I live in Mexico City where the phrase “street food” can connote a kind of low-class, unsavory, health-risk from which tourists and locals alike are warned to stay away. Now, foodies on the cutting edge, perhaps feeling the economic crunch, are busy promoting this popular cooking. Restaurants with names such as Street and Fonda are pulling in crowds. Anthony Bourdain and the Los Angeles Times are touting the world’s street food as trendy, reminding us that the best cooking is often found in the most humble places. We fearless global eaters could have told them.
Some of our most cherished culinary moments may be of downing a hot dog or pretzel, an ice cream or a knish, that is, if we are an American. For the Japanese, it may be a steaming takoyaki ball; for Egyptians it’s a fragrant bowl of fuul. Sold from a basket, a cart, an improvised stand, a truck, out of a doorway, on the beach, in a market stall, all are street food. The common factors are that the food is cheap, ready to eat and portable.
According to streetfood.org, street food constitutes up to 40 percent of the daily diet in the developing world. In many countries where people can’t afford to eat in sit-down restaurants, all kinds of food are available, any time of day, and practically anywhere. And in large urban settings, people often just don’t have time to sit down.
Street food recipes tend to be traditional, unaltered by globalization or modernization. While there is street food all over the world, especially in Asia and Latin America, perhaps only Thailand vies with Mexico, where I live, for the astounding variety. In the sprawling metropolis of Mexico City, at practically every corner, beloved dishes are cooking as you walk by, the wafting aromas drawing you in.
Regional variations abound. In the high altitude center of the country, where the capital sits, the earthy roasting fumes of grilled meat tacos and a large variety of corn-based snacks pleasantly interrupt the (mostly) clear sun-drenched air. On the Pacific shores, seafood is the thing, from sparkling tangy ceviches to crispy fish tacos, or whole fresh fish splayed, slathered with chili paste and grilled as you listen to the waves roll in. The Caribbean coast also takes advantage of the ocean, with Spanish, African and indigenous influences evident. The variety is infinite.
When I first came to Mexico, almost 30 years ago, I was told not to go anywhere near the food I saw on the street — and I didn’t. “You’ll get sick,” the pessimists warned. “Don’t drink the water,” they admonished. Having grown up in lower Manhattan surrounded by Italian, Jewish, Chinese and Hispanic immigrants and their cuisines, I was an early aficionado of “the authentic”: foods prepared by and for people according to their long-held traditions. So I was dying to eat everything I saw and smelled in Mexico. But I held off and stuck to the nicer restaurants.
I always felt I was missing out. Years later, when I moved to San Miguel de Allende in the heart of Mexico’s central plains, I studied Spanish five days a week. Every morning, on the way to class, I would pass a festive, bustling stand that sold huaraches, large oblong slabs of corn dough dry-roasted on a griddle and heaped with smoky grilled meat, avocado, tomato, onion, queso fresco and various salsas. This stand was always busy, the savory fragrance perceptible a block away. My mouth would water like a mad dog. For what seemed like ages I passed it right by without availing myself, proud of my righteous self-control. “Don’t eat on the street.” Period. No exceptions.
Then I just broke down. How could I, a self-described foodie, live in such stern abnegation in the face of this veritable banquet taking place 24 hours a day, I asked myself. I started with the seemingly safe and graduated to the hard stuff (chicharrón or pork skin and lengua or tongue tacos became my favorites). I now look at small stands and market stalls as micro-restaurants where I can see what’s being cooked, and by whom. The raw ingredients are right there before my eyes. Most of these operations specialize in one dish so you’re assured they know what they’re doing. I feel as safe eating in these places as in restaurants. Sure, there are rules to follow — stick to busy places, avoid food fried in old oil, seafood sitting in the sun. But when I finally got over my fear and prejudice, a whole world of “real” Mexican food opened up to me. I have never gone back.
Have I ever gotten sick? Well, yes, a few times. Last time was after a buffet dinner at the home of an American friend. Go figure. Now, an incredible “authentic Mexican” feast has been spread before me, a dream-like cornucopia, an impossible buffet. Crusty corn-fragrant sopes piled high with spicy chorizo, potatoes, lettuce and spiky salsa. Hand-made quesadillas filled with everything from squash blossoms to huitlacoche (corn fungus). Steaming hot tamales filled with mole or salsa verde. Crispy tostadas heaped with fresh ceviches of crab, fish or shrimp. And the tacos, the endless variety of them! Tacos de guisados, stews, red, yellow, green and black, spooned into hand pressed tortillas. Tacos al carbón, meat grilled to smoky perfection and augmented with freshly ground salsas. Gamey barbacoa of mutton scooped right out of the maguey leaf in which it has been roasted and garnished with chopped onion, cilantro and lime. And that Mexico City classic, tacos al pastor, a legacy of the Lebanese immigrants whose lamb shawarma was “Mexicanized” to include pork and pineapple.
So what about that legendary stand in San Miguel de Allende? I still dream about it. Years ago the plaza was remodeled, chasing away the vendors. It disappeared forever. My loss.
Nicholas Gilman is a founding member of a Mexican chapter of Slow Food International, the author of “Good Food in Mexico City: A Guide to Food Stalls, Fondas and Fine Dining” and served as editor and photographer for the book “Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler.” He has a website, goodfoodmexicocity.com and has appeared extensively on radio and TV in the U.S. and Mexico. He lives in Mexico City.
Photo: Taco stand in Mexico City.
Photo and slideshow credit: Nicholas Gilman