Mouth-watering Memories: My Most Unforgettable Street Food Encounters
Many of my most memorable travel experiences – the ones that make me laugh, cringe, gasp and wax nostalgic – have involved food. Good food brings me great joy in life, both for the assault on the senses that I get to experience, and the way in which it brings people together. I love a good hotel buffet breakfast, and I also enjoy dining at nice restaurants, hip vegan joints, tapas bars, and trendy cafes, but street food is where the magic is.
Street food is very touch and go, and I think that’s all part of the fun. Sometimes you stumble upon something incredible that makes you want to go back and devour it again and again. Other times you’ll begin chewing, pause for a moment, furrow your brows and comment…”interesting…” And sometimes, well, sometimes you just need to reach for the nearest napkin.
It can be even more difficult for vegetarians or those with food allergies, as often it’s difficult to tell what it is you are eating. That squishy looking ball floating in your bowl of soup – it could be chicken…but then again, it could also be a chicken’s heart, a sheep’s testicle, or a completely harmless piece of tofu. You never know until you try…
On first sight, this could be anything from chicken to crocodile to fish to bamboo…But the only way to find out is to taste it!
Trying new foods are a great way to be adventurous when you travel, and it’s also the perfect way to experience some of the local culture. If you avoid the fancy restaurants and spend more time eating where the locals chow down, you’ll be sure to find yourself some gems. Back when I used to be carnivorous (I recently went vegetarian), I tried my fair share of local food. For those of you out there who need some convincing before you take the (literal) plunge into your bowl of noodles, in my rather extensive experiences exploring the globe it was in fact undercooked restaurant food and American-style melted cheese that were the culprits, not the weird and questionable-looking foods that one would assume are the harbingers of sleepless nights spent hunched over the toilet bowl.
Though I must admit, I am not the most adventurous foodie. I have drunk snake blood mixed with (blow-you-over strong rice wine) in Vietnam, which sounds more disgusting than it really is, but I draw the line at consuming insects and anything that looks like it may still jump up and leap/crawl/scuttle out of my hands. So I’m hoping that this tells you that you can definitely try most of the things that are listed below!
The thing about street food is that it makes for great stories once your travels are over, especially if you really go out of your comfort zone, or try something new with a group of friends.
So without further ado, here is a shortlist of my favourite street food memories. These are the most unforgettable experiences not because the food was the best I ever had, nor the cheapest (though in many cases it was both) but mainly because I shared these meals with some awesome people. And while I wouldn’t try all of these again, none of them caused me any more pain than feeling mild regret the next day that I hadn’t opted for a wrap instead.
The “it’s 4am, let’s call it a night”: Kimchi Fries, Austin, Texas
Image Credit: Alper Çuğun
The worst food encounter of my entire adult life occurred in Dallas, Texas, after I attended the Texas State Fair (go, but pack your own lunch). In stark contrast, Austin won me over with its incredible Texas BBQ and utterly delicious Mexican joints. I ate kimchi fries with my brother after spending a night out on the infamous Sixth Street. Forget kebabs, this is the post-party snack you absolutely must try at least once in your life. Kimchi fries are Korean magic fused with American fast food: it’s a match made in deep-fried heaven. The best part of the evening was walking home snacking on the greasy goodness and laughing with my brother and his friends.
Food trucks abound in Austin and kimchi fries are only the beginning of the delectable options that await you. But this street food comes highly recommended. Check out Chi’lantro BBQ’s homepage to find out the latest locations for their food trucks if you’re thinking of heading to Austin.
The “you gotta share this with your friends”: All-You-Can-Eat Market Buffet, Luang Prabang
One night while in the beautiful and peaceful town of Luang Prabang in Laos, I met a bunch of people who invited me to try an amazing all-you-can-eat and insanely cheap buffet at the local night market. I was towards the end of a solo backpacking trip around southeast Asia after spending 5 months volunteering as an English teacher and carer with Projects Abroad in Phnom Penh and Hanoi. I’d never met these people before in my life but I’m never one to turn down an offer of company and good food, especially if it’s cheap!
I piled my plate as high as I could and spent a wonderful evening in great company eating some delicious food. Afterwards, my new friends and I laughed and joked as we wandered the market stalls filled with colourful draperies and ornaments. As fellow solo travellers will know, the road can get lonely at times, and this was a night of some much-needed companionship during a time when I had begun to feel alone.
The “I can’t believe it’s healthy and delicious”: Night Markets, Marrakech
Image Credit: Natalie Waser
The food in Morocco, the meeting place of Africa, Europe and the Middle East – it has to be said – is simply to die for. Fresh vegetables, tender lamb, dips, breads, gorgeous tagines and divine couscous salads all blended together with a concoction of spices that assaults your senses. There’s so much of it but you won’t even feel guilty because it’s all so healthy! The night markets in Marrakech contain some interesting delicacies (sheep’s head anyone?) but there are plenty of safe options for the less adventurous among us. It’s a great place to grab dinner once you’ve finished wandering around the markets and tried out your bargaining skills.
The picture above was taken by my good friend and travel companion one night after we’d spent some time haggling at the market stores. She’d just purchased a rug that looked like the magic carpet from Aladdin and I’d just spent the last of my dirham on some beautifully decorated cushion covers for the sofa in my apartment. This dinner was the perfect reward for our shopping efforts!
The “so greasy but so good”: Gyros, Corfu
Eating one of these bad boys was my introduction to Greece. A few years’ back I travelled to Corfu with a bunch of Erasmus students, only one of whom I’d met prior to the trip, and when we arrived we grabbed ourselves something to eat before heading to our rented apartment. I sat on the side of the road devouring one of these with another Aussie, a few Germans and a couple of Canadians (one of whom is holding the gyros in the picture above), enjoying their company, the Greek sunshine and the atmosphere. At that moment I didn’t know that the trip would turn out to be one of the most enjoyable holidays I’ve ever had. As for the snack itself, it was a little too greasy for my taste, but it was certainly enjoyable while it lasted. No regrets!
The “Domino’s is ruined for me forever”: Pizza, Rome
Image Credit: Erik Drost
I travelled to Rome alone for my 22nd birthday as a stopover on my way from Australia to Sweden when I decided to pack my bags for a year and work as an au pair in this cold northern land. I spent a week or so wandering around the city exploring the history, the culture and the architecture, reliving my high school ancient history classes. I ate out a fair bit at restaurants but because I was alone I’d sometimes grab some takeaway pizza so I could eat it on the go and didn’t feel as alone (there’s something about sitting at a restaurant or cafe by yourself that can be serene, but sometimes you are very aware that you don’t have company). I figured if there’s one place to get pizza then surely it’s Italy, the home of pizza, where the tomato sauce is made from real, fresh, tomatoes and the cheese melts in your mouth. And the best part is there was always some gelato around the corner for dessert.
The “if you can finish this you’re a champion”: Philly Cheesesteak, Philadelphia
Image Credit: JoshBerglund19
I have to admit that if you can finish one of these you deserve some serious respect. I had my first (and only) Philly Cheesesteak upon the recommendation of a relative of one of my best friends whom I was travelling through the states with. We were heading to a baseball game – the Philadelphia Phillies versus … some other team… (forgive me, I’m not into baseball) and apparently it’s tradition for fans to eat a cheesesteak beforehand. Dressed in my newly purchased Philadelphia Phillies top and hat (you have to blend in), I sat in the back of a car with two of my best friends and struggled to finish it. I had my 21-year-old body to thank for being able to eat most of it without too much trouble, but I reached a point where I simply couldn’t keep going. I’ll probably never consume one of these again in my life, but at least I’ve ticked it off my bucket list! And the baseball game that came afterwards was truly an experience I will never forget.
And the winner is…
The “I would get on a plane right now just to get me some of that deliciousness”: Anything and Everything, Hanoi
Image Credit: Maxime Guilbot
In 2011 I spent six months abroad. Several of these months were spent living in Vietnam, where I survived off street food most days of the week. Forget about the swanky Western-style restaurants when you visit Hanoi, the street food is where you’ll find the good stuff. It’s so good that even the hostels that cater to Westerners get in on the action. The infamous Central Backpackers Hostel would serve a mean bún chả pizza if I was feeling a little more like something Western. But my friends (locals and other volunteers) would usually look for the places with little plastic chairs where all the locals were sitting – it’s a good indication of how good a place is.
There was the place just down the road from my work that served the best rice dishes and bún chả, and the countless stalls selling bowls of beef and chicken phở for all of about 1USD across the road from my apartment (phở is noodle soup that you can have with chicken or beef and veggies. It’s the most delicious dish known to mankind. If you’ve tried it elsewhere it may be reasonably good, but once you’ve slurped it in Vietnam, you’ll never want to eat it anywhere else).
I must stress that while “across the road” doesn’t sound all that dangerous, my daily journey to get my dinner in Hanoi often involved multiple near-death encounters crossing two intersections with a steady flow of motorcycle traffic. If you’ve travelled to Vietnam before – and Ho Chi Minh City is worse than Hanoi – then you’ll know what I’m talking about. Eating my dinner was an accomplishment; a badge of honour that indicated I’d managed to walk through incoming traffic with all of my limbs intact. But the reward was worth it, and I’d return in a heartbeat just to slurp some of that delicious noodle soup again.
Do you have any memorable street food experiences of your own? Share them with us in the comments below, we’d love to hear about them. And on your next cambio, make sure you ask your Host to take you to their favourite street food stalls.
About the Author: Clarissa Hirst is GoCambio’s Content Manager. A born-and-bred Australian, Clarissa currently calls Sweden home. She’s travelled to over 40 countries, loves learning foreign languages, and her passion is inspiring others to learn about and explore the world around them. She hopes to one day speak fluent Russian and ride the Trans-Siberian railway. Connect with Clarissa on Twitter.