Having travelled to different places around the world, I was able to experience various exotic cuisines and dishes. I enjoy trying out foreign foods, and I enjoy it even more knowing that what I order would not cost me an arm and a leg. In fact, in a lot of places I visit, I would try to find the thriftiest options to satisfy my hunger. Not only you get to save money, but I also get to mingle with the locals, use some of the language I picked up and savour authentic local cuisine.
Here is a list of my top six remarkable foods that would leave a lasting memory of your travels in the country, without busting your budgets!
1. Shawarma – the Middle East (شاورما)
This ever-so-ubiquitous sandwich is a wonderful fast-food delight for anyone living or visiting the Middle East. Throughout my 6 years in Oman and frequent visits to the UAE, shawarma became regular take-away food for the whole family. Shawarma can be found in a range of establishments; shawarmas are served in coffee-shops and restaurants in urban centres all over the Gulf region, especially near roads and streets. My favourite shawarma place is located in Muscat, on the old road between Qurm and Al-Khuwair. The coffee shop is small and local Omanis and Subcontinent workers gather to have a good meal and chat. The shawarma there was most memorable because my dad often buys from there.
Recently here in Cairo, I discovered new places to buy really scrumptious shawarma near where I live. A small take-away named ‘Aleppo Grill’ sells shawarma that it is almost identical to my favourite shawarma back in Oman. It was a very nostalgic feeling to savour it again, especially because I still miss my old life in Oman. In Egypt shawarma is popular, but it’s not as commonly sold as home-grown Egyptian fast-food like koshary.
The ingredients inside are sliced roasted meats, pickles, tomatoes, mayonnaise or tahina and sometimes even potato chips (fries). All of these are tucked in and wrapped up in thin flatbread. The most famous aspect of the dish is that the meat is roasted on a vertical spit, already spiced, stacked up in a cylindrical ‘lump’ and turned slowly. A large knife is used to ‘shave’ the meat once its cooked to allow the meat further inside the ‘lump’ to cook. The meats most commonly used are chicken and beef. After rolling the ingredients into the bread, it is toasted in a grill and then wrapped in paper to take-away.
The price of this filling sandwich is very cheap. When I was in Oman, a chicken shawarma costed only 200 baisas (or 0.2 Omani Rials). That would be equivalent to 1.81 MYR or 0.51 USD. Top that with 100-baisas worth of bottled mineral water and you have a dinner ready for just under a dollar! Awesome!
2. Koshari – Egypt (كشرى)
If someone wants to experience true plebeian Egyptian cuisine, koshari should not be missed. This dish is perhaps the most popular take-away food in Egypt because its so cheap, filling and convenient, and considered by some to be the national food of the country.
I had my first taste of koshari is when I moved to Cairo this year. Where I live in Tagammo’ Al-Khames, there are two great restaurants that specialise in koshari – Baba Hosny and Sayyed Hanafi. I’ve eaten koshari from both but I prefer the first one. Both are frequented by many people all the time. Most customers order to take-away, but one could also dine in although the seats are few (the restaurant encourages take-away orders this way). Although their main dish is koshari, they also sell other ready-meals like baked meat pastas and desserts like roz-bi-laban (rice pudding). These are also yummy and cheap, but koshari is still the best option.
Being a meal wholly composed of grains, legumes and vegetable ingredients, it’s suitable for vegetarians! Because of its lack of any meats, it became a cheap and filling option for the working class. To make this, there needs to be a base of pasta (usually macaroni), rice and fried vermicelli as a filler. At the same time, lentils and chickpeas are are cooked separately. When all of these ingredients are ready, carbs are mixed in the bowl with lentils and garnished with chickpeas and sliced fried onions. The meal is not complete until it’s served with a generous amount of special koshari tomato sauce, vinegar and if you like, spicy chilly sauce. When ordered take-away, the ingredients are layered with the carbs at the bottom and the legumes at the top, so it’s up to you to mix it up yourself.
The price of a koshari depends on the size of the container you order, but generally a medium-sized container will cost about 7 EGP. That would be equivalent to 3.43 MYR or 0.98 USD – less than a dollar for a very satisfying meal!
3. Pirozhki – Russia (пирожки)
When I lived in Sakhalin, Russia during the wintertime, these lovely baked buns are little warm pockets of joy. Pirozhki is an Eastern European street-food that is very popular all over Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, enjoyed by Russians and non-Russians alike. They can be found and sold in small counter-like vendors in the streets or in restaurants as a tasty snack.
If you’re wondering whether these are halal (permissible to be eaten by Muslims), those would depend on the vendors. When going about in the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, my father would only frequent ones that are owned by Central Asian migrants (Uzbeks, Tajiks, etc). They would prepare pirozhki with halal meat fillings. My father never bought pirozhki from an ethnic-Russian seller to avoid eating non-halal meats, but I am sure halal pirozhki would taste just as good as a Russian-made one since the recipe is fairly standard.
The pirozhki is a filled bun that is deep fried and glazed. The best thing about pirozhki is its filling. A typical meat pirozhok (singular of pirozhki) would be stuffed with a savoury mixture of beef or chicken, potatoes and onions while a vegetarian pirozhok would have mushrooms or cabbage instead of beef. Before being cooked in hot oil, the dough is shaped into a rounded oblong shape or a triangular shape to differentiate the different fillings within. Pirozhki fillings can also be sweet, with fruits and jams instead of vegs and meats. It is best eaten while hot, especially during winter. It is typically a take-away food, meant to be eaten on the go.
The strange thing about my experience with pirozhki is that I never knew its real name when I lived in Russia. I only found out that these little buns after my family had left Russia for Egypt. I feel much longing to return to Russia to savour these again one day.
The price of a pirozhok is not expensive at all. The exact price of it in Sakhalin I could not remember. However after doing Internet research, I found out that the price for a meat pirozhok in Moscow for one establishment is about 30 RUB. Vegetable fillings (cabbage, etc) would be about 24 to 26 RUB. A meat pirozhok would be around 0.51 USD. For a memorable experience, I recommend buying 4 or 5 pirozhki and take it for a picnic in the park in the summer or winter with friends.
4. Roti Canai – Malaysia (роти чанаи/روتي چاناي)
If I was to list all of the cheapest but most delicious dishes in the world that I know, it would probably be 70% found in Malaysia, and why not? Here the food is as multicultural as its people, and combined with relatively low cost of living and the people’s innate passion for food, Malaysian cuisine has much to offer even at the lowest of prices.
Roti canai is a pan-fried flatbread which traces it origins from Muslim Indian cuisine. It is likened to paratha and chapati – its possible precursors. The dish is adapted to Malaysian tastes and are loved by the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians alike. It is usually sold in small stalls called ‘mamak shops’ or in Indian Muslim or Malay restaurants across the country. It is a popular breakfast choice for a lot of people although it could actually be eaten in any time of the day.
The word ‘canai’ in Malay means ‘to toss up dough’, and it’s exactly what happens to the dough in the process of making rotio canai. In many stalls, the cook will prepare the roti canai right in front of your eyes. An expert in making roti canai would be highly skilled in the art of tossing the dough after kneading it with a rolling pin or hands. The dough is turned about in the air and stretches out. When it lands, it gets folded up into a rectangular or left as a round shape and placed on the pan with lots of oil.
I grew up having savoured roti canai in many different places in the country, and I don’t really have a preference for a particular restaurant. The recipe for it is fairly standard and I know what to expect when ordering one. A good roti canai would have a slightly crispy exterior while having a fluffy texture on the inside. When served, it is traditionally accompanied with a dhal (lentil) curry and another kind of curry of your choice (chicken, beef, fish, etc). To eat, one would tear the roti and dip the piece into the curry. Sweet-toothed customers may opt for sweetened condensed milk instead.
The awesome thing about roti canai you can have yours added with a filling of your choice. By doing so, you even alter the name of the dish! For example, if you want a plain roti canai, you’d just order a roti canai, but if you’d like your’s with egg inside, you’d order a ‘roti telur’: literally meaning ‘egg bread’. Common fillings include Planta (a brand of margarine), sardine, onion, cheese and kaya (sweet coconut jam).
The reason why the dish is so popular is again convenience above anything else. Mamak shops are as ubiquitous in Malaysian towns and cities, making it very popular among busy office workers and civil servants. A word of warning before trying out this dish – it is high in oil and carbs so eat in moderation.
The average price for a plain roti canai is 0.90 MYR (0.26 USD), but variants with fillings are slightly higher. Egg roti canai costs 1.50 MYR. The curries which accompany the roti are usually complementary. An accompanying drink to roti canai is ‘teh tarik’, a sweetened milk tea that costs only 1 MYR. Together, they cost less than 70 cents.
5. Simit – Turkey
These look a lot like doughnuts, but I believe that these are astronomically superior to its sugar-laden Americanised counterpart. Crispy and coated with crunchy sesame-seeds, these Turkish ‘bagels’ are a mainstay of street-food culture in this country. It’s commonly eaten for breakfast topped with jam or cheese, or as a snack at any time of the day (and can even suffice as a lunch or dinner if you like). It’s compatibility and value for money makes it loved by rich and poor Turks alike.
When visiting Turkey in 2009, simit became a kind of staple for us as a family because they were so easy to find. There were many carts selling these goodies around Istanbul, especially near tourist hotspots like Sultanahmet. Even the hotel we stayed in served cut-up simit as part of their breakfast buffet. We bought and munched on it frequently hopping between different parts of the city.
Simit is great just eaten on its own, without any toppings whatsoever. It’s a savoury kind of bread. The taste is best described as crunchy on the outside, but soft and fluffy in the inside (like most bread loaves). Wheat-flour is used along with yeast to create the dough. The dough gets rolled and shaped into a bagel/doughnut shape. The ring is approximately 15 to 20 centimetres in diameter, with being about 3 to 4 cm thick. Before being baked, the dough is coated in lots of sesame seeds to give it a crunchier texture.
This yummy treat costs only 0.50 TRY (0.21 USD) in at a simit-vendor’s cart, or 0.75 TRY in a simit restaurant chain like the famous Simit Sarayı. When paired with a cup of hot tea, it makes a fantastic meal even in times of economic crisis, costing between 1.50 to 2 TRY. That’s less than 80 cents for you!
6. Onigiri – Japan (おにぎり)
I have to admit here that I have not yet visited the Land of the Rising Sun, home of the much-loved sushi, sashimi, takoyaki and onigiri. Onigiri is a Japanese rice dish best known for its simplicity to prepare and the convenience to buy. Japanese households often make onigiri from plain leftover rice suitable for a quick meal or something to bring for a picnic. In addition, different varieties of onigiris are sold in convenience stores across the nation (7-11, Family Mart, etc.), providing locals with a cheap snack option anytime, anywhere.
Onigiri is a special Japanese sort of rice ball wrapped in a sheet of nori, or dried seaweed. It is usually filled with some sort of filling or flavouring, traditionally pickled plum (never tried it), tuna, chicken or just salt. It’s always savoury, never sweet. The rice is normal plain Japanese rice, not the vinegared version used to make sushi. The filling is placed in the middle of the lump of rice. Then as per tradition, the rice is rolled with hands into a ball or a triangular shape. A sheet of nori is then folded around the rice before serving.
My first taste of onigiri was in Malaysia. A land with passion for food, both local and foreign, Japanese cuisine was in high demand among the rising urban middle class. More and more sushi restaurants are popping up, with ramen and kombu appearing in major supermarkets.
Jusco is a large supermarket chain based in Japan which opened branches in Malaysia. In keeping with its Japanese origins, the supermarket also sells ready-made Japanese food of all sorts: sushi, unagi, takoyaki and onigiri. Jusco’s onigiri is not traditional – its sophisticated plastic wrapping indicates that a special machine was used to wrap the nori and rice in a perfectly shaped triangle. The flavours offered were chicken floss, tuna, squid and others which I don’t remember. They didn’t have the pickled plum onigiri, the traditional Japanese onigiri flavour. I chose chicken floss as my first onigiri.
After the purchase, I was a slightly confused on how to tear the plastic wrapping. It was made in such a way so that the nori and rice does not touch each other at all to prevent the nori from becoming soggy. I end up removing the nori from the rice completely. Eventually after buying it a few more times later I learnt how to tear and pull the plastic wrapping apart, so that the rice and nori ‘unites’ soon after and keeps its perfect triangle shape.
The taste was yummy and it was worth it! Other than the aesthetics, the nori’s crispiness had a nice contrast to the softer rice. The chicken floss filling tasted delicious as well, although I wonder how the pickled plum onigiri would taste like. Would it taste sour? I’m not sure. It was quite filling and it was enough as a lunch for me that day.
In Japan, the standard price of an onigiri at a convenience store is ￥115 to ￥150, equating to approximately 1 USD. The onigiri I bought in Malaysia was slightly more expensive – it was 5 MYR, or 1.42 USD. Visitors to Japan must make a pilgrimage to a convenience store (they sell everything there, no joke) and for those on a tight budget, onigiris are a must! You can’t say you’ve been to Japan without trying at least one!