If you have ever walked by free food oblivious, you have discredited your inner hunter-gatherer lurking just below the surface.
Yes, there is such a thing as a free lunch. Case in point, we once were in the Niagara region with my wife’s elderly aunt. Suddenly walking through a verdant picnic area, her geriatric eyes all but glazed over, as if she had discovered a dufflebag of twenties and fifties blowing about in the wind. What she had spotted was grape leaves growing everywhere, wild - the kind of thing Canadians pass by, oblivious. She asked if we could find a plastic bag, and there we sat, whistling and waving as people walked past, trying not to look too obvious as she pinched and perused the produce. She came away with a large bag of tender grape leaves which upon arrival at home, she blanched in boiling water, and pickled in jars. She took some from the batch and prepared them, stuffed with rice and ground beef for our supper that night. They were delicious, those bushes that we all but passed by.
But I digress. Foraged food along the route is not a new thing. I think it was Eve who first mentioned, “Hey Adam, how about them apples?”. It’s in our very blood and bones to be foragers. We have our paleo ancestors to blame. It makes me think about when we were kids. We would periodically in our rounds, pass a wild apple tree in our journey through field and steam in a day of play. It only made sense to stop and pilfer natures’s bounty. We would leave with bulging stomachs, and all-but empty trees.
The same tendency is most pronounced in what one might call “street food”. It is the unique fare to be had passing by the street in the modern world. There are a few metrics which drive the creation of street food. It must be cheap, and use common ingredients that are easy to get, and easy to prepare. The resulting cuisine must be portable, and not too messy. Think chestnuts or corn on the cob and you have something you can munch on while walking, without too much trouble.
The marriage of cheap, easy-to-cook and on-the-road has given birth to some interesting variations around the world. Ever go to Norway? Say hello to Rudolph. Specifically, you can pick up some dried reindeer meat to munch on along the way. Countries in Africa could give you a passing bowl of cow head soup, Chinese street food might include scorpions or beetles impaled on a stick and deep-fried. Here’s where things get adventurous, at least if you have the stomach for it. You may be tempted by the aroma, to taste wares you might otherwise pass by. Street food in ancient England for example, could serve you up a dish of fried tripe, the kind of offal you might politely avoid on a regular day.
Some of the best meals I have eaten in my life, were also unusual. When I worked chicken barns in Israel, the floors of the barn would become raised up about six inches over the cycle of a chicken’s life. Six inches of dried and accumulated chicken s*** to be specific. It had to be removed before you could start all over again with a new batch of chickens.
What to do with a few tons of dried chicken s***? Ask a bedouin. In a country that is dry and often barren, it is called free fuel. They would come in a large truck, armed with ancient adzes, and in their bare feet, they would chop and pry, and load all that good fuel onto a truck to take back into the desert like some kind of handy woodpile off to the side. The bedouins thought the kubbutzniks were crazy to give away all that s*** for free. Before they left, the bedouins invited me to their breakfast, shakshooka - tomatoes, onions and garlic mixed with eggs, and in this case cooked over a fire made from chicken s***. I am not sure whether the fuel added to the flavour, but as fortification for the day, I remember it did the trick.
So, eating “street food” means you have to be adventurous and not too picky. It helps to have a bit of an iron gut, as sanitary measures like washing utensils, may be a bit slack on the side of any road. The best falafel I ever ate in my life, was in the south of Egypt. If you have ever seen Egyptian bread, a loaf of it is about the size of a truck tire. The falafel was made from half a loaf, big enough that you had to hold it with two hands. The smiling vendor stuffed it with deep fried eggplant, falafel, and all the fixings. I remember at the time I paid fifty piasters, which is the Canadian equivalent of about five cents. I was of course, thrilled, and the vendor was equally thrilled since he had most likely charged me five times the local price.
How about Frankfurters? I remember visiting Freddy, a kibbutz friend from Frankfurter, Germany. When we went out to see the town, what we bought from the side of the road were frankfurters, cooked on the spot by street vendors who wrapped them in delicious crunchy pretzel buns, topped with hot mustard. It was a culinary delight. Having enjoyed the real deal prepared fresh and on location, I can never look an ordinary hot dog in the eye again. What we get sanitized and wrapped in the grocery store just isn’t as tasty.
I am not sure if it is the combination of exercise and fresh air, but I have never tasted food as good as that which is to be had passing by on the street. It’s where want meets need in all the best of ways. Writing this, I feel suddenly hungry… the ache in my belly stoked by memory. Street food, not to be thought of lightly. Give it a try. What you eat in passing by, may be one of the best meals you have eaten in a lifetime.