The rising popularity of food trucks during the past decade has brought a renewed interest in street food, including places unaccustomed to big-city food carts peddling bagels, hot dogs or pizza: Walk through Times Square in New York, and you can smell the crust burning.
Food trucks allow for niche marketing, from Korean barbeque to Vietnamese pho, cupcakes to ice cream, fish and chips to grilled cheese. Taqueria trucks are most popular around here, but another one manages to stay in business hawking health-food smoothies made from acai, explaining “It’s ah-sigh-ee, y’all.”
My introduction to street food came almost 50 years ago when I was lucky enough to be appointed as a student summer missionary to Semarang, Indonesia. One of my responsibilities was to hang out with university students so they could practice their English.
Midway through the summer, a student friend named Hadi invited me to lunch. After taking me on a harrowing ride through crowded streets on the back of his scooter, we arrived at a string of food stalls perched on the edge of a roadside canal.
We sat at an outdoor table, and Hadi ordered a platter of local delicacies, all fried. Bound by the important custom of accepting hospitality, I was obligated to eat some of each and act happy about it.
I soon learned the real meaning of “nose to tail” cooking. My first sample looked like cubed steak, but it turned out to be goreng paru: fried cow’s lung. Spicy. The next piece was clearly brains, also beef. I had eaten pork brains scrambled with eggs as a growing boy in Georgia, but these bore little resemblance.
We went on to eat crunchy chicken chitterlings (usus goreng), which were actually quite tasty, along with a few other items.
The most memorable dish looked and tasted like liver but required no chewing. When I asked what it was, Hadi cheerfully replied, “Fried chicking blood!”
We’ve long known the ancients enjoyed a variety of street foods, and a beautiful illustration of that recently came to light when officials with the Archaeological Park of Pompeii announced the discovery of an open-air eatery in the former city of Pompeii, on the southwestern coast of Italy.
The prosperous city was destroyed in 79 CE when Mount Vesuvius erupted, sending waves of superheated gas that killed people and animals alike, then burying the city in a deep blanket of volcanic ash and pumice.
Because the destruction happened so quickly and preserved many structures so well, archaeologists have been able to uncover homes, temples and streets. They even managed to recover life-sized images of the volcano’s victims by pouring plaster into cavities left after bodies decayed beneath the solidified ash.
Many buildings in the city were brightly decorated, including the recently uncovered street food stall, known as a thermopolium, which was located at a popular intersection that included a fountain and another food stall. It’s one of 80 such stalls known from Pompeii but is particularly well preserved.
The angular counter was adorned with fresco paintings of ducks hung up for slaughter as well as a proud rooster, suggestive of fare that passers-by could purchase along with hot drinks. A larger image of a Nereid nymph riding a stylized seahorse may have been related to the nearby fountain.
A painting of a fierce dog on a leash may have been a reminder for customers to keep their dogs away from the counter. The skeleton of a small adult dog was found just behind the stall, but it was more likely a pet than a potential hot plate.
The stand was built to hold earthenware pots where food could be cooked or kept warm by a fire beneath. A preliminary analysis of bones and food remnants in the pots turned up the evidence of ducks, pigs, goats, fish and snails, some of which had been cooked together.
Ground fava beans from one jar suggest that it contained heated wine, to which fava beans were sometimes added to adjust the color and taste.
I love Mediterranean food, whether it comes from a restaurant or a street vendor. Wouldn’t it be great if the story should inspire a new “Pompeii Delights” food truck with similar paintings on the sides?
I’ll try the roasted goat and duck soup combo, please, with a side of snails and a cup of that fine spiced wine.