There is no better way of getting to know a country than through its food, and sometimes the best food—local cuisine prepared by a dedicated specialist—is right outside the window where shiny china sits on tablecloths, uniformed waiters serve diners, and piped-in music fills the air.
The street-side dining movement has come a long way. No longer the turf of bland, cheap eats and gastrointestinal blindsides, today’s street food stalls cook up the best that a locality has to offer—fresh and made right in front of you. The experience of eating street-side can create stimulating travel stories and a delicious way of exploring new cultures.
What is a trip to Seoul without a steaming bowl of guksu, eaten while precariously perched on a plastic chair on the curb, then knocking back a Sakura (Cherry Blossom) cocktail? You’ll probably find out, as Seoul has more restaurants per square-block than anywhere else in the world. At peak hours, not one of them has an empty seat—so you may well be seeking out that plastic chair if you have failed to make a reservation.
Another can’t miss in South Korea is a spicy, stir-fried tteokbokki, a tasty snack made of cylindrically-shaped, spicy rice cakes marinated in red chili paste and traditionally served with various greens, scallions, odeng broth (seasoned fish paste shaped into strips then cooked and threaded onto wooden skewers), seasoned fishcakes, and toe-curling ddeok (steamed rice cakes) with red pepper sauce. It’s South Korea’s comfort food on steroids!
One of the best places for tteokbokki is the Sindang area of Seoul, an area that boasts more than ten restaurants that feature the specialty. At the turn of the century, tteokbokki became a major branded product, and the market has exploded with new tteokbokki franchise stores opening every day. The dish is inexpensive and accessible and by standardizing the taste, offering open-air kitchens, improving store interiors, and paying attention to packaging and sanitation, the country has hooked foreigners normally wary of traditional unlicensed Pojangmacha (covered food wagons), which have sprung up on every street corner.
Fast-food outlets aside, there is something to be said about the outstanding cuisine found in Seoul’s back streets. In the Gwangjang Market vicinity, alleyways festooned with vendors offer some of Seoul’s best food. Pietmatgol Makgeolli is a little eatery built directly beneath a baseball park. Here, three little old ladies run the show: One delivers buckets of rice wine to trestle tables, another conveys plates of salted fish, and the third provides slabs of sliced tofu lathered in chili paste. Around the corner is Garmaeggisal Chunmun, a shabby little diner where patrons consume succulent cuts of pork cooked right at the table on Korean-style mini BBQs.
On the other side of the Han River is the Noryangjin fish market, a cavernous and noisy warehouse where rubber-clad fishmongers vie for customers. Blindingly bright lights hang above rows of not only all kinds of fish, but just about every edible sea creature imaginable. Giant tubs of fermenting shrimp, Barbie-pink skate, and flounder await your selection to tempt your taste buds.
One acquired taste is sannakji, a local delicacy made from octopus. The main ingredient is gathered fresh from the sea, quickly gutted, and expertly chopped into many pieces. It needs to be eaten while still writhing on the plate in its myriad parts. This is the only dish that comes with a danger warning: Octopodes’ suckers continue to function even when they are chopped up, so they must be chewed very thoroughly. You can, however, drizzle sesame oil over the plate—not only will the oil add flavor, but it will foil the still-active suckers.
You can also pick out your fish or hairy crab of choice and take your purchase to one of the many restaurants that line the market. The cook will whisk the fish into the kitchen, then bring out all the condiments that Koreans consider essential to raw fish, including fresh lettuce, perilla leaves, red pepper sauce, soybean paste, and slices of raw green pepper and garlic. While you dip, wrap, and eat your fish, the kitchen gets to work on making a spicy fish soup made of the bones. Koreans place a premium on letting the natural flavor of raw fish shine through.
To succeed with Nairobi’s street food requires flexibility and patience. If you flow to the city’s beat and follow the locals’ lead, Nairobi will offer you some of the best food experiences of your life.
There are numerous locations for nyama choma, the pride of Kenyan food, which is sold by the kilogram (2.2 lbs). To find the tastiest slabs of protein, head to the food stalls at the entrance of the Kenyatta Market at lunch time. Nyama choma is basted meat (goat or beef) slow-roasted over coals and served on a wooden board alongside a mound of salt, then knifed onto a corner of your board by your cook. At a street stall, you choose your cut of meat from a hanging carcass. Select a chunk off the hind leg with a little extra fat, essential in the roasting process, then park yourself at a nearby table, sit back, and enjoy the smells, washing it all down with an eye-popping bottle of Stoney Tangawizi, Africa’s favorite soda.
Another Kenyan national dish is ugali, a dense cornmeal staple made up of milk and water, mixed into a mush. To eat ugali, you need to nip off a piece of the dough with your right hand then use it to scoop up the nyama choma sauces. Ugali is also good with Sukuma Wiki, the “push-the-food-budget” combo of finely chopped spinach and leafy green kale, which is fried with onions, tomatoes, and a pepper; any leftover meat goes in, too. Both ugali and sukuma wiki are delicious accompaniments to Kenyan meals; both are available at all street stalls.
Kenyan food is simply cooked—a bit of oil, a few tomatoes, an onion, salt, pepper, and a pinch of mchuzi, an aromatic seasoning sprinkled onto foods like githeri, a heavy, protein-rich bean stew. Don’t miss a taste of irio, which consists of potatoes (or cornmeal) mashed with pumpkin leaves and peas, then flash-fried with an onion. Sometimes whole kernels of corn are added to give the dish body. Another favorite is matoke—oil, onions, garlic, chilies, tomatoes, lemon juice, and plantation bananas that are cooked until they become soft, forming a thick sauce—it’s excellent with ugali.
Other Nairobi-style street food classics are their version of samosas. Slightly different from the familiar Indian variation, they are filo-pastry triangles wrapped around lightly curried thin slices of cooked meat or vegetables, which are then deep-fried. Corn is another staple, so you will see mostly corn cobs cooked over coals on makeshift grills and rubbed with chili-salt and lime. Your senses will delight in the satisfying aroma of a deep-frying mandazi (a tennis-ball-shaped piece of dough), which can be smelled a mile away; it’s marvelous with a cup of sweet chai tea.
Istanbul is a melting pot of cultures, hidden eateries, melt-in-the-mouth pastries dripping with honey, and hearty aubergine kebabs—all found in the city’s ancient back streets. One of the biggest surprises—and the most intimidating—are kokorec, made up of lamb intestines wrapped around sweetbreads which are slowly roasted over hot coals. However, take a chance on this! The meat is finely chopped, seasoned with spicy red pepper and oregano, and then loaded onto a soft, warm roll. It’s best washed down with a double shot of Raki, a 45-proof, anise-infused rocket fuel of a liqueur.
Breakfast in Istanbul is an experience not to be missed, especially in the Beyoglu district. Here, you’ll find a lot of the action is at Namli Gurme, a Turkish deli loved by the locals (always a good sign). Show up at around 11 a.m. on a Sunday and be prepared to wait. Select what strikes your fancy, like clotted cream with Turkish honey, a cheese platter, olives, menemen (scrambled eggs with tomato, onions, green pepper, cheese, and spices), or pastırma (thinly sliced, air-dried, cured beef with eggs).
Should you need to satisfy a sweet tooth, head to Karakoy Gulluoglu, Istanbul’s first and most popular baklava bakery. Be sure to sample their handmade Baklava Fistikli (pistachio and walnuts wrapped in sweet, buttery filo pastry, then saturated in honey) and their Sobiyet, the sweetest, most juicy baklava you’ll ever taste. For those watching their waistlines, try the “light” baklava.
For arguably the best kebabs in Istanbul, head to Otantik Karaca, an authentic Ottoman courtyard eatery, located in the Bazaar Quarter. It’s an economical restaurant that serves typically hot, hearty, and flavorful kebabs. The biggest local hits are the aubergine kebab and the pistachios kebab. The café is also known for its kabak tatlisi, or pumpkin pudding.
The Meshur Sultanahmet Koftecisi restaurant is the genuine article in the middle of the touristy area, right across the street from the blue mosque, near the tram line. It’s inexpensive and, although the waiters don’t speak English, the international language of pointing at pictures of food will get some great grub on your plate. The menu is limited, offering only traditional lamb shish kebabs and delicious grilled kofte (meatballs) as main dishes, both grilled on a BBQ in the open kitchen.
But if you’re looking for gorgeous views at rock-bottom prices, take the back road from the Suleyman Mosque, then head downhill to the spice bazaar. En route, you’ll find the tiny Café Halic, where the back of the building boasts views of the Golden Horn, the Galata Bridge, and the city beyond. The menu is inexpensive; the food, superb. A local newspaper dubbed the café one of the top ten brunch spots in Istanbul.
For coffee lovers, the Turkish coffee experience at Corlulu Ali Pasa Medresi—a favorite student hangout in the heart of the old city—is a must. Walk through the stone archway beside the Ali Pasa Madressi mosque to a courtyard housing two coffee shops and a dozen cats who like to welcome visitors. The space oozes centuries of history, ambiance, and free Wi-Fi! Be sure to take a puff from the water pipe.
All of these culinary experiences will perk up even the passive passerby and make anyone feel that they are not a tourist, but a resident of the community. That is a far more appetizing way to see any country.