How To Eat Bolivian Street Food (Without Shame)

street foodThere’s a certain breed of traveler who will, often to their detriment, go to extreme lengths to avoid looking like a tourist. I know, because I’m one of them. Whatever spawned this phobia is anyone’s guess, but I really, really, really dislike standing out in a crowd, especially if that crowd is foreign, and I’m eating.

While I also sneak looks at maps and guidebooks on the DL when I’m lost, the thing that really troubles me is being clueless about local or national etiquette while dining, especially when it comes to street food (my raison d’être). I always research beforehand – learning, for example, that in Thailand the spoon is the primary eating utensil; it’s abhorrent to insert a fork into your mouth and chopsticks are only used for noodle dishes and primarily in the North. But it’s sometimes impossible to know local custom until you’re actually in the moment (above, Bolivian lustrabotas, or shoe shine men, eat on the street)

I’m pretty sure it was a long-ago trip to Vietnam that scarred me. I’d been in the country all of a couple of hours, and was eating my first meal. I was sitting at a miniscule table on the sidewalk in coastal Nha Trang, happily wolfing down báhn cuon. That is, until the young Vietnamese guy next to me, who unfortunately spoke some English, informed me that I was eating it the wrong way, and making something of an ass of myself (yet providing entertainment for our less vocal tablemates). I was mortified, and sure enough, I noticed the snickers and giggles due to how the silly round-eye was eating her rice noodle roll. To be honest, I can’t even remember how to eat bánh cuon, but at the time, it was clearly emotionally challenging.saltenaWhile I appreciated the advice, I didn’t particularly feel it was given so much to be helpful as it was to make me feel stupid. Or maybe that’s just how I interpreted it. But ever since, my policy regarding street food in vastly different cultures has been to adopt a watch-and-wait policy.

When I arrived in Bolivia two weeks ago, I leapt of out bed my first morning to head to the Mercado Lanza to try some salteñas and tucumanas– two Bolivian street specialties that are variations on the ubiquitous empanada. Empanadas are my Kryptonite, so I was ready to do some damage. Best of all, there’s no learning curve. Insert in mouth; enjoy. I naively assumed their Bolivian cousins are just as easy to gobble.

Salteñas (right) are baked pastries formed into domed half-moons. They’re usually filled with a spiced meat and egg mixture, but their essential purpose is to be full of juice. I knew this, but grossly underestimated just how much they’re the Shanghai soup dumplings of pastry. The proper way to eat them is not to simply purchase and take a huge bite (note to self), because that will result in a.) scalding, meaty juice exploding in your mouth and singing its way down your esophagus, and b.) greasy, aromatic, meaty juice squirting all over your clothes (like, say, your really expensive microlight down jacket that you use for backpacking). You’ll also attract the attention of passerby, who will smirk at the idiot gringa who just had a salteña explode in her face.

I later learned, from a menu photo at a salteñeria, that one is supposed to eat them with a spoon. I’m not sure how that applies to the street, but let’s just say my second go was much more successful, and less humiliating. That said, I’m not a big salteña fan, as it turns out.
Tucumanas are basically the same shape as empanadas, except they’re always fried. They’re often filled with a mixture of chicken and potato, and my first taste occurred about 15 minutes after my unfortunate salteña encounter.
street food
Determined not to be the same fool twice, I watched a crazy-busy street vendor (right) frying and serving tucumanas at warp speed. My street food credo is to only purchase from stalls or carts that are doing a rapid business, to ensure a fresh product (plus, it’s a sign that the food is good, if not great). I observed the various patrons eating their tucumanas, and when I felt ready, I ordered one.

It was rapturous – light as air, yet fragrant and savory. I stood hovering next to the cart, squirting a bit of mayonnaise-based salsa into the tucumana after each bite. I hunched, so as not to dribble any bits of filling. I shared the salsa squeeze bottle. I wiped my mouth with the square of paper it had been wrapped in. Then I ordered another. You know you’ve achieved street food nirvana when the vendor doesn’t demand money until you’ve eaten your fill. Bless you, Bolivia.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Best ice cream in America not just from a shop

best ice cream AmericaSince Memorial Day is past, I think it’s safe to say we’ve officially entered ice cream season (National Ice Cream Day is July 17) Unless you live in Seattle, in which case, it’s still winter, but never mind. We still have great ice cream.

What makes for acclaim-worthy ice cream? Food writers like me tend to look for an emphasis on local/seasonal ingredients, including dairy. I love high butterfat ice cream, because my feeling is, if I’m going to indulge (I’m also lactose intolerant, so it’s really taking one for the team) I want something insanely creamy and smooth, with a rich, full, mouthfeel. Gummy or chewy ice cream is the hallmark of stabilizers such as guar or xanthan gum. The fewer the ingredients, the better, in my book. Hormone/antibiotic-free cream, milk, eggs; fruit or other flavoring agent(s). That’s it.

Much ado is made of unusual ice cream flavors, and I agree that creativity is welcome, as long as it remains in check. But there’s something to be said about purity, as well. If you can’t make a seriously kickass chocolate or vanilla, you may as well shut your doors.

Below is a round-up of my favorite ice cream shops, farmers market stands, food trucks, and carts (the latter two a growing source of amazing ice cream) across the country. If your travel plans include a visit to one of these cities, be sure to drop by for a dairy or non-dairy fix; most of these places do offer sorbet, or coconut milk or soy substitutes. Some also sell via mail order and at other retail outlets; check each site for details.

1. San Francisco: Bi-Rite Creamery & Bakeshop
When I lived in Berkeley, I used to make special trips into the City just to shop at Bi-Rite Market, a beloved neighborhood grocery in the Mission District that specializes in all things local, organic/sustainable, and handcrafted, from produce to chocolate. When they opened a tiny, adorable creamery across and up the street a few years ago, it was with the same ethos and business practices in mind. Organic milk and cream are sourced from Straus Family Creamery in adjacent Marin County, fruit from nearby family farms. Salted Caramel is a best seller; I’m a slave to Brown Butter Pecan, and Creme Fraiche. Every rich, creamy mouthful is about purity of flavor, but sundaes and new soft-serve flavors are also available.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Barbara L. Hanson]best ice cream americaRunner-up is three-year-old Humphrey Slocombe, also in the Mission. Personally, I can live without Government Cheese, Jesus Juice (red wine and Coke), or Foie Gras ice cream, but I can definitely get behind Secret Breakfast (bourbon and corn flakes), Prosciutto (somehow, it makes sense, whereas I just don’t like my diseased goose liver in dairy form), Honey Thyme, and Cucumber Ice Milk. Like Bi-Rite, dairy also comes from Straus, and local food artisans and farmers provide the goods for most of the esoteric to downright freakish flavors. Bottom line: what doesn’t repulse you is good stuff

2. Brooklyn: Van Leeuwen
While in Williamsburg two weeks ago, I stumbled upon one of Van Leeuwen’s famous, butter-yellow ice cream vans (co-founder Ben Van Leeuwen used to be a Good Humor driver). It was tough to decide on a flavor, given the lovely, lyrical sound of the mostly botanical flavors such as ginger, currants and cream, and Earl Gray. I chose palm sugar, which was an ethereal blend of sweet, high-quality dairy Van Leeuwen sources from a farmer he knows in Franklin County, and the caramelly richness of the sugar. Props too, for using all biodegradable materials. Van Leeuwen also has stores in Greenpoint and Boerum Hill. A trusted friend in Brooklyn also highly recommends the Asian-inflected flavors at Sky Ice, a Thai family-owned spot in Park Slope.

3. Chicago: Snookelfritz Ice Cream Artistry
Pastry chef Nancy Silver stands behind her unassuming little stall at Chicago’s Green City Market in Lincoln Park, dishing out some of the most spectacular ice cream in the country. Snooklefritz specializes in seasonal ice creams, sherbets, and sorbets using Kilgus Farmstead heavy cream and Meadow Haven organic eggs. The result are creations such as the deeply flavorful maple-candied hickory nut, and heavenly brown sugar and roasted peach ice creams, and a creamy, dreamy Klug Farms blackberry sherbet.

4. Seattle: Full Tilt Ice Cream
The city’s most iconoclastic ice cream shop (on my first visit, the ska-punk band Three Dead Whores was playing…at the shop) has opened several locations in the last two years, but the original is in the ethnically diverse, yet-to-gentrify part of South Seattle known as White Center. That accounts for flavors like horchata, Mexican chocolate, ube (purple yam), and bourbon caramel (if you saw the patrons at the open-at-6am tavern next door, you’d understand). Enjoy Memphis King (peanut butter, banana, and chocolate-covered bacon) with a beer pairing while scoping out local art on the walls or playing pinball. Over in hipster-heavy Capitol Hill, Bluebird Homemade Ice Cream & Tea Room does the PacNW justice by offering an intense, almost savory Elysian Stout (the brewery is two blocks away), and a spot-on Stumptown Coffee ice cream. Not as high in butterfat as the other ice creams on this list, but well-made, and full of flavor, using Washington state dairy.
best ice cream america
5. Portland, Oregon: Salt & Straw
“Farm to Cone” is the motto at this new ice cream cart/soon-to-be-storefront in the Alberta Arts District. Think local ingredients, and sophisticated, fun flavors that pack a punch like a lovely pear and blue cheese, honey balsamic strawberry with cracked pepper, hometown Stumptown Coffee with cocoa nibs, and brown ale with bacon. The 17% butterfat content is courtesy of the herd at Oregon’s 4th generation Lochmead Dairy.

6. Columbus, Ohio: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
Jeni’s has a clutch of stores now, but the family-owned original is in Columbus. The Brown Swiss, Jersey, Guernsey, and Freisan cows at Ohio’s Snowville Creamery produce high-butterfat milk and cream, which, according to Jeni’s, goes from “cow to our kitchen within 48 hours.” The result are flavors ranging from signature Buckeye State (salty peanut butter with chunks of dark chocolate) and Riesling Poached Pear sorbet, to seasonal treats such as Backyard Mint, Goat Cheese with Red Cherries, and Strawberry Buttermilk. Down home and delicious.

7. Boston: Toscanini’s
From Burnt Caramel to Grape Nut, Cake Batter, Cardamom Coffee, or Banana sorbet, this wildly popular Cambridge shop is, in the words of a colleague, “consistently original and good.” Equally wonderful is Christina’s Homemade Ice Cream, also in Cambridge. It’s attached to the family-owned spice shop: the results are fresh, potent flavors such as Cinnamon, Herbal Chai, French Vanilla, Fresh Rose or Mint, and Bergamot. Five sorbets are available daily, as well.

[Photo credits: bourbon, Flickr user gigaman; bacon, Flickr user miss_rogue]

This eggnog ice cream from Van Leeuwen is admittedly Christmasy-sounding, but just think of it as “custard” ice cream (and a way to subconsciously cool off, while watching this clip). Pair with luscious summer fruit, such as sliced nectarines, cherries, strawberries, or plums.

Van Leeuwen Eggnog Ice Cream Recipe

Airlines offer in-flight menu items at food trucks, pop-ups

airline food trucksIn a marketing move best described as “ironic,” a handful of airlines are now offering land-bound folk a taste of the finest of what they serve in the air. The New York Times reports that Air France, Austrian Airlines, Southwest, and Delta are trying to lure potential passengers by tempting them with samples of in-flight meals “from” celebrity-chefs.

The modus operandi are primarily roving food trucks and pop-up restaurants in cities from New York to Denver (there are also some permanent vendor spots at various sports stadiums). In Washington, passerby were offered European coffee and guglhupf, a type of cake. In Manhattan, crowds lined up for a taste of buckwheat crepes with ham, mushrooms, and Mornay sauce, or duck confit.

I get it. Airline food sucks. Time for an image makeover. But isn’t the airline industry so financially strapped that we’re lucky to get a bag of stale pretzels during a cross-country flight? And just because reknown chefs like Joël Robuchon, Tom Colicchio and Michelle Bernstein act as consultants for airlines and design their menus, that doesn’t mean it’s their food you’re eating on the JFK-to-Paris red-eye.

Most ludicrous, however, is the notion that there’s any basis for comparison against fresh ingredients and made-to-order food versus even the best institutionally-prepared airline crap. I’ve had a couple of decent meals designed by well-regarded chefs when I’ve been lucky enough to fly business class, but in the grand scheme of things, they were still made from flash-frozen, sub-par ingredients whose origins I’d rather not ponder. And if food truck crews are merely nuking actual airline food, then how are they any different from the corner deli with a microwave?

I’m not trying to be a food snob. I just find it interesting that airlines are hopping on two of the hottest culinary trends of the new century–ones largely based upon local, sustainable, seasonal ingredients. Yet by all accounts (to hear airline reps tell it), the plane campaign has been wildly successful. Of course. Who doesn’t love free food?airline food trucksRaymond Kollau, founder of Airlinetrends.com, cites social media as the gateway to this type of “experiential marketing.” “As people are bombarded with marketing messages,” he explains, “real-life interaction with products and brands has become increasingly valuable for airlines to get their message across.”

Valid point, and there’s no doubt this is a clever scheme. But truth in advertising is what wins consumers. What a catering company can pull off on-site is a hell of a lot different from what you’ll be ingesting in the friendly skies. If airlines want to use food to entice new passengers, they need to start by sourcing ingredients in a more responsible, sustainable manner, rather than supporting ecologically detrimental produce, meat, and poultry (talk about carbon offsets). I realize that’s not financially feasible at this time, but supposedly, neither are in-flight meals. As for making it taste good? You got me.

[Photo credit: Flickr user OpalMirror]

Seattle’s Safeco Field gets food concession with local ingredients, menus by award-winning chefs

Safeco Field Seattle foodBuh-bye, limp hot dogs in soggy buns. Baseball season starts April 1st, and Seattle’s Safeco Field–go, Mariners–is celebrating its first home game on the 8th with some serious food.
Centerplate, the leading hospitality provider to North America’s premier sports stadiums, has developed a partnership with award-winning Seattle chef Ethan Stowell, as well as chefs Roberto Santibañez, owner of Brooklyn’s Fonda/culinary director of Hoboken’s The Taco Truck, and Bill Pustari, chef-owner of New Haven’s Modern Apizza.

The revamped Bullpen Market at Safeco Field will feature fresh, local ingredients and easy-on-the-budget prices. In addition to an Apizza outlet, there is chef Stowell’s Hamburg + Frites, and La Crêperie, and Flying Turtle Cantina/Tortugas Voladoras from Santibañez.

Says John Sergi, Chief Design Officer of Centerplate, “Our mission was to create a restaurant-style experience–the anti-fast food–in a concession environment. We (brought in) Ethan as our consulting chef…in order to help us make the food ‘restaurant-real.’
Safeco Field Seattle food
Stowell is the executive chef and owner of Ethan Stowell Restaurants, which includes Tavolàta, Anchovies & Olives, and How to Cook a Wolf. He is the acting chef at eight-month-old Staple & Fancy Mercantile, in Seattle’s gorgeously revamped Kolstrand Building in the Ballard neighborhood.

Best-known for his use of local ingredients and simple, seasonal food, Stowell was named one of the 2008 Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine and has been honored with multiple James Beard Award nominations for “Best Chef Northwest.” Santibañez and Pustari were added to the line-up to create programs featuring the signature concepts for which they are both nationally acclaimed–Mexican food and pizza. I might get into sports if this is the future of stadium food.

Five tips to reduce your health risk while eating street food

It was the 18th century food writer and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who famously said, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.” For certain cultures, street food is more than just a cheap, tasty, easy way to fuel the body. It’s part of a daily ritual, a way to catch up on neighborhood or community gossip, a means of eking out a living to provide for one’s family. By eating foreign street food, you get a sense of the social fabric and gender roles of a community or culture, but what about the health risks?

Some travelers equate a love of street food with a latent wish to sightsee whilst wearing an adult diaper. They steer clear of anything sold from a vendor, or resembling fruit, vegetable, or beverage not from a bottle (although when it comes to drinking water, you should always err on the side of caution, and there is something to be said about peeling or washing produce to avoid pesticide residue, since many developing nations use chemicals banned in the U.S.). What these folks may not realize is that foodborne illnesses such as E.coli, salmonella, and listeria don’t discriminate. FDA statistics show you’re more likely to get sick from preparing food at home than from dining in a domestic restaurant.

Is street food inherently more risky than eating in a restaurant when you travel? Sometimes, and it depends. Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are certainly more at risk of getting ill, and may be best off avoiding street eats. But there are certain precautionary measures healthy travelers can take before scarfing their tacos or mystery-meat kebabs that will minimize the chances of bringing home more than just a suitcase full of sweatshop-made tchotchkes as souvenirs. Read on.

1. Is there a crowd? Just like at home, go where the locals go, as they obviously know where to find the good stuff. But high volume also means that food is being prepared fresh, rather than sitting around attracting flies and turning into something useful for waging biological warfare.

2. Are basic hygiene practices being implemented by the vendor(s)? In Mexico, I’ve frequently observed street vendors slipping clean plastic bags over plates. With every order, a new bag is used, then discarded at the end of the meal. It’s an eco-nightmare, but it’s a lot more sanitary than dunking a plate in a bucket of dingy water doubling as a petri dish. Also bear in mind that in many parts of the world, the left hand performs double-duty as toilet paper. I can’t say it enough: Look at the sanitation practices before ordering.

You’ll often find co-workers whose sole responsibility is to handle money, to avoid cross-contaminating food (this isn’t always the case, however, so sometimes you’ll just have to–literally–suck it up). Once, when I accidentally handed my money to the wrong guy, he turned his hand upside-down to avoid contact with my filthy coins.

3. Is the stand or cart clean and well-maintained? Is hot food kept hot or cooked to order, and is cold food cold? Is purified water or ice used for beverages and frozen treats?

4. Are the ingredients fresh? If you’ve got eyes, a nose, and some tastebuds, you can figure this out for yourself. I look at the condiments and garnishes to determine if I want to eat at a given stand or cart. If I see crusty bowls of salsa, dessicated limes, slimy herbs, or flies congregated on any raw foods I might potentially eat, I’m out of there.

Stick to local specialties. One of the greatest joys of travel is eating regional ingredients or dishes. It also stands to reason that ordering seafood in an inland desert is a calculated risk. Raw protein products (egg, meat, poultry, fish, fresh cheeses) in general are to be avoided in the Third World. What about dishes like ceviche, where the acid in the citrus juice denatures (breaks down proteins, killing some potential pathogens in the process) the fish? It’s still risky, because technically it’s an uncooked food, and only application of heat over 145 degrees can totally annihilate anything potentially deadly lurking in fish. Again, use good judgment based on freshness of ingredients and basic sanitation, but remember that you can’t eliminate all risk.

If you’re in a coastal region, it pays to do a bit of homework on the cleanliness of the local fresh and ocean water supplies; algae blooms or cholera outbreaks will be widely reported. Try to avoid eating raw river fish or seafood, or river fish/seafood from just offshore; remember that many developing island nations and coastal regions use high tide as their toilet. If you’re eating pork in the Third World, always make sure it’s well-cooked. While trichinosis has effectively been eradicated from our domestic industrial pork supply, the disease is prevalent in other parts of the world. And not to get too graphic, but you’ll often find pigs in rural parts of the developing world lurking around latrines, searching for a snack.

Fresh ingredients don’t necessarily mean great food, but it helps. Delicious street food is ulimately a reflection of the loving care that goes into its preparation. Are the carnitas slightly crispy on the outside, with an interior succulent with greasy goodness? Is the masa in the tamales moist, with a sweet, earthy corn flavor? Are the noodles slightly toothsome, the herbs fresh and bright-tasting, the broth fragrant and piping hot? These things matter.

5. Use hand sanitizer before eating, take probiotics with live active cultures prophylactically, and pack a broad-spectrum gastrointestinal antibiotic and Imodium, just in case. I’m just sayin’.

For more information on food safety, go to this page on the USDA website.