The Culture of Street Food: Celebrating the Public Feast in Latin America

October 8, 2016

 

Mompiche, Ecuador. It was gray and drizzling in this tiny beach town along the northern Ecuadorian coast, but being barefoot and already in a bathing suit, it didn't phase me. It felt refreshing. Plus I was hungry, so I was on a mission, but I didn't want to commit to any of the gringo establishments, especially since I was alone. I wandered around the muddied sand streets until I heard the familiar and beloved sound of sizzles, and accompanying it, aromas of salty cheese and some kind of fatty meat wafting through the rain. I found myself almost sleepwalking towards the source, allowing my senses to take me where they may.

 

The woman responsible for the sizzles was an older Ecuadorian lady overseeing a bolón production at a tiny stand along the beach. My breakfast search was over. Bolónes are magical creations that not only fill your belly up, but also fill your hedonistic food soul up to the brim. They are huge fried spheres of already fried mashed plantain, salt, and butter, and often stuffed with squeaky cheese or chicharrón (fried pork belly). Oftentimes bolónes are served with a fried egg, a slab of cheese (because why not?), and either coffee or tea, for a filling and satisfying breakfast.

 

 

I sat (there was one tiny, child-sized seat at the stand), watching the drizzly streets and the people languidly moving about this sleepy town. I watched the woman deftly slicing off the peel of green plantains, then frying and mashing them, rolling and stuffing in the fillings, and then frying it all again (oh, yeah). She was barely even looking at the food, and rather continuing a conversation with a neighboring vendor, chatting in rapid, coastal Spanish that was impossible for me to follow. Thankfully, food is a universal language. She knew I was interested. I could connect with her and the greater culture, by simply watching her, enamored, transforming the food before her. 

 

"Thankfully, food is a universal language."

 

I waited patiently, transfixed, at the little stand, barely protected from the morning precipitation, awaiting my golden, fried orb of delight. Once it came out of the oil, glistening, I realized how big it was. Bigger than a softball for sure, I was in for a challenge. She gave me some weak herbal tea to wash down the salty plantain ball, and a metal fork to deconstruct the sphere she just so expertly engineered. I went for it. It was an incredible blend of starchy and salty, rich and fatty, with pocket of that oh so squeaky cheese. My oh my. I finished that plantain globe with a big, grease-stained smile on my face. 

 

And all the while, as I celebrated the fifteen minutes together with the bolon, I was on the street, in the street, watching and immersed in the people and the place. I felt the salty sea breeze mingle with the fresh dappling rain, and watched the sun peek in and out of the cloudy sky, battling for the spotlight. I watched the earthy street vendors slowly prepare for a pleasant day of wire-wrapping and looking earthy. It wasn't the most lively street i'd ever been on, but sitting there, alone, with a huge fried breakfast ball, I didn't feel so alone or weird that I was eating a huge fried breakfast ball. I felt a sense of community. Like I was a part of a larger entity that was collectively sharing their experience together, in public on the streets.  

 

The streets are where the action is. Why retreat to an empty restaurant inside for a solitary, unsocial food experience, when you can sit or stand in the midst of it all? In the rain! Or in the joyous sunlight, next to the ocean or in a bustling metropolis. You are surrounded by the elements and around the people, animals, bugs, and plants within the landscape. Eating by yourself has never been so social.

 

 

The streets are conduits of culture. They are accessible to all to experience and public for all to see. The streets observe the most creative and beautiful as well as the most destructive and somber forms of expression. The most lively drum circles erupt on the streets, with contagious dancing and movement overtaking all of the crevices and alleyways, while a street away, impoverished wanderers scramble with hopes of a dry place to sleep. Riots, protests, festivals, parades, all find their home in the street. 

 

"The streets are conduits of culture.'"

 

The food made, sold, and consumed on the streets is similar. It celebrates the common and the public space, and oftentimes reveals the heart of the local culture. Eating a freshly fried empanada straight from the experienced hands of a fiery abuelita at 5am after a night of dancing is, I have found, quite a rich cultural experience. The food itself is usually simple finger food, but it is packed with deep flavor, ancestral culinary wisdom, and a lot of soul. Frying it helps with that too. 

 

Street food allows those who do not have the capital to start a business or restaurant to use their skill of cooking to make some money. They make their own schedule and are their own boss. These people are cooks, not chefs, and they own it. No frills, but enough personality to stuff a bolón full of squeaky cheese. Because they are out on the streets, cooking their

food right there, fry oil spurting out onto the asphalt, these talented cooks become performers. They can interact directly with the people, and the people can return the favor. 

 

Not only is the food delicious and inexpensive, but the experience walking around and finding a nice curb to sit on and watch the world before you is half of the flavor of it all. And the fact that none of these vendors have a name for their carts, stands, and tables, that they are anonymous to travelers and definitely not found on yelp, gives the experience a sense of discovery. You have no expectations, but you walk by, and man, that string of chorizo hanging over the barbeque really smells good. Next thing you realize is that you were hungry. For chorizo. And next after that, you realize that this $2 chorizo log is the best chorizo ever.   

 

In almost every city or town I visited while backpacking in South America, I have a vivid memory of eating delectable fried-this or mystery-that from local food vendors selling on the streets. I recall the best pineapple I've ever eaten, standing mesmerized in a swarm of city folk rushing around downtown Medellin, Colombia, sticky sweet juices running down my hands; my friend and I both laughing hysterically due to the intense sugar rush. I tasted the best empanada ever, crispy and fresh, after stopping briefly on our bikes, cruising waterfall to waterfall from Baños, Ecuador, to Puyo, on a windy cliff road. And the best sandwich I ate, from a tiny Peruvian woman in the mountains of Huaraz, who stood behind an entire roasted pig, head and all, carving pieces of juicy meat for each little 3 sole (about $1) sandwich. 

 

 

Ceviche de pescado, ceviche de chochos, corviche, empanadas, arepas, bunuelos, chorizo, pan de yuca, platanos asados con queso, papas rellenos, tamales, pollo-this pollo-that, patacones, and chicharrón everything, try it! Even if you don't know what it is, smell it, and look at it frying up, heavenly! Talk to the vendors, take a look around, walk over there, sit on this lovely curb, make some new friends over here, or don't look at anyone and just zone in on the what kind of savory mystery meat might be hiding in your steamy two-pound tamale. You get to make your own experience! Never confined to a table, stuck with a stuffy waiter, feeling trapped, so many choices on the menu, and drinks, oh my! No way, out here on the streets, you create your own food adventure.

 

On the streets, you're free, and really quite full. 

 

 

 

 

 

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