Simplicity, speed, but above all quality: this could be the “magical formula” of the new street food trend which, fruit of an ancient tradition has become an everyday gourmet experience appreciated by foodies in every corner of the globe. Considered to be one of the most die-hard culinary trends of recent years, the popularity of “gourmet” street food is not only due to its affordable price: what has really determined its success is an ever-growing attention to quality – made up of healthy local products – along with its informal connotations.
It is no coincidence therefore that, in the wake of this recent success, great chefs from all over the world have reinterpreted street food recipes. In the same way, prestigious food guides such as the Michelin Guide have started to acknowledge the importance of this phenomenon by awarding the first star in its history to Hong Kong street vendors.
Pizza and tacos, kebabs and teppanyaki, hot dogs and burritos take on another form, becoming more refined and infused with the contaminations of other culinary traditions, which gives them a new dignity and an enhanced value.
From outside it looks just like any of the other 6,000 kiosks of which Singapore is packed. It is hung with braised chickens and the space is really tiny, the lighting is provided by neon bulbs and every possible surface is occupied by bowls. Behind the counter stands Chan Hon Meng, aged 51, who finds it amusing to be addressed as chef: he learned to cook 35 years ago in Hong Kong and since then, every day, prepares dozens of bowls of rice and noodles served with chicken and soy sauce. So delicious, in fact, that they have won one of the 29 Michelin stars awarded to Singapore restaurants in 2016. His Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodles can be found at the Chinatown Complex, the city’s largest “hawker center”. The dish selling for less than two dollars (1.85 $) a bowl is – with a few variations – practically the only item on the menu.
Chan Hon Meng is not, however, the only celebrated chef of Singapore street food: another star was awarded to Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodles, opened in 1932 and now managed by Tang Chay Seng, great-grandson of the founder. Another tiny venue which, for just 3.8 dollars, serves bak chor mee: excellent wheat grain spaghetti from South China dressed with pork marinated in vinegar sauce. Don’t be in a hurry to taste them, though: before the Michelin star, it was necessary to queue for half an hour but now you have to wait over two hours.
An open sandwich without any need for cutlery, Smørrebrød is a fine, compact slice of rye bread, spread with salty butter and dressed with herrings or salmon and some type of vegetable. This is street food the Danish way but now that Scandinavian food has found its place in the world of haute cuisine, even the simple Smørrebrød has taken on a new lease of life. You just have to wander around Copenhagen to grasp that a slice of bread and herring can be an authentic gourmet experience.
At Ida Davidsen’s eponymous restaurant they have a list of 178 different ones to choose from. Since 1877, at Schønnemann restaurant they prepare it the traditional way – herring, salad and onions – this being the favourite venue of René Redzepi of the Noma restaurant, who particularly recommends the Smørrebrød with smoked halibut and warm gherkins in cream.
A more contemporary interpretation is offered by Adam Aamann, whose Aamanns Deli & Take Away was the first to give a modern twist to this speciality dating back to the XV century, by using organic ingredients. Considered to be the best Smørrebrød in the capital, Aamanns Etablissement has been in business since 2006 and is the ideal address for trying a gourmet Smørrebrød. Weather permitting, go to the Copenhagen Street Food, in the former industrial complex of Papirøen. Their motto is «genuine, honest and aesthetic»: the best place to taste the street food version of a Smørrebrød.
Named after “little oranges”, arancini are the deep fried golden rice balls that hail from the sun-kissed and fragrant Italian island of Sicily. The palm-sized golden snack of choice at street fairs and festivals are now commonly found around Italy, though the recipe (fillings range from chicken livers to peas and mozzarella) and form (cone-shaped or round) remain the subject of fierce debate on the island.
An exclusive version of arancini is the one prepared by chef Pino Cuttaia, of the famed La Madia restaurant in Licata (Agrigento province). By adding a rich and delicate red mullet sauce to the hearts of the golden-crumbed, saffron-infused rice balls, the chef has retained the look and feel of the humble street food whilst elevating it to a sought after fine-dining dish found on the menu of his two Michelin star restaurant.
Local Sicilian ingredients supplement the red mullet inside, including finocchietto, tomato, pine nuts, saffron and raisins. The signature dome shaped arancini are given their final golden hue in the oven, rather than deep frying, and are set in a moat of delicate red mullet sauce, made using the head and bones of the fish. For the final plating, the proud arancini are served with a crispy fried fish tale poking out of the top of each.
Sicily’s favourite street food can be enjoyed throughout the year at various street food fairs and events, and piping hot from Cuttaia’s shop called Uovodiseppia on Saturdays. The recipe is the same as in his restaurant, few steps from the shop.
Strolling through the streets of New York, it is possible to come across over 10,000 food trucks, and they do not all sell hot dogs either. It is difficult to make a choice: for this reason, for the past ten years or so, “Oscars” have been awarded to the city’s food trucks. Going under the name of Vendy Awards, they have earned a reputation for reliability in the plethora of options offered by NY. The selection is a lengthy one and the jury is unbending.
In 2016 the uncontested winner (there are also awards for the vegan, sweets categories etc.) is Tacos el Ranchero, a food truck of Mexican specialities owned by the Soriano family. It has been on Sunset Park for 22 years and serves “home-made” food typical of the Oaxaca area. Their speciality? According to Felix Soriano, the owner, the Quesadillas (hand-made) served with Green Sauce, pork and melted cheese. A 7 dollar treat.
But New York is so big that you practically have to undertake a journey to go to Tacos el Ranchero. So an excellent place to try the best of the city’s street food is under the railway line of the Metro North at East Harlem, on Park Avenue, between the 115th and 116th streets. Starting from the summer months and well into autumn, every week the award organizers select 20 winning vendors.