For those of us from large, First-world nations we don’t often have experience of enjoying street food. Sure, there is the occasional trip to the hot dog cart or the to-go stands, but by far in large we’re a drive-thru culture. In many countries around the world the fast food industry isn’t nearly as developed or as economical. Instead, people opt for the local conveniences of street food.
There are a number of reasons to eat street food when you are on your travels. For a start it’s quick and ready to eat straight away. You get an authentic taste of the local culture. Unlike a restaurant or fast food chain, eating in the streets will give you a chance to interact with the locals especially if the stall has an eating area. It’s also nice to know that when you buy street food you are contributing to the local economy instead of lining the pockets of a massive corporation. Most importantly, eating street food is a great experience and a chance to eat some of the best dishes in the world, prepared and cooked by the people who know them best.
And so starts our tour of the world’s best street foods:
Panades were introduced to Belize by the Mayan culture and known in Spanish as Empanadas. Panades are made with corn dough stuffed with fish, these are deep fried in oil until they turn golden brown. They are served with an onion, pepper and cabbage sauce. Regarded as a specialty of Belize, a country that has some of the best fresh fish in the world. There are no McDonalds, Burger Kings, or any other western fast food outlets in Belize. Some would say that is a blessing since it is a far tastier (and cheaper) fast food.
Waffles date back to the Middle Ages, sold on the streets in Belgium. They were introduced to the U.S.A in 1964 and rebranded from Brussels to Belgian Waffles as U.S. citizens were not heard of Brussels. The waffles sold by vendors in Belgium don’t have much in common with the U.S. version though. In Belgium they come without toppings and eaten by hand. There are two distinct types of waffle in Belgium. The Liege waffle is thicker and generally oval shaped and the Brussels waffle is more crispy and rectangular. The sweetness is cooked into the waffle so there is no need for syrup or cream. While some are dusted with sugar this is for appearance as much as anything.
Made from corn dough known as masa, stuffed with meat. The tamales steamed inside of a corn husk or banana leaf. Mexican Grandmothers make the best Tamales and will spend up to 3 days preparing and cooking them to ensure premium taste. Best served with salsa. A traditional street food which you can buy anywhere in Mexico, like a many others on this list Tamales have also made the transition from street food to restaurant cuisine.
Turkey: Doner Kebab
The Doner kebab dates back to the Ottoman Empire but then it was cooked horizontally rather than vertically like today. It is made from chicken, beef or lamb and served on either rice, pita or naan bread. The dish is one of the top selling street food dishes across Europe and has proved especially popular with late night revelers. While Turkey is a home to a variety of superb kebabs you should try, the Doner served in pita or naan is remains the street food classic.
Vietnam: Banh Mi
Vietnam was occupied by France from 1887 to 1954 and the resulting fusion of French and Asian cuisines makes Vietnam a food lover’s paradise. Banh mi is one of the crowning glories of this marriage and is one of the best sandwiches in the world. A 10 inch French baguette is sliced and filled with a variety of fresh local meats, vegetables, herbs and sauces. There are too many combinations to list them all but the traditional one includes a sliced pork, salami, slices of pate, mayonnaise, soy sauce, cilantro sprigs, cucumber, jalapeno, pickles and daikon.
Malaysia: Assam Laksa
The origin of Assam Laksa is unclear with most people believing it was created in China and refined in different countries as it spread. The (sometimes very) spicy noodle soup is made with rice noodles and mackerel and assam or tamarind which gives it the sour taste. This soup is served throughout Southeast Asia with the Malaysian version being sourer than elsewhere. The dish has ranked highly on any number of ‘most delicious’ lists.
Singapore: Chicken Rice
A few of the dishes on this list have crossed from street food to high dining but none as successfully as chicken rice. In 2016 two street market venders in Singapore were awarded the prestigious Michelin Star for cooking excellence. A very simple dish involving chicken poached in oil and rice cooked in chicken stock the flavors combine to make it so much greater than the sum of its parts. The meal costs $2 which is definitely the best price you will pay for Michelin Star cooking anywhere in the world.
Bangkok, Thailand: Pad Thai
A stir fry noodle dish, Pad Thai served usually served with bean sprouts, shrimp, fish sauce and chilies. The noodles originated in WW2 where the government promoted them in an effort to save the rice supplies. They had the added benefit of helping to establish a culinary identity for Thailand. Another dish which features highly on the ‘World’s most delicious’ list if you are a serious foodie perhaps a tour of South East Asia should be on the menu.
Fried batter balls filled with chopped octopus, pieces of tempura, ginger and onion and deep fried in batter. Then garnished with takoyaki sauce and garnished. They are cooked in their own iron griddles and served very hot. Originating in the Kansai region Takoyaki spread through Japan rapidly. Now, as well as being a popular street food is now served in restaurants and even supermarkets. This street food is eaten by people of all ages.
Arancini are stuffed rice balls the size of oranges which are coated with bread crumbs for a crunchy outer texture. They are deep fried and usually filled with ragu mozzarella and peas. They have become a symbol for southern Italian street food and unlike some of the dishes on this list are not well known outside of Italy. If you happen to be in Palermo for the Saint Lucia Festival take the opportunity to sample the delicious sweet version, covered with sugar and cacao.
Feijoada, which the national dish of Brazil, is a thick stew made with different cuts of pork and beans. Dating back to colonial times, where it was cooked in a clay pot, the dish is popular throughout the Portuguese speaking world. Unlike many of the other dishes on this list, which are designed to be eaten on the go, Feijoada is a dish to be savored. Brazilians enjoy it on celebratory occasions and watching football matches.
India: Vada Pav
Vada Pav was created in 1971 by Ashok Vaidy who sold from a stall outside Dadar. The dish is spiced, deep fried potato garnished with different chutneys. The Vada is the spicy potato filling fried in batter and the Laddi Pav is the bread roll it is served in. Now one of the most popular street foods in India. The 23rd August is now a World National Vada Pav day.
Combining the international word for curry and the German word for sausage this street food is now eaten throughout Germany There are two stories of how Currywurst was created. Berliners claim it was invented by a berlin hot-dog seller who mixed together curry powder, Worcester sauce and ketchup in an attempt to boost flagging sales. The nearby town of Hamburg claim it was by a seller who broke ketchup and curry bottles and tried the resulting mix before cleaning it up. The name of Currywurst is the name of the sauce which covers the hot dog and it is delicious. Germany has proud tradition of making the best sausages in the world and there is a lot of regional variation with different sausages for you to try with your Currywurst.
Jamaica: Jerk chicken
Blisteringly hot, spicy, sweet and succulent are the characteristics of a quality jerk chicken dish. Jerk pork is also popular and very tasty, but jerk chicken is the pinnacle. The spices and cooking techniques used in cooking date back at least to the seventeenth century and possibly further. A true jerk dish always uses scotch bonnet peppers as without the extreme heat it is not a Jerk dish, merely a seasoned dish. Traditionally cooked over both coals and fresh green wood from the pimento tree it is said the steam coming from the fresh wood helps keep the meat tender.
South Korea: Tteokbokki
Tteokbokki are slightly chewy, spicy rice cakes actually originated in Japan but found their home in Korea. The rice cakes are stir fired in a chili sauce which contains anchovies, garlic and green onions. For extra garnish they can be served with fish cakes or boiled eggs. The dish is usually served spicy hot but the temperature ranges up to volcanic hot in some places. Bear in mind that no two food stalls are ever quite the same. This is one of the most popular dishes in South Korea. The red sauce also makes an excellent accompaniment for other South Korean street foods.
El Salvador: Pupusas
Pupusas is handmade corn tortillas stuffed with a variety of fillings. Unusually for El Salvador and indeed Central America it is a street food which also comes with a vegetarian option; filled with cheese, refried beans or both. Naturally it is also available with chicken or pork. Best served with a cold beer and cabbage it is very easy to wolf down 4-5 in a single sitting. Another food on the list with a national day, November 13 is National Pupusa Day.
Zapiekanka A very popular street food in Poland. Zapiekanka is a halved baguette topped with mushroom onion and cheese which is then baked. Traditionally served with ketchup it’s basically a quick and easy Polish pizza. Dating back to communist times when food was scarce, in recent years it has become popular again and updated to include other toppings like ham, sausage and sweetcorn.
Souvlaki was once considered the hamburger of Greece. It lost that title rather ironically to the hamburger, but super cheap food is back in demand and Souvlaki has got its title back. Souvlaki is either lamb, beef, pork or chicken cooked on a rotating vertical spit. The vegetarian option is Souvlaki made with fried potato. It is traditionally served on a pita bread with salad usually accompanied by tzatziki which is a mix of yoghurt and cucumber.
South Africa: Bunny Chow
Bunny Chow originated in Durban and is almost unheard of outside of South Africa. This local delicacy consists of curry and meat served inside a hollowed out loaf of bread which acts as an edible container. The dish has a mysterious past and although it has an obvious Indian heritage, to this day there is no agreed account as to how it came into existence. It is a dish that was originally eaten by the working classes although like many street foods, Bunny chow has proved to be upwardly mobile. It is now as likely to be found on a street stall in the financial district as the townships.
Poutine is Canada’s ultimate comfort food. It consists of chips, gravy and cheese curds. The dish originated in the truck stops of Quebec but has spread in popularity and Poutine is now sold across the world. As the dish has become more popular different toppings have been added to the three original ingredients. Some stalls serve a healthy version with sweet potato chips replacing the potato but many consider the high calorie count to be part of the appeal! Yet another dish on the list with amazing hangover curing properties it is a firm favorite with students.
Tokneneng are one of the most popular street foods in the Philippines. They are chicken eggs that have been pre boiled (and shelled) then deep fried in batter. The orange colored batter they are famous for comes from the annatto powder used. Best eaten fresh while they are still crispy. Eat them dipped in vinegar, with a fish ball sauce or a sweet chili sauce. You can also find Quek, the same dish made with quail eggs.
Sancocho is the national dish of Panama. A chicken soup which is actually more like a chicken stew, Sancocho is flavored with herbs, onion and culantro which provides the main flavor. Can be eaten as either breakfast lunch or dinner and is served with either rice or bread as well and the obligatory pimento hot sauce. As well as being a delicious and filling meal in its own right Sancocho has almost mythical qualities as a hangover cure. Locals will stop off for some after a night out on the tiles.
A few of words of caution before you dive into the exotic world of street food. Hygiene across the world might not be at the standard you are used to. In some places the tap water is not safe to drink, if that’s the case then stay away from ice cubes in drinks and any foods such as salads that require washing. Use the locals as a guide and aim to eat at places that are busy, as a high turnover means the food won’t have been sitting around in the sun for a long time.