From stinky tofu to fried water beetles, find the soul of a destination through its sidewalk snacks.
Fried Water Beetles, Bangkok, Thailand
A good source of protein as well as crunch, fried insects are sold at roadside stalls all over Thailand. But though you'll get plenty of snap, crackle, and pop sampling crispy grasshoppers, crickets, locusts, and mantises, the most popular bug snacks among locals (and the most challenging for visitors) are the fried giant water beetles, known as maeng da. These bugs, which are about three inches long and look like Brooklyn-variety cockroaches (on steroids), are fried in oil, sometimes with garlic and chili peppers, and then munched like potato chips. Maeng da are also ground up to flavor a popular chili paste, namprik—used in lots of other Thai dishes. Translation: You may have tasted these bugs, even if you didn't know it at the time.
Where to Find Them: Temple markets around the city, and along Khao San Road.
Image Credit: Pia en Tom/ Piatom.com
Reindeer Hot Dogs, Anchorage, AK
When crowds show up every March to watch the start of the Iditarod dogsled race, they stay warm by bundling up, rubbing their hands together—and snacking on sizzling, grilled reindeer hot dogs. The dogs (the ones in the buns, not the sled harnesses) are actually only part reindeer meat; they're also made with pork and beef, to offset the venison-like leanness and gaminess. Fans, who scarf them down with grainy mustard and onions, swear that they're way tastier than ordinary hot dogs. And if you're worried about eating Rudolph, take heart: The hot dogs you usually eat probably contain worse.
Where to find them: M.A.'s Gourmet Dogs, 4th Avenue and G Street, in downtown Anchorage.
Image Credit: Gary Wiviott
Biltong, Cape Town, South Africa
Introduced by Dutch Voortrekkers who colonized and traveled across South Africa in the mid-1800's, biltong—jerky made from the dried meat of exotic local fauna like ostrich, springbok, and kudu—is now sold in packets at Cape Town market stalls, at roadside gas stations, and in supermarkets. The meat, which is cured in apple cider or malt vinegar and then rubbed with spices (usually black pepper, coriander, brown sugar, and garlic), is addictively salty and chewy. It's also tough enough to withstand a nuclear holocaust (or at least a long flight layover).
Where to find it: Joubert & Monty's Biltong (joubertandmonty.co.za) has several stalls around the city, including at the Clocktower Center along the Victoria & Albert waterfront.
Image Credit: TNT MAGAZINE / Alamy
ABC, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The initials stand for air batu campur, or "water stone mix"—but this concoction is actually a variation of that universal Asian heat-beater, shave ice. Malaysians like theirs served in a plastic bowl with condensed milk, palm sugar, roasted peanuts, red beans, canned corn, and cubes of black grass jelly. This last ingredient, known in Malaysia as cincau,is a Jell-O-ish creation made from boiling a leafy herb related to mint; its taste has been variously described as "refreshing," "medicinal," and "like iodine."
Where to Find It: Streetside stalls all around the city, especially in Jalan Alor (Kuala Lumpur's red-light district-turned-outdoor food emporium).
Image Credit: Denise Soong
Stinky Tofu, Taipei, Taiwan
The smell may prompt you to run in the other direction, but devotees of this fried-tofu dish mob the carts that sell it. The, ahem, aroma (which even enthusiasts compare to garbage or manure) comes from the brine the tofu is soaked in before frying—a rancid broth of fermented vegetables and shrimp that can be up to six months old. After the tofu is dunked into the brine for several hours, it's deep-fried into crunchy golden cubes, then topped with a spicy sauce made from vinegar, sesame oil, shredded cucumber, and pickled Chinese cabbage. The taste is, reportedly, much milder than the smell—something along the lines of bleu cheese.
Where to Find It: Night markets around the city, including the famous Shilin Night Market, in the Shilin district, and the Linjiang Night Market, in the Xinyi district. Follow your nose.
Wild, wonderful street food: It's what sustains native snackers all around the world. And more and more these days, it's also satisfying intrepid travelers—visitors for whom eating like a local is both a genuine adventure and the purest expression of cultural respect. For street-food enthusiasts, it's not possible to "do" Singapore without visiting one of the city's infamous hawker centers; and the most quintessential Rajasthani meal is a steaming panipuri from a roadside chaat stand.
Of course, since street food really and truly caters to local tastes, it can present some daunting challenges to our palates. Authenticity and adventure aside, fried water beetles—and other roadside delicacies—can wreak havoc on digestive systems that aren't used to them. But before you judge an Ecuadorean favorite like roasted cuy, otherwise known as whole, spit-roasted guinea pig, remember the flip side: A good old North-American hot dog might easily nauseate a Buddhist vegetarian from rural Japan.
Check out the slideshow above to see what strange food made the list.