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The World’s Five Best Cheap Meals

Jodi Ettenberg, the author of the new Food Traveler’s Handbook, shares the most memorable street-side eats she’s had in her journeys from Turkey to Thailand.

I never used to focus on street food as I traveled. Meals were a necessity of course, but not the intense source of learning that they have become in my years of moving around the globe. I started my travels in South America, but it wasn’t until I made it to China that I began to plan my days around my taste buds. While each city has its higher-end restaurants, I prefer to focus on the cheaper places: the markets and street stalls and tiny restaurants tucked into someone’s living room. Not only are they a wonderful scene of chaos and color, but as a traveler you are afforded a chance to observe the movement and patterns of local culture while eating. My favorite spots to view the world are from the vantage point of a tiny plastic food-stall table at the side of the road.

Not only is street-side eating fascinating, but it’s cost effective, too. Here are some of my memorable cheap meals:

1. Chicken, Noodle, and Garlic Soup in Luang Prabang, LaosThis soup was my first meal in Laos after a hectic border crossing from Thailand, and consisted of a simple but rich broth, perfectly tender chicken, and curls of fried garlic. Soup might not be everyone’s breakfast of choice, but cooked with such complementary flavors it was hard to resist. I bought it at a tiny stand near the Nam Ou river, the blue tablecloths catching my eye as I wandered past the stall. Cost: $0.80

2. Lamb and Eggplant Kebab in Istanbul, TurkeyI love lamb and I love eggplant, so it’s no surprise that I was thrilled to eat as much of both as I could while visiting Turkey. Lucky for me, they are often served together, rubbed with spices and grilled to perfection on an open fire. This was from a tiny corner restaurant near the Bosphorus, where the staff spoke no English but did not need a translator to see how much I enjoyed their food. A bonus: the colors on the plate made for beautiful foods to photograph. Cost: $4.65 for the plate

3. Tea Leaf Salad in Mae Aw, ThailandIf you travel to northeastern Thailand, you’ll find an incredible array of Isaan foods to choose from, like the Som Tam salad below. These meals are a big change from the Thai curries and pad thai noodle dishes we know in North America. But travel even higher still, to the tiny towns clustered on the border of Myanmar, and the cuisine changes yet again. This was from Mae Aw (also called Ban Rak Tai), a village north of Mae Hong Son primarily inhabited by Chinese who fled China after its 1949 civil war. The dish was a sour tea leaf salad with soft warm pork, onions, tomatoes, and fresh herbs, served as a side dish to a braised pork and sticky buns. A delicious feast. Cost: $3

4. Mutton Tagine in Zaita, MoroccoThis photo was taken at a tiny roadside town on the drive to Fez. Driving in Morocco was harrowing at times, but it also afforded one of the best food-finding tricks: if the truck drivers and shared taxis are stopping for lunch, you want to stop, too. With many hungry drivers to feed, the popular stalls had a quick turnover for their foods, a good rule of thumb for ensuring you eat fresh ingredients. In this case, the photo was from a tiny, dusty town of Zaita, its main road lined with dozens of tagine restaurants, the ochre pots bubbling softly on the fire. The speciality was mutton tagine, softly braised in the tagine pot with peas, vegetables, and spices. After almost three weeks in Morocco (and many tagines later), it remains the best one I’ve had. Best eaten with strong, spicy harissa as a condiment, to counter the fattiness of the meat. An excellent lunch for a long afternoon of driving ahead. Cost: $3.50

5. Som Tam Salad, Chiang Mai, ThailandOne of my favorite dishes from Thailand is Som Tam, a green papaya salad that is sweet and spicy all at once, and made with a large wooden mortar and pestle. The green papaya is chopped in thin strips, serving as a base for a broad range of other ingredients: dried baby shrimp, palm sugar, chilis, garlic, long flat green beans, tomatoes, and topped with peanuts. All are thrown into a wooden bowl and beaten with a pestle into a colorful plate of food. Each Som Tam vendor makes the salad with a personal touch (and ratio of ingredients), so you rarely eat the same dish twice. Best served with a side of grilled chicken or grilled pork, and a basket of steaming sticky rice to help counter the spice that makes your eyebrows sweat! Cost: $1.50