In the spirit of the Olympic games, we’ve compiled the following list of some of our favorite “short eats” – meals for travelers on the go – and awarded medals to those that rank in the top three.
We were in our usual rush. With only one day in Kandy, the small mountain city at the base of Sri Lanka’s tea country, we had ambitions to cover a lot of ground: a visit to the area’s most heralded tea plantation two hours away, a tour of the Buddhist temple here which houses Sri Lanka’s most famous relic, the Buddha’s tooth, and some exploration of the busy streets of downtown Kandy, that swirl around the oddly-located local prison (or “free hotel” as our cab driver calls it) in the town center.
Sadly, as is sometimes the case with determined travelers, we neglected to allot any time for perhaps the most important and yet occasionally overlooked aspect of traveling: eating. Lucky for us, Sri Lanka is home to a phenomenon called “short eats,” their answer to the American burger and fries off the rack. Sri Lanka’s short eats shops, a nice compliment to the country’s already terrific formal sit-down restaurants, usually feature an assortment of stuffed pastries such as the patty, a triangular dumpling filled with curried potatoes, vegetables or fish. Also available are baked sweetbread buns sprinkled with sugar, a remnant from Portuguese colonization.Sri Lanka’s rickety, old trains, on which we did our fare share of riding, carry their own menu of short eats, most notably vadai, fried lentil balls served in a paper bag (often made from recycled spelling quizzes) with fresh onion and chili pepper. But perhaps the most beloved of all short eats in Sri Lanka are the hoppers. When I first heard the name, I couldn’t help but smile. Hoppers are almost like pancakes, but instead of being cooked on a flat griddle, the light batter is poured into an iron, bowl-shaped mold. Also thinner than most pancakes on the edges with a small heart of dough at the bottom of the bowl, the cooked hopper is just strong enough to hold a nice scoop of one of the country’s tasty curries.What’s more, they come in three common varieties: regular hoppers made from rice flour coconut milk and yeast, egg hoppers (a fried egg is cooked into the bottom of the bowl) and string hoppers (instead of batter, the hoppers are made up of stringy rice noodles).
Sitting in what can only be described as a hopper-shop, Thushan and I gobbled down hopper after hopper, making sure to soak up every last drop of our accompanying bowl of spicy chili curry. Only ten minutes after entering the shop hungry and in a hurry, we were on our way with full bellies and time to spare. Now nearly eight months into this ravenous journey around the globe I’ve found two rules that hold true in almost every country.
Rule #1: no matter how much you’re pining for tacos; don’t eat Mexican food in Croatia. Sometimes a homesick traveler will start yearning for a certain favorite food that is neither native nor popular in the country that they are visiting. My advice is to resist these temptations no matter how strong they are for they will almost always end in disappointment and regret. Each time, I’ve broken this rule (the mediocre slice of pizza in Lebanon or the revolting “Mexican” burrito in Kenya for example) I’ve left the table unsatisfied.
Rule #2: every country on the planet has some delicious, local short eat to offer. Humans need to eat – and the cheaper, the better. After over 100,000 years of existence on this planet we’ve managed to come up with more than a few low-cost recipes that most everyone seems to like. Seek out the regional short eat mainstay and try it at least once. If your taste buds reject it don’t worry, there’s probably a McDonald’s just around the corner (no joke).Naturally, we’ve embraced short eats in each country that we visit, often surviving on the local short-eat-du-jour for weeks on end. Here’s how the world fared…
Phó Bo Tai | Vietnam – SILVER Perfect for monsoon season, a hot bowl of phó bo tai (beef noodle soup), Vietnam’s national dish, is the stuff dreams are made of. We’re convinced this dish has some addictive properties so be warned before tasting, once you’re hooked there’s no end in sight.The broth of phó bo tai, usually prepared in large vat, is a cocktail of ingredients including chicken bones, oxtail, flank stake, charred onions, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and cardamom. When prepared, the broth is ladled into a bowl of thin vermicelli noodles and served with a side plate of fresh basil, bean sprouts and lime. A second plate with raw, thin-sliced beef is provided and the beef is then added to the soup bowl, cooking instantly in the heat of the soup’s broth.
Beef Skewers | Laos Most countries around the world offer some variation of the beef skewer but the skewers we found in Laos were noticeably better than the rest of the global field. This is in part, due to the rich culture of skewer-grilling across Laos, where you’d be hard-pressed to find even a small village without grilled skewers.The best skewers in Laos are found in Oudomxai, where a local restaurant in the center of town allows customers to hand pick their own skewers from a long table of raw meats for placement on the grill. The beef skewers feature thin-cut slices of meat, basted with a secret spicy sauce, the contents of which the owner refused to divulge to us despite our pleas.
Som Tam | Thailand In Thailand, eating on the street is so deeply entrenched in daily life that the term street food seems almost redundant. It is common for Thais to regularly take their meals on the street where vendors fix up bowls of noodles ranging from pad thai to pad see iw among numerous others.With all this food to choose from, the one dish that really stood out from the pack was som tam or green papaya salad. Using a mortar and pestle som tam vendors mix the base ingredient shredded, green papaya with lime, garlic, chili, palm sugar, fish sauce, shrimp paste, padaek (pickled fermented fish), green beans, tomato, hog plums and, on occasion, brined crabs. The result is a fresh dish that encompasses a broad range of flavors from sweet to spicy to salty. Most som tam vendors will prepare the dish to taste with one, two or three hot chili peppers thrown into the mix depending on how much heat one can handle.
Panipuri | India While eating our way across India, a nation steeped in street food, we were most impressed with panipuri, one of the sub-continent’s most popular and wide spread street snacks. Panipuri is the food junkie’s answer to the alcoholic’s shot of whiskey. The consumption process is simple: the panipuri vendor fries up small, hollow balls of puri, each slightly larger than a golf ball. The vendor then cracks a small hole in each ball and fills it with curried potatoes. For the final preparatory step, as the wide-eyed traveler looks on with delight, the vendor dips a ladle into a vat of sauce and fills the puri ball with flavored water before handing it to the eater to gobble down in one bite.Panipuri’s accompanying flavored waters are the draw of the snack. At our favorite panipuri stand in Ahmedabad, rounds of five balls are ordered and each ball is flavored with a different sauce—garlic, chili, lime, tamarind or cilantro. As soon as the eater finishes one puri ball, the next ball is then doused in a new sauce and handed over the counter. The succession of five shots of flavorful panipuri goodness has no equal.
Açaí | Brazil – GOLD Brazilian açaí was nothing short of a staple during our trip through the South American giant. A soupy sorbet, made from a cocktail of frozen açaí berries (purple berries grown high atop Amazonian palm trees) and guaraná syrup (the sweet concentrate drawn from the guaraná fruit), açaí simply satisfies. The cold, smooth feeling of the blend sliding down the back of your throat on a hot day spells relief, but unlike ice cream, açaí provides important vitamins, antioxidants and caffeine, all helpful in getting a worn traveler through their busy day.
Stout | England (*by way of Ireland) Folks across the UK are often quick to boast that a tall, cold pint of stout beer has the doctor’s prescribed daily dose of vitamins. All health benefits aside, we concur with the English locals that a nice creamy pint of their Irish neighbor’s Guinness or Beamish stout is the ticket to an enjoyable afternoon…and quite filling too!
Stroopwafels | The Netherlands BRONZE During our brief stay in the Netherlands we were enamored by what might be the world’s most perfect cookie: the stroopwafel. Stroopwafels are chewy, wafer thin, mini waffles that form a sandwich cookie, lined with caramel. Despite their obvious lack of nutritious value, we couldn’t stay away. They were sweet, had that irresistible chewy appeal not unlike the one you get from sinking your teeth into a chewy Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookie, and most importantly, they were cheap (less than $2 for a pack). The proper dutch method for consuming a stroopwaffle is to place the waffle over top of a steamy cup of coffee or tea. After a few minutes the waffle is removed from the cup warm and even chewier than before. Again, these certainly weren’t winners in the health department, but during the frustrating moments of missed trains, downpours or fully booked hotels that any traveler inevitably experiences, they were our only salvation. We stocked up and ate them all the way to Croatia.
Currywurst | Germany In Germany, a nation famous for its love of meats and sausages, we were introduced to the relatively new phenomenon of currywurst. Like its cousin the bratwurst, currywurst is a grilled sausage chopped into large pieces and topped with fried onions. The twist is the sauce, a ketchup curry blend that smothers the sausage and is surprisingly pleasant on the palette. Usually served up with hefty, German-sized portions of french fries, currywurst not only tastes better than it sounds, it is also extremely filling and relatively cheap – just make sure you leave room for a long walk following your meal.
Pizza al taglio | Italy Italy, with its rich and diverse regional cuisines, is a foodie’s paradise. Seafood to die for, smoked meats, stinky cheeses, delicious pastas, some of the best pastries on the planet, its hard to find a bad meal here. And while many visitors to Italy, come to experience fine dining at its best, we were on a tighter budget.Our financial situation relegated us to, save a few requisite splurges, the lower tier of the Italian food pyramid. Unlike most Italian-American pizzerias with their circular pies, most Roman pizzerias bake their pizza in rectangle form (al taglio or pizza rustica) and charge per kilo. We found this convenient because we were never in that awkward situation we sometimes find ourselves in back home: too hungry for just one slice but unable to finish two.The Italians make it easy. Simply indicate to the shop worker how big and pronto – there’s your customized order, no more, no less. The best pie we ate during our tour of the boot was a thin crust chili-garlic pesto slice in Rome. The pesto was spicy; and as lovers of all things chili we were instant fans.
Foccacia | Italy On the northwestern Italian coast near Cinque Terre, foccacia often replaces or complements pizza. Like pizza crust, but a bit thicker, foccacia is usually topped with the same ingredients one finds on a pizza, tomato, basil, mozzarella, and sometimes prized meats like prosciutto or salame picante (Italian for pepperoni). The level of satisfaction is usually equal to that of a slice of pizza only a bit more filling.
Nutella and Espresso | Italy Italy managed to place three qualifiers in our food Olympics. Not a day went by when we didn’t start the morning routine with buttery, fluffy, flakey pastries filled with Nutella hazelnut chocolate spread accompanied by a shot of espresso. The early morning chocolate helped us to smile on days when waking early with only a few hours of sleep the night before was rough and the shot of espresso, pleasantly accompanied by a shot of water at most establishments, always gave us enough of a jolt to get our bearings straight and go.
Ćevapi | Croatia Leaving Italy for Croatia we anticipated a significant let down in the quality of food, but were pleasantly surprised when we happened upon our first ćevapi shop. Ćevapi, described by some Croatians as “the bear claw,” is a sausage sandwich served on a soft burger bun and topped with fresh chopped onion and a sweet tomato sauce.The five sausage links inside form a claw shape and are delicious. Ćevapi is a staple across the Balkans and we would survive on it from Zagreb to Belgrade. Solid ćevapis for two weeks of travel saved us from eating the mediocre mushroom pizza that Eastern Europeans seem to adore.
Döner Kebab | Turkey Just when our tolerance for Eastern European fare was fading, we reached Istanbul, the ultimate wonderland of short eats. The Turkish have exported their beloved döner kebab sandwich all over the world, but it is no more prominent than in Istanbul where lamb and chicken kebab spits slowly cook across the city emitting that inviting smoky lamb smell that beckons you to eat another even after you’re belly is full.
Hummus and Falafel | Syria and Lebanon The short eats in Damascus and Beirut were a strong follow up to our gluttonous tour of Istanbul. Beautiful hummus spreads with wrapped grape leaves filled with cheese and spices, tomatoes, onion, chopped mint leaves and fresh lemon were mainstays in Damascus.In Beirut we enjoyed top notch falafel pita wraps with tomato, onion, tahini and chili, our best and certainly the cheapest coming from a small stand in Shatila, one of the city’s Palestinian refugee camps, where a father and son team pressed and fried the delicious falafel balls fresh for each sandwich order.
Did not compete | China Unfortunately for our bellies and taste buds, our visit to China coincided with the Olympic games. In Beijing and other well-traveled city’s across the country the Chinese government has removed all food vendors from the streets and even closed many small restaurants during the 2008 Olympiad. Though we kept our eyes peeled, we could not find a single street food vendor anywhere in the Chinese capital. Part of a broader sterilization of Beijing for the games, this was probably a precautionary measure taken to avoid receiving any negative press for bad hygiene or food poisoning. This is one event where the Chinese will not be medaling.