Street food is always an attack on the senses, yet some are far stronger than others.
A sensory experience as well as a window into a region’s culture and heritage, sampling street food is one of the most exciting ways to truly get a feel for a city. From the colorful stalls of Mumbai to the steamy evening hawkers of Taiwan, there are a host of bucket list street food markets for traveling foodies. But do your research first, as you may stumble across a fiery delicacy or two that you really weren’t prepared for…
China has a few usual suspects when it comes to street food (dumplings, ramen) but if you come across malatang, prepare for the heat to be turned up to 11. Heavy on Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilies, this dish translates to “spicy, numbing soup.” This one isn’t for the meek.
If you find yourself in Chongqing or indeed anywhere in Sichuan Province, then keep an eye out for these bubbling hotpots.
Tom Yum Soup
While this sour and spicy Thai soup might be a staple across the country, there are many ways of creating it, and one traditional way includes throwing in the fiery bird’s eye chili. Registering on the business end of the Scoville Scale (a measurement of spice), this chili takes the soup to another level of heat.
INSIDER TIPThe deeper the color of red, the more likely it is you’ll be searching for a glass of water to put out the fires in your mouth.
A number of stories abound about where chicken 65 gets its unusual name from. Reasons include everything from it being invented in 1965 to it using 65-day-old chickens to a chef once adding 65 chilies to the recipe. That last theory leads to the thought that if you could get through a plate of chicken 65, it would be an unmistakably good reflection on how tough you were.
The main thing to know though, should you come across this in the streets of Chennai, is that this super spicy deep-fried chicken does not hold back on the heat.
WHERE: Sichuan, China
Back to Sichuan again and there’s another dish with an interesting (and evocative) name. Roughly translating to “pockmarked grandma’s tofu,” it consists of pieces of tofu in a powerfully spicy sauce with ingredients that include garlic, green onions, broad bean paste, chili oil, and, of course, Sichuan peppercorns.
The numbing mala level of heat from the peppercorns make this another must-try if you’re in the region (if you dare).
A white, squishy fish cake steamed and tucked inside a steamed or grilled banana leaf doesn’t sound particularly fear-inducing, but their innocuous appearance can be deceptive. A classic street snack originating in Indonesia but widely found across Southeast Asia, it’s the inclusion of dried chilis blended in alongside turmeric, lemongrass, and curry powder that give the snack its kick.
Otak translates to “brains” in Indonesian and Malay due to their resemblance (rather tenuously) to brains.
Found across the busy stalls and markets of Bangkok and many other Thai cities, Som Tam is a green papaya salad that has a far bigger kick than the salads you’re probably used to. Not a salad in the way some might think, Som Tam is often filled out with salted egg, miniature dried shrimp, long beans, cherry tomatoes, and peanuts.
It needs to be filled out, too, as the incendiary frisson of the bird’s eye chilis might become too much.
Most street food doesn’t begin spicy; it depends on how hot you want to make it. And that’s never truer than with the humble taco, a classic street food that’s as versatile as it is popular. Head to the street food mecca of Mexico City for the most authentic hot taco experience at roadside vendors who are out from the crack of dawn until well after midnight.
Oh, and good luck if they throw in a generous sprinkling of almost-flammable habaneros chili on your dish.
With jerk chicken, it’s all about the sauce. Found at street food shacks all over the world now, this classic has its origins in Jamaica, and the BBQ’d chicken gets its kick from the marinade. While lots of herbs and spices can be used to create an ideal mixture to layer on the chicken, it’s the powerful scotch bonnet pepper—found across the Caribbean—that can really turn on the sweats and turn up the heat.
From Kingston to Montego Bay, head to one of Jamaica’s many roadside vendors for the most authentic jerk chicken experience.
WHERE: South Korea
Seoul has so many street food options, it’s practically an open-air restaurant itself. With its smorgasbord of vibrant night markets, you’ll probably come across the innocuous-looking tteokbokki. These chewy rice cakes are a street food staple all across South Korea, but their spicy kick could come as quite a surprise to the unsuspecting traveler.
If cooked in an overly generous amount of chili flake-laden gochujang sauce, these humble cakes can take on a fiercely hot form.
WHERE: Delhi, India
OK, so there’s plenty of fiery dishes on this list but here’s one that takes that description literally. Operating from a street stall in Delhi, Shukla Odeon Paan Palace sells the traditional Indian snack, made of betel leaf stuffed with areca nut and occasionally tobacco, on fire; they light it before it’s quickly swallowed.
Although it might look dangerous to some (and a bit gimmicky), it’s believed to have medicinal qualities, and the fire gives a (surprisingly) cool sensation inside the mouth.