URBAN CUISINE

STREET FOOD: THE FOUNDATION OF OUR GASTRONOMIC IDENTITY

By Dagoberto Tejeda Ortiz

The first human beings whom populated our planet communed in order to survive. They all had collective basic needs to take care of, such as food, health, recreation, spirituality and safety. Their nourishment depended on what they had available around them: soil, water (river, stream or the ocean) or the air. The lifestyle of these first inhabitants was based on their creative skills, whether at caves, huts, along the river banks or the ocean.
Amid the process of forming families in villages, towns and cities, the nutritional offer became familiar and domestic. Thus, women, played an essential role as mothers, as well as leaders throughout the entire process.
At the rural level, family food was offered by the conuco. The conuco was a socioeconomic unit, of indigenous heritage, where a variety of food was produced and managed by a man, the father, as a farmer. He is then responsible for their harvest and production.
On the other hand, after some urban development took effect in our cities, the mother used to be in charge of the kitchen. She would go to the local market to purchase everything she needed to feed her family. Since the mother did not always find all the products in the markets, she would turn to the street vendors to purchase the missing items. These street vendors went around the streets offering homemade food.
As time went by, small mom-and-pop shops emerged in the poorest neighborhoods. These shops had modest and scarce cooking resources and products, such as firewood, charcoal, amyris, bananas, eggs, salt and avocados. Then came along the bodegas, offering certain consumer goods, such as beans, rice, butter, oil and salami. Some foreign products also made their way, hence also popularly consumed, like kerosene, codfish, sardines and herring.
With progress, the demand for food and diversity continued, and then small stands emerged, which were neither mom-and-pop shops nor bodegas per se, but street stalls specialized in one or two products, where only quality secured their demand. Some of these stands were known for selling dairy products, turnovers, sweet potato loaf and dulce de leche.
Now, let’s take a look at a farmer who commutes from his home to the conuco, carrying his food, coffee and ginger in a knapsack along with water in a special “air-conditioned pumpkin”. At lunchtime, he is ready to taste his food in an arbor or under a tree near the trenches, since he rarely prepares his lunch in such settings.
Necessity made agriculture a scarce possibility, and the scarceness of resources left little room for spending; hence the need for town meetings, where money was only spent on collective lunches for the attendees. Street stalls were the solution to all workers that commuted and could not go home during lunch time. However, these short-term solutions offered food in the vicinity of urban developments, yet disappeared once the works concluded.
As a result of the urban growth taking place in the cities, it was difficult for the workers to commute back home during lunch time. Fortunately, street stalls emerged to supply the workers with their food needs and make their lives easier. These transitory street stalls offered food, especially at lunch, and were conveniently located around work places.
“Fondas” arose in other areas. They were small and inexpensive restaurants dedicated to offering food especially at lunch and dinner time. Given the open nature of these so-called “fondas, some of them specialized in nightly meals during late hours of the night, to cushion the effects of a bohemian night and to mitigate the appetite of men and women, so that they could sleep peacefully. The fondas’ late night specialties were sancocho, pigs feet, soup, and tripe among others. These places were so deeply rooted in that public, until they became the go-to place for social gatherings. The most famous spot, once upon a time in Santo Domingo was “the Palace of Blanquini”, where you indulged at night what you couldn’t eat during the day.
Furthermore, the most attractive trait of the fondas was their offer of homemade food. They were generally owned by families who had special and secret recipes, passed along usually by grandmothers, from generation to generation. For these businesses, it was important to be original, creative and shape their own identity, to keep and continue growing their clientele. On the other hand, in the popular districts came out the socalled “picalongas”, whose specialty aimed at the late-night diners that shared a few drinks, or partied the night away. Such menu is already recognized nationally as a “Country Brand”, consisting of delicious fried plantains (tostones), ripe plantains and sweet potatoes. But these sides were never served alone, they are served with fried meat, such as bofe or longaniza, exquisite specialties, sacred ceremonial offerings of the popular culinary culture.
The secret of these types of picalongas is that there are no rules or fancy decorations, nor restaurants protocols. These are freestyle spaces, where patrons choose what they want based on budget and preferences. They are allowed to try the food before purchasing it and people decide if they want to sit by the curb, stand, or sit in an oily plastic chair that has been there since the dawn of time.
Also, there are some semi-improvised transitory stalls designed to supply the passers-by cravings. These spaces, decorated with some tables and portable stoves, are opened early in the morning offering coffee, hot chocolate and ginger. Once the morning is over, they get ready to quickly change their menu for the afternoon, where they offer specialties like Dominican tamales, pastries, Dominican-style kibbeh, dumplings, yaniqueques, chaca or chenchén. These are the go-to culinary sanctuaries where washing your hands is a must.
Located behind the small counters of the fondas and street stalls, or in the private area of the kitchen, there are small, improvised but permanent shrines, whose spirits are presented with special meals as an offering.
Nowadays, in most cities of the country there are luxurious fast food restaurants, mostly established by international franchises, that may also offer delivery services. This type of food, is not traditional and its seasoning is different. In fact, most of this food is made with foreign products and does not represent in any way the local gastronomy flavor and aroma. The main secret of homemade food relies on its tradition, ingredients, blends, seasoning, and presentation. There is a love-hate relationship between food and psychology. Below is a strange example that illustrates that premise. A welcoming gentleman, had several boiling pots of pork rinds in the early mornings, among some bushes in an interstate route between Santiago and Navarrete.
A big crowd used to desperately make their way over. Many bought them to go, but a large number ate them right there in the open air. After a while, the owner decided to rent a space and placed the meat and pork rinds inside showcases. As a result, the once famous street pork rinds stall went down completely. The moral of this story: People enjoyed the freedom of being original. Feeling free is relevant to be able to enjoy life and it is part of each person’s identity. Here is an example that depicts this statement. This happened in Santo Domingo right across Parque de la Independencia. Paco had a sandwich street stall, where sandwiches were served 24/7. Paco’s place used to be a social spot where people spent time or met with one another. Eventually, Paco ended up selling his business to someone else. The new owner wanted to make some changes to the place, so he would make it more comfortable for the patrons. Thus, he added windows, doors and air conditioning. These changes were not well received by the public. The sandwich place went down on sales right away. The owner, then, decided to go back to the original design of the street stall and his business bloomed again. The popular street food, the fondas’ and picalongas’ is a homemade food with the millenary creativity of the people, family recipes, hiding place of “culinary secrets”. Undoubtedly, it is the essence and the basis of the Dominican gastronomic identity. If we want to create a new Dominican gastronomy, we must include the elements that street food brings to the table. Our street food represents our identity as well as our essence and is definitely a tourist attraction.