Street Food - Eat and run
Every city has its own style of street food - from crepes to quesadillas. Annie Bell tours the world by taste and brings the fast food flavours home
Saturday 20 November 1999
The lights in Regent Street during the pre-Christmas rush? Of course I remember. The acrid smell of smoke from a charcoal brazier roasting chestnuts, blended with the exhaust of a bus. With street food you get the rough with the smooth. By all means walk up to that deep-fat fryer where doughnuts are sizzling, but then walk away with your trophy to face reality.
Street food is immediate, demanding to be eaten. Let shops take care of tins and jars, raw vegetables and uncooked meat. The street is about frying, roasting and grilling. Food seconds out of the pan that scorches your fingers, that may - if modesty allows - come wrapped in a napkin, but with no means of eating it other than your hands.
And street food is fast. It exists for the eat-and-run crowd. Ad hoc stalls and vans were the precursors of the vast fast-food industry that exists today. But whereas street food has a pedigree and usually comes freshly cooked, fast food is the bland commercialisation of the concept.
I count myself among the incurables. To me a city is defined by its street stalls - within the southern hemisphere at any rate. There is no doubt the hotter the city the more there tends to be by way of roadside offerings, the spicier the scent and more adventurous the morsel. Northern climes don't fare nearly as well. But chestnuts are better than nothing.
For the burgers
450g best minced beef
1tbsp finely chopped shallots
sea salt, black pepper
4 hamburger buns, slit in half
For the garnish
1/2 red onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
8 cocktail gherkins, sliced
1/2 beefsteak tomato, sliced
Blend together the mince, shallots and seasoning in a bowl. If you want an especially professional finish to your burgers, shape the mince a quarter at a time inside a 10cm pastry cutter with smooth edges. Or, if you are happy with something more rustic, form the meat into balls using your hands, and then flatten them between your palms. Bear in mind that the burgers will shrink and fatten when you grill them. If you want you can make them in advance, then cover and chill them in the fridge.
Either heat a ridged griddle over a medium-to-low heat or under a conventional grill on a high heat, and cook the burgers for 4-5 minutes on each side. Combine the sliced onion and gherkins. Then toast the buns either on the griddle or under the ordinary grill. Place a burger in each of the buns, smear over some mustard followed by plenty of tomato ketchup. Next add a slice of tomato and season, then scatter on some sliced onion and gherkin.
New York photographs by James Rexroad
Burgers are the ultimate success story of modern street food. Popularised by merchants from Hamburg, Germany, in the 18th century, they crossed the Atlantic early in the 19th century. In New York, German sailors who patronised stalls along the harbour made their request for what became known as Hamburg steak, a bunless forerunner. Industrial expansion in the late 1800s created a skint workforce of immigrants whose lunchtime need was to bolt and run. Soon, at the entrances of factories, there were horse-drawn wagons selling hamburgers. They have been a part of amusement parks and fairgrounds ever since, and they run neck and neck with that other meaty sandwich, the hot dog. Even though more hamburgers today are sold from within, plenty are still consumed on the hoof.
Most people do not have a brazier at home, though an open fire, inside or out, will do. Specially crafted pans with holes in their base are commonplace in France. Not so here, though once upon a time we would use a chestnut roaster, a perforated metal box at the end of a long handle that contained the chestnuts as they popped and burst. These days, a paella pan is ideal for the job, or any shallow metal pan that has rusted over with disuse, so that any subsequent scorching is inconsequent. First slit each chestnut on its flat side to allow the nut room to swell without exploding. Nestle the pan in the glowing embers of the fire, shaking it now and again to circulate the chestnuts. Once they are a very deep brown (not exactly charred, but not far off) and peeping out of their shell, remove them. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, split open the shell using your fingers - the downy inside should come away too. Old-fashioned chivalry is someone who offers you the first two or three they have peeled, suffering their burnt fingers in silence. And then passes the salt.
London photographs by Ian Teh
So what if half of them are burnt, it is curiosity that pulls me to the smoke pouring from the round tin drum on the corner of the pavement. My hands are permanently cold during winter and chestnuts are warming fuel every bit as effective as a skier's hand- held heat pack. If I am lucky, after prizing off the brittle skin, there will be one or two sweet and mealy nuts within to eat while walking past shops selling gaudy souvenirs.
Mexico photographs by Zed Nelson
There are tortillas and tortillas; what you will find in a Mexican city are as close to what we understand as tortillas as sliced white bread is to a decent baguette. I once explored the route to the perfect authentic tortilla and realised why they have never caught on here. They are messy and complicated to make, and require bucket loads of intuition that only a Mexican peasant could possess. And then of course there is the corn fungus, pumpkin blossoms and calf's brains with which to fill them. Safer, perhaps, to go for the deep-fried grasshoppers and those tiny toasted acorns instead.
A quesadilla is a filled tortilla turnover, ideally cooked on a lightly oiled comal (a flat, round cooking plate) to elicit a nutty maize flavour. Die-hards take them deep-fried in lard. The simplest and most popular filling is queso de Oaxaca, roasted and peeled chile poblano and epazote leaves - all of which have yet to arrive in shops over here (it's nice to know we're not quite saturated on the global front). But we can make a stab at a near equivalent. Use whatever cheese melts well, and some of those pickled jalapeno chillies from a jar. The epazote we know as wormseed, a tropical herb common in New York backyards for which there is no substitute. As for the tortillas, Marks & Spencer call theirs "soft wraps".
175g Gruyere, Emmental or mozzarella, grated
1 beefsteak tomato, skinned, seeded and diced
50g sliced pickled jalapeno chillies
Heat a dry iron frying pan over a medium heat, add a tortilla and sprinkle over some of the cheese, tomato and chilli. After about 30 seconds, fold it in half and cook it briefly on each side, melting the cheese. Repeat with the remaining tortillas and serve immediately.
India photographs by Dayanita Singh
If you want to make the most of what's on offer from street stalls in India, you have to ignore your mother's advice about being careful what you eat. But if you stick to food that's hot out of a deep-fryer or off a grill, you're fairly safe. I can never resist that mellow, hazy smell of wood smoke combined with cumin, coriander, turmeric, cardamom and garlic. Indian street food is as unpredictable as the country itself - who dreamt up bhel-poori? Magicked at the vendor cart on Chowpatty Beach, it is a combination of puffed rice (something we know best as a breakfast cereal), wheat-flour flakes (more cereal) with boiled potato and onion, tossed with hot coriander chutney or a sweet and sticky date chutney before chickpea vermicelli are thrown in. Eaten hot, it's a pot- head's wildest fantasy.
I like to marinate and grill a mixture of meats. I've suggested lamb and chicken, but you could include beef or venison.
For the marinade
1 1/2tbsp coarsely chopped fresh ginger
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 medium-hot red chilli, seeds removed
2tbsp vegetable oil
For the kebabs
2 chicken breasts, skinned and cut into 1.5cm dice
280g lamb shoulder, cut into 1.5cm dice
150ml natural yoghurt
a handful of mint leaves
a handful of coriander leaves
1 medium-hot green chilli, seeds removed
1tsp chopped onion
1/2 tsp caster sugar
Place all the ingredients for the marinade in a small grinder and reduce to a paste. A food processing bowl will be too big for this, but you may have a smaller bowl that fits inside. Place the chicken in one bowl and the lamb in another, and toss each with half the marinade. Cover with clingfilm and leave to marinate in a cool place, such as a fridge, for two hours. Place all the ingredients for the chutney in a food processor and blend to a coarse paste. Transfer to a small bowl. Season the meat with salt and pepper and thread onto 20cm skewers, it should make about six kebabs in all. Heat a ridged griddle and grill the kebabs for 3-4 minutes each side until golden, sizzling and firm when pressed. Serve with a little lime juice squeezed over them, dipping them into the chutney.
Paris photographs by Gautier Deblonde
Ferocious is the tantrum of the child refused the crepe of their heart's desire. "Chocolate and rum and sugar and cream and some hazelnuts, please. Just a few raisins, and yeah I'll have icing sugar." Crepes that come hot off the grill of a travelling van taste best. They ooze differently, they're crisper at the edges and thinner than anything your parents could ever attempt to appease you with back at home. Correctly they have a diameter of at least 25cm, are folded into four and slipped inside a napkin.
Fill these crepes with whatever takes your fancy, a sprinkling of sugar and squeeze of lemon juice, warmed jam, chocolate sauce, a scoop of ice-cream, or poached fruits and whipped cream. Though rarely is it that glamorous, more usually a line-up of coloured squeezy bottles. Hence the child-appeal.
75g plain flour
1/2tbsp caster sugar
a pinch of sea salt
125ml full-cream milk
1 large egg, plus 1 egg yolk
25g unsalted butter, melted
Whisk together all the ingredients for the crepes except for the butter. Leave this batter to stand for one hour and just before cooking the crepes, beat the melted butter into the batter. Heat a cast-iron frying pan with a base diameter of 18cm. Coat the base of the pan with the mixture, but not too lightly if you are planning to fill them. When the pancake appears dry and pitted on the top side, loosen the edges with a palette knife and turn it. Cook all the crepes in this fashion, stacking them on a plate. Cover them with foil to keep them warm. You can fold, roll or fill them with whatever takes your fancy. If you want to make a savoury cheese and ham crepe, add just a teaspoon, rather than half a tablespoon, of sugar to the batter. Sprinkle the cheese and ham over half of the crepe when you turn it, then, after 30 seconds, fold the other half over and lightly cook it on both sides to allow the cheese to melt.
photographs by Thomas Hartwell
Falafel, spiced bean rissoles, are a national institution in Egypt. Though delicious, they are heavy (or should I say hearty?) - the original veggie burger in miniature. I recall the large uncle and aunt that Claudia Roden describes in A New Book of Middle Eastern Food. They rented a flat over a cafe in Alexandria and would lower a basket to be filled with freshly cooked falafel. I can think of little nicer on a cold day than a few falafel stuffed inside warm pitta bread with some slightly bitter tahini and some cucumber and tomato salad, eaten strolling along.
It's actually quicker to fly to Egypt and buy falafel from a street stall than to make your own. But don't let that put you off - they're worth the effort. Incidentally, the quinoa is deeply inauthentic, but it does makes them that much lighter.
175g dried white broad beans, skinned
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed to a paste with a little salt
3/4tsp ground cumin
3/4tsp ground coriander
2 heaped tbsp coriander, finely chopped
1/2tsp baking powder
1/2tsp dried yeast
2 large eggs, beaten
fine, dry breadcrumbs
vegetable oil for deep-frying
Soak the dried broad beans overnight in plenty of water. Drain and rinse them and reduce to a puree in a food processor. This takes some work - the mixture needs to be sticky for it to hold together well. Remove to a large bowl. Boil the quinoa in salted water for 15 minutes. Drain and combine it with the bean puree. Combine all the ingredients except the last three in the list, seasoning with salt and cayenne pepper. Between the palms of your hands, form into balls, each the size of a walnut. Place on a tray or plate, cover loosely with clingfilm and leave to stand for one hour. Dip each falafel into the beaten eggs and roll in breadcrumbs. Heat the oil to 160C (you can test the temperature using a jam thermometer). Deep-fry them for 4-5 minutes until lightly golden. Drain on kitchen paper and serve straightaway.
Bangkok photographs by Dominick Tyler
The many street stalls peddling char-grilled corn and skewers of chicken, fried noodles and rice, and fiery fritters with hot and sour sauce, somehow anchor to the ground Bangkok's aspirations to be part of a modern world. Roadside trestles sending up a trail of smoke, accompanied by the pounding of the pestle and mortar, are set against sky-rise buildings, enmeshed in the noisy traffic jam that holds the city together. I was once sustained by pad Thai, Thailand's best known bowl of noodles, for weeks. Staying on the venerable Kao San Road in Bangkok as a backpacker, every cafe along its length had a wok at the entrance, and each version of pad Thai was subtly different.
It's impossible to get bored of this fried noodle dish as it throws out a different flavour with every mouthful and it takes a mere 3-4 minutes of rapid stir-frying in a wok to produce.
150g sen lek noodles, or rice noodles
1tbsp fish sauce
2tbsp lime juice
1/3tsp chilli powder
1 level tsp light brown sugar
2tbsp vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
4 spring onions, trimmed and sliced
2 medium eggs
40g preserved turnip, chopped or shredded
2 heaped tbsp dried shrimps, coarsely chopped
40g salted peanuts, chopped
a couple of handfuls of coriander leaves
lime wedges, to serve
Place the noodles in a bowl, cover with boiling water and leave to soak for 5 minutes, then drain through a sieve and cool under running water. Combine the fish sauce, lime juice, chilli powder and sugar in a small bowl. Heat the oil in a wok, add the garlic and stir until it just begins to colour, then add the onions, break in the eggs and stir after a couple of seconds. Add the noodles, half the beansprouts and the preserved turnip and cook for a couple of minutes, tossing constantly to combine them. Add the remaining sauce, the shrimps, peanuts and remaining beansprouts, and cook for 1 minute longer. Pile onto plates and scatter over the coriander. Lime wedges make the perfect accompaniment. n
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