The Culture of Street Food
I was watching, well actually bingeing, Netflix’s Street Food the other night and I began to crave everything I saw on screen. I’d have done anything for the supposed best Tom Yum in Bangkok. During the Osaka episode I texted my partner, “I need to try okonomiyaki, I’m finding some”. Since it was 2 a.m. he wisely suggested we go the following day.
There was a flaw in my plan. I live in the least diverse town imaginable. Probably an exaggeration but sometimes it feels that way. We have some amazing taquerias that I frequent with such regularity I no longer consult the menu. However, aside from Mexican food, there isn’t much else in the way of flavorful, spicy, fare. What little there is caters to an audience with a less adventurous palate.
To find and eat okonomiyaki would mean having to make the dreaded 45 minute drive to our more metropolitan neighbor. I spent 20 minutes switching between google and yelp, searching menus, scouring reviews, until finally I settled on something.
Then, I watched the next episode. India. At once my meticulous planning was foiled. I needed chaat. The episode transported my eager tastebuds back to India. My nostalgia craved frankies from Mumbai, vada pav from Pune, and jalebi from Delhi. It even spurred a vague childhood memory of my uncle coming to our house to make pani puri. I’m transported back to my parent’s kitchen as my dad sauteed onions over a sizzling pan. The aroma of onion, chile, and masala filling the air. And my grandma’s kitchen before that.
I texted my partner again, “scratch that. We’re getting Indian”. That’s the cliff notes version of what I sent him. What actually followed was five messages with links to photos and menus, incoherent rambling about Indian food in India, and my insatiable hunger for spices. He, of course, enthusiastically indulged me.
As I got deeper into my research I found a food truck with a very high rating and decided this had to be the place. Yet despite the glowing reviews, I was hesitant. Could a food truck in a gas station parking lot really be this good? Maybe it was highly rated by people who didn’t know south Indian food from Punjabi food. Maybe I was driving for 45 minutes on a Saturday afternoon for nothing.
Yet, it was decided. We were going to Sunnyvale, where wikipedia tells me that about 40% of the population is Asian.
Our drive consisted of me — having skipped lunch to ensure a robust appetite — anxiously discussing what I would order.
When we pulled into the parking lot I knew what I wanted. Sev puri, chana bhatura, and a mango lassi. Did I want more? Yes, but did I need to rein myself in? Also, yes.
The line was long and other than a white father and daughter duo, the rest of the customers were Indian. As I listened to their accents I knew some were recent immigrants, others long time residents, and some were born here. Despite different walks of life we had all crossed paths for this one thing.
It reminded me that nostalgia and flavors can weave together on our tongues and how these common tastes, so evocative of personal memories can bring people together.
The food was phenomenal. The sev puri was crunchy and tangy, the lassi cold and sweet. The chana bhatura I saved for the following day, which was a godsend for my Sunday hangover. They had even included a to-go container with red onion, pepper, pickle, and a lime.
On another trip to Sunnyvale, and a different Indian restaurant, I watched as the tables filled up again with South Asians. These flavors are traditional and might not appeal to many western palettes. Yet, I remain curious and hopeful that as we see this immigrant population begin to establish itself we might see these flavor profiles evolve and mix with the surrounding food cultures to create new fusion foods and bring people together.
Food has the ability to remind us of home, of our families, of history. For so many food is a sacred experience, one that we often share with the people we care about. I’m excited to have found this special place I can go to be reminded of that.