Of(f) the streets.

In Europe, Food, India, Travel, World Cuisine on September 22, 2013 at 11:22 am
Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whether it is samosas in Delhi, currywrust in Berlin, crêpes in Paris, hotdogs in New York, waffles in Brussels or Phở in Hanoi, street food is indispensable for a traveller, especially when you have to keep a close watch on your budget. Meant primarily for local inhabitants, travellers get a taste of food that is not tailored to their taste, often in the company of locals only too willing to chat in a much more convivial setting than one would get in a restaurant.

I recently found out that there exists a National Association of Street Vendors of India and that the Street Vendors Bill, 2012 was passed by the Lower House (Lok Sabha) in India which is destined to give more protection to street vendors by giving them a Vending Certificate and thus giving them official recognition. The idea is to reduce police and municipal authority harassment towards these vendors. Much as I appreciate the gesture of this Bill, years of being Indian has made me a cynic and I can’t help feeling that harassment and corruption is now just going to change hands. Instead of the local policeman, the vendors will now be harassed when trying to secure their Vending Certificate. Sigh! I would love to be proved wrong.

Anyway, it got me thinking of street food in general and how much I loved going out to have street food in India. In fact, it is so much part of our lives, we hardly think about it. Still, 5 years in France and I realised it is not as widespread a phenomenon as I had thought it was. Street food here is limited to sandwiches, crêpes (pancakes), churros and turkish style kebabs.

I wonder if climate might not have a role to play in street food culture. In countries which are cold for most of the year and covered in snow, it is hardly practical to expect people spending time eating from stalls while shivering in the cold. Although the Christmas markets in Europe often serve mulled wine and other hot food which is meant to be eaten on the go.

I enjoy hot crêpes or churros on a cold day and especially churros with hot chocolate the way they have it in Spain. Yuuuum.  Spain makes up for the lack of street food in its strictest definition by its tapas culture. I have good memories of easy conversations all around and even though C and I spoke next to no Spanish, the relaxed ambiance was infectious and we often found someone who spoke French or English and was happy to discuss the weather or the economy with us.


Sugared Churros on a cold day in Lyon, France.

When in Berlin, we sampled the must-have Currywrust (sausages cut into slices and sprinkled with curry powder, often served with fries.). It was great drowned with a mug of beer, sitting on a bench in Berlin with lots of friendly Berliners around but it is not something I would want to have often. Its is great as a side-dish but not on its own.


Currywrust (Photo credit: Catwomancristi)

What was much more amusing on the Berlin streets was hot dogs sold for 1 Euro by mobile vendors. The picture below says it all.

Hot Dog Man Berlin

Hot Dog Man Berlin (Photo credit: Blogomentary)

My one and only street food binge in Europe has been in Bruxelles. No, not the fries….but waffles! I spent an entire day surviving just on waffles….waffles with strawberries, waffles with chocolate, waffles with caramel…god, I could not have enough of it! So as far as I was concerned, Bruxelles catapulted to the top of my favorite destinations list effortlessly 😉

Waffles in Brussels

Waffles in Brussels

Even if one of the essential aspects of street food is that you can have it on the go, I like having it on the spot in front of the mobile vans or trucks or shops. Conversations are easily picked up in these places and if you are travelling in a foreign country, it is always nice to chit-chat with locals or other travellers.


Juice vendor in Kolkata, India

I remember while travelling in Ladakh, truck drivers and travellers chatted happily at a tea stall. The drivers told us about their hard life driving their trucks all over the country and confessed they did not understand why Ladakh was so popular.

One of them sipped his tea and said, “Even the tea here is insipid.”, then on a more conspiratorial note and nodding at the stall owner, he added, “They don’t get real milk here, you see. They use powdered milk which is no good.” It was an awkward moment for us as the owner could not have missed the comment and we did not know how to respond politely without making ourselves unwelcome. But the owner seemed to be used to these kind of comments and he just shrugged at them good naturedly.

That is the other thing about street food: you take it or leave it.  There is really no point complaining about your food, because to all evidence, there are enough people who do like the food and second, no one is going to give you much notice anyway.

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