Moveable feasts

There’s no better way to experience a new place than by exploring its street food scene. Here are a few places in the world where the street food is to die for, writes Charukesi Ramadurai

A hot dog stand in New York

Famous French chef and cookbook author Julia Child once said, “People who love to eat are always the best people.” Absolutely. All I can add to that insight is: people who love not just food but also street food are the best among the best. And increasingly, places – cities and even countries – are known not for their fine dining restaurants and Michelin-starred chefs, but for the range of the food out on their streets. Because, street food is not just about taste and flavour, but also about the true cultural vibe of a place. It is where social and economic boundaries fall apart and both residents and visitors, the rich and the poor, eat together. These could be pushcarts, makeshift stalls, holes in the wall or old and established eateries – what it is does not matter, what it serves up does. And so here’s a list of the best cities across the world for street food. Dig in:

Delhi

All Indian cities spoil foodies for choice, offering delectable delights for all palates, ranging from spicy chaats to sugary sweets. But if there is a first among equals, it has to be Delhi. Not the New Delhi that is known on the world map, but Old Delhi, or Purani Dilli, as it is better known. There is an ongoing battle for this title between Mumbai and Delhi, but one bite of Dilliwale aloo chaat sprinkled generously with the vendor’s own secret masala, and there is no further room for debate. The crowded, dusty lanes around Jama Masjid are where the most authentic tastes come together: dahi bhalla, chhole kulcha, gol gappe, chicken kababs, and finally, crispy jalebis.

Bangkok

The undisputed reigning world capital of street food is Bangkok, hailed as having the most abundant variety of dishes through the day and late into the night. The fare starts with crunchy green papaya salads, moving on to a world of chicken, duck and seafood, Thai curries, oyster omelettes, pad Thai noodles and grilled satay. All of it, of course, to be sealed with a bowl of sticky rice with mango. Chinatown, the lanes off Sukhumvit Road, Victory Monument and Wang Lang Market are some of the best locations in town. Just follow your nose or walk to where the crowds are congregated because locals know their food better than anyone else.

Singapore

With strict standards for both quality and hygiene, Singapore is a mishmash of cultures that is reflected in the street fare. Think Chinese, Malay, Indian and local cuisine finding their own place in the stalls in outdoor markets, alfresco food courts and hawker centres. This is perhaps the only country in the world with a food stall – the Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle Stand inside the Chinatown Complex Food Centre — boasting a Michelin Star. There is truly something for everyone here. South Indian dosa with chutney? Or a Singaporean version of Indian flatbread, roti prata, with chicken or mutton curry? The city’s signature Chili crab or Hainanese chicken rice? Or just kaya toast – a sandwich with coconut jam – for the sweet tooth?

The street food scene in Singapore
The street food scene in Singapore

Mexico City

As much as this vibrant city is in the midst of a fine-dine boom, street food is what continues to lure everyone alike. Walk on any busy neighbourhood — from the touristy Zocalo Square to the quiet La Condesa — and you will be sure to see dozens of vendors. Some unmissable dishes are elote (roasted corn on the cob, rolled in mayonnaise and sprinkled with chili powder and topped up with a squeeze of lemon), tacos made with warm tortillas and rolled up with spicy meat or veggies, fragrant tamales of steamed corn dough stuffed with pork, chicken or the occasional fried beans. Be sure to leave space for churros, those fried dessert delights eaten either plain or dipped in decadent chocolate sauce.

Istanbul

Start your day with warm simit from any pushcart in the centre of town; this Turkish version of a chewy pretzel encrusted with crunchy sesame seeds is a winner of a snack. Then there are the doner kebabs of meat grilled on a vertical skewer, popular not just in the city but also exported to the outside world. For a quick and filling meal, there is the thin lahmacun pizza spread with minced meat, that can be just rolled up and chomped on, or the midye dolma, stuffed mussels straight from the Bosphorus. The markets around Ortakoy or Taksim Square are filled with vendors and hawkers who entice with their offerings. Wash it all down with cay (Turkish tea) or a scoop of dondurma (Turkish ice cream).

New York City

If it is not available in New York, then it possibly does not exist. From the Sri Lankan dosa vendor at Washington Park Square to the dumpling stalls of Chinatown, from Lebanese kababs sold out of food trucks near Times Square to the hot dog stands practically everywhere, this is a city that loves to eat, and eat on the go. If New York City itself is a sizzling, bubbling melting pot of cultures, then so is the street food scene - one that is enough to make even gourmands forget hip and expensive restaurants, and just head to their favourite bagel or falafel spots.

Berlin

Let’s face it. Europe is really not the best place for street food junkies, and even those with a soft spot for the boulangeries of Paris or the food markets of London would agree. But if there is one city that can shine with its diversity and quality, then it is Berlin. Germany itself is a paradise for meat-eaters and Berlin is no different, with its very popular currywurst and doner kebab stalls. But increasingly, speciality food from other parts of the world have found their space in the city — from the twice-weekly Turkish market to the summer special Thai Park, and the year-round Thursday food pop-up at Markthalle Neun, where global food from Mexican tacos to handmade Italian pasta, and beverages including wine, beer and juices are sold in the stalls.

Rio de Janeiro

Those who love the good life know that it doesn’t get better than in this city by the sea. Although the grilled meat vendors are the ones always doing roaring business, there are plenty of options for those seeking lighter bites, too. Pao de queijo, warm cheese bread balls made of tapioca flour, is a cheap and delicious snack for those who love their cheese but hate their gluten. Tapioca is also used in several other interesting ways here, particularly as a fried crepe with cheese, chicken or fruit fillings.

A doner kebab seller in Istanbul
A doner kebab seller in Istanbul

More food for the soul

If you are in these cities too, don’t forget to hit the street stalls: Tokyo, Mumbai, Hong Kong, New Orleans, Lima, Beijing, Durban, Kuala Lumpur.

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