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Street food moves into the kitchen

Travels in Bali promise luxuries like the cosmetics Joyce Brandon brings home to Ashland.

Less decadent are the Balinese dishes she shares in local cooking classes, preparing the traditional fare enjoyed by the masses.

"It smells good. It tastes good. It feels good," Brandon says.

Whether its skewered meat cooked curbside on makeshift braziers or portable packets of rice and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves, the street food of Indonesia doesn't just fit Brandon's travel budget. Far from a second-rate dining experience, these snacks assembled at carts or market stands serve up the true essence of Indonesian cuisine, she says.

"Why delve into a culture if you're not going to eat the food?" Brandon asks. "I dive in. I've eaten everything.

"It got me into a deeper relationship with the people."

Peruvians have a deep affinity for rice, Greeks for falafel, Indians for samosas and Thais for their noodles. Humble, on-the-go eats in their native countries, so-called street foods are gaining worldwide recognition by chefs and gourmets who are elevating the dishes and translating the flavors onto menus.

"It's the world growing smaller to some degree," says Marc Rosewood, Ashland chef and restaurateur. "Street food — there's a simplicity to it; there's a familiarity people have with it."

Rosewood's Tease, opened in April, is just one in a cadre of restaurants nationwide that are recasting street food for bricks-and-mortar settings. In Chicago, celebrity chef Rick Bayless has XOCO, based on Mexican street staples such as churros, empanadas and tortas. Chef Zakary Pelaccio gives steamed buns serious treatment at the Malaysian-inspired Fatty Crab in New York. Travels in India swayed chef Susan Feniger from French-style cooking to global-influenced snacks at the new Hollywood-casual restaurant STREET.

A childhood trip to Israel set Rosewood on the path of adventurous eating. Recalling his first taste of falafel, the chef has tried to recreate his memory for Tease diners, serving the chickpea fritters with smoked tomato relish. A pork sandwich — popular street food in Cuba — is another customer favorite. Constantly reworking the menu, Rosewood is considering the quintessential Vietnamese noodle soup pho to complement Tease's squash spring rolls, duck tacos and yakitori skewers.

"No one's asking us for fois gras," Rosewood says. "Food was going to these really extravagant and crazy, scientific places."

American food up until the mid '90s revolved around dishes from Europe, with notions of culinary excellence tied to schooling in France, then Italy, says Greg Drescher, organizer of a November conference on the topic of street food for The Culinary Institute of America. Foods considered "ethnic" were on the periphery. Then chefs and food writers and enthusiasts started traveling beyond those European borders.

"A lot of people went to South Asia and discovered this incredible world of outdoor street food — Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, India. It's as though you've been watching color television for the first time," Drescher says. "A street-food vendor has one shot at impressing the customer. It's often quite creative and complex."

While American street food traditionally consisted of hot dogs, the nation's immigrant communities have helped make street food both more diverse and commonplace. In Los Angeles County alone, several thousand food trucks and carts — many run by immigrants — operate around the city.

The trend is being taken seriously. Street food is regular fodder for bloggers and glossy magazines alike. Through Twitter, the Kogi BBQ truck and its Korean-Mexican fusion has amassed thousands of fans in LA. In New York, Middle Eastern food stands are staples, as are carts selling arepas, South American corn meal patties. In Chicago, says Bayless, the spicier the street food the better, from regional Mexican fare to Puerto Rican.

"A lot of the 20- to 35-year-olds are into this big, bold flavor," Bayless says. "It's the antithesis of what you get in processed food, that balance of fat, sugar and salt. Street food has a tanginess to it. You get this thing that's so incredibly exciting to eat."

For Rosewood, the challenge of adapting street food to a restaurant is "almost cleaning it up a little bit." He says he tries to maintain a balance between deep-fried foods and more health-conscious dishes without sacrificing essential flavors.

"Sometimes you have to put the fat in to keep that authenticity," he says.

Juxtaposing exotic ingredients like wild boar and commonplace concepts like peanut butter and jelly keep his food, Rosewood says, from being "locked into a particular niche" — even the elevation of street food.

"I think it's the reality versus the trend."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Like the samosas found on the streets of India these Potato and Pea Samosas are filled with vegetables and served with a sweet and spicy sauce. - AP