Saying yes to street food risky, but worth it

I rolled over, edged down my pyjama pants and wearily said: "Just stick it in".

So fatigued after driving the porcelain bus for hours on end, I didn't care much what the short Cuban woman - a nurse who was hosting me in her home in Trinidad - had loaded into the syringe she was about to shove into my behind. Drugs! I want all of them! That's what my nausea-addled brain was telling me, several hours after a dodgy drink or suspicious sandwich had sent me sprinting for the loo.

Miranda didn't speak much English, and I didn't speak much Spanish, and our limited joint vocabulary and hand gestures went nowhere near explaining, after the gut-wrenching experience had passed, what the mystery medical liquid she'd sent coursing through my body was. I'd seen her take the syringe out of a sterile packet. But still ...

"That probably wasn't a good idea," I said to my friend, after my wits had returned and we'd hit the road again.

It's also probably not a good idea to start an article about food in a foreign land by recounting how that food, once devoured, made an unwelcome return visit. But for many travellers, it's the reality of that month-long jaunt through India or the dream getaway to South America.

Hands up travellers who have ever taken a bite from something off a street vendor's stick and momentarily thought "this might come back to burn me"?

For me, there are too many to remember - and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Just say yes. It's the culinary philosophy that's seen me slurping fermented mare's milk in Mongolia, chomping chicken's feet in China and chowing down - or at least trying to - on silk worms in Beijing's Wangfujing street market. Memory of that skewered worm's shell-like exterior giving way to a nutty, mushy filling can still induce a full-body shudder.

But on the flip side of the horrid comes the extraordinary. One of the tastiest meals of my life was a plate of $1 tacos, bought from a street vendor in a backstreet somewhere in Central America and devoured while sitting in a gutter. I could only pity my new travelling companions who, with a chronic fear of bacteria, were fishing tins of tuna out of their backpacks that they'd brought from home.


And so, with a healthy dose of enthusiasm and carrying a bigger dose of Imodium, I set off on a trip across Mexico and Cuba recently, vowing that I would say yes to any weird and wonderful delicacies. Your salsa is made from the hottest of hell's own habanero chillies? Why thank you sir, plop a big blob on top. Street meat would become my best friend. With bumbling minimal Spanish skills, I would simply point to what the bloke next door was eating and get a big plate of the same. Bring it on, with a slice of lime too please.

That's how we came to be standing at 6pm one Sunday night, just hours after jetting into the sprawl of Mexico City, in a tiny taqueria on the city's backstreets that was teeming with young Mexicans.

The one-page laminated menu was in Spanish, so I approached the hot plate and pointed to what one of my neighbours was getting. One more?

Tacos al pastor is Mexico City's municipal dish - pork that's been marinated in chilli and citrus, cooked on the grill with fresh pineapple and shredded between soft tortillas. Cover it with a little onion, a punchy salsa, and a squeeze of lime and you've got a little bit of heaven on a plate. This is the real stuff: quick and cheap and sublime. The food most Australians call Mexican is unrecognisable in comparison.

I polished off those tacos, chased them down with a beer, and sat looking contentedly at my warped plastic plate, broken knife, and thought - this is pretty perfect. The cherry on top was the $3 bill at the end.

Drive 500 kilometres south-east of Mexico City and you'll hit Oaxaca, known as the culinary, artistic and cultural capital of the country. If you like to get your cook on, this is the place to do it. There are dozens of cooking schools that, for a very reasonable price, let you choose a five-course menu, take you to the local market to shop for ingredients, and school you in the Mexican way of whipping up a dish. We were at the market with the chef Oscar from Casa Crespo, buying ingredients for the local specialty Mole - a thick, rich, dark sauce containing chocolate and spices - when we spotted the grasshopper woman.

The last time I'd taken on an insect was at that street market was in Beijing. Footage of my friend and I heaving simultaneously over a bin remains one of the funniest and disturbing of my home movie collection. But when in Rome, or in Oaxaca ...

I asked the old woman, sitting on the footpath on an upturned crate, to show me how it was done. Down the hatch that grasshopper went in a second.

My blood pressure must have spiked as I put the little bugger on my tongue, crunched down, and thought ... yum. Salty, and sour and spicy, a little like popcorn but with legs. They've got nothing on silk worm in the disgustingness stakes.

We chased up the hoppers that night with elote - barbecued corn slathered in mayonnaise, cheese and chilli and drizzled with lime juice, bought for a buck off a street vendor - while sitting on the steps of the cathedral overlooking the zocalo, or central plaza. Street food is king in this country.

The further south we ventured through Mexico, the more adventurous our taste buds became. In the beautiful cobblestoned city of San Cristobal de la Casas, we walked a few kilometres on the road out of town to eat with the locals at a cantina. The idea sounded too good to be true - buy a drink, and they'll bring you a free plate of food. The more you drink, the more food you get, and better quality at that.

Inside the cantina - really a big shed - we ordered two beers and just nodded and smiled, clueless, when the waiter began reeling off some dishes in Spanish. The first course of tripe soup was hard to stomach. But as the beers flowed we were brought plates of slowly roasted pork, and a spicy chicken dish, and prawns, and so much of it.

Tallying the bill consists of counting the empty beer bottles on your table, if you're still in a state to count. The two rowdy Mexican men sitting next door already had empties spilling into a cardboard box propped under their table at 5.30pm, and were grinning at us gringos in their shed. Surely that bill of $120 Mexican pesos - or $8.60 - was a misprint? But no it wasn't, and we contentedly rolled back into town, down the main tourist drag past other travellers who were sitting outside at fancy al fresco restaurants. Those suckers were missing out.

Culinary communists

Cuba is a place not renowned for its refined sense of gastronomy. I was told by a friend to devour all of the economy breakfast on the flight to Havana, as it was likely to be the culinary highlight of my Cuban trip.

It was a warning I took with a grain of salt at the time. It turns out salt is an ingredient Cuban cooks are extremely fond of, and the ham and cheese sandwich on that flight was a taste of what was to come.

Cuba, locked in time since Fidel Castro overthrew the country's right-wing dictatorship in 1959, is known for its spectacularly crumbling buildings, its revolutionary heroes and its bitter relationship with the United States. It's not known for its food, which is completely understandable given the multitude of rations which make the going tough for ordinary Cubans.

In Havana we wandered into a cafe, recommended in a popular travel guide, and ordered the chicken. When it arrived, it was a thinly sliced piece of meat coated in salt with a salad of cabbage and cucumber drenched in vinegar. The salt dispenser was placed on our table, and whisked away after three minutes to give to our neighbours. Even salt shakers are rationed, it seems. After the spoils of Mexico, this meal - for eight times as much as what we were paying in Mexico - was a reality check.

We soon discovered the best, and most certainly the biggest, meals were to be had in the homes of the locals, who rent out their spare rooms to tourists to stay in. In a world of dual currency, the tourist dollar rules and locals earn a tidy buck for whipping up a feast. They'll usually sit down with you at the table and tell you fascinating stories about life under the Castro regime.

What little street food there is consists of pizza, ham and cheese sandwiches, soft-serve ice cream and peanuts served in paper cones. The pizza is not bad - a heavy dough base covered in cheese and ham, if you're lucky, for the equivalent of $1, and served on a piece of waxed paper. Some of the ham and cheese sandwiches, though, looked like they may have been sitting in their glass cases since before the revolution.

Perhaps it was one of those dodgy sandwiches, or a rogue ice cube in a mojito, that left me hunched over the loo a few nights later.

Whatever it was, it was worth it.

It's not that I've got a dietary death wish, and there are limits to what I'll shove in my gob. I'm not going to pop a mystery meat into my mouth if the filthy street stall is shunned by locals, surrounded by dogs and looks like its dishing up dysentery. But if there's an old lady with a pot who's doing a roaring trade in the local stew, I'm diving in head first.

Have you had good (or bad) experiences with street food while travelling? Post a comment below and share your stories.


Getting there

Most flights from Australia to Mexico City will transit through Los Angeles. It's a further 3.5-hour flight from LAX to Mexico City. Return flights from Melbourne to Mexico City on United Airlines start from $1600, including taxes.

Flying to Cuba is a little more complicated. Given the US embargo of Cuba, direct flights from the US are not allowed to land in Cuba, and you will have to transit in another country.

Cuba does not stamp your passport directly, but your tourist visa which is a separate piece of paper.

Be warned though - if you are planning to buy a box of Cuban cigars and will be stopping off in the US on the way home, US customs officials will grill you. I declared my cigars and eventually was allowed to bring them through, but it's entirely up to the discretion of the official.

Staying there

There's a multitude of cheap, good quality accommodation in Mexico. In Oaxaca we stayed in Hotel Azucenas, a mid-range, well-run place with a fantastic roof-top terrace, for $45 a night for a double room. In Puerto Escondido, on the Pacific Coast, you can live like a king for $35 a night. Our bungalow had a massive bedroom and kitchen and a private roof-top terrace strung with hammocks for watching the famous Mexican pipeline at Zicatela Beach.

In Cuba, the locals rent out rooms in their houses - or casas - for about $20 a night which sleeps two people. If you choose to eat there too, they will usually cook up a huge feast of pork, chicken or fish that you will struggle to get through, for about $8. The home-stay gives you a chance to get an insight into Cuban life, and your host will recommend another casa to stay in at the next town you're heading to.

Getting around

Buses in Mexico are great. They're cheap, reliable, air conditioned - a little too much some may say - and criss-cross the country. Check out ADO or, a website which compares the prices and routes of different bus companies.

All that can't be said of buses in Cuba. Patience and flexibility are your best assets here. You may turn up to the station with your pre-booked ticket, only to find that the bus has broken down and another won't come until tomorrow.

Cooking classes

Casa Crespo in Oaxaca offers four-hour cooking classes designed for people who love to cook but are unfamiliar with the cooking methods of Oaxacan cuisine. All classes are taught in English. It includes a trip to the local market to shop for ingredients ... and a fantastic feast at the end. Classes are $65.