Tourists are often warned away from street food, where ironically the most extraordinary foods are to be experienced. In my many travels in the Mediterranean over the last 45 years — my first trip was in 1954 — I’ve encountered so many street foods that I could write a book about it, although many people have beaten me to the punch. A few street foods from the “Latin” Mediterranean and the “Islamic” Mediterranean, and not always the most common ones, stand out for me.
The “Latin” Mediterranean refers to the Mediterranean of Romance languages and the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and especially Spain, France and Italy. On reflection, of all my travels, two of the most memorable streets foods surprisingly are on the two extremes of unusual and common. The stigghiole of Palermo that I first ate so many years ago, and included in my first cookbook “Cucina Paradiso: The Heavenly Food of Sicily,” to this day excites my imagination, not to mention my taste buds.
Stigghiole are skewers of offal, scallions, and parsley wrapped in caul fat and intestines and grilled over an open fire. If you’ve read Homer you’ll remember how many times Odysseus and his companions roast meat over an open fire and the sirens will beckon you too. On the dusty Corso Calatafimi, where it intersects the viale della Regione Siciliana in Palermo, u stigghioliari sell their grilled caul-wrapped delights. Caul is a translucent membrane that covers the viscera of animals. Sicilians call the caul “handkerchiefs” because of the approximate size. Once the stuffing is wrapped in the caul, the intestines are spiraled around the skewers. This is just guts, how can it be good? Read the “Iliad.”
Memorable street foods are not always so exotic, they can be downright pedestrian (pun intended). While driving somewhere south of Limoges in the Corrèze department in France on the way to my Dad’s farmhouse in the Lot, I stopped for one of the most ridiculous street foods I’m embarrassed to admit I was crazy about. I say ridiculous because it was a hot dog. (I can hear it now: “You’re writing about a hot dog in France as a great gastronomic experience?”) At a bend in the road, on the N 20 coming south from Paris, was an Airstream trailer (or whatever the French equivalent is) with an awning, hitched to a 20-year-old Citröen, where a grizzled old man and his wife handed us the best hot dog and French fries I ever had, period. Granted, it was 2 in the afternoon and we hadn’t eaten since the morning, it was drizzling lightly, and when we pulled over for our snack we had no idea it would be so good. The hot dogs were called “hot dogs,” and the French fries were frîtes. But this was no ordinary dog.
These hot dogs were not the nitrate-and-sodium laden dogs you buy in your supermarket or the ballpark but were real homemade chiens chaud with pork as smooth as paste and a flavor that was perfect, not too salty, not too fatty, a real frankfurter wrapped in a most perfect bun, soft on the outside and like white French bread on the inside. We squirted a line of mustard and ketchup on each side and ate them in several bites. This was French food? The French fries were spectacular too, golden yellow on the outside, crunchy crisp, with a soft absolutely delicious interior that remained hot as we ate the whole newspaper cone full of them with a dollop of mayonnaise. Place matters a lot when it comes to memorable street food.
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: Stigghiole. Credit: Streetfood.it.