I would like to say we hopped off the subway, but it was more like being pushed by a sea of people behind us also getting off at the same stop. Borne like piece of driftwood by the waves, we surfaced on the street in some neighborhood in Taipei. We looked at the map and crossed the street and walked a few blocks before we knew we were in the right place.
The throngs of people heading in our direction tipped us off to the location of the street food market before our map did, as the bright lights made the entire alley glow. It wasn’t until we turned the corner that we could also see the cloud of food smoke comprised (by the smell of it) of charcoal, grilled onions, garlic and cooked meat. The smell of these items in their raw state was also to be found in the air. Not to mention the stinky foot odor of the local fermented tofu.
This was heaven. This was a night market where locals and tourists alike come to feast on any and all types of street food. There was a guy sitting next to a cooler filled with what looked like fruit rollups, but they were actually some kind of blood sausage rolled in crushed peanuts and slathered in a sticky sweet sauce.
We know a fair number of travelers who are terrified of eating street food, and get shivers just reading about bugs in Cambodia or buckets of live frogs and eels.
And I get it. You are on vacation and only have a few weeks to see and do all of the things, and you don’t want to wipe out a few days being sick in your hotel, or constantly looking for the nearest toilet.
As full time travelers, we approach things a little differently because we have time. We spend longer in each place generally speaking, and aren’t as concerned with “missing out” on a destination due to weather or illness.
Nobody wants to get sick. Nobody. As my mom used to say, “It’s no fun being sick…especially when you don’t feel well.” I still kinda don’t know what she meant, but it makes some sense.
While we don’t want to get sick, we also don’t want to miss out on any local cuisine, and probably take more risks than most people would.
Why You Should Eat Street Food When Traveling
Think about it - there is very little overhead and very little cost to get started. As the video below shows you, sometimes all you need is a grill and some ingredients you either grow or farm yourself and you are off to the races. Of course the expense or cheapness of street food is relative, and depends on what your expectations are.
This, like the cost of food, is relative. But we find that our most crave worthy dishes are the ones we got from a food cart and ate on tiny plastic chairs in god knows where. Usually in SE Asia. We tend to favor the bold fresh flavors of Asia over nearly any other cuisine, and combined with the fact that this region of the world is absolutely loaded with street food culture, so it comes as no surprise that we find it delicious.
it can be weird and kinda disgusting
This is one of the greatest reasons you should try the street food when traveling. Those flavor combinations sound a little gross. Like the dried squid dusted with peanut powder in Seoul. Certainly weird and a high potential (from my western perspective) to be quite disgusting. Luckily it wasn’t - it was fantastic. We’ve been quite fortunate to never have anything truly disgusting, but the potential is there. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?
it can be surprising
In many ways, this is exactly why we travel. To venture into places and cuisines that are on the outset quite unknown and uncomfortable for us only to slowly ease into understanding and even comfort. Take this bamboo wrapped mystery for example. Since we don’t speak mandarin, we were unable to ascertain what was inside until we bought it and opened it and even then it was simply a ball of sticky rice. A few bites later we got to the center to discover…honestly to this day I still don’t know what. Probably pork floss. Yes that’s a thing.
it’s usually Local
By local I mean really local. The ingredients don’t typically come from very far and the people making your dinner aren’t likely to travel very far with their stove/kitchen. I think we did see a few people in Morocco pushing their carts through the street at the end of the day, but they certainly weren’t getting on the train to those contraptions across town.
it’s a show
Street food is the original version of the open kitchen trend. This is part of the attraction, and the good food carts take advantage of this to attract more people. But aside from that, there is a food safety bonus here - you can see the food being made, which allows you to know how fresh it is. And if it looks shifty, you can just keep walking along.
Most street food stalls we’ve been to tend to focus well on one or two dishes - this means that generally speaking, they are expert at what they are doing. You ever see a restaurant that serves both pad thai AND sushi? Come on. Pick one, do it well and leave the rest alone.
These hyper focused food carts tend to be the most entertaining to watch because they’ve made their dish so many times that their motions are fluid and without thought. Muscle memory takes over and they just flow and it mesmerizes me every time.
In most countries we’ve been to, people just love to see you eating their specialities - even if you find it disgusting, they tend to revel in your reactions and sharing the experience with you. This was most definitely the case when we took our food tour of the Taipei night market and ate the aforementioned stinky tofu.
it’s not Always Food
I’m a sucker for compact design and coffee, so when you put a little cart like this on the back of a bicycle, I’m gonna shell out some bucks for your product. In this case it was an iced coffee. But notice the thermos and the kettle at his feet - he was making pour over coffee in front of a brick and mortar coffee and tea shop. All he has to do is find a power source and plug in he is in business!
When we were in Chiang Mai we ate at a little food stall on wheels (more of a bike with a cooler) that served different kinds of ice cream sprinkled with condensed milk and rolled onto a piece of white bread. In the video you can hear us excitedly discussing what he was doing - what are the flavors, what is that? It sounds terrible as I tend to shy away from white bread at all costs in my daily eating routine, but it was truly sublime.
And like this video from the streets of Ho Chi Minh where we picked up a grilled scallion pancake with scrambled quail eggs cooked before our very eyes.
but…Is street food HYGIENIC?
But what about hygiene you may ask? We’ve only gotten sick once while eating street food, and we eat a ton of it. We seek it out and are disappointed when a city doesn’t have a thriving outdoor food culture, or is in the process of organizing and cleaning up the food stalls.
If you are still worried about getting sick, you should read our post on How to Eat Street Food Without Getting Sick.
What about you? What is your favorite street food? Leave a comment below!