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Exploring a destination through its cuisine is one of the best ways to enjoy and understand a new place. And while white tablecloth restaurants certainly have their perks, nothing gets to the true heart (or stomach) of a country like its street food. Discover 12 famous street foods around the world to try on your next adventure.
Xiaolongbao Dumplings, Shanghai
Dumplings are a popular food in many cultures, and legend has it that xiaolongbao (“little basket buns”) dumplings (also called soup dumplings) originated in Shanghai. The pleated dumplings are filled with jellied stock and pork; once steamed, the aspic melts, filling the inside with delicious soup. The savory snacks are beloved around the world, but there’s an art to eating them. Eating too quickly will scald your mouth — but don’t let them get cold. The best technique is to wait just a minute, then gently maneuver the dumplings (with chopsticks) into a waiting soup spoon. Bite carefully into the delicate wrapper, just enough to sip the piping hot broth. Then plop the remaining pork dumpling into your mouth, and repeat (as you will undoubtedly want to).
Döner Kebab, Turkey
In 18th century Anatolia (now Turkey), a chef literally turned things upside down by layering pieces of meat — usually lamb, turkey, beef, or chicken — on a rotisserie and roasting them on a vertical spot, cutting off thin slices as they cooked. This tasty reversal gave birth to döner kebab, a staple of Turkish street food that is typically tucked inside a pita and flatbread and drizzled with tahini, though there are many variations all over the country. Similar versions of these tasty slices can be found in carts and stalls around the world — from the gyros so beloved in Greece to shawarma (an Arabic word derived from the Turkish word for “turning,” çevirme) and al pastor, created when Lebanese immigrants in Mexico began roasting local pork with the same method.
Vada Pav, India
Mumbai’s ubiquitous street food and a vegetarian favorite across the Indian subcontinent, vada pav can be found on seemingly every corner. A ball of spicy potato filling is deep-fried and tucked into a soft slider roll, then garnished with the good stuff — chutney and fiery green chili pepper. The traditional chutneys are sweet, green, and dry garlic, and it wouldn’t be vada pav without having at least one to accompany this tasty treat.
Bunny Chow, South Africa
Lettuce and carrots — or anything related to rabbits, for that matter — have nothing to do with this popular (albeit messy) South African street food. Instead, this sloppy favorite (often just called “a bunny”) is half a loaf of hollowed-out bread, filled with a spicy lamb, chicken, or vegetable curry and eaten without cutlery. The name is rumored to originate from the bania, a community of Indians living in South Africa, who served the dish to hungry workers laboring in the fields.
After a night of German beer, there’s nothing like this popular street food to keep you from feeling your wurst the next morning. Puns aside, this snack originally hailing from Berlin combines a spicy sausage — this is Germany, after all — topped with a sweet and spicy curried ketchup and a handful of crispy fries. While everyone in Deutschland has their personal favorite, the four Berlin locations of Curry 36 consistently draw crowds.
Sai Oua and Sai Krok Isan, Thailand
Thailand is famous for its spicy cuisine, and Bangkok is the undisputed street food capital of the world. You can find tasty charcoal-grilled sausages at carts and stalls all over the country, but the best versions of these originated in the north. Sai Oua (also known as Chiang Mai sausage) is made with minced pork meat mixed with an aromatic red curry paste, while Sai Krok Isan, from the northeastern province of Isan, is made of pork links that are funky and lightly fermented, redolent with wild lime, turmeric, lemongrass, and garlic. One bite of either one (accompanied by the typical raw cabbage, peanuts, sticky rice, and red chiles) will have you hooked for life.
These savory crisp chickpea rounds are a cross between a crêpe and a flatbread, and they originated in southern France's Cote d'Azur region. (Alternately, if you’re talking to an Italian, they originated in the nearby Liguria region of Italy and are called farinata.) Whether you’re in Genoa or Nice, they're a simple, delicious snack made for strolling along a charming Mediterranean street. Nothing more than a batter of chickpea flour, a little olive oil, water, and salt, socca is fried or baked, cut into wedges, and perhaps garnished with a grating of Parmesan or a few chopped rosemary leaves. Bon appétit! (Or in Italy, mangia!)
Once you’ve said “halo” to this sweet delight, you will never say goodbye. Colorful and oh-so-refreshing, halo-halo is considered the unofficial dessert of the Philippines. (The name literally translates to “mix-mix.”) A cool cousin to Hawaii’s shaved ice, halo-halo layers snow-fine ice, condensed or evaporated milk, and a choose-your-own adventure of add-ons, including fruit preserves, sweetened beans, and coconut strips. The treat is often topped with a scoop or two of ube (purple yam) ice cream for good measure.
Arepas, Colombia and Venezuela
Breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? Any time is a good time for arepas — hearty flatbreads made with cooked cornmeal dough and then stuffed with a plethora of ingredients before they are griddled, baked, or fried. While the fillings vary wildly — plantain, cotija cheese, avocado, seasoned meat — the authenticity of this popular street food doesn’t. It’s one of the few pre-Columbian food traditions remaining in Latin America, passed down from local Indigenous tribes from as far back as 3,000 years ago.
Bánh Mì, Vietnam
"Bánh mì" is the Vietnamese word for bread, but in street food parlance, it refers to a divinely delicious sandwich. Built on a fluffy-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside baguette, the sandwich is split lengthwise and stuffed with an enticing melange of goodness that ranges from roasted pork or chicken to unctuous pâté, all accented with fresh cilantro, a tangle of tangy pickled vegetables, and a kick of jalapeño. Inexpensive and filling, bánh mì is truly the sandwich of the gods.
Whether they’re carnitas, al pastor, or adovada, tacos can be found just about everywhere in Mexico, from family cafés to Michelin-starred restaurants. But some of the best versions come from humble carts or hole-in-the-wall food stalls. True street tacos are almost always built atop a double layer of soft corn tortillas, fresh from the griddle and rarely more than four inches in diameter. Add a sprinkle of diced onion, a bit of chopped cilantro, and a choice of salsa, and tacos are perfection on a (paper) plate.
Dirty Water Dogs, United States
Street food culture in the U.S. isn’t yet as robust as in many places on the planet, but it has its highlights. Dirty Water Dogs are available on many street corners across America, but they’re a true taste of New York City. The water the hot dogs bathe in isn’t actually dirty, of course — the nickname comes from the addition of red wine vinegar, along with a pinch of nutmeg and cumin. Simmered through, placed on a roll, and gussied up with a selection of condiments, they’re rarely more than a buck and the best street snack in the Big Apple — although pizza slice purists may disagree.