One of the best chicken biryanis I’ve tasted to date was on the corner of 25th and L Street in Washington DC.
The aromatic rice had just the right bite, richly flavoured with ghee and a smorgasbord of spices; the chicken was cooked to perfection, it simply fell off the bone. For sides, I had picked a rich tomato-based chickpea curry and a refreshing raita (yoghurt served with cucumber and chopped coriander).
All of this was neatly served and packaged in a styrofoam box and handed to me out of a bright saffron food truck plastered with gaudy pictures of said biryani and the other Indian specialties it served.
Yes, you read right – a food truck.
Last year, the humble food truck got a Hollywood boost in the dramedy Chef starring Jon Favreau. The story centred on a professional chef who quits his day job at an LA eatery and starts a food truck business, following a public altercation with a food critic. Besides the close-ups of tummy rumbler food, witty dialogue, and divorced-dad-reconnects-with-son moments, it cast a spotlight on an American institution.
Apparently, Americans and food trucks share a long history, predating even modern automobiles. Even its name has had several avatars from chuck wagons to roach coaches to its current (albeit more palatable) moniker today.
According to History.com, modern food trucks stem from two separate dining traditions dating back to the 17th century. Chuck wagons, for instance, catered to the hungry cowboys working on the vast Wild West. “Chuck wagon cooks, called ‘cookie’ by their appreciative diners, would wake as early as 3am to stoke fires, bake biscuits and do all the other work involved in feeding scores of hardworking men.” With separate areas for pot storage, washing up and food preparation, the chuck wagon is said to be “the most direct ancestor of the modern food truck.”
Meanwhile in urban areas, the pushcart (which was not equipped for preparing and cooking food) provided pre-packaged sandwiches and fruits to garment workers, construction men and delivery boys in larger cities like New York and Chicago.
The ice cream trucks of the 1950s were the first to ply their trade in modified vehicles, becoming the precursors of the present day motorised food trucks. The 1960s saw the arrival of the larger “roach coaches” that often sold tacos and burgers.
Their somewhat self-explanatory sobriquet stems from their then questionable hygiene standards as well as “their practice of setting up shop in construction lots or dirty alleys.”
That has since changed and food trucks are now seen as affordable lunch, dinner or snack time alternatives for professionals and students on the go in many American cities. In fact, patronising them is even considered hip.
Wikipedia states that this change in mindset was partially fuelled by recessionary measures that saw the laying off of some established restaurant chefs, who then sought their fortunes by selling their specialties out of food trucks. Budding chefs, too, use this as an avenue to road-test their culinary mettle. Often specialising in one or two signature dishes, these trucks offer new cuisines and tastes to the man on the street, who might otherwise be unable to afford it. Not surprisingly, food trucks are now even Zagat rated.
Such is their popularity that they are also reportedly being hired for weddings, school dances and birthday parties, or for art festivals and movie nights.
By their very nature though, food trucks are hardly stationary and often ply different routes. Fans can track their movements via social media like Facebook or Twitter. These even provide updates on new menu items or location changes. Peckish Washingtonians can refer to the handy real-time map called Food Truck Fiesta for the current locations of their favourite food trucks or use the nationwide mobile app called Roaming Hunger.
New to the food truck phenomenon? No worries. There is always Yelp and Top 10 lists of current hot favourites. Even Barack Obama reportedly once tweeted that his favourite food truck is DC Empanadas.
As for me, I rue the day I failed to note that food truck’s name and so I can’t even track it. Other trucks selling Indian food nearby have not measured up either. However, in my quest for that unforgettable biryani, I’ve made other delectable discoveries from Greek lamb gyros to Vietnamese beef noodle soups and waistline-widening cupcakes.
I still occasionally check out the corner of 25th and L. Maybe one day, our paths will cross again and this time, I’ll commit that food truck’s name to memory.
Brenda Benedict is a Malaysian living in Washington DC. She’s been resolutely avoiding a popcorn food truck with the most alluring aromas. You can now follow her at www.facebook.com/SambalOnTheSide