Let’s be honest, street food doesn’t have the healthiest reputation. Empanadas and corn dogs haven’t helped.
But for every German currywurst, there’s a Bahamian conch salad that ranks high in nutritional and hygiene terms and will fire up your taste buds too.
From brain-boosting berries to raw fish that’s good for mental wellbeing, here’s a round-up of nutritional all-stars from the streets of Cairo to the Brazilian Amazon that will have you joining the line at hawker carts for all the right reasons.
BRAIN FOOD Açaí, Brazil
An açaí smoothie bowl is a brunch mainstay at any self-respecting hipster café these days, but nothing compares to tasting the Brazilian superfruit on local soil, especially at £1.50 a pop at local street food stalls.
In Rio, açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) is traditionally blended with a fruit-derived syrup called guarana, and topped with crunchy granola and sliced banana. Edge closer to the Amazon rainforest (its native home), and you’ll find the texture just as velvety, the overtones still chocolatey, but it’s unsweetened, in true purist fashion.
And news flash – açaí aren’t even berries!
They’re actually drupes, distinguished by a central pit. Whilst it’s no secret these drupes are loaded with antioxidants (thanks to anthocyanins, which gives them their rich purple colour) and top the internet’s lists of healthy foods to eat, a study by the University of Adelaide published in Neuroscience Letters lifts the lid on their brain-boosting and neuro-protective health benefits as well.
Read more: How to lose weight in your 40s
SUPER SPUDS Shakarkandi, India
Shakarkandi in India is what fondue is to Switzerland.
Found in North Indian markets and bazaars, the popular tangy and savoury winter street food snack is a guilt-free alternative to fried aloo chaat. Street vendors or chaatwallahs typically roast lengths of tubers on embers and then toss the smoky cubes in a special blend of ‘chaat’ spices and tamarind chutney. Sweet potato fries may be a millennial food obsession, but fossils reveal these sweet-tasting root vegetables were growing in the Americas 35 million years ago!
One serving of shakarkandi delivers a whopping 400% of your daily Vitamin A quota; essential for both eye and cardiac health. And, despite their starchy rep, according to the American Diabetes Association and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, sweet potatoes are the new diabetic superfood thanks to their low-glycemic index (GI).
SLOW FOOD Ghoulal, Morocco
Who knew the humble garden pest, also known as ‘congo meat’ or ‘les escargot’ had such an impressive nutritional resume. Hippocrates was the first to document the health benefits of snails, and almost 2,500 years later, nutritionists are agreeing with his sage advice.
A legacy from Morocco’s days as a French colony, ghoulal is served in a peppery broth laced with some 15 different spices (like anti-inflammatory licorice root and antispasmodic caraway seed). Between the snake charmers and merchants hawking amulets in Marrakesh’s Jemaa el–Fnaa Square, you’ll find street food vendors selling steaming vats of snails.
Start by plucking out the fleshy morsels with a toothpick, then slurp down the soup. As well as being virtually fat, carbohydrate and sugar-free, the lean protein snack is rich in L-lysine, an essential amino acid that’s proven to be an effective treatment for Herpes, according to a study by the Southern California University of Health Sciences.
CANING IT Asab, Egypt
On the dusty streets of Cairo, the rumble of a cane crushing machine will lead you to this sweet elixir – a milky green liquid and Egypt’s national drink. Arabs cultivated the bamboo-like stalks here as early as 641 AD, and today, sugarcane is served up by juice vendors across the city for less than £1.
We don’t want to preach to the converted, but not all sugars are bad. A natural diuretic, sugarcane juice will rehydrate you faster than H20, and is widely used in the traditional medical system of several countries.
Packed with free-radical-fighting antioxidants, there’s now growing evidence it can keep the Big C at bay too. According to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, a natural compound found in sugarcane has been shown to inhibit the growth of both breast and prostate cancer.
GETTING INKED Ikayaki, Japan
Just the idea of Japanese tentacle street food may make you queasy, but we’re not squidding when we say these torpedo-shaped cephalopods will be your new favourite sake-pairing snack.
Basted in soy sauce, then skewered and grilled over open flames until juicy, you can find this healthy meal-on-the-go at yattais (small food stalls) and pushcart vendors, across Japan. Unlike calamari (ikayaki’s deep-fried alter ego), ikayaki is a health junkie’s wonder food. A great source of vitamin B-12, immune-boosting zinc and thyroid-stabilising selenium, what really stands out is its excellent copper profile – crucial for absorbing and metabolising iron.
According to the UK’s Royal College of Nursing iron deficiency anaemia causes more than 57,000 emergency admissions to hospital every year.
Read more: Why is eating alone so popular in Japan?
SOME LIKE IT HOT Somtum, Thailand
Thailand’s rich street food culture hardly needs an introduction. If you see a toothless Thai grandma pounding a giant clay mortar with a wooden pestle, she’s probably making somtum, otherwise known as green papaya salad.
Each Thai region has their own variation, but the salty, sweet, spicy, sour and bitter explosion in your mouth is the same. Into the mortar goes garlic, chillies, fish sauce, palm sugar, tomatoes, yard-long beans, hog plums, Thai eggplant, and the dish’s star ingredient: unripe, shredded green papaya.
A study published by The British Journal of Nutrition discovered raw papaya was one of the number one sources of carotenoids (natural pigments), delivering three times the amount of tomatoes and carrots. As well as reducing your risk of macular degeneration, carotenoids are anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor and effectively lower cholesterol levels.
TAKING STOCK Pho, Vietnam
Vietnam’s answer to our morning bowl of Coco Pops, pho (prounounced ‘fuh’) is literally medicine in a bowl, thanks to a powerhouse of anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense ingredients.
Sold from hole-in-the-walls across the country, the aromatic broth is fortified with vermicelli rice noodles, strips of lean beef or chicken, crunchy bean sprouts, and topped with a mountain of greens like basil and heavy metal-absorbing coriander. But it’s the chicken and beef bones (slowly simmered for hours), which harbour it’s healthy eating healing powers.
A storehouse of essential amino acids and minerals, these bones are a rich source of collagen, essential for a healthy gut – the frontline of your immune system. The Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology found that gelatin and collagen effectively supports intestinal health and integrity, whilst Medical GP and author, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, praises bone broth for “healing and sealing” your gut.
NO RAW DEAL Ceviche, Panama
Hailing from the coastal regions of South and Central America, this unprocessed, low-carb and low fat food is best eaten no-frills. Panamá City’s fish market, Mercado de Mariscos, is a good place to get initiated.
Pull up a plastic stool and devour ceviche de corvine (white sea bass) out of Styrofoam cups, washing it down with a cold Panamanian beer. The fresh, lean and raw seafood (like tilapia and cod) effectively “cooks” in the acid of the lime for around five hours, before being tossed with cucumber, coriander, lycopene-rich tomatoes and fiery chilli.
In its natural state, fish’s omega-3 fatty acids remain intact, which is good news for our mental health, since low levels have been linked to depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. Research published on Science Direct unlocks their fast-acting antidepressant powers.