THE WORLD’S BEST STREET FOOD: Where to Find It & How to Make it, Lonely Planet, 2012, 224 pp., $19.99 (paperback)
One thing that every dedicated Japanese tourist will tell you is that you cannot really enjoy a trip abroad unless you eat your way through the exotic jungle of local food.
Unfortunately their delicate stomachs and fear of bugs and epidemics all too often prevent them from venturing into the mysterious land of street food and trying all the funky and colorful goodies one can buy for cheap from scary-looking half-naked guys and loud toothless matrons.
Lonely Planet’s latest offering may not succeed in making the Japanese or the feint of heart change their mind, but it is nevertheless a fun ride through some of the best food a couple dollars can buy.
Even better, the reader not only gets a detailed description of each dish, its origins and tips on how to find it in loco but is also taught how to prepare it. So you can enjoy it without leaving the safety of your house.
In order to help the amateur cook, they even explain the more exotic ingredients and provide easy-to-find alternatives — even though some of the recipes are frankly a little too vague.
As it may be expected, Asia takes the lion’s share of lip-smacking goodies, with almost half of the 100 recipes included. Sugar addicts do not need to worry, because the last part of the book is devoted to 20 sweets from around the world. On the other side, Latin America and especially Africa are rather underrepresented, which makes me think that the hungry army of writers who have contributed to the book may be more adventurous than your average person but not enough to brave the more remote places of the Dark Continent.
That said, the 32 writers who contribute their tales of culinary bliss go all out in their quest to convince you that — Paul Bocuse be damned — the street is where you find the heart of a cuisine and its culture. Their baldness is such that they are not afraid to state that the world’s best sandwich can be found not in Europe or America but in Vietnam, of all places. I am sure that many New Yorkers or Italians will disagree, but if you dare, head to Hoi An and get yourself a banh mi for about ¥60 or 75 cents.
For the record, Japan has only one measly entry — the ever-reliable takoyaki. After noticing an image of a hormon (beef or pork organ meat) stall gracing the top of the book cover (mistakenly listed as a takoyaki stall in the photo credits), and a full-page picture of a yakitori vendor taking pride of place beside food writer Tom Parker Bowles’ introduction, I was ready to read a lot more about this country’s healthy street food culture.
Alas, Japan may be a foodie’s paradise, and Tokyo beats the hell out of Paris and New York as far as Michelin stars are concerned, but here they all get a thorough beating from the likes of India (the clear world champion with nine entries), Thailand, Malaysia, Mexico and the U.S. (five entries each).
One odd thing I have noted is the way the term “street food” is treated throughout this book. Italy, for instance, is represented by five items, but cicchetti (the Venetian answer to tapas) are neither sold nor eaten outdoors — unless you count people spilling out of a bar because it is too crowded inside. Likewise, pizza al taglio (rectangular pieces of pizza to go) can be eaten in the street, but it is always sold in stores or bars.
In the end, considering both its hefty size and content, “Street Food” is not really something you may want to take with you on your adventures around the globe. Also, it is a very good-looking book, printed on glossy paper, so you may want to spare it a bumpy trip in a backpack through dusty roads. It probably works best as a cookbook for armchair travelers as I found out myself while trying a couple of recipes.
I may not have the time or inclination to ever visit Tunisia, but at least now I know what a brik tastes like (think of giant, tuna-and-parmesan-filled gyoza).