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Cart Cuisine

It's an international thing

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Bar goers in downtown Charlotte got a tasty treat late one Friday night in August. A vendor was selling freshly grilled chicken or pork, satay style, for $3 a skewer with a choice of barbecue or hot sauce. Day or night, grilled chicken is not the norm on Charlotte streets. Typically, the products sold by sidewalk vendors downtown are hot dogs and other sausages, ice cream, Italian ices, fresh produce, and fresh cut flowers.Street vendors can form a valuable part of a city's mosaic. If a city's culinary endeavors were viewed as an onion, the core would be the city's best and most professional kitchens, while the exterior skin would be the street vendors. These entrepreneurs create jobs for themselves and typically provide good, cheap food. Who can resist the aroma of roasting chestnuts during crisp autumn days in New York City? Tamales from a cart in East LA, freshly baked sourdough baguettes with crab salad at San Francisco's wharf, and produce from Baltimore's colorful horse drawn "Arabbers" carts, are part of each city's culinary heritage.

In Charlotte, as in many urban areas, food vending from carts is highly regulated due to sanitation and health issues. The 15 carts allowed on Tryon Street are chosen and authorized by Center City Partners.

Throughout the rest of the world, particularly in older cultures, street food is an evolved art. The Godiva ice cream cart in Brussels' Galerie St-Hubert, for example, is worthy of a 100 mile, or kilometer, detour. Anissa Helou writes of the Mediterranean basin's cart cuisine in her latest cookbook, Mediterranean Street Food: Stories, Snacks, Sandwiches, Barbecue, Sweets, and More, from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Helou attributes the evolution and astounding variety of street food in the eastern Mediterranean areas to their nomadic traditions, where western European countries have had a "long tradition of formal restaurants, comedores, and trattorie" and "that people (Western Europeans) cannot be satisfied with just ambulant vendors hawking their wares from the street."

Helou developed her passion and fascination with street food while growing up in Beirut during its "belle Epoque," in the late 1950s and early 60s when Lebanon was known as the "Switzerland of the Middle East." As a child, she walked with her family along the Corniche past street vendors selling sesame galettes, grilled corn, sweets, candies, nuts, ice cream and drinks but was not allowed to eat on the street since "girls from good families" did not do that.

Mediterranean Street Food is divided into sections by type of food, such as bread, soups and sweets, rather than by regions. This allows Helou to show the similarities and differences of various dishes. Her directions in this 85 recipe collection are clear, specific, and easy to follow. Black and white photographs are used to illustrate more complicated cooking procedures. Among the temptingly clever recipes are Berber Moroccan Bread made with anise and sesame seeds; Lebanese thyme bread (manaqish bil za'tar); Panini with grilled vegetables and cheese from Portofino, Italy; Chestnut Pudding from Tuscany and Watermelon Pudding also from Italy; and Syrian walnut pancakes filled with clotted cream and sweet cheese pies (kallitsunia) from Crete.

The drink section was of particular interest since that is the one street food I generally forgo on my journeys -- unless the beverage is sold in plastic bags, as is the Ramadan licorice drink, or I can provide my own cup. The reuse of the same glass cup, only briefly rinsed between customers by the typical Cairo tamarind drink vendor, is quite disconcerting. Paper or plastic cups are a luxury. Helou offers a simple recipe for this Tamarind drink.

For those who also have a penchance for Mediterranean cart cuisine, Helou provides enough information, including suppliers of unusual ingredients, to make fairly comparable dishes. But even if you don't choose to recreate the dishes, Helou's astute observations and engaging commentary about food, a strength not all cookbooks can summon, are worthwhile.

Mediterranean Street Food: Stories, Snacks, Sandwiches, Barbecue, Sweets, and More, from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East by Anissa Helou (HarperCollins, 277 pages, $30)

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