One of the best ways to experience a new country or culture is through a culinary lens. Cuisine is a pathway to the history, politics and economy of a culture, and there is perhaps no better avenue than street food.
What we have come to call street food is often the everyday fare of working people around the world. It is food that is affordable, practical in that it is usually portable, and fast, frequently consumed on the go from work or school. For travelers, it’s a way to eat on budget and among locals.
Some of my most memorable travel experiences have been eating meals streetside, snacking while walking along a river that intersects a city or simply people watching while sampling a place’s best street food offerings.
For the purpose of this article, I define street food as food bought and consumed outside, rather than inside of a restaurant setting. Streets foods are often sold from food trucks, carts and stalls, hawker centers, night markets and at the roadside.
When you’re not traveling the globe, the next best thing is to visit the places in our communities where chefs are serving street food favorites. The following are the types of street foods I remember fondly from my own travels, offered right here in the Northeast.
Ta’amiya and Hawawshi
Cairo, Egypt, is a bustling, energetic city situated adjacent to the Sahara Desert. Travelers come in droves every year to see the Great Pyramid of Giza. But Cairo also offers a vibrant street food scene, sometimes overshadowed by the pyramid’s allure.
Translated from Arabic as “tasty little bits,” ta’amiya is a popular Egyptian street food. And while they look much like traditional falafel, they aren’t made with chickpeas. These snackable fritters are made with mashed fava beans, garlic, onions, coriander and cumin and dressed in sesame seeds.
I get my ta’amiya at Zooba in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where they’re moist, fluffy and packed with flavor. Served as side dish in portions of three, they appear on the menu as Egyptian Falafel.
But the main attraction at Zooba is the Hawawshi, a handheld crispy pita stuffed with minced meat, onion, garlic, peppers and herbs. I go for the Street Hawashi, which features meat without any additional toppings, though options with cheese and slaw are also offered. Like most types of street food around the world, Zooba’s hawawshi is portable, affordable and delicious.
Hawker centers in Singapore and Malaysia are frenetic, crowded, mostly outdoor food venues with a variety of food stalls. They are perfect for gathering with friends and sharing family-style meals from a large sampling of the region’s offerings.
In both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I was hooked on oyster omelets. These savory, fried, greasy, delicious concoctions of egg, green onions, bean sprouts and a tapioca starch batter, feature a magical mashup of chewy, crisp and gooey textures. Paired with spicy sambal or chili oil, oyster omelets are the ideal accompaniment to a cold local beer on a hot day.
My favorite oyster omelet in New York City can be found at Kopitiam. Their oh chien (oyster cake) is dressed with fragrant, fresh cilantro and comes with spicy house sambal sauce. If you grab an outdoor table, it almost feels like being transported Jalan Alor Food Street, Kuala Lumpur’s famous hawker center.
Baleadas are a seemingly simple meal of flour tortillas filled with refried beans, queso and crema. Filling variations can include sliced avocado, pickled red onions and eggs, chicken, pork, or beef. Honduran crema and Honduran crumbled queso duro make the flavors of baleadas pop, but it’s the freshness of the ingredients that make them special.
Baleadas will fill you up cheaply and quickly before starting your day. After a week in Honduras, I was hooked on breakfast baleadas and I long to go back to experience them again; for now, I’ll stick to Rinconcito Copaneco in Jersey City until I can return again.
Pho Bo Kho/Bo Kho
I had limited exposure to Vietnamese food where I grew up in the suburbs. Today, Vietnamese food in America is far more prominent.
Pho, a beef broth, rice noodle soup, is the most ubiquitous Vietnamese dish in the States, though in my opinion, it is best experienced streetside, on a plastic stool, mopping the sweat from your brow in the thick, humid, Vietnamese air.
Pho Bo Kho is closer to a stew than a traditional Pho, featuring a darker red broth, carrots, lemongrass, star anise and cinnamon. The rich, spicy flavor induces sweat, which cools you on even the hottest days in Saigon. If you are traveling through Connecticut, stop at Pho Viet, just ten minutes from central Hartford, and order a steaming bowl of Bo Kho.
Cevapi is the national dish of Bosnia and Herzegovina, though a similar variation is found throughout the Balkan region. Minced lamb, veal, pork, beef or a combination of meats are seasoned with salt and pepper, shaped into sausages or miniature patties, skewered and roasted. The meat is served with flatbread and chopped, raw, white onion, which begs to be made into a sandwich.
Cevapi is sold in restaurants and as a street food dish, and there are slight regional variations within Bosnia & Herzegovina. Whether you are in Mostar, Sarajevo, or the countryside, it’s a foregone conclusion that you will be repeatedly asked, “Have you tried cevapi yet?” Try it for yourself at Burek King in Clifton, New Jersey.
Harira is a hearty soup of lentils, tomatoes, chickpeas, turmeric, cumin and cinnamon. The non-vegetarian variety comes with chunks of lamb. The soup is often considered to be Morocco’s national dish, and you can find it offered morning, afternoon and night.
At the Jemaa el-Fna Squarein Marrakech, ware sellers, street carts, tourists, locals and performers all mix to form a lively evening scene. Street hawkers beckon patrons towards their bowls of snail shells, skewers of grilled meats and boiling pots of harira. Get some for yourself at Zerza in Manhattan’s Essex Market. Morocco is well-known for its tagine, but it is high time that its street food culture gets the recognition it deserves.
There was a popular streetside lunch bar in Taipei City that I passed every day while I was in Taiwan, and I could smell the pungent, noon-time meal before I could ever see the restaurant’s storefront. The odor was coming from stinky tofu, a popular dish served in restaurants and night markets, often as a side dish or as part of a larger meal.
True to its name, stinky tofu is tofu that has been fermented in brine for upwards of a few months, and served with any combination of mustard greens, cabbage/kimchi, dried shrimp, bamboo shoots and Chinese herbs. The dish is sour, spicy and savory with a mix of soft and crunchy textures. Yes, it does smell quite funky, but it is also delicious. (I am deeply impatient with anyone willing to write off stinky tofu based on its scent alone.)
In Queens, head to the New York Food Court in Flushing for your stinky tofu fix. In Manhattan, try Bings and Noodles for a slightly less funky variety.
Tamales are a handheld, portable meal that originated in Mesoamerica, having likely spread from Mexico or Guatemala to the rest of Latin America. They are made of masa or corn dough, steamed inside of a banana leaf or a corn husk. The inside is commonly stuffed with slow-cooked pork or chicken, beef, beans, cheese, and/or mole.
The best tamales come from fresh masa, and my indicator of a great tamale is whether it has retained a bit of moisture rather than being dried out. My favorite tamale in New York City comes from Factory Tamal. The mole poblano with chicken tamale showcases chef Fernando Lopez’s roots from Puebla, where he learned to make mole in his family’s tradition.
Hoppers are light and crispy, bowl-shaped pancakes made from a fermented rice flour and coconut milk batter that is steamed or fried. They come with a sunny-side up egg in the center and are often served with a sambal or curry.
This was my go-to breakfast in Colombo, Sri Lanka, ordered adjacent to the beach and enjoyed overlooking the surf. At Lakruwana Restaurant in Staten Island, you can order a hopper meal, which comes with one egg hopper filled with your choice of vegetables, chicken, pork, lamb, beef, fish or shrimp and three additional plain hoppers.
Ok, pizza may not be a street food I have eaten overseas – at least not in the same form as a New York slice, but it is the epitome of what makes street food so wonderful.
As a New Yorker, I can tell you that pizza is ubiquitous in New York. It crosses class boundaries and is eaten by all regardless of age, occupation, religious beliefs or cultural background. It’s eaten on sidewalks, on the subway (don’t do this), in parks, in the office, at school lunch and in restaurants in all corners of the five boroughs.
Pizza has become something to brag and argue about, creating tribal lines as New Yorkers claim their favorite pizza spot as the best. Local variations in Detroit, Chicago and Connecticut have created loyal followers, ready to argue on behalf of their home city’s pizza like rival sports fans defending their teams.
My favorite slice in the city is the burrata slice at L’industrie in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The pizza shop expanded its size within the last year, and business has been booming, as evidenced by a packed patio and lines out the door on Friday nights. Grab a few slices and a soft serve ice cream topped with olive oil and salt.
Once you have traveled throughout the Northeast to try each of these street food classics, I hope you will feel inspired to go to the true source of each meal. There is nothing that compares to the experience of having a local meal in a foreign culture.
So, hit the road to get your fill within your home region for now but try to hop on a flight to experience street food abroad someday, too. A AAA travel agent will be happy to help you plan your trip!
Featured image: Ta’amiya from Zooba.