Photos by Diane Murray
On one of the many Internet forums I monitor, a man recently complained of an upset digestive tract and far-too-many trips to the bathroom. The outpouring of remedies and concern was enormous and immediate from those residing in Ecuador as well as those stateside. Everyone had a remedy to suggest and many believed they knew exactly why this man had an upset stomach, although he provided no clues. The spectrum of remedies and guesses as to why he was spending so much time in the bathroom was impressive, if predictable.
One woman’s response, which generated many supporters, suggested that his digestive problem was definitely caused by eating “street food”.
“Please don’t eat Street Food”, she admonished as she ran down the list of horrible things that one could suffer as a result. I believe she was not only overreacting but has also missed some of the planet’s best food!
I began to think of the number of meals and snacks I have enjoyed from dozens of street vendors over the years. I’ve eaten chicken, fish and other grilled meats (don’t ask) from small, roadside charcoal fires in the Philippines. As a young man, I’d wander out of a bar late in the evening with a cold bottle of San Miguel beer in hand and could always find a delicious, hot meal from a street vendor only a few yards away . I’ve enjoyed fried fish and snake in Thailand, spicy pork with fish and fried rice in Vietnam, rice and fish in Costa Rica, delicious pork sandwiches, coconut water, fresh fruit cups and numerous baked goods in Ecuador and starchy plate-lunches in Hawaii. I still long for the spicy sausage sizzles I enjoyed along the streets of Sydney, Australia and of course I’ve munched down on countless hot dogs, pulled pork, and many other things from small carts, wagons, tables, tents and converted vehicles in the United States.
I’ve eaten plenty of street food and don’t regret one bite! Perhaps my luck is running thin but not once have I become ill after eating any of these wonderful meals and snacks over some 40 or more years on several continents.
One of my favorite places to grab a quick lunch these days is just across the bay in Bahia de Caraquez. There, just off the sidewalk as enormous buses, shiny taxis and tiny pedi-cabs hustle their passengers only a few feet away and pedestrians are tempted by the aromas, sits a small wooden structure no bigger than a child’s play house. Its ramshackle assembly seems to cling to a tenuous existence on a busy main street; shabby…decrepit in fact, any paint long since faded away to bare boards.
Three sides can be opened with hinged panels propped up by bamboo poles revealing tiny ledges and a sparse interior. One insulated wire runs from an overhead pole somewhere, snaking into the interior through a crack and powering an old refrigerator and one hanging light bulb. An old woman sits inside taking orders for sanduches de choncho (pork sandwiches), and she does a thriving business.
In front of the old woman, on a small table, sits a large, chipped white enamel roasting pan. Every day begins with a large bone-in pork roast sitting in the pan, still hot. She brings it from her home where it was seasoned then slowly roasted overnight in her family kitchen. She comes to work, roasting pan in lap, by pedi-cab. Some days, the roast does not survive the hungry street crowds and she is out of business before the lunch rush is over.
“Uno sanduche, por favor”, I say and I watch her well-practiced routine begin. She nods acknowledgment while her knurled old hands begin to carve, slice and chop a generous amount of pork from the still-warm roast resting in the pan. She then opens a translucent blue and white Tupperware container from which she pulls a freshly baked mini-loaf of bread. A sharp knife slices the small loaf nearly in half. A piece of yellowish waxed paper appears from beneath the counter, the sliced bread placed within. From another bin, metal tongs collect some shredded lettuce which is tucked into the roll. The warm moist pork is placed upon the shredded lettuce. The lid of another plastic container is pushed aside and the tongs retrieve some thinly sliced red onion which she places atop the pork. Removal of yet another lid accesses a light vinaigrette which she spoons over the sandwich contents and a squeeze bottle administers a drizzle of her special mayonnaise-based dressing. It is done. She hands me the sandwich and I hand her a one dollar coin. For fifty cents more, I could also have a tall glass of cool, freshly squeezed fruit juice.
Sometimes, the traffic is horrible and there are no parking spaces available for blocks in any direction. I will slow my car and shout my order through my open window. By the time I drive around the block, it is ready and someone on the sidewalk will pass my sandwich to me as I briefly stop, the dollar coin also passed back to the old woman. It’s the closest thing to a Drive-Thru in town.
A few blocks away, the pie lady sells her freshly baked treats from a small plastic table on her front porch, a chalk board hanging on her gate proclaims her daily offerings. She opens for business around 3-4 most afternoons and remains open until she runs out of pie slices…which she always does after dinner.
Vendors carrying woven baskets sell hot empanadas and other specialty items up and down every main street. These items are made in their family kitchens and are offered with tiny plastic containers of aji (hot sauce).
This past weekend as Diane and I attended a festival at a local school, many families offered food they had made at home or were cooking on the spot. The chicken empanadas we enjoyed were as good as any we have ever had.
Ecuador’s street food is homemade food. It is not licensed or processed any more than the food from your own kitchen. Those of us who have lived in the United States have come to expect government licensing, inspections and regulation to keep us safe from all the dangers of unregulated food processing when, in fact, manufactured food poses its own set of risks.
Simply prepared street food is like eating in the home of a friend. The vendors have cooked for you. There are many wonderful opportunities here in Ecuador and around the world to taste the culture, up close and personal. Street food can be really great and the prices are more than reasonable.
Life is a well-seasoned buffet filled with many flavors. Don’t be afraid to taste it.