I have an ongoing love affair with street food. I love snacking while walking (hey, it’s safer than texting while walking). I love coming across random people selling food on the side of the road. And I’m not talking about hipster and pricey food truck food. I’m talking about the original street food hawkers. Grilled corn on the cob seasoned with Cajun spices . Pho from the little old lady wearing conical hat. Samosas wrapped in this morning’s newspaper. Chapulines and other crunchy insects at a Oaxacan wet market.
My love affair with street food started in Beijing circa 1990. Back then, China’s capital was not the culinary hot spot it is today. The vast majority of locals couldn’t afford going to the handful of five star restaurants that catered primarily to foreigners. The only eating out they could afford was at very modest canteens, serving dumplings out of a gigantic vats. Or they ate street food. Quail eggs on a stick. Uigher lamb kebobs pungent with cumin. And my favorite, jianbing, a fried crêpe made of mung bean, eggs, and crunchy strips of friend wonton, flavored with scallions, hoisin and chili sauce.
But friends can be skeptical. Is it safe to eat? I’ve never gotten sick off of street food. I just follow two guidelines wherever in the world I eat: Is there a crowd of people around the food stand? And is that crowd primarily made up of locals? I figure the people who know best are the people who live there and would likely run someone out of town if their food caused harm.
I have gotten sick from the kind of food uptight travelers often assume is the safest. Once, in Mumbai, from a five star hotel buffet. Once, in London, from a Pret-A Manger tuna sandwich. The good thing about street food is that there’s no mystery – you see it being prepared and you can evaluate the chef with your own eyes. Not so elsewhere.
Eating the street is also a cheap and easy way to challenge my narrow assumptions of what food is supposed to be. I mean, why not eat bugs. The Aztecs, who seemed pretty fit given what they built (in partnership with aliens, of course), ate dozens of different types of insects and larvae. And it’s really no grosser than eating Twinkies (which I love. And was raised on during the 70’s. Respect to all Twinkie lovers.)
But the best part of eating the street is when I don’t like something, I just throw it away in the next garbage can. No waiter and exorbitant bill to make me feel like I’ve wasted my money and time. And no commitment. I can mix and match for a 5 or 8 course meal up and down the street.
By the way, insects are actually quite tasty. Chapulines (grasshoppers), seasoned with salt, lime and chile, are the perfect accompaniment to a beer. Great if you’re on a low carb diet. Less fat than potato chips. Get it next time you’re in a Mexican wet market, before the American hipsters catch on, before Gwyneth features it on Goop. Before the only way you can get it is expensive and over branded, covered with small batch chocolate and artisanal sea salt. And sold from a food truck.