Wherever I go, when looking for lunch or dinner or sometimes even breakfast, I tend to veer toward the street.
I generally find street food almost always more interesting than restaurant food.
On the street, vendors usually specialize in just one thing: maybe it's a kind of sausage, or sandwich, or other snack, but the menu for a street food vendor is usually quite limited. This focus on one or two items means the offering can be perfected in a way that's more difficult for larger restaurants that offer lots of items on a big menu.
This process of perfecting the offered item is executed based on immediate customer feedback. A street vendor will notice how people are enjoying the food. If something is off, it can be tweaked and fixed. The unmediated feedback the street food vendor receives can be an opportunity to take input, make changes, and refine the offering until it's as good as it can be. Interaction with street food vendors is always a little more "personalized" than is usually possible with restaurant chefs.
Street food is frequently offered by vendors in areas where lots of other vendors are offering exactly the same thing. This lack of originality – or "market differentiation" -- is actually a strength. Because street vendors can sample their competitor's identical offerings, they can learn from each other and collectively move forward with better versions of the same thing, enabling their food to progress and get better in a way almost impossible for restaurant chefs to duplicate. With street food, you can actually do side-by-side tastings and determine best-in-class offerings.
With that, here are the three of the tastiest street eats I enjoyed over the past year.
Puchka in Calcutta, India. Popular throughout northern India, puchka consists of crisply fried spheres that are crushed on top, lightly filled with potatoes, salt and tamarind pulp (sometimes also onions and/or chickpeas), and then drizzled with tamarind water. "Girls love puchka," my friend Suvendli told me, "because it's so sour." I don't know why females love it, but it did seem that puchka vendors had a lot of gals in line. Usually puchka come five or so to an order, and the vendor serves each singly, one at a time. The customer takes each piece as it's dressed with tamarind water and then quickly pops it in the mouth before the liquid soaks through the shell. This requires the vendor to constantly attend to the customer and keep track of how many pieces they've had and, at times, their preferences. Price: about 10 cents for an order of five.
Falafel in Cairo, Egypt. Using fava beans rather than chickpea flour (which is more common in the U.S.), these patties are best, like all fried food, when they're coming right out of the hot oil. People start waiting for them at street stands well before the first batch comes out. Fried at high heat, the exterior becomes a matrix of lacy threads of fried legume, and the green interior smacks herbaceous with a light touch of garlic, each element distinct and not overwhelmed by the frying or each other. There is usually no lettuce or tomato, but I didn't miss those condiments: this sandwich was so moist and flavorful that it hardly needed anything else. Price: about 17 cents each.
Boiled peanuts in Traveler's Rest, South Carolina. You won't find this street food in many restaurants, and when I say "street" I mean highway, because that's where you'll find boiled peanut stands. If the idea of eating a hot, wet peanut sounds weird, well then you might be a northerner. Boiling these legumes does make them soft rather than crunchy, more like beans than nuts, but that's not so weird, because peanuts are not actually nuts: they're more like peas. I can see eating a pile of these on a hot summer day with a pitcher of cold beer.
What I liked most about eating boiled peanuts in Traveler's Rest was chatting with Ken "The Peanut Man" Reeder. He told me about how his granddad used to boil the peanuts, and then his granddad died and he took over making the peanuts. But around then he got in a terrible car accident, and he told me how he lost his ability to walk and talk, and I could still detect a slight hitch in his voice. That was years ago, and since then Reeder has kept a kind of general store, where is daddy also works, and where he regularly boils up big posts of peanuts to serve his many customers.