EAT LIKE THE LOCALS

by Edward Wilkinson Latham

National Post Travel Section

Photography by Marina Dempster

Whether you like your tunnbrodsrulle washed down with a glass of pucko, your kokorec with a kimiz chaser, a bit of kaak while you suck on your narghileh, a taste of rojak followed by pisang raja, or a big bowl of dahi bhallas and a plate of gol gappas, there's nothing quite like street food to make a lonely traveler feel welcome in an unfamiliar town.

For some, the sensory pleasure of eating street food is reason enough to embark on new travels. For others, the mere thought of such roadside dining can trigger the psychosomatic onset of Montezuma's Revenge. Don't be shy. Street food is often fresher than restaurant grub and you can see it being made right in front of you. And when you eat like the locals you meet the locals.

MEXICO CITY.

There is a bonanza of tasty street snacks in this sprawling city, many of which date from pre-Hispanic times. In some neighbourhoods you'll find a vendor on every block shouting what he has on offer: tacos, gelatinas (jello treats), elote (corn-on-the-cob), fresh licuado juices (blended shakes) and the popular chicharon (fried pork rind). In the beautiful Colonia Condesa zone of tree-lined streets and Art Deco buildings, you'll find Los Tacos del Guero (Amsterdam 135, corner of Avenida Michoacan). For more than 40 years, this hole-in-the-wall has been selling such delicious fillings as fried pork, avocado, nopales (cacti), veggie fritters, flor de calabaza (zucchini flowers), chorizo, cheeses and many versions of salsa picante (hot sauce). Enjoy a taco and an agua fresca while standing on the sidewalk with regulars.

BRUSSELS.

Forget French fries. Belgian fries are the best. The deep-fried potato is a national obsession. The story goes that a Belgian man called Frits (although most likely Fritz) was the first entrepreneur to open a stand and sell fried potatoes, in 1861. Today, there are more than 1,200 of them known as "frit kots." Connoisseurs claim it is the sweet and soft Bintje potatoes and the double frying that is the key. Mayonnaise is the usual topping but other choices include andalouse (tomato paste, diced onion, lemon juice, red pepper and mayonnaise), bresil (ketchup with pureed pineapple), samourai (hot pepper) and chinoise (ketchup blended with soy and duck sauce). If your arteries can hack it, try another Belgian specialty: gauffres or waffles, drizzled with Cointreau, dark chocolate sauce or both.

STOCKHOLM.

The humble sausage is the No. 1 street fodder here. The Swedes, with all their talk of the body beautiful have a surprising way of eating korv (hot dogs). Korvo kiosks offer tunnbrodsrulle, thin bread rolls served with two long hot dogs and a large dollop of mashed potatoes on top. It's then covered with mustard, ketchup, onions, pickled cucumber, lettuce or creamy shrimp salad dressing. If you are going to asphyxiate yourself with one of these make sure you get hemlagat potatismos -- real mashed potatoes. Force it all down with a pucko, a chocolate milk drink.

BEIRUT.

In the Corniche area, built by the French and left bullet-ridden by war, vendors yell "Kaak Kaak" as they carry stacks of bread baked with thyme and dates. Other vendors ring bells offering peeled prickly pears on ice. Falafels served with radishes, tomatoes, parsley, mint and tartar sauce made from lemon and tahini are a tasty filler, or try the stuffed zucchini flowers, walnut pancakes and fermented bulgur drink. No wonder families come to the city on weekends and put down folding chairs, mats, stoves, coffee pots and a narghileh hubble-bubble pipe -- and wait for the food to roll on by.

RIO DE JANEIRO.

Although hundreds of vendors line the streets, it is the bicycle kitchens that truly display Brazilian jeito -- the skill of making do. Ovens, with chimneys made from tin foil, are cleverly attached to small bike trailers, producing esfiha (tri-folded pizza) and pastel (deep-fried dumplings filled with beef, chicken or cheese). A popular beach beverage is Acai, a power drink made with the frozen pulp of an Amazonian fruit of the same name. Many vendors add powdered Guarana, a herb known for its energy-inducing and aphrodisiac qualities. Very Ipanema.

ISTANBUL.

Food writers refer to the city as "Isnackbul," because street food is everywhere. Some of the best can be found in the historic Sultanahmet district, where boys patrol the narrow streets with large boards on their heads holding stacks of simits (sweet Turkish bagels). Kokorec are braided lamb intestines seasoned with dried oregano and Maras pepper. Cig kofte are handmade spring rolls stuffed with spiced raw ground veal wrapped in a romaine lettuce leaf and soaked in lemon juice and scallions. Top this off with kimiz, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented mare's milk. Or perhaps not.

PENANG.

In George Town, the capital of this Malaysian island, street food is best enjoyed after nightfall when the Pasar Malam market comes alive. Hundreds of vendors set up, under the glow of red and yellow lanterns, preparing such dishes as char kway teow (stir-fried rice noodles with egg, onions, shrimp and lots of chili). Sate is everywhere, served on banana leaves, and the irresistible aroma of grilled meat and lemongrass fills the hot night air. Rojak (a sweet and savoury fruit salad) is a great accompaniment followed by pisang raja (deep-fried king bananas).

TOKYO.

Food stalls (small portable carts with cooking equipment) called yatai are open late into the night and are a good way to eat on the cheap in expensive Tokyo. Yarakucho Yakitori alley is a popular eating destination, where beyond the countless noodle stalls there are inventive snacks like takoyaki, a chewy nugget of octopus cooked in egg batter, moulded into a ball, then wrapped in seaweed and drizzled with a sweet plum sauce. Okonomiyaki are crunchy egg pancakes mixed with ginger, cabbage, meat or seafood. Steamed glutinous rice pastries are flavoured with green tea, sprinkled with coloured icing and candied peel. Another exquisite creation is sweet bean paste phyllo parcels covered in a rose-petal jam. Get recommendations from the city's street-food connoisseurs -- the taxi drivers.

HANOI.

Locals start the day with a steaming bowl of pho noodle soup, a street food at the heart of Vietnam's fresh-obsessed cuisine. In the city's Old Quarter, around the Dong Xuan market, clouds of aromatic steam waft from street-side kitchens where a cauldron of stock bubbles over a charcoal-fired stove and bowls of fresh ingredients are added: meat or fish, coriander, mint, onion, rice noodles, limes, red chili, ground pepper and the local favourite, nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce). A specialty is Banh cuon thanh tri (steamed, rolled pancakes with a mixture of minced pork, shrimp, black mushrooms or fried onions, dipped in a spicy sauce). Too good to miss are the small, fleshy sea crabs, which are steamed and cracked open in front of you and served with a delicious kumquat and nuoc mam dip.

LAHORE.

Pakistan street food ranges from a quick snack to a full-blown feast. Lahore's maze of alleys and corridors are heavy with the smell of spiced delicacies. On one side of the street, a stall prepares waddi -- a popular snack of buffalo kidneys fried in masala. Further along, a young man sells cold almond-flavoured milkshakes in disposable clay pots. Another stall specializes in chaat -- boiled, diced potatoes mixed with chickpeas and served with a mouth-watering imli ki chutney or tamarind pickle. To follow, try a bowl of dahi bhallas -- grilled lentil patties topped with a dollop of yogourt, spices and chutney. Chaat vendors will also offer gol gappas (called pani pouri in India), which are hollow, fried puff-pastry cases. Crack open the top with a spoon and fill with chatt, tamarind chutney and spiced water. Chomp whole and enjoy the taste explosion.

MOSCOW.

Some people are surprised to find out what is really in their cabbage rolls: chopped onion, garlic, butter, rice, pork, veal, chicken, salt and pepper. Potato and zucchini fritters are a common sight as are pickled eggs, typically submerged in large jars and died pink from the beetroot and vinegar in which they stew.

EWL©2005