Michelin stars are nice, but when you’re traveling, you don’t always have time for a sit-down meal. That’s where street food comes in; cheap and portable, street food refers to the broad range of on-the-go nibbles you’ll find throughout the world. Street food is intimately local and one of your best chances to get a glimpse into daily life in your destination. We’ve put together this list of some the best street food from around the world. Sorry, New York: pizza and hot dogs didn’t make the cut.
Like most sandwiches, bánh mi has a thousand mothers. In recent years, the sandwich has taken the American food scene by storm, but there isn’t a single authentic recipe for bánh mi. “Bánh mi” actually translates to “flour cake,” a reference to the wheat-and-rice-flour loaves used to make the sandwich in Vietnam (most American deli owners use a French baguette instead). Indeed, when the French introduced the recipe to Vietnam, bánh mi referred to a simple sandwich of butter and ham or pâté. It was the street vendors of Saigon (now Hô Chi Minh City) who added the vegetables that give bánh mi its signature taste.
One of the national dishes of Thailand, pad thai is more than just a delicious stir fry—it also played an important role in the creation of modern-day Thailand. The recipe has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years: rice noodles, eggs, fish sauce, tamarind juice, chiles, chicken, shrimp, tofu or bean sprouts, garnished with crushed peanuts, coriander and lime. But the dish didn’t rise to national prominence until the reign of Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram. The military dictator realized that his desperately poor country lagged behind the rest of the world in every area but one: rice cultivation. In an effort to decrease rice consumption within Thailand (so that the excess rice could be exported), Phibun Songkhram appealed to his countrymen’s patriotism, asking them to eat the noodle-based pad thai instead. The rest is history.
After World War II, Berlin lay in ruins. The workers who labored to clear and rebuild the city needed a cheap, tasty, warm meal for lunch. Enter Herta Heuwer, the owner of a small food cart in the bombed-out city. Heuwer had obtained ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and curry powder from occupying British troops, and on a whim, she mixed these ingredients together to form a sauce she called “chillup.” She then took a simple pork sausage, boiled it, fried it, sliced it into bite-sized pieces and poured her new sauce over the top. The workers loved it, and soon business was booming. Today, no trip to Berlin is complete without a taste of currywurst—you can customize your currywurst by asking for it with or without skin, and those who like a little kick in their curry should take their currywurst either “sharp” or “extra sharp.”
In England, they’re called chips, in France they’re pommes frites, and for a brief, embarrassing three years, they were called “Freedom Fries” in the United States House of Representatives’ cafeteria. For all that traveling, long, thinly sliced, deep-fried potatoes—French fries, to you and me—are actually Belgian. A Belgian journalist claims to have unearthed old documents that trace French fries back to the farmers of the Meuse Valley in what was then the Spanish Netherlands…but the journalist has yet to show those documents to anyone else. Regardless of when or where they were invented, the fry cooks in Brussels do it right. Unlike the fries you’ll find at McDonald’s, Brussels’ fries are prepared in animal fat (often duck) and served with mayonnaise, though ketchup is generally available upon request.
When you’re looking for a quick bite in Rio de Janeiro, find a botequim and order up some espetinho de camarão, or shrimp skewers. Coated with lime juice, olive oil, and garlic and grilled with pineapple slices, these grab-and-go snacks are a local favorite. These healthy skewers are a smart choice for travelers watching their waistlines. For those whose diets go on vacation when they do, try a churro stuffed with dulce de leche, a sweet filling similar to caramel.
Here in the United States, “kebab” refers to anything skewered and grilled, but in Turkey, a “kebab” is just about any meat dish. Traditionally, the meat for kebabs is lamb, but you can find beef, goat, chicken, seafood and even tofu kebabs in the streets of Istanbul. There are hundreds if not thousands of variations on a simple theme: minced meat stacked and roasted, and served with vegetables. Many kebabs’ names refer to their inventor or the city from which they hail—Adana kebab, Ali Pasha kebab, Iskender kebab, Urfa kebab, and so on.
Falafel is so delicious and such a simple recipe that it’s no wonder so many people lay claim to it. Egypt’s Coptic Christian community claims to have invented the dish as a specialty for the meatless days of Lent, but some claim that the dish was invented while the Pharaohs still ruled Egypt—or even that falafel migrated to the Middle East from India. These crunchy, deep-fried balls of mashed fava beans or chickpeas are surprisingly nutritious, especially when paired with vegetables and tahini. Falafel is perhaps the most common street food in the Middle East, and because it contains neither dairy nor meat, it conforms to even the strictest tenets of Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws.
What’s your favorite street food? Leave a comment and let us know!