From rum shacks in Barbados to Turkish workers' cafes, Ainsley Harriott heads on a flavour-finding mission in his latest street food series. Ahead of the Aussie premiere (8.30pm, 6 August on SBS), we chat to the chef about breaking bread and befriending locals.
Siobhan Hegarty

27 Jul 2015 - 4:02 PM  UPDATED 21 Sep 2015 - 10:35 AM

You travelled all over the globe for this series. Is there a common theme to street food around the world? With health and safety laws, street food can't be what it used to be. You can't have big fats of vats frying things on the street or flames bellowing out as people walk past. Well, there was a little bit of that going on in Amman, Jordan. At some seafood stores, you would choose your fish, then they’d weigh it, put it on a rack, spread it with a bit of sauce, and put it straight into these bin-like barbecue ovens with flames shooting out. The guys are burnt all over their arms. And the queue is down the road!

You visit Bridgetown in your ancestral home of Barbados. Did you see a new side? Definitely. I was taken out of my comfort zone going into rum shacks, which I hadn't really done before. Are they different to regular bars? I loved that when you walk into a rum shack, you don't say, “Could I have a rum please?” You get the bottle on the table and you drink. Sounds dangerous. If you've got your Missus and your kids with you, you're probably not going to visit those bars because it's quite male-dominated, fairly loud and there are lots of bottles of rum. If the cricket's on, God help you because the West Indians have been performing so badly. They're screaming and shouting and they're drowning their sorrows.

Was language a barrier in the places you visited?  I think you must go where the locals go. Hang out with them, hear their conversations and arguments, and eat the food of the people. Even if the language barrier is there, food will bring you together. In Turkey, I hung out at esnaf lokantası, simple workers' cafes. Don’t just eat their local cuisine, drink a mint tea, laugh and joke with them, smoke cigarettes – just enjoy it! It's all bonding. 

In the show, you’re often preparing dishes for local cooks. Were you trepidatious they might dislike your recipe? Of course! I remember the particular instance in Istanbul where we arranged to shoot a cooking segment at a cafe-bar. The butcher we were going to buy the meat from had gone to the mosque or something, so we had to wait an hour to get it. When the meat came back he didn't even mince it! I was meant to make skewers from a lump of meat! I had to take my knife out and start chopping wildly. Meanwhile, the cafe owner’s looking at me like, "What's going on? Hurry, hurry, hurry!"

What do you think home cooks can learn from street food? I think they can learn to be confident in keeping traditional recipes alive and not necessarily be changing things all the time. Something that's been around for generations has lasted the distance because we like it.

How has eating street food changed the way you cook at home? I've always liked food in the middle of the table; people helping themselves. The interaction is almost like the breaking of bread, like a religious thing. When we break the bread and share the wine, it brings us all together and creates conversation.

One last question, what would a dinner date with Ainsley Harriott look like? A romantic meal? I wouldn't know where to start! I still think of that lovely moment in Lady and the Tramp, remember when they're sucking the spaghetti? For me, it's got to be some pasta [mimes spaghetti kissing]. Everybody wants that! But it's not going to happen is it? You’re not going to get a girl who will snog you with spaghetti first time out, but you can try!


Ainsley Harriott's Street Food starts 8.30pm, Thursday 6 August on SBS.