When I was a kid my family and I flew from New York City to Puerto Rico for a funeral. It was November so we arrived in San Juan dressed in thermals, jeans and other vestments really not suited for the tropical weather. Upon arriving in San Juan we then had to drive for what seemed like forever in cars that lacked air conditioning from San Juan to Manati. Google Maps puts it in at 45 minutes but when you’re 11 and wearing NYC winter clothes in PR it feels like an eternity. My mom was unyielding regarding my requests to change clothes, please, I am SOOOOOOOOOOOOOO HOT, I am melting and doom, doom for me. Somewhere in what seemed like the eight millionth hour of our travels we stopped at a cuchifrito.
Alcapurrias, empanadas and whole green coconuts quickly made their ways into our hands and into the vehicles of our tios and titis. Fried fritters of dough made from flour or mashed plantain, filled with ground meat seasoned with cumin, coriander, fresh garlic, onions, achiote and cilantro. The delicious food pacified my childish grumpiness until we arrived at the house of one of my thousand relatives where I promptly changed into shorts and a t-shirt, eager to fall upon the task of getting a green coconut open to see what was inside. An aunt’s quick whack with a machete revealed that inside a coconut was really nothing all that interesting or delicious. When we went to the beach there were crunchy, salty bacalaitos to eat and iced treats, coquitos and piraguas. Driving around we saw people selling coconuts to drink, mangoes, sheets of pork crackling, all fresh and delicious. Of course, once we were back in NYC a majority of these foods were available. The corner cuchifrito offered a lot of these foods and more to appeal to the palettes of the neighborhood population who still want a alcapurria hot from the oil even if it’s cold outside. I seem to remember the food in Puerto Rico being better.
When I got older I started hanging out in Chinatown and used my very sparse pocket money for anime bootlegs and bowls of hot noodles. Thin slices of meat floated on an unctuous spiced broth, green crunchy bok choy breaking up golden disks of fat that floated on the surface. The smell of cooking cakes and noodles wafted through the air, the yeasty steam of buns making clouds that spilled onto the sidewalk. The discovery of an ice cream store that had not only strawberry and vanilla but taro, red bean and durian made me feel like I had stumbled upon something amazing. Bleary eyed mornings spent in train stations were made better with churros sold from trays balanced on shopping carts. Sugar and cinnamon would get everywhere when you bit into them, cascading merrily down the brown paper bag they were placed in. Bubble tea in the Village, zeppolis in Little Italy. Our small family was lucky enough to get to Europe a few winters ago and the smell of chestnuts being roasted in Rome and the taste of the fruit filled donuts in Bavaria are still fond memories.
The cuisine and food of a culture is important and the street food versions are a microcosm unto itself, satisfying the bellies of people on the go. With urbanization street food is common, meeting the needs of those who don’t pack lunches or are passing through with a bit of money and a hunger in their stomachs. The gamut of street food is daunting. Seriously. And the variations on a combinations of simple ingredients are enough to make some people throw down when it comes to the honor of their country, village or family’s version of the food in question.
Street food will reflect the cultures at play with the added bonus of being ready right now. Ramen stalls are common in Japan as well as octopus balls, teppanyaki and yakitori. India has many kinds of flat, quick breads filled with chaats, chutneys, kebabs. I mentioned what we found in Puerto Rico and the streets of Manhattan. Preserved eggs, fried dumplings and fritters, steamed buns, grilled meats from all parts of the animals, mammals, amphibeans, reptiles, insects, fish, mollusks, whole or chopped up for easier consumptions. Don’t forget it has to be washed down. Chai, Lassi, espresso, kvass, pulque, bubble tea, shaved ices with syrup, palm wine and even water are all for sale on streets around the world. An influx of a people group will affect the food carts as different ingredients, styles and cultural and religious taboos will necessitate different types of meals being available to people as they rush to work or play. Halal, kosher, vegetarian, dairy-free, and more are real world dietary restrictions that will often be displayed in signs. Not to mention the nostalgia of your favourite food just like mom used to make when you’re thousands of miles away from your homeland. The taste of home can strengthen the resolve of an immigrant population as they try to make their niche in a new world.
-What kind of street foods are available to the region? Boiled, steamed, grilled, fried? Sweet or savory? Is the food cooked on the street or at home and transported? Is the street food seasonal or year round?
-Most street food prices are very reasonable, making them a good place for the thrifty adventurer to grab a bite to eat on a budget. Who else goes there for an inexpensive meal?
-Where are the street food carts and booths located? Are they scattered throughout? Or are they concentrated in the business district? University district? Tourist area? Docks? Or is the food portable, peddled by men and women with carts, buckets and nets?
-Who eats the local street food? Is it a place where all classes come for a quick bite? Or do only the poor or rich frequent? Do people acquire the meal and run? Official seating area? Seating area made by the customers?
-How do the cooks heat/cool their food? Mundane means? Magic? Is there any kind of ‘show’ involved with the cooking, the burst of flames as ingredients are added, the telltale slap of noodles being doled into bowls
-What do they serve the food on? Is part of the food also the plate or bowl (a piece of bread)? Disposable bowls or plates (seashells, coconut shells, banana leaves)? Do people bring handkerchiefs or something else to hold pastries?
-Are they regulated in any way? Are there inspections of the carts?
-Are the food carts businesses run by individuals or are they sponsored by some organization? Do orphans sell pocket pies by the roadside to pay for school? Do monks sell beer to pay for construction projects? Do the wives of seamen sell hearty seafood stew to support widows?
-What dish is a must-try meal for the person passing through? Who makes it?
-Small street kitchens make for interesting terrain with lots of improvised weapons lying around…eh?
-Food booths and carts are places of great activity with regular customers. However, maybe some customers are there for more than the delectable noodle bowls. What kind of shady business is happening behind frying pans and rows of disposable eating utensils?
-Orphans selling snacks are turning up dead in the rich neighborhoods of the city. What is going on?
-A very popular food cart owner needs to PCs to retrieve a certain ingredient that is crucial to their business. The PCs are sworn to secrecy and offered a portion of the sales as their reward but are sworn to secrecy. Other people want the secret. To what lengths are the PCs willing to go to keep the food merchant’s secret? Who wants the secret? And what is it?
-Food carts keep exploding! The PCs are sent to investigate the cause of the combustible carts. Is it a coincidence? Insurance fraud? Revenge? A magical merchant’s equipment going haywire? Gangsters?
-A new religions has opened a series of food carts throughout the region and they are quickly becoming popular with the locals, carving up profits for other sellers. The PCs must find out what the big deal is about the food.
-Does your player prefer to eat indoors at a sitdown restaurant or do they prefer the people watching and cuisine of the food carts?
-What is their favourite street food? Who makes (food item) just like back home?
-Are there any vendors that you are a die hard fan of? Whose food you hate?
-How adventurous is your character when it comes to eating? Killing goblins might be a walk in the park but what about eating grilled starfish? Fetal chickens? Insect larvae? Are these a few of your favourite things or are you okay with a kebab and a piece of bread?
-Could you hold your own as a food cart chef? Or are you more comfortable on the eating end of the stick?
-What kind of cart do you always look for when you enter a new city?
What say you? What’s your favourite street food?