You’re on holiday abroad exploring a local market. Suddenly an enticing aroma encircles you and makes you turn your head to find the source. There’s a long queue of hungry people looking jealously at people walking away munching on something delicious-looking. What are they eating? Maybe you should go investigate and try one for yourself?
But you’re on a diet. You can’t. You shouldn’t. You swore you wouldn't, so don’t even look.
You peek anyway, and it's so tempting. You could try it just this once, and you may never come through here again so this could be your only chance. Hell with the diet – this is important cultural research. It would be disrespectful not to try it.
Which foods are worth the potential guilt? We tried to limit ourselves to the 10 street foods around worth blowing your diet over, we really did – but in the spirit of indulgence we couldn't help but bump this list up to 11 culinary temptresses around the world:
1. Gordita – Mexico
Gorditas are hand-held heaven, a puffy symphony to Mexican good taste. At some food stalls, cooks will simply heat a thick slab of masa (maize flour dough) on a dry griddle until puffed, then stuff it; at others, they’ll start the masa cake on the griddle, then transfer it to bubbling oil for a perfect finish. The cooked masa is split, then filled with your choice of ground pork, punchy chorizo, or cheese and chillies. It’s finished off with a sprinkling of shredded lettuce, chopped onion and the usual dollop of hot sauce. Find a good one, and it’s an edible work of art.
2. Gelato – Italy
At its most basic, gelato is a frozen egg custard, flavoured with every ingredient you can imagine, from amaretto to zabaglione. Italian gelato does not traditionally contain cream – it should be made with milk and either egg or cornflour – and is generally lower in fat. Find the real homemade stuff and it’s love at first lick – there’s that tingly frisson of excitement shooting down your spine and fireworks seem to explode in the air around you. This, you think, is what bliss is supposed to taste like.
3. Poutine – Quebec, Canada
Poutine starts with a mound of french fries (chips) hot from the fryer, buried in a salty brown gravy and topped with fresh cheese curds. The gravy is typically made with chicken stock, but you’ll also see veal, beef and occasionally vegetarian versions. The best cheese curds are so fresh that they make a squeaky sound when you bite into them. Poutine is Quebec slang for ‘a mess’ – it may be a damn mess, but it’s a damn delicious mess you shouldn’t miss.
Murtabak is essentially a filled pancake, often resembling a crepe that has been rolled and chopped into squares. (It also comes in a sweet form in Indonesia, known as martabak manis, which has a thicker dough whose texture recalls a smooth waffle.) Eaten as a snack food, it’s found in markets, food courts and street stalls across Singapore and Malaysia. Since arriving on the Malay peninsula, murtabak styles have multiplied to reflect local tastes and ingredients – Chinese-style egg and green onion is a favourite filling in Singapore, while a side of spiced curry is common in Malaysia.
5. Currywurst – Germany
In 1949 when Berlin lay in ruins, an enterprising housewife by the name of Herta Heuwer got hold of some English curry power from British soldiers. With this rare ingredient (all food was still in short supply), she created a tomato based curry sauce and slathered it all over chopped sausage. Thus currywurst was born. Today there are as many different variations as there are sausages in Germany, and, as you would expect with a German snack, it’s the ultimate beer food.
6. Takoyaki – Japan
A ball of crisp, puffy wheat batter encases a sweet, tender chunk of octopus. The mixture is poured onto a specially designed hotplate with shallow indentations, like ping-pong balls hewn in half. A few spring onions might be thrown on top, then the whole thing cooks until golden. Once done, it’s dusted with aonori (green seaweed powder), sprinkled with katsuobushi (bonito flakes) or doused in mayonnaise or takoyaki sauce, similar to a thick Worcestershire sauce. The shell is firm and chewy, bursting open to reveal a scalding hot, creamy and not-quite-set mass of batter. The fat chunk of octopus is the final treat, something to chew on while you attack the next.
7. Chivito al Pan – Uruguay
This overloaded steak sandwich – Uruguay’s humble yet flamboyant national speciality – offers one of the cheapest, tastiest and most accessible ways to sample the country’s famous beef. A fully fledged cholesterol bomb, the chivito starts with two pieces of bread slathered with mayonnaise, then piled high with layers of grilled steak, ham, bacon, fried or boiled egg and mozzarella cheese. A few token vegetables get thrown in for good measure: lettuce, tomatoes and grilled red peppers come standard, while some places also add pickles, olives, mushrooms or hearts of palm.
8. Kelewele – Ghana
A sublime combination of flavours, kelewele is like the spicy, plantain version of french fries, only better. Ripe plantain is sliced into long strips, tossed with salt, ginger and fresh chilli, then deep-fried in vegetable oil, maybe over a charcoal stove. It’s served up in a square of newspaper as an evening or after-dinner treat. The plantain tends to curl up in the pot, making little spirals of greasy delight. The crunchy plantain is spicy and sweet, the flavours of ginger and plantain playing off each other, and the heat of the chilli builds with each bite until it burns. The aftertaste is sweetness and pure fire – but you go back for more anyway.
9. Yangrou Chuan – Northwestern China
Imagine yourself out on an evening stroll in urban China, perhaps in one of Beijing’s hutong neighbourhoods or on a side street in Xi’an. The smell of smoky grilled meat and a trace of cumin wafts through the air. You see a Central Asian-looking fellow alternately fanning the coals of a small grill and spinning skewers of meat, announcing in Mandarin: ‘Yangrou chuan! Yi tiao yi kuai!’ (‘Mutton kebabs! One yuan per stick!’). The presence of a small crowd surrounding the grill and buying up skewers as fast as the vendor can make them is a good sign. Join the throngs and order half a dozen – they’re the perfect evening snack.
10. Pastel de Belém – Portugal
The Pastel de Belém is a small baked tart with a flaky pastry shell filled with a sweet, creamy egg-based custard and sometimes sprinkled with cinnamon. The most sublime – and ‘original’ – pastel is from Antigua Confeitaria de Belém in Lisbon. Queue with the hordes to buy takeaways (an incredible 19,000 tarts are sold daily). Only three people are privy to the top secret recipe and preparation is done behind closed doors. Breathe in the aroma of sugar and cinnamon, bite into the crunchy pastry and let your tongue linger on the luscious custard. Sinfully sweet.
11. Jerked Pork – Jamaica & Caribbean islands
One of the great Caribbean dishes, jerked (cured) pork was originally smoked over pimento wood and berries. This added extra flavour, along with the dry rub made up of blisteringly hot chillies, the clove-laden tang of allspice and any other spice or herb close to hand. The meat should be tender and bursting with juice; the heat comes first, a fruity chilli blast, then a sweetness to temper the fire. Each bite should have a whisper of allspice, and a hint of nutmeg or cinnamon. And the crust… Oh, that crust: blackened and sticky, containing the quintessence of the jerk. One portion is never enough.
Selections written by: Tom Parker Bowles, Kate Armstrong, Gregor Clark, Carolyn B. Heller, Emily Matchar, Joshua Samuel Brown, Amy Karafin and Barbara Sarpong
Tempt yourself by reading more on these and other delicious foods around the globe in The World’s Best Street Food: Where to Find It & How to Make It edited by Tom Parker Bowles