A few years ago, this chef was involved in a year-long study of consumer focus groups attempting to quantify their eating habits and predict the direction of their ever-changing tastes. One of the biggest complaints these consumers had regarding chain restaurants was: "They all have the same appetizers: chicken fingers, cheese sticks, wings and fried veggies of some sort, like poppers or onion rings. There's no variety...and, they're all fried. Can't we have some more interesting options?" This was heard repeatedly, no matter what city was visited. While many chains remain mired in appetizer mediocrity, independent restaurant chefs have been busy embracing global flavors and cooking techniques. Never before have American menus showcased so many paquetitos, or "little packages," of inspired Asian, Latin, Mediterranean and African creations, often reinterpreted and combined with classical cooking techniques.
Tasty Street Foods
The influence of global street food has been major and brought much of the world's cuisines to the U.S. in an affordable and entertaining way. It is the "food of the people" from many different urban cultures around the globe. Most street food is fast and eaten with the fingers. There is something about the immediacy of it, something comforting about taking the food directly from the chef's hand. Outside the U.S., street 'hawkers" tend to be "one-chop shops;" that is, they only make one thing, and they excel at it; their survival depends on it. Although mobile by nature, the business often has been located in the same place for decades. The recipe and, more importantly, the technique are passed down through multiple generations.
There also is something stimulating about eating outside. The aromas draw people in; flavors seem more intense and the colors more vibrant. To an extent, the first trial from a new vendor is a gamble. Customers' senses may be heightened by the adrenaline of anticipation. Also, there is little argument about the social interaction. Strangers chat in line and share the joy of eating something freshly prepared that often features bold, exciting flavors. The fact that the now-famous Kogi Taco Truck in L.A. can tweet its next location an hour or two into the future and find crowds eagerly waiting on that corner for them to arrive, already salivating for the signature Kogi Taco or the Blackjack Quesadilla, represents the newest wave of global infusion into the American culinary landscape.
American chefs have taken some of the world's signature street foods and reinvented them for their restaurants. Increasingly, restaurants have made it easy to dine on starters, taking their lead from the tapas-inspired taste for grazing. Appetizer sections are often the diners' source of three or more courses; a meal without the traditional entree. Starters are becoming the most exciting part of the menu, allowing chefs to be playful, creative, experimental and whimsical.
Global Foods to Go
The most common street food in Australia is the "sausage sizzle," usually a thin sausage or sandwich steak cooked on a barbecue and served on a slice of bread, with optional fried onions, cheese, mustard and tomato. A "pie floater" is a meat pie covered with tomato sauce and served on a plate of green pea soup, and it is served on carts around South Australia. New Zealand vans sell "kiwi-style" hotdogs (a battered sausage on a stick). The White Lady food van in downtown Auckland is a well-known icon of the city. Instead of white bread and sausage, G-Texas menus Venison Sausage Strudel with Stone Ground Mustard Dip. In Chicago, The Publican, a recently opened sister restaurant of Blackbird, offers pork (shoulder and loin) rillettes paired with pickled shallots and grilled slices of sourdough bread. Pie floaters beg to be remade as a seared cod, caramelized onion and chanterelle croustade "floated" in a watercress puree infused with za'atar.
On a recent trip, a street vendor in New York City offered delightful stromboli bites and served as a reminder of the many variants of that stuffed Spanish/Portuguese bread known as empanadas, which appear on so many appetizer menus. Empanadas are a very typical snack in the Dominican Republic and are made of fried dough, sometimes with cassava flour, called catibias. Fillings include cheese, chicken, beef and vegetables, or a combination of these. Multiple variations of empanadas appear throughout Latin America.
Back in the U.S., Los Angeles street vendors sometimes serve up a "two-bite picadillo empanada" filled with ground lamb and seasoned with tomatoes, capers, olives and mint. Nuevo Latino chef Douglas Rodriguez features many unique empanadas, using classic French techniques blended with Caribbean ingredients, such as hearts of palm in a Costa Rican Terrine with Coconut-Date Vinaigrette. Other Rodriguez creations, again tapping classic French techniques, are his versions of croquettes: Lobster Croquetas with Roasted Corn and Pepper Salsa or the equally creative Oyster Croquetas with Banana-lentil Salad and Horseradish Cream.
In Barbados, yaniqueques, similar to American Johnnycakes, are fried and usually eaten with salt and/or ketchup. Many New England eateries feature upscale appetizer Johnnycakes with peekytoe crab, avocado and lemon thyme aioli or Johnnycakes with braised fennel and smoked pork belly.
The quintessential Indian street food is chaat, a generic name for a tangy and spicy mix, whose ingredients can be quite varied. The tangy flavor often consists of lemon, pomegranate seeds, kala namak (black salt), tamarind and various chutneys. Papadums are found in North India and are a thin, crispy preparation sometimes described as a cracker or flatbread. Thomas Keller of the renowned French Laundry elevates the papadum in his Rouelle de Chou-Fleur, consisting of del real medjool dates, cilantro shoots and slivered almonds with madras curry papadums.
In northern India, roti is the collective name for all Indian breads. It has migrated across the globe. On the beaches of Trinidad, a version is sold on the beaches at night in lantern-lit stalls. Babor Cha Cha, a Malaysian fusion restaurant in Boston, offers up Roti Canai, with a small bowl of spicy chicken curry as a dip, or Roti Telur, featuring the same dip; however, the bread is stuffed with onions and green chilies. The famed Straights CafÈ of San Francisco also offers two roti appetizers: Roti Prata, a crisp, griddled Indian flatbread with yellow curry dipping sauce, and Murtabak Roti, stuffed with savory minced beef.
Along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, whole green almonds and roasted olives are sold from carts on the streets of Syria during the spring. In summer, prickly pears and whole fresh pistachios are sold. In Washington, D.C., at BLT, this writer discovered a delicious bar snack of Orange and Rosemary Baked Olives, exhibiting the citrus influence of North Africa. Chef Thomas Keller menus NiÁoise Olive Croquettes with Heirloom Tomatoes, Petite Basil with Tuscan Garlic Cream. Chef Michael Symon of Clevelandís Lolita serves a simple appetizer of sliced almonds and red pepper flakes that are added to sautÈing pancetta and then spooned over roasted dates. It can be addictive. Sometimes chef Symon will take the leftover dates and purÈe them to be used as a spread on croutons or served as a condiment with a cheese course. Iranian street vendors roast beets over charcoal and sell them to shoppers wrapped in newspaper. The Publican in Chicago tempts with a bowl of fruity yellow beets and smoked trout dressed with pomegranate, apple, pancetta and fromage blanc.
Finally, a common thread of equatorial cuisines is the banana leaf. A testament to human ingenuity, the simple banana leaf is employed as a jacket to hold various foods while steaming. In Singapore, there is a dish known as otak otak, a French-style quenelle. Instead of the traditional poaching, it is steamed in a banana leaf. Su-Mei Yu, author of Cracking the Coconut, wrote a recipe for miang khum, an appetizer of shrimp, lemongrass, peanuts, coconut, ginger and chilies baked in a banana leaf. The Banana Leaf Restaurant in Houston has built a menu around the leaf. Popular appetizers include Chicken Satay, Mango Calamari or Steamed Flat Rice Noodles with Curry, all wrapped and served in the protective leaf. In Puerto Rico and Trinidad, traditional pastelles employ the leaf. Tanya Holland of the Food Network recently did a show featuring Trinidad beef pastelles with grilled pineapple and roasted red pepper coulis.
In the Yucatan, traditional tamales are commonly steamed in banana leaves. In this area, a pit oven called a pibil is lined with hot stones and covered with wet leaves. Food wrapped in banana leaves, like pollo pibil, are laid on top, and then covered with more leaves to steam. Restaurant Chichen Itza lists two appetizers wrapped in banana leaves: a steamed tamale with spinach, roasted pumpkin seeds, hardboiled egg and tomato sauce. The other is called vaporcito, a soft tamale with a chicken-achiote sauce.
One could write a book on all the interesting American variations on global classic street foods. This article would not be able to accommodate all of them. Still, in the growth phase of America's culinary heritage, there perhaps has never been as exciting a time to get creative with appetizers. Inspiration is all around.
Chef Craig “Skip” Julius, CRC, CCS, CEC, is owner and senior culinologist for Sterling Culinary, consultants to the food and beverage industry. He received culinary training at the CIA and earned a food science and nutrition degree from Wayne State University. He has held a variety of executive chef positions, then served as director of R&D, Big Boy Restaurants, and manager of product innovation, Nestle FoodServices and product development manager, Gordon Food Service. Chef Julius holds several professional certifications from the Research Chefs Association, American Culinary Federation and others. 440-821-9880, email@example.com