The Real Reason You Should Eat Street Food

This post is by Ayngelina from Bacon is Magic

As travelers we want to experience all that we can from a country.

When you ask people how their impression of a place one of the first things they will talk about is the food.

And the foundation of any strong culinary heritage is street food.

Oaxaca street food
Oaxaca street food

Billions of people around the world eat street food, but in North America our over santized culture has been taught that it’s bad to eat street food.

It can be a very polarizing topic as some travelers are afraid that it is dirty, food that will make them sick and others see it as a badge of authenticity.

I have had some amazing meals in my life but the most memorable food experiences have been from street vendors: crickets in Mexico, bun cha in Vietnam, ceviche in peru.

In fact the first memory of a country tends to be something delicious I ate there.

You don’t have to be Anthony Bourdain and try the dodgiest food around the world but you do need to eat street food. Here are the most obvious reasons for eating street food that you have probably read before:

Safety: Food made with the freshest ingredients are made in front of you. If you don’t see them cook it you don’t need to eat it.

Makes you feel a little more comfortable especially after watching Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares.

oaxaca tortilla

Price: It doesn’t get much cheaper than street food and it’s saves many backpackers on a budget.

Culinary Authenticity: The food isn’t dumbed down like in hotel restaurants, it’s what the people actually eat.

Interaction with Locals: Typically you’re sitting on a low-slung plastic stool, seated around a communal table. The closeness of street food encourages conversation.

If you’re traveling alone it’s a great way to strike up a conversation with your dinner companions and make new friends.

These are all really great reasons to eat street food.

But guess what? They are completely selfish and only benefit the traveler. What about the host country? What do they get out of it? Here is the real reason you should eat street food.

It contributes to local economy

Street food
Helping the local economy

Small businesses build a country’s economy. When you give money to the woman selling empanadas you’re supporting her family, the family of the farmer she bought the ingredients from and everyone in between that picked, shipped and sold the food.

Instead of making faceless foreign multinational hotel conglomerates richer you can meet the people you directly affect.

Selling street food  provides income for people who would otherwise be unemployed, since entering the street food business only requires a few dollars set up and a good location. Selling street food changes lives.

These are local entrepreneurs who want to make a better life for themselves and are prepared to work hard to support their families. It’s not simply meat on a stick, it builds a better life and in turn, creates a stronger community.

You may look at that transportable stand and think it’s such a small act how can it make a difference? Do not underestimate the overall economic implications of street food. If you combine the efforts globally millions of dollars are exchanged each day.

The impact on local agricultural production is in many cases immense. Local farmers can sell produce locally rather than using pesticides and picking early to ensure they can export it. This is the ultimate form of the local food movement.

So as you spend a vacation hiking mountains, sunbathing on the beaches and drinking the local beer, don’t forget to stop by the stand on the corner because it’s one way to ensure you’re giving back to the country you’re enjoying.

What is your favourite street food?

Want more tips about finding delicious food on your travels? Check out The Food Traveler’s Handbook (Traveler’s Handbooks)

About the author: Ayngelina left a great job, boyfriend, apartment and friends to find inspiration in Latin America. Read about her adventures at Bacon is Magic and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

35 thoughts on “The Real Reason You Should Eat Street Food”

  1. I am such a big street food fan. And my Darling Man is even more adventurous than me.
    He likes to try the local food to see how it compares to the Vietnamese version. When we’re not traveling and eating street food, he likes to cook. I am so lucky!
    In Singapore we have been exploring the local hawker centres and food courts. I love Katong laksa (he doesn’t) and we are semi-addicted to chicken rice and the local version of rice porridge. Now the baby is old enough to eat with us, street food is even more fun.

  2. I like that I’m contributing to the local economy and that I can see the food being made…it doesn’t get any ‘safer’ than that!! I love street food and look forward to it wherever we travel. Cheers!

  3. Great post! Yes street food is awesome on so many levels. I always pick the vendor where there’s a horde of locals around it – if they are they you know it’s going to be good 🙂

  4. Great article. One of my most memorable meals was eating “oil can” chicken from “Shorty” in Kingston, Jamaica. Somehow Shorty had herbs and garlic and other bits worked in all the joints of that chicken. Not injected, but between the joints as it cooked in his roadside grill. Just a 55 gallon drum cut in half.

    I laugh because when I tell folks about this here at home, they always seem appalled! But here in the Nashville area, virtually every street corner has a stand selling Barbeque. On the street, off a grill. What’s the difference?

    Ralph

  5. Love eating street food. We try to sample as much as we can, even when at home.
    From hotdogs to pad thai, you can’t beat the street! 😉

  6. This is all well and good, except that the only time I delved completely head first into street food was when I had a falafel wrap in Jordan and spent the next two days being sicker than I have ever been in my life. Ergh. I thought my stomach was going to explode! 🙁 I wish I could handle the street food, because I do agree that it is a great way to experience the local culture.

  7. I used to be scared of street food. My first international travel was to Burma, where I was visiting family. I was so scared of getting sick that I didn’t want to eat anything because everything was sold on the street. Luckily for me, I kind of love food too much to say no, in spite of my fear of getting sick. I ate, I loved it and didn’t get sick at all! Ever since then, I’ve been a HUGE advocate for street food, although I haven’t always been lucky with not getting sick…

  8. Love this post! Ayngelina writes so thoughtfully about the matter. I used to just eat street food because it was cheap and tasty. Now I eat it because of my altruistic nature. 😉

  9. I love street food!
    Always head for the busiest place, if the locals are queuing for it, it must be good! That way you know its made fresh and its going to be good! Mmm, this has made me hungry!

  10. Grass Fed Steak

    When I was in Indonesia on the island of Sulawesi we ate at a number of roadside stands. Some of the best chicken I have ever had with some of the hottest sauce I have ever had. Also there were some pretty awesome fruits you just can’t get in the US. It is always nice to eat what the locals eat when you travel.

  11. When I was in SEA for 4 weeks I was sick almost every day and lived off immodium but I think it did a lot to strengthen my stomach because it´s been 11 months in Latin America and I haven´t had a single incident.

    You may ask why I was sick every day, its because I insisted on eating the sliced fruit and other things they warn you about. But pineapple on a stick was too delicious to pass up and worth every trip to the bathroom.

    On a more serious side. One of the other things I do now, and swear by, is eat yogurt every day. I´m convinced it´s kept my stomach balanced as I have been eating at places most would consider dodgy.

  12. Yes! Woohoo for supporting the families of the people cooking on the street, the farms growing the food, and the local economy! Really great post.

  13. I love the street food of Indonesia. One of my favorites is martabak in Bandung. I’ve also eaten rabbit and goat from some roadside stops as well as the roving food carts (kaki lima). The best though was this roadside stand in Bali that was serving up some delicious pork.

    Your advice to eat yougurt is great advice. I actually take probiotics whenever I travel and avoid antibiotics unless I really need them. Keeping your gut flora in check is a great way to be able to eat more street food.

  14. I eat street food at every opportunity!

    Several of my dream trips revolve around street food. Especially Vietnam – with the fresh local ingredients and French influences from their years as a French colony.

    I miss the street food I could get at lunch when I worked in Philadelphia. Various immigrant groups have their specialties – you can get something different every day. Falafel, polish sausage, fresh fruit. Yum!

  15. We were once told in Burma that “tourism is the people’s business – it helps locals.” Besides often being the best and freshest food around, I so agree with you that eating street food is one sure way try to make sure that the money you spend in a country goes to local people. Although it’s easy to get addicted to one stand, I do try to test out other stands just to be sure and also to spread the money around to several places.

    Another thing that I like about street food is that often the portions are small so you can mix and match from different stands and have an eating night with lots of little plates instead of one big dinner.

    1. Audrey I totally agree. I once talked to a hostel owner who begrudging offered a hostel kitchen. He knew he had to have one but wondered why tourists couldn’t spend the $1-2 for dinner and support the community.

      It made me rethink cooking and for the most part I try to find good places to eat rather than cooking in because its so cheap to eat in many countries in South America.

  16. Yum! The more I travel the more I look forward to trying food. I find it a bit more difficult in Europe and North America as some of the little stands can be great (fish & chips places in London for example) and other can be just total knock-offs. I have to say though that I’d rather pay for unsatisfying street food than unsatisfying food in a big fancy pants restaurant!

    I’m all for supporting local families, especially as the lines can become blurred on what you are really supporting when you travel.

  17. Christy @ Technosyncratic

    Great post! We LOVE street food and eat it every chance we get. India was a little scary because Delhi Belly is lurking around every corner, but whatever. Street food is totally worth the occasional stomach crisis. 🙂

  18. Street food is great! I especially loved it in SE Asia… you can eat dinner for $1 in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The only things I shy away from are drinks mixed on the street, with ice cubes (in some countries). Sometimes it’s not worth the risk 😉

  19. We thrive on street food! After a very slow drive from the U.S. to South America (currently in Colombia) nothing beats the street food in Mexico. One of the best things I have ever eaten was a mole negro tamal in Oaxaca city (right off the Zocalo). And who can forget the street food in Portland, Oregon 🙂

  20. Now this is an article on which i disagree on a lot of points. Firstly, street food is unhealthy, and we don’t really need a reason to know it but some people will contradict, so here are some points:

    1) Do they have a license?
    2) What about the dirt that might be falling on those foods…
    3) No regulations on the quality, perhaps the raw material was bad, how do we know unless we fall sick?
    4) It does not build economy, it actually disturbs the equilibrium of the foreign exchange. but that depends on where you are going. if the local countries currency is at par to yours, then it won’t be such an issue. Or if you get a cash receipt of the money you spent, otherwise it is as good as contributing to a black-money, that is non-tax money.
    5) Is the person even healthy – so many street vendors goes to work even if they are actually sick, because they are poor… imagine getting food out of sick people.
    6) look at the utensils used – it could be dirty, not properly washed etc.

    but, of course, the rest of the points you made are valid. street food can be used as a means to network with the real people of that place. My suggestion is, when you buy street food, search properly and choose a street food vendor that looks decent. Investigate it well before eating it…

    Nice to see the mention of farmers market, i recommend that completely.

    1. You must be an accountant, tax lawyer or some other type of bean counter. Get real… In the real world otherwise unemployed people wouldn’t survive if not for that “unlicensed” unsanctioned street food cart they push.

  21. joshywashington

    My favorite street food in Seattle is sauteed onion and cream cheese hot dogs served outside the dives in downtown…abroad, that would have to be pho in Saigon…it really doesn’t get much better!

  22. We eat street food in L.A. all the time- different taco trucks are our favorite dinner of choice. We did stumble across a few in Beijing that I questioned the quality and so we just didn’t eat there. No big deal though, we just kept walking until we found one we felt comfortable eating!

  23. Much to think on here. Thanks, Ayngelina.

    Addressing the point of healthiness, and referencing Uttoran Sen, “what about the dirt falling on these foods” – well, for starters, what about the crud that is being invisibly prepackaged into the gunk we’re so often served here in the amply refrigerated west? Street food is surely defined as food that is *simple*. It’s a few ingredients, put together a certain, cheap, mass-production-friendly way, and served. There’s no hydrogenated this and aspartame-saturated that.

    If we’re aiming for analyzing the overall health value of a dish, I can deal with a little “dirt” if it means a lack of processing. And if the concern about dirt is bacteriological, that’s why we should watch it being cooked, to make sure it’s heated properly, surely?

    I had gyros in Crete in a shop front that was basically someone’s house with one wall knocked down. It was cheap, massive and exquisite. I was instantly converted to the idea. However, my next experience of it might be Thailand – think I might need a little internal training for that one…

  24. Great post! I’m doing a chapter on the Philippines in a forthcoming book about street food, so this is lovely to read! When I left the states, the food truck movement was alive and well in NYC, LA and in my hometown of Chicago, so I hope that perception of street food is changing 🙂

  25. We love eating street food in Mexico, and like Ayngelina says, it’s a great way to meet fellow travelers and locals alike. We like to pick a vendor that’s serving a huge crowd of locals. They know good food!! Better yet, everyone around is all smiles.

  26. In my opinion it is the best way to get the taste of a country. I have rarely been dissapointed by streetfood but I cannot say the same for restaurants. It is much cheaper and like you said, you are helping a person directly. And as far as it comes to safety, I just eat where the locals eat. never been sick. I think i have had the best streetfood in India. Nice post!

  27. Hi Ayngelina, I’m from Vietnam and I strongly agree with your points on the street foods.

    I myself always try foods on the street when I travel, because that sure is “local taste”, which is hard to find from restaurants.

    In Vietnam there are street food on every street. Even in the very very low population area. A meal for lunch could be just from $0.5, amazing isn’t it?

    The only caution is your stomach. You should prepare for it slowly. Try a piece each day till you can eat a whole dish. First you will sure get stomachache. Don’t just rely on medicine, just drink lots of water and go to toilet. Your digesting system will adapt to it naturally. But if after 2 days you get worse, then seek for medical shop, otherwise it could goes on for month.

    Other than that, all street food tastes wonderful.

    Enjoy your travels!

  28. I’m a foodie and I love street food. I’ve tasted hundreds of exotic street foods in Vietnam and they totally win my heart. Street food plays an important role in Vietnam where you can see street foods are everywhere on the streets (on metal rolling carts, on bikes, at shoulder poles…). In the morning, Vietnamese people grab their fast breakfast at Banh Mi stalls, steamed sticky rice shoulder poles… At night they gather at snail stalls to enjoy delicious dishes from various kinds of snails, seafoods… and drink beer. It would be a big miss if we don’t talk about rice paper salad – an addicting snack in our country. Let’s come to Vietnam and enjoy street foods, you will never regret. To find best places to eat best street foods, you can join a motorbike tour which will drive you around the city and enjoy the dishes.

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