We were lost in the back alleys of Chinatown in Bangkok. Walking along the tight, windy streets, there seemed to be mere inches between us and the passing cars, and yet these same streets were lined with auto parts and scraps of metal — and the occasional food stall.
In Thailand, where all food is a prominent part of the culture, I encountered some of the cheapest and best dishes on the streets. On this particular day, my friend Eirinn and I came across a man making what looked like miniature crepes with a variety of fillings. Some of the stuffings were easy to figure out — scallions, quail egg, cilantro — and others were a bit more of a mystery. A couple of local schoolgirls stopped for a snack so, intrigued, we stopped too.
Measuring with little more than his eyeballs, the man took ingredients — ground meat, crab, quail egg, chives, and flavored jams and custards — and then rolled them up like an egg roll. Though we couldn’t communicate well, we were able to convey (with help from the two girls) that the only thing we did not want was meat, so we watched as he selected a quail egg and scallions, and what looked like crab and some spices that remain a mystery.
“SSS-HAAA” he said with a breathy voice, pointing to one of the half-dozen sauces to choose from. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and waved his hand as to cool off his mouth.
“I guess that one is spicy,” we laughed. He laughed too, seeming to get as much of a kick out of the miming as we were.
“Just a little,” we said, pinching our fingers together.
We sat on a nearby bench and shared the soft crepes, which he had rolled up so we could eat with our hands. The flavors were bold — sweet, with a light, refreshing crunch from the chives, and a final hit of spice. I could have eaten five more. We looked over to the man at the cart, who was watching us and smiling expectantly, as if to say, “So… do you like it?”
“Yes!” We said enthusiastically, nodding over-zealously and giving him a thumbs-up (which we later learned is actually insulting, but he smiled warmly back at us all the same).
Eat like a local
There are so many draws to street food; for starters, it is fast and it is cheap. Granted, cheap restaurants are sometimes similarly priced, but there is still something about eating on the streets that is so much more fun. But why?
Here in New York, few people I know sit down for breakfast at a restaurant. Instead, they might grab a coffee and a bagel from the cart down the block en route to the subway. In my neighborhood, that would be the one on the northeast corner, where the bagels are always warm and fresh. A simple morning ritual like this one sometimes feels like the most gratifying part of the day.
When I travel, I go out of my way to find the daily rituals that are simple pleasures of the local people — finding that northeast corner crepe cart in Paris, falafel stand in Tel Aviv, or pho stall in Hanoi — and experience the cuisine, the time, and the place like the people who call that city home.
A feeling of belonging
Street food also felt more communal than eating at a restaurant facing my travel partner at a table for two.
The appeal of a standing-room-only meal shared with a group of people enjoying the same dish boils down to fulfilling one of our most fundamental human needs — that of belonging to a social group. As early as the late 1950s, studies (e.g. by Stanley Schachter) have shown that in times of anxiety — like being in a foreign place and not knowing anyone — people seek each other out. Meals are one of the most comforting activities that we engage in and is the one we associate with family and close friends. Standing or sitting on the street with strangers who are enjoying the same food as I am, makes me feel more connected to my surroundings, even when the only connection is our shared enjoyment of a flavorful but not too spicy crepe.
Dos and Don’ts
No matter how adventurous you are, it may always feel scary to open yourself up to something unknown — especially when you’re planning to consume that something. But half of the fun of trying street foods abroad is getting to experiment with new things. Here is my checklist for making sure I have fun without getting sick:
- Do try non-perishables. They are generally safe.
- Do ask someone from your hotel or hostel to point you in the direction of the street food stalls to try and the ones to avoid.
- Do follow the crowds. If a place is packed with people, then at least you know it’s not making the locals sick.
- Don’t eat from a stall that is swarming with bugs. I don’t have to explain this, do I?
- Don’t order from a stall that is empty. Especially while an adjacent stall is packed with people
- Don’t underestimate your non-verbal communication. People want to help, and most of the time you will figure it out.
- And don’t be too fussy. Remember that people are cooking outdoors, and usually quickly. If a bug jumps in your rice during cooking, just flick it out, eat around it, or ask the vendor to make it again
So have fun! And share your most memorable street food experiences in the comments.