Trinidad smells of herbs. The markets of Istanbul reek of frying mussels and grilling fish. In San Juan roasted pork perfumes the air, and in Amsterdam the vinegar sharpness of pickled herring wrinkles the noses of passersby.
Washington's streets, though, if they smell of food at all, smell of hot dogs. The most evocative souvenirs of any trip are the remembered aromas. And in the nation's capital only plain old anonymous frankfurters will be recalled as the street foods of Washington.
Sanitation to the nth degree is what seems to be this city's culinary guideline. Not health (what food is in greater disrepute than cholesterol-laden, fatty, nitrite-tinged hot dogs?). Not charm. Not art. Not public service. Not education. Not comfort. No, it's sanitation, or some perversion of it, that dictates hot mashed meat, kept steaming all day so that it wrinkles into senility, as the safest food for public consumption in the streets.
The food carts of Washington sell hot dogs, half smokes, frankfurters and more hot dogs. Occasionally one might have meatless egg rolls (more factory-tasting even than the hot dogs) or meatless chili or meatless pizza that Italy would disown. And, of course, there are candy, soda, potato chips, sometimes pretzels and occasionally, thank goodness, freshly popped corn. Meat cannot be prepared on the cart or even heated to order, according to Washington's regulations. Hot foods must be held at over 140 degrees -- all day if necessary -- and cold foods must be prewrapped. Even so, the carts are inspected several times a day.
Is Washington any more vulnerable to bacteria than New York? Why is it that the streets of Manhattan bubble with the aromas of tempura frying and shish kebabs grilling over charcoal? On a single block of 6th Avenue the hungry can eat Korean shrimp dumplings, knishes, felafel fried to order and kofta or chicken kebabs. In fact, sizzling away on the streets of New York, an estimated million dollars' worth of food a day is being sold by 6,500 vendors, whereas Washington has only 244 licensed vendors.
New York has no limitations on the kinds of foods to be sold, but instead treats the carts as if they were restaurant kitchens and inspects daily both the carts and the depots where the food is purchased. Like any restaurant, a vending cart is required to have sneeze guards, hot and cold running water and a hooded venting system.
Beyond hot dogs, on the carts of New York there are kebabs to represent nearly every corner of the Middle East. A few steps away one might find saute'ed chicken with onions, peppers and tomatoes, stirred in its pan right in front of you. A Soup's On cart serves a half-dozen different soups made each day from homemade stocks and all fresh ingredients, while Cinthya and Robert's cart has sausage sandwiches. To drink, oranges are squeezed instantly, lemonade has been made from fresh fruit. And streetside desserts range from Dove bars to grapefruit-campari sorbet -- sold from a cart called Cone an' the Barbarian. Pita is the staff of life for New York's sidewalk lunches; in Washington it is spongy squishy hot dog buns. True, no illnesses have been reported from Washington's street-vendor food. But then, none has been reported from New York's, either, according to city authorities.
A few years ago a felafel vendor migrated from Manhattan to the sidewalks of Washington's Adams Morgan section. His felafel were not only among very few available in this city, but they would have been contenders for the best even if competition were fierce. And so he was discovered and touted in the press. And then he was closed down by the city -- to return to New York, where he had long operated unhassled.
Is felafel more dangerous than a hot dog?
Only in the halls of the District Building. Tabletalk
*One wonders about the top of the ladder at Morgan Guarantee Trust in New York, where the employe cafeteria forbids smoking, but the executive dining room has cigarettes on the table.
*You can save the trouble of unloading your groceries at Sunnyway Foods markets in Chambersburg, Pa. After choosing your steak in the meat department you can have it cooked and served to you in the supermarket's own restaurant.
*Marriott hotel and resort chefs are nowadays being taught more than cost management and portion control. Twelve chefs annually are being sent for two weeks each to the tiny village of Mougins, France, above the Riviera, to be trained by three-star chef Roger Verge'. Can we expect mousse de foie with sauternes aspic in the Atlanta Airport Marriott coffee shop? FELAFEL (Makes 8 sandwiches)
If you want to munch felafel on the streets of Washington, here is a recipe to make your own:
3 cups cooked chick peas (two 15-ounce cans), drained
2 to 2 1/2 cups crumbled bread, preferably pita
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh coriander (optional)
3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Oil for deep frying
FOR TAHINA SAUCE:
1/4 cup sesame paste (tahina)
2 cloves garlic, mashed
6 to 8 tablespoons lemon juice
8 pita breads, cut in half
Diced tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions
Rinse and drain chick peas. Soak crumbled bread in cold water to cover for 5 to 10 minutes until softened. Squeeze bread dry. In a food processor or blender combine chick peas, crumbled bread, lemon juice, garlic, coriander, parsley, cumin, salt and peppers. Pure'e well and taste for seasoning. If possible, let rest in refrigerator a couple of hours. Dampen your hands and form mixture into walnut-size balls. May be refrigerated or frozen at this point. Fry in 2 inches oil at 375 degrees for 2 or 3 minutes or until felafel balls are golden brown. Drain.
In the meantime, make the tahina sauce: combine sesame paste and garlic in a small bowl. Whisk in lemon juice well until paste is pale, adding water a teaspoon at a time until it is the texture of runny mayonnaise. Add more lemon juice to taste; it should be quite tart.
To serve: Split pita breads and stuff them with felafel balls. Top with diced tomatoes, cucumbers and scallions and shredded lettuce. Spoon on tahina sauce.