Editor’s note by Christopher Kimball

Street Food

Back to July-August 2018

Editor's Note

The Raohe Street (Row-HEY) Night Market in Taipei is divided into two aisles of vendors separated by a central course of double stalls. The entrance is hard to miss. A huge sign is lit up like a Broadway show, bright red with hanging Chinese lanterns. Just under the entrance is the most popular food item, pepper pork buns cooked in Tandoor-style ovens. Hot, crusty, peppery and bright with scallions, they are a bargain at just a couple bucks apiece, each served in its own paper wrapper.

Street food is as ancient as Greece, where small fried fish were one of the most popular items. And during a trip to Pompeii years ago, our guide pointed out an entire street devoted to food stalls; large metal cooking vessels fired by charcoal that offered soups for workers. The stalls even closed up at night, much like the metal grates used by store owners in city neighborhoods today. In Cairo, kebobs and fritters were sold on the streets. The Ottomans sold spit-roasted meats—shawarma sandwiches—and were the first to standardize the sale of street foods. The Aztecs had tamales and insects. In Indonesia, satays were popular.

Here in America, oysters were the most common street food, along with roasted corn and fruit. French fries were first sold in Paris in the 1840s, while in London the streets were full of hawkers selling jellied eels, pickled whelks, muffins, crumpets, penny pies, Chelsea buns, ham sandwiches, baked potatoes plus much more. The streets of London were noisy, dirty and dangerous, but were also packed with food to go. (It was so noisy on London streets due to the horse carriages that one had to duck into an alley or shop for conversation.)

Raohe Street, however, is unique. Classic items include pork bone soup, rice balls and cakes (some brightly decorated with cat faces), sweet sausages, grilled squid, and rotisserie corn (see p. 10). Other classics, though not ideal for the Western palate, include pig’s blood cake served on a stick like a frozen pop that tastes coppery and unctuous. Stinky tofu, though you could smell it a few stalls away, is tasty; chewy on the outside, fermented on the inside and served with soy sauce and pickled vegetables.

The surprise items at Roahe include a pineapple and taro ice cream burrito served with shaved peanut brittle and cilantro; “fire and ice”—hot mochi balls filled with peanut or sesame paste and served on a giant mound of blossom-water-sweetened crushed ice (or served in a sweet soup); aiyu jelly drink made from the seeds of a fig; and freshly squeezed cane juice flavored with ginger or lemon. A mysterious frozen dessert the size of a large gnocchi and served on a wooden skewer produced an exhalation of steam through the nose when placed in the mouth.

Taipei often is called the Portland of the Far East. Pedestrians mill around, grab a bubble tea, a scallion pancake or a giant plate of fresh mango and ice cream set over fluffy frozen fruit juice. Perhaps this is not what Chiang Kai-Shek had in mind for the future. His memorial, located in the newly renamed Freedom Square, is a vast paean to state planning, with opposing pagoda-like buildings housing the national concert hall and theater. Yet nobody is marching in step these days. There were bigger lines in front of the soup dumpling place than at the memorial.

Cultural anthropologists could do worse than to look to street food as cultural landmark. Paris is a city of cafés, not street food. Tokyo offers vending machines and 7-Elevens. Chiang Mai merges sidewalks and open-air restaurants. Marrakech has its Jemaa el-Fnaa central square, a nocturnal food carnival with impromptu tents. In Rome, one buys a slab of pizza bianca and eats it while standing just outside in the square.
Here in America, streets are made for cars. But perhaps Taipei knows something we don’t. Maybe streets are where we should seek out dinner as well as each other.

July-August 2018