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Street food: Is it what's next?

Rick Bayless: Street food flavors are "gutsy, almost primal." (Culinary Institute of America)

Only Rick Bayless could make it look this easy. The Chicago chef sautéed cubes of potatoes in chicken broth until they were just soft. Then he added chopped Swiss chard, roasted onions and poblano chili peppers and cooked it all until the greens wilted. In went a dollop of sour cream and with a just a quick stir, he had a classic Swiss chard taco.

“The one thing I really love about street food is the thrilling immediacy,” Bayless told the audience at the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus in Napa Valley. “We don’t do it particularly well in the United States. But if you’ve been to other countries that are well-known for their street food, you walk up to that stall and you are immediately greeted from the sounds of food being prepared and the smells. The immediate preparation and immediate eating of it.”

Doing street food better is the goal of the CIA’s 12th Worlds of Flavor conference. More than 700 corporate chefs, restaurateurs and writers are here to learn from 75 cooks, hawkers, barbecue masters and authors about street snacks and global comfort foods. Many hope to turn a few of the recipes into the next culinary big thing.

At last night’s welcome session, more than a dozen chefs strutted their stuff. Roberto Santibanez, owner of food New York consulting firm Truly Mexican, made tortas, a Mexican ham-and-cheese sandwich that you can easily imagine popping up on the menu at Panera Bread or Cosi. Bobby Chinn took his five minutes to throw together a fragrant bowl of bun bo xoa, a Vietnamese beef noodle soup. If you haven’t heard of Chinn yet, my bet is it won’t be long before you do. The owner of Restaurant Bobby Chinn in Hanoi is fun, funny and oh-so telegenic. (You can check out his shows on the Discovery Travel and Living channel.)

Chinn started by adding roughly torn herbs to the bottom of a soup bowl, then cooked rice noodles on top. Next, he added sliced beef, marinated in lemongrass and garlic, into a pan, a touch of whiskey – “there’s a fair amount of alcoholism in my family,” he joked – Vietnamese nuoc cham sauce and stock. When the meat was just cooked, he added it and the liquid to the bowl. For garnish, he used peanuts, fried shallots and sesame seeds.

The global parade continued for more than two hours: Washington’s Mark Furstenberg, who recently opened G Street Food, made panzarotti, the original and far more ladylike version of our supersized American calzones. Musa Dagdeverin of Ciya Sofrasi restaurant in Istanbul used an enormous scythe to hand-chop meat for spicy kebabs that he served on homemade flatbread made in a wood-fired oven.

The only downside of the presentation? It lacked the immediate eating that Bayless touted as street food’s main attraction. But the patient audience was rewarded with an around-the-world tasting after the show. More than 50 bites showing off the flavors of Brazil, Greece, Italy, Mexico and Singapore were on offer.

Your trusty reporter did her best to eat as many as possible. Among my favorites: the roti prata, a stuffed Indian bread popular in Singapore; lamb keema with black garbanzo beans, Peruvian ceviche and Los Angeles Kogi truck chef Roy Choi’s spicy pork “al pastor.” (Yes, the hype about his food truck is deserved.)

The theme of this year’s event was planned two years ago, noted CIA’s Greg Drescher. But the timing couldn’t be better. Difficult economic times have tightened budgets but not our lust for culinary adventure. Global street food may be the answer to our cravings.

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  November 13, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Chefs  | Tags: Jane Black, conferences, street food  
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"sautéed cubes of potatoes in chicken broth "
That's not a saute, it's a simmer.

Posted by: wiredog | November 13, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Were there any sessions on how to deal with city zoning boards and health departments? Or how to organize politically to make it easier to start a street food business? Or how to maintain food safety on the street? Or how to get funding to buy a food cart? Although there is no end to the creativity and diversity of street food, the biggest barriers in the U.S. seem to be getting the funding and permits to get going.

Posted by: meander510 | November 18, 2009 2:20 AM | Report abuse

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