Street Food in the Kitchen
Right this moment, my kitchen smells like hot cinnamon rolls. I’ve been baking skillingsbolle, a kind of sweet roll sold in the mornings by bakeries and cart vendors in Norway. The name comes from the usual price: one per skilling (shilling). I like them, even though I have to start them at about 6:00 am to have them ready by breakfast, because for sweet rolls they aren’t too sweet, and because once the dough is rolled, you can freeze part of it and just bake a quarter of the recipe. Since I can only ever eat one or two at a sitting, and the recipe I have makes thirty rolls, this is key.
Skillingsbolle is one of the recipes found in Carla Diamanti and Fabrizio Esposito’s enticing little travel log Street Food: Authentic Snacks from Around the World. I love to snack. I like to nibble. I also love junk food. Fried food. Greasy, yummy hot-off-the grill food. Hot dogs from street carts. Tacos and burritos from drive through windows, gyros wrapped in white sandwich paper and dripping yogurt sauce, little bowls of chili served in Styrofoam cups with plastic sporks. Pouches of hot french fries with little packets of ketchup squirted over them. Exactly the kind of food that Diamanti and Esposito celebrate.
I don’t go out much so don’t get to eat this stuff nearly as often as I’d like. I have, however, learned to make a lot of it at home. One of my New Year’s resolutions last year—inspired by the absolutely ridiculous prices the supermarket was charging for a little plastic container of hummus—was to go ahead and make the stuff I usually bought pre-made.
So now I make hummus. And I now know how to make bagels and donuts, sourdough bread and French baguettes. I have tins full of home-made granola and a freezer full of soup stocks. Over the summer I learned to make raita—the yogurt and cucumber dip they were selling for six bucks in the produce section and that is so, so good with toasted pita wedges in the summer. I learned to make pita, and naan—an Indian flatbread that I love. If it weren’t for the fact that I still need to buy flour and cat food, I’d almost never need to go into the center aisles of the grocery store.
It’s the kind of resolution that works because, well, I like to eat, so I’m motivated. But also because I work from home, so it isn’t a hardship to have things bubbling away in pots on the stove while I’m tapping away on my laptop at the kitchen table. Or to mark my online status “be right back” so I can take a moment to go knead the bread dough and set it for its second rise. I also live alone, so I rarely cook full meals. I am all about the appetizer and salad sections of cookbooks. And this is why I first picked up Street Food—it was a book that dedicated to the kind of food you tend to eat in handfuls, without plates, on the run and while you were doing something else.
Skillingsbolle was the first recipe I tried, because I wanted a substitute for donuts (which are a total pain in the ass to make from scratch). I’ve made my way through others in a desultory fashion, but usually with good success: satay (marinated chicken grilled and dipped in peanut sauce), arancini (Italian fried rice balls stuffed with peas and ground beef or lamb), croque monsieur (a fancy French version of ham and cheese), okonomiyaki (a Japanese “pancake” that basically uses all your leftovers in a fried egg and flour batter). Some of the recipes are more labor intensive than I really would want for home kitchen “street food,” but there is no arguing with the taste of piping hot fried rice balls stuffed with a spoonful of seasoned ground beef and peas in a bit of tomato sauce. They are, as the authors point out, pretty much the perfect thing to do with leftover rice. I always have leftover rice.
In fact, Street Food is less of a cookbook than an extended series of postcards. Divided into continents (with Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia receiving the lion’s share of attention), the pages are dominated by vivid photographs of market and bistro scenes, pushcart vendors and floating farmer’s markets where boats are piled high with spiky fruits and bags sit on sandy floors filled with almonds and rose petals. (There is not a single health department certification to be seen anywhere). There is a “wish you were here” feel to the book:
Try going for a stroll through the streets of Innsbruck in winter. At sundown the air becomes redolent with spices rising from the huge containers of steaming vin brûlé, hot and bracing red wine simmered with sugar, cloves, spices and sliced citrus fruit. It celebrates friendship when shared in a grolla, which is passed from hand to hand and sipped while browsing the Christmas markets.
As a travel book, a window into other foods and cultures, Street Food is enticing—the kind of book designed to set you dreaming of far-away places and the great good things there are to discover. As a cookbook it has its frustrations, since the foods described and pictured aren’t always the ones they give recipes for. “If you're in the mood to discover Japanese cuisine,” the authors advise, “then shabu-shabu is a must. The onomatopoeic name of this dish comes from the sound of thinly sliced meat being plunged into boiling broth and then rapidly swished back and forth to cook it.” You will have to find another source for the recipe though, since they don’t give it.
There is no index of recipes or ingredients, perhaps because the book isn’t very long. And the recipes that are provided aren’t always as clear as they could be—one of the spices included in their satay recipe is cumin, but they forget to say how much to add. The guiding principle when this happens, as it turns out, is to season “to taste.” Cook until it is “to taste.” Add in whatever is “to taste.” This is excellent and freeing advice for the instinctive kitchen cook (I am not) but will result in a little trial and error for the not-so-confident cook (like me). I had to make the kibbeh (Middle eastern deep-fried meatballs) twice before I got them the way I liked (more mint, less parsley).
Instead, the book is more of a call to be adventurous, on a small, bite-sized scale. Diamanti and Esposito wander through Marrakech market scenes and African rail stations, Basque cafes and New York City street vendors, and they seem to be saying eternally to each other and to the reader, oh look, try this! Oh, now try this!
And as the scent of the warm cinnamon rolls in my kitchen can attest, it is well worth taking a bite.
Books mentioned in this column:
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She supported her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her college career and attending scholarships and financial aid loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. She has been in the book business for over twenty years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki has been a book reviewer for several magazines, her local public radio station and local television stations. She was one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network, and as Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet. Plus, she blogs at Will Read for Food. She manages all this by the grace of a very patient partner and the loving support of varying numbers of dogs and cats. Contact Nicki.