Cheap eats in the streets
Many years ago I visited friends who lived in Paris, and due to their busy jobs, I mainly wandered the city alone. It was one of the most daunting yet exciting moments of my life.
My budget was tight, plus I spoke very little French, so it was halfway through that first adventurous day that I decided to attempt to purchase lunch. I had passed all of these gorgeous food carts displaying breads, roasted meats, various fruits, cheeses and elegant pastries, and after one particularly beautiful cart and a loud stomach growl, I shyly pointed and attempted to say the French phrase I remembered that didn’t involve a bathroom. “Je voudrais une baguette de poulet, s’il vous plaît. Merci,” and magically I was holding a freshly baked poppy seed baguette, filled with roasted chicken, creamy brie and tomatoes, all for 4 euros. I floated down the street, proud that I could order something in French. And, for the remainder of my trip, I lived on chicken baguettes, chocolate croissants and lots of café au lait. Thus began my European street food love affair.
Street food is not a new fad. Vendors have hawked food along roads or in marketplaces around the world for thousands of years. As Europe evolves through historical events, geography and culture, street food continues to reflect that change. Today, every European region has its own street food influenced by its soil’s history. Here are a few noteworthy treats to sink your teeth into.
Before I move on to other regions and their street food, I need to mention one more delicacy of France – the crêpe. These delicately thin pancakes originate from Brittany, a region in the northwest of France, and although they are popular all over Europe, one must truly experience one made by a French mademoiselle in a little Parisian crêperie. They’re quite spectacular, especially the crêpe Suzette, lightly sweetened and drizzled with Grand Marnier.
Belgium & The Netherlands
Pommes frites may be known worldwide by the term French fries, but it’s rumored they heralded from Belgium. I’m not getting in the middle, however, because they’re delicious no matter who served them first. Belgium isn’t giving up without a fight, however. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to go a block or two in Bruges or Brussels without running into dueling carts, battling neck and neck, shoveling fries into cones to drooling lines of patrons. Neighboring Amsterdam was the same, slathering their fries with a choice of sauces as long as my arm. France says they made them first in the French Revolution, but Belgium says they beat them by 100 years. They may spend another 100 years trying to prove it.
Although you may think I’m going to immediately say “fish and chips” when I mention London, you’re not completely wrong, and not completely right, either. I am talking about seafood, however. Tubby Isaacs has been serving up seafood street fare since 1919. Famous for their jellied eel sandwiches, they realize that those might not sound appetizing for everyone, and have continued to add new items to the menu, from oysters, cod, cockles, mussels, winkles and so much more. Now in their fourth generation, this family-owned and operated street food shack-turned-catering business continues to grow, including a new website, Tubby Isaacs. The next time you cross the Channel, you should visit their booths; original location is in the Petticoat Lane Market on Goulston Street, open Monday – Wednesday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and newer location at Walthamstow, Sunday – Thursday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Not lacking in history or street food, Germany offers a variety with colorful origins. You can find vendors outside shopping centers, grocery and hardware stores, on military installations and sides of the road in villages.
If you haven’t heard, Germany loves their sausages in all shapes, sizes, colors and spices. The first bratwurst dates back to 1313 in Nuremberg, and today Currywurst tops the list for favorite street food. This tasty snack consists of sliced bratwurst in curried ketchup with a side of Pommes Frites with mayonnaise.
Another favorite is Frickadellen. European’s version of hamburger, this ground meat patty or dumpling can be made of pork, lamb, beef or veal, formed with breadcrumbs, onions, egg and spices then grilled and served in a crusty roll. Mit Senf, bitte. Danke.
This next popular food is found all over the world, not just in Europe. It’s the Döner Kebap, the Turkish form of gyro. In the 60s, Turkish nationals were invited to work in Germany and many settled there, establishing Döner shops and booths everywhere. A notable one is outside a large hardware store in Landstuhl. Operated by a Lebanese family, they grill the flatbread as you wait and top with a large slice of feta by request. Since the visit becomes a gorge-fest for my husband and me, we only partake occasionally.
Other interesting items to try: Dampfnudeln, a large, soft, yeasty and salty dumpling of warm goodness, served either savory with meats or drizzled with vanilla sauce. Another favorite is Flammkuchen; a pizza-thin savory pastry slathered with bits of bacon, sour cream and slivered onions, toasted over an open flame till crispy and caramelized. And who can forget the Christmas markets and the warm apple strudel, roasted chestnuts, Lebkuchen (gingerbread), and mulled wines. Every season is a good reason for street food in Germany.
Italy & Sicily
Some of the most prevalent foods sold on Italian streets today have influences from ancient civilizations. The piadina, found across Italy, originates from the Romagna region near the Adriatic Sea, and dates back to the 4th century Byzantine (Greco-Roman) Empire. This grilled or fried flatbread is usually filled with a variety of meats, vegetables, cheeses, or even powdered sugar and chocolate sauce. For a real treat, visit the city of Ravenna, on the Mediterranean coast, home to breathtaking ancient mosaics depicting Greco-Roman life. Follow the history of these East Roman rulers while you munch on piadine as they did.
Head south to Sicily and all over the island are these fried rice balls called arancini, meaning “little oranges.” Each ball of rice surrounds a variety of delicious meats, cheeses and vegetables, rolled in breadcrumbs and fried till golden orange, hence the name. They date to the 10th century when Arabs ruled the island and introduced their saffron-spiced meat and rice balls. Someone “perfected” the treat a couple of hundred years later by frying them for easy carrying and, well, tastiness. Rome has a similar street food called suppli, which has tomato sauce blended in the rice and mozzarella in the center. Grab a little bag of these and share.
I know, I didn’t mention pizza or gelato. Before you start to rebel, let me say that while you can find pizza everywhere in Europe, your best experience will be in Naples, at a little trattoria, slowly enjoying a pizza marguerita while sipping vino. As for gelato, I was saving the best for last.
Of all the street foods I’ve found in Europe, my heart belongs to hazelnut gelato. I’ve sampled it in Rome, Florence, and in Metz, France, and many places in Germany. It’s hard to explain my obsession, but when I taste those freshly ground nuts blended with chocolate and cream, it’s a heady feeling. Then, along comes my husband with a green apple flavor so fresh it tastes like he picked it from a tree. Sigh, I’m in love again.
You may laugh, but it won’t be long till you know what I mean. Every little Italian vendor has his own handmade variety, and they’re all over Europe, not just in Italy. Soon you’ll be tasting them all, too, searching for a favorite of your own. No matter how you say it - Bon Appetit, Guten Apetit, Buon Appetito, Afiyet Olsun, or Mahlzeit - Enjoy your food!