Many travelers love to experience a destination through its local cuisine. And while it is nice to treat yourself to a relaxing restaurant meal on vacation, it’s not necessarily the best way to find the most vibrant and exciting regional foods. For that, you need to take to the streets!
Street food is diverse, inexpensive and quick, which makes it a perfect option for travelers, especially those who are both curious and on a tight budget. And though you can certainly fill up on your share of ‘safe’ options like New York hot dogs, Parisian crepes or Italian pizza, there are so many other adventurous locations with yummy street food to discover all over the world.
These areas tend to have a plethora of delicious, cheap and unique local foods. They’ll have you planning a return visit strictly for the vittles. But consider yourself forewarned – there’s no guarantee that experimenting with any of these foods may not lead to another type of cultural experience – a trip to the local hospital.
Often referred to as one of the Spice Islands, Zanzibar, which is part of Tanzania, sits off the coast of East Africa. Just the name conjures up some exotic, fairy-tale images. And as its name suggests, the flavors of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, vanilla, coconut, saffron, cardamom and pepper mingle with the sea breezes imparting an exotic aroma over the island.
Surrounded by the Indian Ocean, it’s no surprise that the local food-specialty is seafood. The cuisine is a conglomeration of African, Indian, Arabic and European cultures. During the day, head to the historic coastal trading town called Stone Town, where you can shop with the locals at the Central Market, a large, vibrant open-air food market.
In addition to spices, you will also find fresh fruits and vegetables like banana and jackfruit as well as freshly caught seafood and even roosters. But the real excitement begins at night. When the sun sets and the fishermen return with their catch-of-the-day, head over to the Forndhani Gardens for a seafood-lover’s paradise of epic proportions.
Makeshift barbeque grills are assembled while a veritable smorgasbord of almost every kind of fish imaginable is prepared. Choose your fish kebab from the mass of platters then watch the locals grill them up for you – at rock-bottom prices.
Crab claws, lobster, eel, calamari, octopus, kingfish, tuna and prawns are all served alongside local salads and chips. Vegetarians have the option of trying Zanzibar pizza, which is a crêpe topped with cheese, green chili, onion, tomato, egg, cilantro, mayonnaise, ginger paste, garlic and hot sauce, if you dare. Wash it all down with some freshly pressed sugar cane juice.
Located on the southeasterly tip of China and only an hour from Hong King by ferry, Macau is an interesting melange of cultural influences, which comes through loud and clear in its street-food offerings.
Macau was once a Portuguese city for over 400 years and as a result has a fusion of the Chinese and Portugese cultures. You’ll find Central Macau is brimming with food stalls, but areas like the Senado Square and the Saint Paul Ruins on Souvenir Street offer a large selection. Here you can sample local delicacies like lo mail fan – rice with Chinese sausage, peanut porridge, siew mai – a type of open faced dumpling, curry fish balls and beef offals.
The most well known snack is the ever-popular pork chop bun – a simple pork chop stuffed between a roll with a crisp outside and soft center, sans veggies. You can also find loads of every kind of smoked jerky meat imaginable including beef, veal and pork. To satisfy your sweet tooth stop by a bakery, or pastelaria, and try the ubiquitous Portuguese-style sweet egg tart known as a pastel de nata or some almond cookies with ginger milk.
The Philippines is comprised of over 7,000 islands, which means that the cuisine is as diverse as their cooking methods and language dialects. Manila is the capital and like most large cities, there is a bustling street life. The street food, like the city itself, is an eclectic mix of European and Asian food with influences from Malay, Spain and China, in particular.
Food vendors can be found in heavily-trafficked areas like universities, malls, hotels, market areas and near corporate buildings. UP Diliman and the Makati Central Business District are two good bets.
In Makati, street vendors sell their wares from stalls called Jolly Jeeps. Isaw – grilled chicken intestines, helmet – chicken head and adidas – chicken feet, are all grilled while you wait and served skewered. Taho – a sweet bean curd mixed with liquified raw sugar and tapioca balls, is sold by vendors who often shout, “TAHOOOOO!” up and down the streets. Balut – boiled duck embryo, is a local delicacy, though not for the faint of heart. Kwek-Kwek – hard-boiled eggs dunked in orange batter and fried, and tokneneng which uses quail eggs and fish balls, are popular staples found near the UP Diliman campus.
And for the not-so-adventurous, grab some freshly roasted hot peanuts, banana cue – deep-fried banana with caramelized brown sugar on a stick, or kamote cue which is sweet potato prepared in the same fashion.
Treat yourself to some dirty ice cream for dessert. Visiting Manila on a Saturday? Don’t miss the Lechon – roasted suckling pig, at the Salcedo Market.
Turkey’s most famous city offers an immense variety of both foods and vendors alike. The streets are overflowing with vendors pushing food carts through the narrow streets, peddling everything from roasted corn-on-the-cob to simit – a large, circular bread with sesame seeds often carried on plates atop the seller’s head.
The Galata Bridge waterfront area on the European side of the Bosporus is a picturesque spot for snacks. Look for the billowing smoke coming from the mouth of The Golden Horn, where you can order a fresh fish sandwich cooked right on a boat. Or try another well-known specialty, döner kebap – a rotating spit of marinated lamb, beef, or chicken sliced off in thin layers and served in buttered pita-like bread with lettuce, tomatoes and onions.
Kofte – a type of meatball grilled with green peppers and served with a spicy sauce, tomatoes, onions and parsley, is also available with over 30 variations Eat it on its own or sandwiched between flatbread. And speaking of flatbread, lahmajun – Turkish pizza, is topped with a thin layer of any combination of chopped meat, tomatoes, onions and peppers and traditionally served rolled-up, with a side of parsley and lemon.
In the mood to class it up a bit? Try the midye dolma – stuffed mussels. The mussels are shucked, cooked with olive oil and spices and then refilled into the shells on a bed of rice. Use one of the shells as a scoop to avoid oily fingers. Those who have a hankering for offal will be happy to find kokoreç – chopped, grilled intestines seasoned with salt, pepper, oregano, and served on bread. To quench your thirst try hot, sweet tea or the salty yogurt beverage, known as ayran.
The classic street food of Northern India is called chaat, which is a generic term for most dishes sold by chaatwallah – purveyors of some of India’s most celebrated street snacks. The ingredients are varied, but you can bet they’ll include any blend of potatoes, chickpeas, lemon, pomegranate seeds, tamarind, cilantro, cumin and are always served alongside sweet or spicy chutneys.
Delhi is one city known for its chaat, the best of which can be found in Old Delhi, specifically in Chandni Chowk. Here you can find samosas, papri, gol gappa (otherwise known as pani puri in other regions of the country) – hollow, crispy, deep-fried dough spheres filled with a spicy mixture of potato, chickpeas, cilantro-flavored water and topped with tamarind chutney bursting with flavor in your mouth on impact, aloo tikki – a fried patty of mashed potato, minced onion, grated ginger and spices served with chutney and yogurt, and dahi bhalla – a mixture of moong dal, curds, spices and tamarind chutney.
To combat the heat of the chutneys grab a lassi – a drink prepared with yogurt and often sold sweet, or fruit flavored. Chaat can also be made with seasonal fruits like mango, guava, apple, banana and spices. For a sticky-sweet treat eaten hot or cold, try jabeli – deep-fried dough dunked in syrup or perhaps some kulfi – an Indian version of ice cream, in flavors like mango, rosewater, cardamom or pistachio.
The most expensive and elusive delicacy is a hidden gem called daulat ki chaat – a whipped treat made with milk froth, air, dew and sugar. It’s served with pistachios, sprinkled with unrefined sugar, topped with silver foil and presented in a tiny leaf bowl. You’ll only find it in winter months.
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Thai people consume small meals throughout the day, many of which are enjoyed outside the home, which could be one of the reasons that Thailand has such a dynamic street food scene.
Thai flavors are absorbed from cuisines like Indian, Malaysian, Cambodian and Chinese. For both quantity and variety most head to Bangkok where vendors, called hawkers, sell everything from fresh fruit, like yellow watermelon and papaya, to marinated meat sticks grilled over charcoal.
The best areas for street snacks include the side streets of Chinatown, Thong Lor and Loong Perm market in the northern part of Bangkok. And though there are an overabundance of well-known noodle dishes, like won-ton soup and pad thai, others to try include pad khee mao – noodles stir-fried with spicy Thai basil and served with meat or fish, which is apparently named because street cooks serve it into the wee hours, when their clientele is a little tipsy.
Aside from noodles, one can find gaeng leung – a southern curry flavored with chunky squash and turmeric, kaao mun kai – rice and steamed chicken and hoi todd – oyster omelette.
For something light and refreshing try som tam – green papaya salad with dried shrimp, tart lime, salty fish sauce and crunchy peanuts or larb – another flavorful salad made from ground meat or fish, lime, fish sauce, and a handful of mint, cilantro or Kaffir lime leaves.
Traditional Thai desserts include bananas fried in a crisp rice-flour batter, Thai pancakes and mango sticky rice smothered in coconut milk. And if insects are your thing, you have come to the right place! Bags of fried, seasoned cockroaches, grasshoppers and ants are available for your snacking pleasure.
Learn more about street food around the world:
- 11 Delicious Street Foods Around the World
- How I Travel: Anthony Bourdain
- Exciting Edibles in South America
- Eat Your Way Around Bangkok
Macau by Magalie L’Abbé on Flickr, Zanzibar by Barbara Ann Weibel on holeinthedonut.com, Delhi by abhijeet.rane on Flickr, Bangkok by mattmangum on Flickr, Manila by kin0be on Flickr, Istanbul by if you love me on Flickr