“Yao, bu yao?” asked the old man, pointing at a large jar of what looked like snakes preserved in vinegar. I was in the Chinese city of Kunming. I had ordered a bowl of noodles and clearly this was what you were supposed to eat with it. Fortunately, my limited grasp of Mandarin was sufficient to decline his offer with a polite “Bu yao.”
These two small words had a remarkable effect. The old man dashed into the back of the restaurant and started conveying his excitement to his wife with words that I imagine went something like this: “There’s a foreigner out there who speaks REALLY GOOD Chinese!” For the rest of the meal, I was attended to with utter charm by the old couple, who were clearly thrilled by their “Mandarin-speaking” guest.
The point of this small tale is that when on business, stepping outside the dreary routine of room service or the hotel restaurant can be a way of experiencing not only delicious local treats but also of making contact with the people whose country you are visiting of in which you are doing business.
Business travellers frequently complain that they rarely get a chance to get to explore their destinations. While it might not be the same as seeing the famous landmarks or visiting the museums, eating on the street or in small local restaurants can be one of the best introductions to a country, city or its people. And for time-conscious executives with back-to-back meetings, these unassuming eateries have one added advantage – speed.
In the Chinese dumpling houses of Shanghai, for example, the velocity with which waiters dash around with baskets of dim sum is remarkable. This is fast food of a different kind altogether – and whether it is dumplings or noodles, the food is freshly cooked and delicious.
In Asia, the great thing about street restaurants is that they are everywhere and they almost never close. In Bangkok, if you arrive late at night, it’s possible to check into one of the many business hotels on Sathorn Road one minute, and find yourself sitting on a plastic stool tucking into some tom ka gai (coconut chicken soup) the next.
To do so you need to head to Suan Lum Night Market, about 10 minutes walk from most of the hotels in this area. With hundreds of small stalls packed with candles, clothing, handbags and craft items, the market itself is worth a visit (it was set up to support local artists) but at the entrance to the complex, dozens of food stalls serve up spicy snacks to hungry shoppers until about 11.30pm.
The variety of dishes is available here is striking – everything from coconut curries to satays and spicy green papaya salads. Look for the stalls that seem to be attracting the most diners to be sure of getting the best food.
When it comes to avoiding food poisoning or stomach upsets, the thing to remember is that there is safety in numbers. When locals are queuing up to eat at a place, you can be pretty sure that not only is the food is good, but the turnover is such that it is also fresh.
Of course, the interior décor can sometimes be a little off-putting. At Peking Canteen – one of the busiest restaurants in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital – mouldy plaster walls line a plain interior with plastic chairs and tables whose only noteworthy feature is a collection of kitsch gold plastic tissue boxes. But from inside this small restaurant next to the Psah Thmei (or New Market) are served some of the best dumplings outside China. The menu is extensive, although the gut soup and green pepper with shredded stomach are perhaps not the most appealing options. The thing to have here are the dumplings; hot, tasty and authentic, they are best dipped in vinegar and chilli sauce.
Some of these establishments may be listed in travel guidebooks. More often, however, it takes a bit of investigation to track them down. Usually the best source of information is word of mouth and the recommendations of local colleagues, expatriates or a helpful hotel concierge.
The added bonus of seeking out local restaurants is that it can also take you to parts of a city you might not see during the working day. In Hanoi, for example, some of the best Vietnamese noodle shops are to be found in the Old Quarter, the ancient commercial district.
After eating a bowl of bun bo (beef with vermicelli, roasted garlic, coriander and crushed peanuts) or pho (noodle soup), this is a wonderful area in which to get lost in the whirl of activity and noise. Here everyone is busy and narrow, winding streets are vibrant with people hammering away at tin boxes, sewing up tailored suits and trying to sell you everything from herbal medicine to motorcycles.
The countries of south-east Asia, with their spicy foods, outdoor culture and 24-hour lifestyle, provide rich pickings for those on the hunt for local meals. However, other parts of the world, too, offer tempting cuisine out on the street.
The fresh produce markets of Mexico, for example, are good places to head for when seeking out local snacks. While you probably don’t need a sack of cactus leaves or a large watermelon, in the markets where these things are sold, snack stalls are never far away. And there is little to beat a few freshly prepared quesadillas or tacos with salsa on the side.
If you’re lucky, a roving mariachi ensemble will serenade you while you eat. They may be slightly out of tune, but listening to these musicians deliver songs whose passionate lyrics speak of machismo, war, revolutionary heroes, love, death and betrayal certainly makes a change from sitting through yet another power-point presentation in a corporate conference room.
Sarah Murray is writing a food book, “Moveable Feasts: the Incredible Journeys of the Things We Eat”