Street foods in the eastern Mediterranean are a great temptation for any traveler. The hawking cries of the vendors grab your attention. The aromas waft in your direction, and you follow your nose like an ecstatic cartoon character. Then you remember the admonitions about eating street food. The likelihood of hepatitis, gastrointestinal problems and the general unseemliness that you can see for yourself are all discouraging. You weigh the risks and then of course you jump right in, eating some of the most delicious food you’ll ever taste. Then you wait. Will you spend the rest of the day on the toilet or writing home? Only raw and unpeeled vegetables and fruits actually present any potential problem, so why not?
I’m often surprised about the foods that I remember and love the most from my travels. Of course, there’s the best pizza in the world that you can eat on the curb in front of Da Michele in Naples or the three-star Michelin dinner in Moulins de Mougins. But what about that tacmiyya had in Marsa Matruh or the strange little deep-fried bread had in Niš in eastern Serbia or the kafta in Amman, Jordan, or the shāwurma in Homs, Syria?
I think the street food I’m most wild about in the eastern Mediterranean is the Turkish döner kebabı and Arab shāwurma, both related to the Greek gyro, and all a variation on the same theme of the vertical spit-roasting of seasoned lamb meat and fat. That being said, it’s the katmer böreği I ate from a street cookshop in April 1971 in Istanbul that still remains vividly uncorrupted in my mind. It was a griddle-cooked flaky pastry stuffed with scallions and raw eggs that was a kind of cross between puff pastry and phyllo pastry, but cooked like a pancake folded over on itself. I think I ate one every day.
Shāwurma in Syria
Many years later, I was driving from Jeble to Homs in Syria and had my most memorable shāwurma (or shawarma). Shwarma, like its cousin the gyro, is a spit-roasted meat sliced off into a flatbread sandwich. Context is probably everything when it comes to food, so after half a day exploring the most magnificent Crusader castle in existence, the Krak des Chevaliers (Qasr Balbek in Arabic), I stopped at a truck stop at the highway interchange outside of Homs and was famished. The truckers were all ordering the shwarma, so I did too. It was sliced off in thin strips into a pan the carver held under the falling meat, all glistening and dripping lamb fat. He then wrapped it quite tightly with pink pickled turnips slices and lots of freshly chopped parsley in the thin Arabic flatbread known as marqūq bread. The Syrian truck drivers couldn’t have been more helpful suggesting the various condiments I should try, such as the baqdunis bi‘l-salsa, the tahini and parsley sauce. It was amazing and as I continue my journey I lamented I didn’t get two.
A treat in Egypt
My thoughts turn to Egypt because of the recent revolution and to my friends there and to the memories of my favorite street foods such as tacmiyya, the Egyptian version of falafel. Here, this is everyday food, but my most memorable was the one I had on a hot evening in Marsa Matruh, a dusty and sleepy seaport surrounded on three sides by the Western Desert of Egypt, a part of the Sahara, about 120 miles from the Libyan border. I was there to escape the pollution, noise, and crush of humanity in Cairo and was befriended by a group of young men centered around the town butcher and stayed longer than planned.
One evening one of the guys popped over to a tacmiyya vendor down the street. He came back with a huge rolled newspaper cone filled with crispy golden brown hockey puck-sized deep-fried tacmiyya.
As I took a bite, the crispy brown exterior crunched to reveal a surprisingly light green interior. These were very flavorful, more than the falafel I was familiar with, and were spicy with fried onions and garlic and copious amounts of chopped coriander and parsley. In the very center was a little pocket of seasoned ground beef.
The tacmiyya were poured out of its newspaper cone and laid on a bed of girgīr (Eruca sylvestris lutea), leaves from a plant that tastes like a cross between watercress and arugula, and rīhan, a wild mint. Our new friends told us one had to eat the tacmiyya with the accompanying turshy, which in this case were pickled turnips, although elsewhere in the Arab world it always meant pickled carrots and cucumbers.
We all dug in and ate communally, eating the tacmiyya, the pickled turnips, girgīr, and some plain fūl that someone also got with some khubz al-malih, a piping hot and fresh rod of bread direct from the oven, about the size and length of a large thin cucumber. As I ate I thought about how good this food was and how distant I was from everything I was familiar with, yet surrounded by these joyful Arabs boys who would give me the shirt off their back. I thought about food in its context and as the veil of night descended I realized that paradise was here and now.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo: Tacmiyya vendor‘s cart in Cairo, 1991. Credit: Clifford A. Wright