What is Street Food? Four Defining Factors
I recently responded to the question, ‘What is street food… is it a cuisine?’ The truth is, street food has evolved a lot in recent decades. It can vary greatly depending on where it’s being served. Southeast Asia tends to prepare their street food dishes in small mobile restaurants located in the the actual street, on sidewalks or in markets. In the West, food trucks and small versions of traditional kitchens with windows into the street are popular.
Regardless of where the food is being prepared and what’s being served, there are 4 defining factors in determining, ‘What is Street Food?’.
Small or Mobile Locations in Common Spaces
Street food is commonly prepared in a mixed use space or small kitchen near open spaces. In Southeast Asia vendors will start to set up their carts on the sidewalk and in the street as the sun starts to set. In cities such as Hanoi, busy streets packed with motorbikes and commuters during the day turn into makeshift restaurants with masses of small plastic tables and chairs for diners, sprawling across entire streets. Large versions of Christmas lights hang across dining areas and smells of delicious soups, fried dumplings and grilled meats are in the air. Happy diners, a mix of foreign languages and honking horns can be heard.
In some parts of Europe, small restaurants with windows cater to passersby selling gyros in Athens and doner kebab in Istanbul. Food markets are popular in Germany, Poland and Czech Republic with an assortment of grilled meats and other local snacks. Mulled wine is especially popular during seasonal Christmas Markets. In affluent European cities such as Copenhagen, street food can be found in the 30+ shipping containers they’ve converted into small restaurants in the covered space of Paper Island. Stockholm has created K25, a mixed use space with a variety of small restaurants and common seating indoors.
The U.S., England, Australia and New Zealand are home to a growing food truck scene. Cities like Los Angeles and London are home to hundreds of food trucks that can be identified on websites like Roaming Hunger and followed on social media. Cities like Melbourne have created food truck parks that are open daily with a bar, shared seating and a rotation of local food trucks. You may eat at a metal table in this part of the world but you’ll still enjoy common seating and your food will be cooked in a tiny kitchen, not too different from those found in Hanoi.
Without large brick-and-mortar location or lots of staff, a street food vendor is able to make their food for a fairly inexpensive price. This lower cost is then passed along to the street food consumer. In Asia this means street food vendors offer their dishes for around half the price of standard restaurants. The food is usually just as good and in some cases better than the restaurant next door.
In parts of Europe, kitchens may serve a restaurant but also have a window to the street. Buying a gyro or similar item from these windows is generally half the price what it costs in the restaurant because they don’t have to provide service. Usually there are common area places to sit nearby and eat with other locals and travelers.
Depending on a number of factors such as permit costs and licensing, food trucks in the West vary in prices. Generally, the food is as good or better than traditional restaurants and is sold at a lower price. Many people will go out of their way to eat at their favorite local food truck, such as the famous Kogi in Los Angeles.
Another benefit of not having expensive restaurant rent or lots of staff is that street food vendors can focus on their primary goal – making great food. In Chiang Mai, Thailand, this local Cowgirl serves up her famous stewed pork leg all day, every day. The only two menu options are a large portion or a small portion of the dish. A large is about $2.50.
I spoke to a third generation falafel shop owner in the town of Nazareth. He talked about having no formal culinary training but he made his first falafel at the age of 8, the age his son was now. As he talked about nearly 3 decades of experience making this single local dish he told me the story of how his father had passed the shop to him when he felt it was time. Then he described how one day the shop would belong to his son who was currently rolling my falafel. He looked up at me with a smile. It was a true family affair.
“The more street food we have, the more it’s embraced by every income strata, the better world we have.” – Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain is one of street food’s most well known advocates. He has spoken at length in his various TV series and written in books and articles about the culinary pleasure and value of street food. Additionally, Bourdain speaks to the sense of community that is developed around this dining style. When eating street food, customers sit shoulder to shoulder, slurping pho out of the same type of plastic bowl as their neighbor. In this moment, social status is stripped away. The only focus is on food and enjoying it with those nearby. This creates a strong sense of community, if even for a brief time.
In my own experiences, I made countless new friends of other travelers and locals alike while sitting in these community street food tables. Food and drink became the right ingredients for getting to know new people. Even if we didn’t speak the same language, a smile and nod went a long way. Social factors made no difference at those tables.
Recap: What is Street Food?
Street food can look a little different based on where you find it around the world. Though it may have started in the East, it is now spreading throughout the West in a big way. People are starting to catch on. Shared spaces, a focus on a small number of dishes, low cost and a sense of community are all great reasons to support this growing culinary trend.
Street food is also more than just great food, it’s a way to bring people together. Personally, I can’t get enough of it.
If you need more convincing, even the famous Michelin Guide is awarding street food vendors some of their highest honors.
We live in an exciting time for food! What do you think? I’d love to hear from you!