From Grub to Gourmet
Street food is a fundamental fixture of virtually every nation across the world. From the bustling souks of Morocco to the beguiling night markets ubiquitous to many parts of Asia, food served on the street from carts, stalls and trucks is the first thing intrepid travelers explore to not only sate themselves, but to also understand the intricate tapestry of a nation’s people. More than haute cuisine ever will, street food defines its citizens and narrates their history through inexpensive, portable sustenance that, as Las Vegas-based China Poblano’s Executive Chef Shirley Chung says, “Is the food of the people, prepared simply, quickly and creatively?”
Means of exploration
Chefs across America are celebrating the virtues of street food by giving it top billing on their restaurant menus. Its newfound prominence can be attributed to myriad factors including the proliferation of food trucks in cities throughout the United States and to the new small plate trend that appeals to a restaurant guest’s fascination with snacking. Conferences such as “Frontiers of Flavor: World Street Food, World Comfort Food,” organized by the Culinary Institute of America in 2009, provide a platform to explore the endless nuances of street food and inspire chefs to find a place for it in their repertoire. Street food festivals are also springing up around the country, perhaps most notably the San Francisco Street Food Festival organized by La Cocina, an incubator kitchen based in the Mission District. La Cocina’s Executive Director, Caleb Zigas, explains that for its clients, street food is much more than on-the-go sustenance: “La Cocina’s mission is to cultivate low-income food entrepreneurs by providing affordable kitchen space, technical training and access to market opportunities, which enable them to establish and grow their businesses.” La Cocina’s entrepreneurs, such as Alicia Villanueva whose tamale truck opened in September of 2011 and serves, among others, a dessert tamale stuffed with mangos and laced with cocoa, are proof that the impact of street food can be profound: “La Cocina changed my life. With my new tamale truck I will be able to send my sons to college, we will be able to buy a house one day. There are a
lot of sacrifices to be made, but with the help of La Cocina and events like the Street Food Festival, I am living a better life.”
Inspiration for street food is everywhere and the wanderlust bug that affects so many chefs often goes hand in hand with the development of their street food-inspired menus. Owner and Executive Chef Preeti Mistry of San Francico’s Juhu Beach Club explains that she looks “to create bold flavors…there is nothing subtle about my food. My dishes are the expression of an Indian-American chef.” She continues to say that her own experience researching street food is a tactile one: “The streets of Mumbai are jammed and people are always on the go. This is conveniently eaten, simply made and delicious food. So I drew from that inspiration, as well as my upbringing. Of course my technique as a chef informs the logic and architecture of the dishes, and I live in California so using seasonal, local ingredients is just how we cook.”
Shirley Chung of China Poblano, one of José Andrés’ Think Food Group restaurants, says that the eclectic fusion of her Chinese and Mexican inspired menu was cultivated in large part by learning on the road: “José Andrés spent a month traveling through Beijing, eating street food. He would call me excited by a new discovery and menu development grew out of his experiences.” Chung says the Don’t Talk taco is a perfect example of the restaurant’s melding of Chinese and Mexican elements: “The tortillas are prepared fresh to order and the rambutan and duck tongues are common ingredients found in the street foods throughout Asia.” Other taco options include beef tendon with scallions and Sichuan peppercorn sauce, sweetbreads with Mayan-style habanero, citrus salsa and gold leaf, in addition to braised suckling pig with salsa verde cruda and chicharrones.
Carolyn Rudolph, co-owner of Charlie Hong Kong in Santa Cruz, echoes this sentiment: “We travel a lot for inspiration and when I travel, I eat on the street because that’s where you will find new ideas. The idea of street food for us is simple food, prepared quickly that’s affordable.” She continues, “To me, street food is something you’re imbibing in, you’re hungry and you need to nourish your body to go on. I want to feed people on the go. I want to give them something quick and cheap and nutritious, made with high quality ingredients that whenever possible are sourced locally.” Charlie Hong Kong is a vegan restaurant that offers meat options for its non-vegan customers. Carolyn explains that they have to get creative in order to amp up the flavor without the use of stand-bys such as shrimp paste and fish sauce: “One example are the signature bowls, which are noodles and rice and greens. What is outstanding about the signature bowls is they come with a very flavorful sauce. We do our own Pad Thai, but our Pad Thai has no shrimp paste and no egg in it. It makes it very unique, but it’s so good. We make it with fresh tamarind pulp which gives it that pop.”
Fresh is key
Other chefs echo the use of fresh, seasonal ingredients as a driving force behind their street food menu options. Mari Takahashi, co-owner and Executive Chef of San Francisco’s Japanese izakaya-inspired restaurant Nombe says: “We’re making Japanese food using local ingredients. The cost of our other menu items is equal to our street food
options because we use very high quality ingredients.” Nombe’s street food items include yakimono (grilled skewers) including beef tongue and karashi mustard, ginkgo nuts with bacon and onsen tomago, and odango (rice balls served with sweet soy sauce). Takahashi says: “We use free range chickens, meat and organic vegetables as much as possible so it’s not necessarily cheaper. It might be different for the people who are selling street food from the trucks. They might be using different ingredients but for us, we use high quality ingredients in our street food items, the same things we use on our regular menus.”
Kelly Majid of Berkeley’s Zatar, who co-owns the restaurant with her Iraqi-born husband Waiel Majid, serves a street-food repertoire that includes lamb dolmas and boreka, filo pastry stuffed with chard, kale, sheep’s milk feta and fresh herbs. She explains, “We source many of the ingredients for our restaurant from our own gardens and it makes an enormous difference in the quality of our food. Customers will ask us: ‘What did you do to that eggplant to make it taste so good?’ When our response is that it’s grilled simply but tastes like it does because it’s incredibly fresh, they always look surprised. But freshness and seasonal cooking makes all the difference.”
Simplicity is best; focus on flavor
Referring to a customer favorite on her menu, Uncle’s Chicken Curry Tacos, Chef Preeti says, “Our customers love them. We do them every Tuesday and it is the most popular special of the week. It’s simple: two corn tortillas toasted on the flattop, filled with our spicy pulled chicken curry, and topped with spiced yogurt and a red cabbage slaw marinated in our cilantro chutney. We sell out every week.” She offers some advice to chefs who are trying to craft a street food-inspired menu, but feel overwhelmed by the endless options of street food available: “Think simple and focus on great flavor. Don’t try so hard to do your creative angle on a popular street food that you lose the dish altogether.”
Carolyn Rudolph adds, “Don’t forget what street food is all about. It’s food for the people. It’s meant to nourish and sustain a busy person on the go in a simple and creative way. It’s been around forever and this is because it’s honest food cooked on the spot that is filled with integrity.”
Shirley Chung concludes, “If you want to understand a region of the world, the first thing to do is eat its street food.” Chefs around the country developing street food-inspired menus are embracing this sentiment like never before, delivering fresh, creative food of the people to their customers, whether cooking for a casual lunch spot or introducing progressive dishes in a fine-dining kitchen. Word on the street is that it’s a trend that’s here to stay.