Julia Alvarez, a Dominican and one of my favourite writers, once wrote that as a child in Santo Domingo the first thing anyone would ask when she or one of her sisters complained of a stomach-ache, was ‘did you eat anything in the street?’*
Dominican street food has a bad image. As it’s often unhygienic and sometimes unhealthy, that’s not surprising. There is no public health control over vendors, so eating ‘en la calle’ is at your own risk – you may be buying more than you bargained for, like a touch of amoebic dysentery to go with the snack. It’s up to the customer to exercise judgment: look closely at the state of the stall and the vendor before you decide to purchase. It’s worth the effort because along with all the grime and insects there can be some perfectly tasty and harmless treats.
A range of foods can be bought from street vendors: steaming corn on the cob, Middle Eastern-style kibbes (known as quipes in the DR), fried ‘chicharron’ (pork rinds) with casabe (cassava bread), pasteles en hoja (the Dominican version of ‘tamales’: meat and vegetables wrapped in a plantain leaf), empanaditas y pastelitos (savoury pasties), freshly squeezed orange juice. These vendors often congregate round public buildings, catering for the visiting members of the public who are compelled to spend hours waiting for the slow grinding wheels of bureaucracy to turn, as much as for the employees.
Chimichurris the Dominican version of the hamburger, a popular late night snack for people out on the town. At night, ‘chimichurri’ vendors and many others set up shop – as it were – in the main entertainment areas of the capital, most famously in the case of Avenida Lincoln north of Avenida 27, an upper middle class part of Santo Domingo, which has become a magnet for late night revelers much to the disgust of local residents.
Popular street food stalls line the Avenue, in contrast with the expensive bars and restaurants in the area. The clientele appear to blend effortlessly between the two types of fare on offer, in a rare meeting of rich and poor social classes.
Frituras – deep fried snacks like pasties – are the subject of much criticism, but their popularity as street food endures. On the healthy end of the scale, most street corners in the cities are graced by a ‘frutero’ – a fruit seller offering the most popular Dominican fruits: bananas, oranges, papaya, melon, passion fruit, mangoes and whatever else is in season. These are sold peeled and in portions as a street snack, or whole for you to take home. In my neighbourhood the ‘frutero’ calls every afternoon at 4:00.
I try to remember that this is a luxury not to be taken for granted.
*Julia Alvarez – Picky Eater – in Something to Declare, Algonquin Books, 1998
Arepitas de Maiz is a delicious side dish that can also be served as hors d'oeuvres. It is very easy to prepare and can be made by even the least experienced cook.
- 1 cup of cornmeal
- 1 cup of oil for frying
- 1/4 cup of milk
- 1 1/2 teaspoon of sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon of salt
- 1 teaspoon of aniseed
- 2 large eggs
- Mix cornmeal, milk, eggs, salt, aniseed and sugar.
- In a frying pan heat the oil over medium heat.
- Pour the mix one spoonful at a time into pan, making small thick pancakes.
- Fry till golden brown on both sides.
- Serve hot.