Forget ritzy restaurants and fine gourmet dining. If you want to taste the real essence of a place, you need to hit the streets and see what’s cooking. These eats are more than just for locals and budget travellers, they’re also a sure-fire way to get straight to the heart of a country and its people. Just look for the busiest pushcart, stall or street hawker you can find (Michelin stars are not the only yardstick to measure good food by!) and say hello to the tastiest and cheapest, although not necessarily healthiest, grub of your trip. The Southeast Asian destinations of Thailand and Vietnam have long been held up as the crème de la crème of street dining, but just read on to find what other destinations’ snacks we think are worthy of a mention.
The All-Day Breakfast
For a country overflowing with street food outlets from the humble pushcart to the more upmarket corner shop, it’s a tough call to crown one particular delicacy king of the cheap eats in Lebanon. If there must be one clear winner, however, it has to be the humble man’oushe, a freshly baked unleavened bread spread liberally with za’atar (an aromatic mix of thyme, sumac spice, sesame seeds and olive oil), which could almost be thought of as a tasty Lebanese take on pizza. It’s served folded, which means it’s perfect for eating on the hoof and makes an ideal breakfast treat on the way to work. The nation’s favourite snack has a number of variations, including a cheese topping using jibneh arabieh (similar to feta) or a ground beef topping called lahmeh. Throw in a few chopped tomatoes and olives and you’ve got yourself one heck of a tasty snack!
The small archipelago of Malta, situated slap-bang in the middle of the Mediterranean, is famed for its delicious pastizzi. These delectable diamond-shaped puff-pastries are filled with ricotta cheese or mashed peas, and can be bought from small fast-food shops called pastizzeriji, which open especially early on Sunday mornings to serve late-night revellers headed home from a night out. The two varieties can easily be told apart as the more popular pastizzi tal-irkotta (ricotta pastry) has a hole in it to show off the delicious filling, while the pastizzi tal-pizelli (pea pastry) does not. Lovers of vernacular may be interested to note that the word pastizzi (singular pastizz) is also a derogatory term for female genitalia in colloquial Maltese, probably due to the pastry’s suggestive shape. Despite the connotation, the pastries are a source of national pride. No visit to Malta is complete without a cheap and tasty pastizz or two.
The Southern African nation of Namibia is well known as a land of meat lovers for whom not just any meat will do. Only artery-clogging red meat satisfies this nation’s carnivorous tendencies. Beef is big business here and barbecues, much like the braai in neighbouring South Africa, can be found in every town.
The Namibian version is known as kapana and consists of strips of beef and fat grilled to perfection on open stoves, generously seasoned with chilli, salt or peri-peri and served wrapped in newspaper. These tasty morsels can also be sandwiched in fried doughnut-type buns, fittingly called ‘fat cakes.’ The barbecuing is traditionally men’s work, but women are often on hand to help serve up the fat cakes. The perfectly prepared kapana has a strong, smoky barbecue flavour, with the meat succulent and juicy and the fat crisp on the outside. The bustling markets of Katutura township in the capital city of Windhoek are the best places to find this tasty soul food.
A Little Something for the Health Conscious
If you think the promise of a calorie-induced heart attack is a prerequisite to qualify as authentic street food, think again. The hot and sticky Indonesian climate means the refreshing street eat known as rujak (Malay for “mixture”) is a popular choice for snackers. It’s a simple concoction consisting of a cup of mixed fresh fruit or vegetables topped with rujak sauce and peanuts. The sweet and sour rujak sauce is similar to Chinese hoisin and is made from water, gula jawa (palm sugar), asem jawa (tamarind), ground peanuts, terasi (shrimp paste), salt and chilli.
Popular ingredients in a typical fruit rujak include jambu air (water apple), pineapple, mango, jicama (turnip), cucumber, kedondong (hog plum) and raw ubi jalar (sweet potato). The tartness of the fruit is nicely offset by the sweetness of the sauce, but those preferring a saltier flavour can ask for some sambal garam powder (salt and ground red chilli) on the side. The mix of sweet, sour and spicy flavours is said to be particularly popular among pregnant women, which may explain why a special fruit rujak is served during traditional baby shower ceremonies called Tujuh bulanan (meaning “seventh month”) on the island of Java. Locals believe if the rujak tastes sweeter the baby will be a girl and if spicier it signifies a boy.
And for the Not So Health Conscious
The popular fast food known as sopaipilla can be found all over Latin America, but the version in Chile packs a little extra something. Here, the fried circles of dough are made with cooked squash (a Chilean staple) and this versatile comfort food can be either sweet or savoury. A variation of the snack is found on the island of Chiloé, where potatoes (sweet or plain) are used instead of squash. Sopaipilla pasada is served in chancaca, a warm cane sugar syrup flavoured with orange peel and cinnamon. It’s a perfect winter warmer that is also traditionally eaten on rainy afternoons with a cup of tea as a carb-laden pick-me-up. The savoury alternatives substitute chancaca for pebre, a sauce made from tomatoes, chopped onion, oil, salt, and chopped coriander or parsley. Jalepeño sauces are also popular for a bit of kick. Sopaipilla vendors can be found throughout the country plying the streets with their pushcarts and this simple dish is also often served in restaurants to whet the appetite.