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Rohini Dey relives perfect street food moments from her global travels

Rohini Dey

Rohini Dey

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Updated: February 5, 2013 7:26PM

Perfect moments with food stay etched in your mind forever; they’re often the high point of travel. Ironically, despite being a restaurateur, my favorite moments are from the streets around the world instead of the temples of haute cuisine. Something about interacting at the street level — feeling the food, eating with your hands, assaulted by unknown sounds and smells — makes you feel alive, connected, viscerally in the moment. These moments are ephemeral, and I’m sure everyone has some of their own. Here are a few of mine:

• The light is crawling across the still-gray eastern sky when we crunch down into airy, crisp, scalding seafood tempura with soba broth steaming our faces. It’s barely 5 a.m., and we’re perched on bar stools across from the scowling old lady who mans her tiny outdoor food stall bordering the Tokyo fish auction. She’s clearly unhappy to have me and my husband perched here, eager beavers, amateurs. Based on the deep scowls etched into her face, it’s unclear if she’s ever happy. But we’re in total bliss. It feels like food has never tasted better. And it ends up beating the infinite-coursed, expensive kaiseki ryori dinner we experience later.

• Slimy green water runs down my hands, because I can’t fist the pani puri into my mouth fast enough to keep up with the roadside hawker, who’s doling them out to the crowd encircling him. This scene repeats itself on the beaches of Mumbai, streets of Delhi and gullies of Kolkata, India, with varied types of chaat, which translates into “lick” — exactly what this street junk fare calls for. The fried, round shells are broken into and stuffed with potato, chickpeas and tamarind chutney, then dunked into a chili mint lime cilantro water. It’s one blissfully explosive bite, encapsulating every taste and texture known to man — and crafted well before molecular gastronomy was a gleam in anyone’s eye.

• We’re docked by a pristine green cove, swimming in the clear warm waters of Angra dos Reis, a cluster of more than 300 islands off of Rio de Janeiro. Multicolored starfish crawl on the light sands below, slowly going about their day, soaking in the sun. Much like us. Another boat sputters by and docks by ours, manned by a family that makes pastels (Brazil’s empanadas) filled with ground beef, queso, shrimp or banana and sugar. Each hot, flaky and divine. Along with the pastels, they’re selling chilled caipirinhas, a perfect blend of sugar, cachaça and lime. We communicate in our Indian rendition of patchy Spanish to Portuguese speakers. But the tone is warm, hospitable, each family curious about the other. Who could ask for a better combination under the Brazilian skies?

• To call the Spice Coast of Kerala “The Venice of the East” would be an utter disservice to this Indian state; it’s rivaled by none in scenic splendor or culinary treasures. As we silently ripple through verdant rice paddies in gorgeous, old-world cane houseboats, lush coconut and palm trees embank us on the fresh waters of Lake Vembanad. At night, the stars have never been clearer or the silence more pristine. Our first meal is a veritable seafood orgy: karimeen fish curry (the small fish caught before our eyes and cooked onboard; we are allowed to meddle in the kitchen), varal squid roast, grilled shrimp in a coconut tomato base, mashed tapioca, appam and a medley of lethally spicy pachadis, all washed down with chilled Indian beer. Plunging into the lake is the only way to work off the engorgement.

• You may call it a crepe and I may call it a pancake. At the risk of rousing ire across continents, they’re the same to me. They’re omnipresent on the southern tip of Africa, close to Cape Town, where cinnamon and sugar pannekoek abound in the rolling hills of the wine country; on the quaint streets of Paris, where we roam with crisp, foil-wrapped hot crepes; across the merry pleins of Amsterdam, where a breakfast of hearty pancakes is a ritual any time of the day; on any tourist corner of London. This most basic street fare is inextricably linked with leisurely strolling, cold winds whipping across my face while I gorge on their instant warmth and comfort.

There are more perfect food moments I could expound on: pizza in Radicondoli, Tuscany; anticuchos in Cuzco, Peru; ink squid paella on the roadside in Cadaques, Spain; something unknown we ate our first night in Shanghai. But at the end of the day, these moments are finite and impossible to replicate — and that’s what makes them so precious.

Rohini Dey is donating her fee for this column to MSEdG — Educate Girls Globally.

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