Street food is having a pop culture moment. The Food Network show Eat St. is in its third season, while The Great Food Truck Race will return this summer with another showdown.
And in a sure sign of street food's zeitgeisty status, the new rom-com profession is food truck cook. (Michael Ely in Think Like a Man and Jason Segel in The Five-Year Engagement both end up running food trucks, while two twentysomething hipster characters in What To Expect When You're Expecting are rival mobile chefs.)
Of course, there are plenty of real-life reasons to like street food, which offers everything from gussied-up standards to daring fusion cuisine. Whether it's an upscale taco bus, a mobile cupcake vendor or a beach-side ceviche stand, these venues offer food that's good, fast and (relatively) cheap.
The current media mania for street food tends to concentrate on big North American cities, where "gastromobiles" are fueled by 21st-century technology. (Today's fast-moving food trucks use social media and iPhone apps to connect with customers.)
But street food has been around for a while, and it's a worldwide phenomenon. In The World's Best Street Food: Where To Find It & How To Make It, the folks from the popular travel series Lonely Planet have rounded up a global collection that takes readers from the roasted chestnut stands of Europe to the noodle stalls of Thailand to the "chai wallahs" of India.
As food and travel writer Tom Parker Bowles says in his foreword: "Some of the finest things to ever have passed my lips have been eaten standing up, or sitting at the most rickety of roadside tables, surrounded by diesel fumes, cigarette smoke and noise."
Street food is accessible, authentic and democratic. Some of the book's dishes might be unfamiliar to the average Canadian reader. Take Walkie-Talkies, a South African fave made from fried chicken heads and feet, or India's "psychoactive" betel-nut treat Mithaa Paan. But there are also recurring culinary themes: Whatever our nationality, it seems we all love fried dough. The book has plenty of street cred. Those Lonely Planet scribes are travellers, not tourists, and the book features loads of local colour, deep background on food culture, and evocative photography.
Unfortunately, the recipes are uneven and sometimes frustratingly vague. This is fine when you're deciding what to toss on your Banh Mi but not so good when you're trying to work with a finicky yeast dough. (I did my patriotic best to make beavertails, the all-Canadian pastry snack, but the Lonely Planet recipe, scant on detailed advice, left me with a stolid lump that just refused to rise.)
I had better luck with Sfiha, a concentration of beautiful Middle Eastern flavours -- mint, lamb, pomegranate, tahini -- in a portable hand-sized dough package, and Arancini, melty, crispy Sicilian rice balls that are filled with ragu and mozzarella and then cooked until orangey-gold (hence the name, which means "little oranges"). I also tried out a recipe for Masala Chai, a spicy, sweet, milky Indian tea drink that offers passers-by on the streets of Mumbai a much-needed 5 p.m. boost.
(adapted from The World's Best Street Food)
250 ml (1 cup) warm milk (about 38C or 100 F)
5 ml (1 tsp) traditional active dry yeast
375 ml (1 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
15 ml (1 tbsp) olive oil
22 ml (1 1/2 tbsp) sugar
2 ml (1/2 tsp) salt
75 ml (1/3 cup) pine nuts
500 g (1 lb) ground lamb
1 large onion, finely diced
1 large tomato, chopped
1 handful fresh mint or cilantro, finely chopped
10 ml (2 tsp) salt
5 ml (1 tsp) allspice
1 ml (1/4 tsp) cinnamon
1 ml (1/4 tsp) cayenne
30 ml (2 tbsp) plain unsweetened yogurt
15 ml (1 tbsp) tahini
15 ml (1 tbsp) pomegranate molasses (or substitute pomegranate juice)
30 ml (2 tbsp) softened butter
In a small bowl combine the milk and yeast, stirring quickly so that the yeast dissolves. Set aside in a warm place for about 5 minutes until mixture starts to foam. In a medium bowl, sift flour and add olive oil, sugar and salt. Add milk mixture and stir well. Cover the bowl with a cloth and set aside for 5 minutes, then tip dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic. Cover dough with a cloth, place in a warm spot and let rise for 1-2 hours until it has doubled in size. Once the dough is ready, prepare the filling. Preheat oven to 175C (350F) and brush a baking sheet lightly with olive oil. Lightly toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the lamb, onion, tomato, mint or cilantro, salt and spices. Add the yogurt, tahini, pomegranate molasses, toasted pine nuts and butter and mix well. Divide the dough into walnut-sized pieces and roll into small balls between your palms. Place the balls on a floured surface and, using a rolling pin, roll each ball into a circle about 8 cm (3 in) in diameter. Place 15 ml (1 tbsp) of filling in the middle and then lift the edges of the circle to encase the filling, pinching the dough together at four corners. Place the pastries on the prepared baking sheet and bake for about 25-30 minutes or until pastry is golden-brown and the filling cooked and sizzling.
Tester's notes: The filling was phenomenal -- such fresh and intense flavours -- but I struggled to get the dough right. This could be me -- I'm not brilliant with yeast -- but the recipe could use more details. I had to add nearly 125 ml (1/2 cup) more flour to get a workable dough, and then found it puffed up too much when it baked. Still, the book points out that it's fine to use a good reliable pizza dough for this recipe. I might try that next time.
(adapted from The World's Best Street Food)
500 g (2 1/3 cup) arborio rice
pinch saffron powder
3 egg yolks
100 g (about 4 oz) grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
30 g (2 generous tbsp) butter
1/2 onion, finely chopped
15 ml (1 tbsp) butter
30 ml (2 tbsp) olive oil
150 g (about 5 oz) ground beef or pork
125 ml (1/2 cup) red wine
30 ml (2 tbsp) tomato paste
salt and pepper, to taste
80 g (1/2 cup) peas, fresh or frozen
Assembly and frying
100 g (4 oz) provola, caciocavallo or mozzarella cheese, cut into small cubes
2 eggs, beaten
oil for deep-frying
In a large pot, bring lightly salted water to a boil, add rice, cook until tender but still firm, about 20 minutes, and then drain. Mix the saffron with the egg yolks and add to drained rice. Stir in the grated cheese and butter. Spread the rice mix out in a pan and let cool. Meanwhile, make the ragu. In a medium heavy pot, fry the onion in butter and olive oil over medium heat until softened. Add the ground meat and cook until browned and no longer pink. Add the red wine, cook until the wine is almost evaporated, and then add tomato paste diluted in a small glass of water. Season with salt and pepper and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes. While the ragu is simmering, cook the peas in water and 15 ml (1 tbsp) olive oil for 10 minutes, then drain and add to the ragu. When rice and ragu are ready, take enough cooled rice mix to form a flat patty in your hand. Make an indentation in the middle and add a spoon of ragu, along with 2 or 3 cheese cubes. Place a second patty of rice over the first and, using your hands, mould it gently into a ball. Coat the ball with beaten egg and then roll gently in breadcrumbs. In a deep-fat fryer or a large heavy pot, heat oil to 175C (350F). Fry balls, a few at a time, until crispy and deep golden-orange in colour, turning if necessary. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Tester's notes: Many recipes for aroncini use risotto, which is more flavourful. In fact, this would be a great dish to make if you just happened to have leftover risotto and a little bolognese sauce or ragu on hand. You do need to use starchy arborio rice to get the needed stickiness to form the balls. The recipe suggests using olive oil for frying. As Italian as that is, olive oil isn't usually used for this kind of high-temp deep-fat frying as it has a low smoke point. I used canola.
(adapted from The World's Best Street Food)
125 ml (1/2 cup) water
2.5 cm (1 in) piece fresh ginger, crushed or chopped
3-4 cardamom pods, crushed and ground
2.5 cm (1 in) stick dalchini, crushed (or substitute cinnamon stick, crushed)
2 leaves lemongrass (optional)
dash black pepper (optional)
1 whole clove
7 ml (1 heaping tsp) Assam CTC tea, if possible
125 ml (1/2 cup) whole milk
sugar to taste
In a small pot, bring water, spices and tea to a boil. (Do not add milk at this point, or the ginger will curdle it.) Once the mixture is boiling, add milk, allow it to come back to the boil and then turn off heat immediately. Let sit a minute or two if you want a stronger brew. Add sugar to taste and pour through a strainer. (Some families only add the tea after turning off the heat, and then allow the mixture to steep for a few minutes.)
Tester's notes: Assam CTC tea is a full-bodied, quick-brewing variety of Assam tea. You could substitute any robust black tea. To find small, fresh quantities of these spices, try specialty or ethnic food stores.