Why Is Street Food So Damn Good?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I’ve often wondered, often in the voice of Seinfeld, what is the deal is with street food? It’s usually thrown together in the most unsanitary of shacks, or the shoddiest of carts, held together by duct tape. There’s often some kind of funky ingredient that you’ll no doubt write home about, and the final dish is, more often than not, unrecognizable to the untrained eye. Why then, I ask, is it so damn good?

I remember when I first purchased what I ended up calling “pig face soup,” in a a shop nestled between garbage cans in a downtown alley in the Korean town where I was living. I pointed at the kettle of steaming broth sitting next to a bonnet-wearing old ajumma who just happened to be shaving a severed pig head only inches of my dinner. Thoughts about dividing up my assets crossed my mind. Then I thought, “hell, she doesn’t look too worried about things, why should I?”

Could it be the pride in which it is prepared? The atmosphere? Maybe it’s the local, fresh ingredients. Whatever the magic that encompasses the world’s best street food, it’s undeniable the goodness. That grandmother’s toothless smile after I took my first slurp of her soup was unforgettable, as well as the regular stop I made there for the rest of my stay. Thanks to Budget Travel’s recent run-down of the cities with the world’s best street food , she came grinning back into my consciousness.

Sadly to say, her little shop didn’t make their list of fourteen. It’s hard to compete with the street food powerhouses of Bangkok and Hanoi’s Old Quarters, or Vienna and Istanbul. Even before you see those mouthwatering names, there are a few higher-ranked cities that come as a surprise. My biggest beef (pun completely intended) is the list’s #2 best city: Los Angeles.

Maybe it’s those yuppy Hollywood images I have in my head, but I can’t see “pig face soup” being a real big hit there. Isn’t that, at least a little bit, what street food is all about?

*photo from Jonny Gilbert courtesy of TheExpeditioner Flickr Group

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