You find yourself roaming the streets of some south eastern Asian country when something so mouth wateringly enticing hits your nose. You follow the smell to a street stand manned by a sweaty 60 year old woman, with two missing teeth and a huge mole under the bottom of her left eye. Her face is wrinkled and her hands are worn. Then she chops the head off of a chicken, right there in full view of the masses who continue to walk by, with a cleaver bigger than your head. Next to her are three huge pans kept over a low heat where her son is shoveling ladles of meat and vegetables over rice and handing it to a hungry customer, who then pays the old lady who hasn’t even washed her hands from the previous massacre. She continues chopping away and the son wipes away sweat from his brow, ladling food to another plate. This street stand is obviously not health code enforced. You go off looking for something a little more civilized to your liking.
Street vendors is where you go to truly capture the soul of a country. The food made by these people have no tricks or flairs, just the same recipe with the same ingredients they have been using for years because it works. They do not care about michelin stars, they care about making enough money for the next day. The recipes they use are the same recipes their mother or father taught them when they were young. The ingredients come from their friends who work the fields. Shoot, their stand may have been passed on from generation to another. You want to fully enjoy the culture of the country you’re visiting? Eat at a street food vendor. Don’t try to ask them their life stories, you’re not on the Travel Channel, and pay them. They have other customers to attend to than some post grad college student trying to find sage advice from a wrinkled old Asian man.
Yes there is the huge risk of getting food poisoning from eating street food and one must always be wary of it but here’s my secret. You don’t just choose a random street vendor. You don’t go to the brightest or gaudiest cart in the market. You go to the one where there is a line that is constantly there during the dinner rush. A street vendor selling shitty food, like any place here in the US, will not long last. Avoid going during the slow periods of the day and for all things that are holy in this world, do not modify their plates. Eat it the way it comes and enjoy it the way the vendor meant for it to be eaten. Oh and do not take a photo of your food right there in the line. Enjoy the moment, enjoy the experience of eating the food of the people around you and become one with the crowd. It is just you and the plate in front of you and if you want seconds, go for it. Oh and avoid any kind of oyster specials unless you like playing russian roulette with your food.
“I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food, for me, has always been an adventure” – Anthony Bourdain