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As travelers we want to experience all that we can from a country, from learning about the way of life to trying the local cuisine. You may have traveled to a country and noticed vendors selling street food on the side of the street and wondered whether it’s something you should try.
We’re here to tell you not to turn your nose up and keep walking, street food is an integral part of some country’s culture and offers an authentic, and affordable, way to eat.
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.
But what is street food? Why is it a thing and why should you try it? In this guide, we’ll share with you what street food is to most cultures and why you need to try it on your travels.
What is Street Food?
Billions of people around the world eat street food, but in North America our over sanitized 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 or that street food that will make them sick – whereas other travelers 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 City, bun cha in Vietnam, ceviche in Peru, and Moo Ping (grilled pork) in Thailand. Heck, even hot dogs from a food trucks in New York City counts as a street food.
Street food has been enjoyed by people all over the world for centuries. It originated out of necessity, as a way to provide affordable and convenient meals to the working class who couldn’t afford fancy restaurants or elaborate ingredients.
While street food is found all over the world, the history can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as Rome and China, where poor urban residents relied on street vendors for their daily sustenance.
Therefore street food is not only an affordable way to eat, but allows you to take part in traditions that have stood through the ages. The authenticity of street food in most countries lies in its rich cultural heritage and local flavors, such as the use of spices, sauce, and fresh vegetables.
Street food vendors often use traditional recipes and cooking techniques, with variations to make them stand out.
What sets street food apart is not just the taste, but also the experience. From bustling night markets in Southeast Asia to lively food carts in Mexico, street food provides a vibrant and immersive dining experience.
The sights, sounds, and aromas of street food stalls create a lively atmosphere just can’t be found in a restaurant.
And contrary to what you may believe, it’s possible to find street food that caters to different tastes and dietary preferences. You can find tofu dishes for vegetarians, ice cream and desserts for those with a sweet tooth, or savory snacks, spicy curries, and much more.
Reasons to Eat Street Food On Your Travels
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.
- 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.
1. It contributes to 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.
2. 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.
Most Popular Street Food Dishes Around The World
Now you know what it is and why you should try it, let’s take a moment to think about some of the most iconic street food dishes around the world.
Based on my search results, here is a list of the 10 most popular street foods around the world:
- Tacos al pastor (Mexico): These mouthwatering tacos are made with marinated pork cooked on a vertical spit and served with pineapple, onion, and cilantro.
- Dim Sum (China): While dim sum is often served in a restaurant, it was first a street food. Dim Sum is a term used to describe a variety of bite-sized dishes such as dumplings, buns, and rolls, typically served in steamer baskets.
- Shawarma (Middle East): This savory street food features thinly sliced marinated meat (usually chicken or lamb) that is slow-roasted on a vertical spit. It is often served in a warm pita bread with garlic sauce and pickles.
- Falafel (Middle East): Made from ground chickpeas or fava beans seasoned with herbs and spices, falafel is deep-fried until crispy and served in a pita bread with tahini sauce and fresh vegetables.
- Banh Mi (Vietnam): A fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisines, Banh Mi is a baguette sandwich filled with various ingredients such as grilled meats, pickled vegetables, cilantro, and a type of chili vinegar.
- Empanadas (Argentina): These delicious pastries are filled with a variety of ingredients like beef, cheese, potatoes, or corn, and then baked or fried until golden brown. Empanadas are a popular snack all over Argentina.
- Currywurst (Germany): A German street food staple, currywurst consists of grilled or fried pork sausage topped with a tangy tomato-based sauce flavored with curry powder. It is often served with fries.
- Arepas (Colombia and Venezuela): Made from cornmeal dough, arepas are thick patties that are grilled, baked, or fried until golden brown. They are then split open and filled with a variety of ingredients such as cheese, meat, or beans.
- Jerk Chicken (Jamaica): Jerk chicken is marinated in a spicy blend of herbs and spices, including scotch bonnet peppers, allspice, and thyme. It is then grilled to perfection, resulting in tender and flavorful meat.
- Churros (Spain): These deep-fried dough pastries are dusted with sugar and often served with a side of chocolate sauce for dipping. Churros are a beloved street food dessert enjoyed around the world.
- Pad Thai (Thailand): Pad Thai is a dish made with stir-fried noodles with a sweet tamarind sauce, and is usually cooked with meat as well as bean sprouts, shrimp, and topped with peanuts and lime.
- Fish and Chips (England): Traditionally, a British fish and chips would be wrapped up in newspaper so you can sit on the beach and enjoy your meal. Nowadays, fish and chip shops will use paper instead of newspaper, for hygiene reasons.
- Arancini Balls (Italy): These delicious fried balls are a delicious street food snack made with a type of risotto rice, breadcrumbs, butter, cheese, scallions, salt and fried in vegetable oil. They can be meaty or vegetarian. Or, another version is Suppli in Rome – we tried them on our Rome street food tour and loved them.
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.
Street food is always a big part of a countries culture, whether you’re eating a taco in Mexico, a crepe in France, a pizza in Italy or grilled chicken in Southeast Asia, there is so much deliciousness to try on the corner of the street.
We hope this guide gave you some insight into what street food is and why you should try it.
What is your favourite street food? Let us know in the comments.