course!

I didn’t try India’s street fare, however. (I may be slow, but momma didn’t raise but one fool, and I got three brothers.) Maybe next time.

Back to the book! Mr. Wells takes us on a visual and culinary trek around the world, beginning in central and southern Africa and winding through Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, then through the Middle East, finishing in north Africa. Yes, you noticed! No North America in there. Oh, we have street food aplenty, but almost always it’s from one of the regions presented. (The Chicago cart hotdog, and maybe pizza, are exceptions.) Also Europe is conspicuously absent. No street food there? Hardly. My last trip through Slovakia, Austria and Germany found me snacking from plenty of carts. The food was usually Turkish, or Thai, or Indian. Nothing “local.” So I think Mr. Wells has fairly sampled the regions and varieties of street food.

The recipes appear simple and easy to prepare. There are some catches, though. Some of the ingredients will have you scrambling about looking for specialty grocery stores, or searching the InterWebs for substitutes. Remember, though, that street food isn’t exotic in the areas where they are served. They’re always prepared using local, fresh ingredients. Substituting’s fine! The spices though; you may want to make an effort for those, as a lot of the flavor and aroma components come from the herbs and spices. A well-stocked spice cabinet is a must if you plan to try dishes from several styles.

Street Meat

The range of ingredients, and the variety of outcomes, is truly astounding. However, particular dishes seldom use a large number of items. Some are very hot, and there are zesty examples from all the regions presented in the book. Many are mild, though often with a lot of spice. Be prepared to have your mouth wake and enjoy itself! One thing I like, basically none of the ingredients are fancy or expensive. Cost and availability do matter! You may find some things hard to get or expensive, but that’s likely because they’re local only to the streets where the hawkers practice the original offering.

Another small rub: The instructions aren’t as clear and thorough as you may find in other cookbooks. This doesn’t bother me, and I rather expected this style. Street food isn’t made to a recipe in any case. Go, watch these active cooks make their specialties. Their recipes and processes are at their fingertips, from long hours and years of practice. You should practice too! Your mistakes can be hidden in your tummy, in nearly all cases. (No guarantee, expressed or implied, for the flavor of these mistakes.) If you like to cook, I bet you’ll calibrate very quickly onto a process that makes great-tasting street food in your own kitchen. Remember this guideline: Street food is supposed to be simple stuff! If you’re struggling and taking a lot of time, step back and take a closer look; you’re probably doing it the hard way…

Enjoy the (World of Street Food) Heat!

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