There are few better ways to get to know a place and its people than through its food. Skip the fancy restaurants written up in guidebooks, and look for those oﬀ-the-beaten-path, word-of-mouth places that only locals know about. And if you really want to immerse yourself in another country’s culture when traveling (short of being invited into someone’s home for dinner!) indulge in its street food.
Street food is usually traditional food, passed down from one generation to the next, without any formal recipes. It reﬂects a mix of regional tastes alongside favorites from local immigrant populations, who often make some of the best street food as a means of preserving their culture and identity. In most cases, the person selling the food is someone who has been involved in all aspects of the process – from sourcing the ingredients to prepping, cooking, and serving the food. Thus, you not only get a taste of local, regional, traditional cuisine, but you get a chance to interact with the people who are most intimately involved with its origin and creation. And in the process, you hopefully walk away with a food memory – the sites, the smells, the tastes, and the sounds — that will forever be etched in your mind.
The loud, gruﬀ, bustling streets of Palermo, Sicily, with its historical ties to the Arab world, is where you’ll encounter stalls and kiosks selling a variety of Mediterranean street food: pane e panelle, chickpea fritters; sﬁncione, thick Sicilian pizza; and arancini, fried rice balls stuﬀed with anything from cheese to meat. And for more adventurous palates, stigghiole, skewered and grilled lamb intestines, and pa ca meusa, spleen sandwich. In Ragusa, southeast Sicily, scaccia, stuﬀed, layered, tomato and cheese pies are traditional.
In the port towns of Italy, you’ll ﬁnd pesce fritto al cono, fried little ﬁsh, such as anchovies, straight oﬀ the ﬁshing boats, battered, fried, and served to order in a paper cone. Porchetta, a whole pig that has been deboned, stuﬀed, and seasoned with salt and herbs and then rolled up and slow-cooked on a spit, is sliced and served in a roll as one of the most widespread street foods in central Italy – Umbria, Tuscany, Lazio, Abruzzo.
In Turkey, you’ll ﬁnd midye dolma, mussels on the half shell stuﬀed with an aromatic mixture of rice, herbs, and spices served with a squeeze of lemon; kiymali pide, Turkish ﬂatbread with ground meat (beef or lamb) and vegetables; simit, freshly baked, molasses-dipped, sesame-encrusted dough; balik-ekmek, fried or grilled ﬁsh sandwich, typically mackerel; lacmacun, Turkish ‘pizza’ topped with minced meat, onion, and red pepper mixture; and börek, thin, ﬂaky pastries ﬁlled with cheese or a mixture of cheese and vegetables.
Morocco is also known for its vast array of street food. Popular examples include addis, lentils cooked with lemon and spices and oil; bessara, bowls of hearty fava bean soup; harira, a classic Moroccan soup with meat or chicken, chickpeas, or lentils; msemmen, crepe-like ﬂat bread; ghoulal, steaming vats of snail soup ﬂavored with an assortment of spices; grilled or fried sardines served with a zingy chermoula sauce; and any variety of meat and/or vegetable tagines simmered over a low ﬁre.
In Israel, sabich – fried eggplant, egg, tahini, and pickled mango sauce (amba) stuﬀed into pita bread with chopped vegetable salad, cooked potatoes, sliced onions, and hot sauce – is an iconic street food. Falafel, crispy, deep-fried balls made from ground chickpeas, fava beans, or both, then stuﬀed into a pita along with pickled vegetables, hot sauce, and tahini sauce; and shawarma, spiced and slow spit-roasted meat (lamb, chicken, or turkey) are commonly found on the streets of Israel and also in Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine. Gyro is Greece’s version of shawarma, typically some combination of lamb or beef roasted on a spit, often served with tomatoes, onions, and tzatziki sauce (strained yogurt mixed with garlic and herbs).
“Eat the street” on your next trip overseas, to get a real taste of the time-honored foods that local folks enjoy every day. If you’ve enjoyed some local specialties in your Mediterranean travels, tell us about it in the comments!
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