Cornucopia gets some street smarts 

The long and noble tradition of street food hits the festival big-time

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - Bringing the food to where the people are: Turkish street vendors deliver fresh, juicy watermelon slices in Istanbul. Turkey is the world's fifth most popular tourism destination.
  • Bringing the food to where the people are: Turkish street vendors deliver fresh, juicy watermelon slices in Istanbul. Turkey is the world's fifth most popular tourism destination.

I think the reason half of us travel to exotic destinations is to indulge in the fabulous street food we find there. So I was thrilled to see Cornucopia get down and streetwise this year with its Nov. 14 Night Market.

Night markets are one of the most familiar venues we Sea to Skyers have for sampling street food, even though only one of Vancouver's night markets, the original night market on Keefer Street in old Chinatown, was actually on a street.

Unfortunately, that night market is now on hiatus, leaving the title to various iterations of the legendary Richmond night markets. These are held in massive parking lots or staging areas amongst the wholesalers and big box stores along River Road. But what they lack in authentic street locale they more than make up for in exuberance, delivering wonderful food-and-more night adventures May through October.

While the Cornucopia event will be a heck of a lot of fun, there's no way the Whistler Conference Centre can come even close to generating the ambience of any real night market.

Nine times out of 10, your traditional night markets in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Istanbul or wherever you stumble on them are on busy commercial streets packed with garishly lit shops, even more eateries, and crowds of happy people grateful for the cooler evening air that spurs on appetites of all kinds. It all makes for a fabulously lively backdrop, bordering on multi-sensory anarchy.

But street food is never confined to night markets, even if that's how many first sample it. Like the name implies, street food is simply any food you can eat on the street, day or night, while on the go, sans table, sans tablecloth and, usually, sans cutlery, plates or any of the usual trappings of regular dining.

The idea is it's as tasty as it is fast and handy — a slice of watermelon when you're electrolytes have almost boiled right away in the tropical heat of Panama, or a hot bowl of spicy noodles boiled up over a single roaring blue gas flame, perfect comfort food to ward off the cool winds sweeping down the Chinese side of the Himalayas.

You eat standing up. Very few dishes, if any, to clean. And pocket change is usually the price. (A street vendor in, say, Chengdu would be thrilled to make the $45 price of a single Cornucopia Night Market entry working the whole day. Or night.)

We lucky world travellers might think street food is a modern, casual kind of thing, a product of the casual grazing habits of contemporary times. Not so.

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, street food is actually consumed by nearly three billion people every day around the world. For some, it's a supplement to what they might eat at home — a quick snack while at work or out and about for the day. For the many without cooking facilities or fresh water, it's the only meal they might have all day.

Until fairly recently, when savvy travellers realized they could and definitely should try the delicious fish tacos served by a street vendor at the seaside in Mazatlan or the best lamb kebab they'd ever tasted in Tunis, the bulk of Canadians had been stubbornly resistant to trying street food, conjuring up images of Delhi belly, Montezuma's revenge or whatever travellers' trots plagued the local area.

Street food was pretty much lumped in with the exotic starfish or scorpions on a stick — exotic enough to be ooh-ed and ahh-ed at, but never to be tried for fear of illness or just plain fear.

Worse, for centuries, street food suffered the stigma of being some kind of low-class fare strictly for the lower classes. Tut, tut and all that post-colonial rot. How foolish humans can be.

Street food actually comes from a noble tradition.

Street kitchens have been with us since ancient times. In an essay called "The Rise of the Restaurant" in Food: A Culinary History, Jean-Robert Pitt documents that throughout the world and throughout time, street kitchens — where someone can buy a pre-cooked meal for a modest amount of money — have always been the principal type of eating establishments.

The idea of preparing food and selling food all started with the ready market of peasants and artisans who were forced to leave home for days at a time to sell their goods at markets and fairs.

From ancient China to ancient Rome, we have archeological evidence of street food vendors. Small fried fish were street food in ancient Greece. In Rome, it was chickpea soup and bread.

Street kitchens from ancient China have evolved into modern forms today and can be found throughout Asia.

In modern Tokyo, we have yatai, or restaurants on wheels, where you can buy a variety of soups and noodles, some boiled in soy- or sake-based broths. In North Africa and the grassy scrublands of the Ivory Coast, we have vendors aplenty selling their shish kebabs.

In Europe and North America, we are finally seeing a street food renaissance. For sadly, the idea of street food had long vanished until people came to their full senses and realized how much they missed them — their fun, their conviviality, their ease, their convenience. And, best of all, their tasty offerings.

Yes, modern food handling and business regulations can put the squeeze on. Singapore has long since outgrown the local outrage of the 1980s when it was one of the first urban centres to move its street food vendors into carefully controlled areas where they had to buy licences, and health and safety standards could be monitored and enforced.

But we're getting used to all that. Now carefully regulated food trucks pop up on the streets of Vancouver as regularly as they do the streets of Polynesia and California.

Spicy tacos, satay sticks, grilled cheese sandwiches — you name it, some amazing street food is bound to be at a convenient location near you anywhere you find yourself.

So get your passport — your Cornucopia Night Market passport — and spark up your taste buds at one of the most convenient and comfortable locations you can think of at Whistler in the middle of November.

Bonus — you'll find more than a few of the finest liquid pairings to go along with your worldly tastings. Now there's something you won't find at your average night market.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who never passes up a street food stall.

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