by David Hammond ’73
Street food is almost always more satisfying than restaurant food. I have some theories about why that might be, but first: here are some of the foods I’ve recently experienced on streets both stateside and abroad.
10 Street Eats I’ll Never Forget
Puchka (Calcutta, India) “Girls like puchka because girls like sour flavors,” my friend Suvendli told me on the streets of Calcutta where, indeed, it did seem puchka vendors had a disproportionately large female following. Puchka, also called pani puri, are small, wheat flour globes, fried crisp, crushed on top, lightly filled with potatoes, salt, and tamarind pulp (sometimes also onions and/or chickpeas). Puchka come in orders of four to six, served one-at-time and drizzled with tamarind water just before eating (that way they don’t get soggy). They’re very attractive, tart, and designed for curbside noshing.
Currywurst (Berlin, Germany) After World War II, in the ruins of Berlin, a “rubble woman” named Herta Heuwer traded schnapps to Allied soldiers in return for curry powder. With this Indian spice mixture, Heuwer concocted currywurst, sausage with a tomato-based sauce sprinkled with curry. Her creation quickly became popular among post-war street people on the fringes of Berlin’s red light district. I love this story. I liked currywurst just fine.
Fried plantain (Bangkok, Thailand) A favorite dessert of my wife, Carolyn Berg ’72, is Bananas Foster (she’s fond of cooked bananas of all types). Outside Temple Arun in Bangkok, we came across a vendor selling just-fried bananas dressed with black sesame seeds. Really cheap, hot, and good.
Falafel (Cairo, Egypt) Though you can buy falafel in restaurants, it’s also the perfect food for pedestrians: easy to make, inexpensive, and ideally suited to street grunting. In the United States, falafel is made of chickpea flour; in Egypt, it’s usually made of fava bean flour. Right out of the bubbling oil (the best way to enjoy them), the legume meal becomes covered with a delicate matrix of lacy threads, flavorful and slightly spiced.
Boiled peanuts (Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina, United States) If you don’t like—or, more likely, have never heard of—boiled peanuts, then you’re probably a northerner. The goober, boiled in brine, is a favorite snack food south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I found them to be an excellent accompaniment to cold beer. More like edamame than the crunchy variety of peanuts we eat up north, boiled peanuts unabashedly proclaim their bean-ness, and they are, after all, beans, and not nuts at all.
Esquites (Oaxaca, Mexico) In Mexico, they eat a corn that’s different—slightly blander and chewier—than the sweet corn we eat in the United States. On the streets of Oaxaca, I spotted a lady selling esquites, Mexican corn with mayo, chile, and lime. Eaten with a plastic spoon, this was a fantastic street eat: perhaps too simple and crude for a restaurant, yet elementally satisfying and undeniably street.
Fry Bread (Little Bighorn, Montana, United States) Fry bread is served at street fairs and rodeos all over the western states, from New Mexico up through Montana. According to Smithsonian Magazine (July, 2008), “To prevent…indigenous populations from starving, the government gave them…white flour, processed sugar and lard—the makings of frybread.” Today, frybread has become a Native American symbol of how a proud people persevere under tough conditions, making something delicious—and now beloved—out of ingredients they’d never used before they were incarcerated on reservations. I like mine with buffalo meat, tomatoes, and lettuce.
Snails (Marrakesh, Morocco) In Djemm el Fna, the “plaza of death,” where once public executions were held, there is now a vibrant market with dozens of food stalls serving a range of Moroccan street foods, including snails. These land creatures— enjoyed for centuries before the French came with their preference for dowsing them with garlic butter—are served in a broth of olive oil and black pepper. Very tender, these tiny creatures are eaten by plucking them from their shells with a toothpick. Fantastic!
Why Street Food Is Frequently More Satisfying than Restaurant Food
The focus that street hawkers are able to give their food, and the feedback they get from customers, allows vendors in a given geographic area to leverage the collective wisdom of their peers to deliver higher value to customers who are able to eat exactly what they see (rather than trusting menu descriptions). Bringing customers together in the most democratic of all eating venues, street food achieves a kind of data density and authenticity rarely found in restaurants.
Focus. Street vendors usually specialize in just one thing; their menu is almost always limited. Tight focus on one or two items makes it possible for those who sell on the street to perfect their offerings in a way that’s more difficult to achieve in restaurants.
Feedback. Street vendors notice how people are enjoying their food. If something is off, it’s tweaked and fixed. Unmediated feedback gives the street food vendor an opportunity to take input, make changes, and refine an offering until it’s as good as it can possibly be. Interaction with street food vendors is always a little more “personalized” than is usually possible with restaurant chefs.
Collective wisdom. Street food is frequently offered in areas where lots of vendors are offering exactly the same thing. This lack of originality—or “market differentiation”—is actually a strength. Because street vendors can easily sample their competitor’s identical offerings, they have the opportunity to learn from each other and collectively move forward with better versions of the same thing, enabling their food to progress and improve over time.
"The goober, boiled in brine, is an excellent accompaniment to cold beer."Value. With no overhead and a usually competitive marketplace, street vendors offer a lot of value for the price. The puchka mentioned above was about 10 cents for five pieces; the esquites, about fifty cents for a cup. This kind of food offers a very low profit margin for restaurants, but that’s not problem for vendors who have reasonable operating expenses and can sell in quantity and still make some kind of a living.
See, eat, happiness. When you sit down in a restaurant, you look at a menu and figure out what sounds good. With street food—especially in Asia and other countries where open air markets can feature hundreds of vendors—you can look around and eat whatever looks good. There’s never the disappointment that comes from ordering something that seems delicious based on the menu description only to discover, when it arrives, that your imagination outstripped reality. With street food, what you see, you get.
Democratic. Street food brings people together—the homeless and the one percent—to share the same food on the same street at the same time. In New York, you’ll see people carrying their homes in shopping carts eating Sabrett hot dogs alongside Wall Street traders in power suits. That kind of juxtaposition of classes would almost never happen in a restaurant; on the street, it’s the norm, and everyone seems to be having a good time.
Data density. You learn a lot about a culture and its food, fast, when you eat on the street. As my food friend Ronnie Kaplan put it, “Having just returned from Paris, where I ate a few meals at Michelin-starred restaurants, there is a mild sense of frustration with how long some of these meals can take. Believe me when I say that I'm not complaining, but as great as these meals can be, the time-to-knowledge ratio is fairly high. On the street, the opposite is generally true. Stop, grab a bite, learn a little something—about the food, the people who prepare it, and the people who consume it—and move on to the next bites/lessons, wherever they may be.” Brilliant.
Authenticity. Sometimes when I travel, I go to mid-to-upper tier restaurants, and they’re fine, but when I want authentic regional chow, I go to the street. That’s where I find the food of the average person, made in traditionally sanctioned styles that are more likely to reflect regional characteristics. In restaurants, especially restaurants that attract tourists, food tends to be either dumbed down or homogenized into some kind of universally acceptable but usually somewhat boring offering. No thanks.
There are many restaurants—especially in Chicago—where I enjoy eating, but when I’m traveling, and given the choice, I stick to the streets because that food is, more likely than not, going to make me very happy.
Photo 1 - The author eats boiled peanuts in South Carolina.
Photo 2 - Carolyn Berg ’72 with a favorite street dish—fried plantain in Bangkok.
Photo 3 - Esquites in Oaxaca.
Photo 4 - Snails in Marrakesh.