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Selling the saffron-splashed bread shirmal in Lucknow. Ariana Lindquist
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“It really is a type of haute cuisine,” says Krishnendu Ray, associate professor and department chair of the NYU food studies program. As democratic food for the masses, he says, street food stands apart from more homestyle cooking: bold flavors and spices, crisp griddled edges and crunchy fried crusts, made at stands layered with eye-catching colors.

At the recent CityFood symposium in New York City, Ray and other scholars explained how street food the world over contributes to an aesthetic that’s different everywhere but grounded by a universal theme: thrifty, satisfying fare that’s immediately delicious, and essential to the geographic and economic fabric of our cities.

Yet while street food is riding a surging wave of attention and adoration, the vendors who spend their days making our falafel, kebabs, and empanadas are often overlooked, and even declared a public nuisance despite their hard-fought contributions to urban culture.

Ray explains the complicated role of street food and development around the globe. As more small farmers migrate to urban centers in search of better work, they often become street vendors—and sometimes have to fight for the right to do so. In some cities in the global south, Ray says street vendors are almost 2% of the entire population of the city. However, as cities modernize, the goals of development can clash with traditional street food vending, and with policy as well. Street foods are viewed as “backwards,” and counter to the “modern” urban flow of car-friendly streets and capital-driven developments.

Palenque woman, sweets, Cartagena, Colombia.
A Palenque woman sells traditional sweets in Cartagena, Colombia. Allie Wist

“There’s this idea that ‘development’ is to get rid of street vendors,” Ray goes on. “One example is what’s happening in Bangkok right now, where the military is seeking to clear out street vendors.” In a city that’s often called the world’s street food capital, it’s hard to imagine government officials removing all street vendors by 2018..

Similar issues, to varying degrees of severity, have hit elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Mumbai, Singapore, some sub-Saharan African cities, and even New York City. Back in the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia worked to rid the city of its open-air pushcarts, driving vendors into indoor setups such as the Essex Street Market.

For Ray, such measures lead to two kinds of loss. “You lose access to livelihood for people, and you undermine what I call ‘liveliness’ of the streets.” That liveliness makes streets more livable, food at every level more inspiring, and our daily rhythms more delicious. To show just what that means, we’ve collected portraits from across the planet of street vendors in action.

"Rolex,

Kitala, Uganda

A street vendor sells rolex in the small town of Kitala. A rolex is a rolled roi flatbread, filled with eggs, and often a small amount of onions and tomatoes.
"Tiong

Singapore

A hawker cuts meat for the afternoon rush at the Tiong Bahru Hawker Center.
"chinese

Beijing, China

A woman griddles quail eggs with crisp fried pancakes.
"Madagascar

Antananarivo, Madagascar

Boys selling fried snacks.
"Noodles,

Tokyo, Japan

An udon stall at the Tsukiji Market.
"hong

Hong Kong

Streetside roast meat from a barbecue vendor.
"Ice

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

An ice cream break on the beach.
"Noodles,

New York, USA

Hand-pulling noodles at a food court in Flushing, Queens.
"Bread,

Lima, Perú

An outdoor bread basket.
"Street

Bangkok, Thailand

Fresh pineapple from a produce vendor.
"Kebab

Taipei, Taiwan

A pick-your-own grilled skewer stand at a neighborhood night market.
"Snack

Bogotá, Colombia

Roving snack carts are common on the streets of Bogotá.
"Hot

Tulum, Mexico

Late night hot dogs post-tacos.
"Women

Yangon, Myanmar

A group of women sell snacks at a crowded intersection.
"Fruit

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Your daily fruit intake on a hybrid cart-bike.
"Halal

New York, USA

Halal chicken and lamb over rice is the new New York mainstay.
"street

Accra, Ghana

Ladies deliver food head-first.
"Chicken

Jakarta: Chicken Satay Skewers (Sate Ayam)

Sata Ayam
"Woman

Beijing, China

A woman sells freshly grilled fish.
"Kyoto,

Kyoto, Japan

A grape ice stall for hot summer days.
"corn,

Guanajuato, Mexico

Grilled corn with assorted fixings.
"Banh

Can Tho, Vietnam

Minitature egg pancakes stuffed with shrimp.
"Sausage,

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Sausage, street market in Chiang Mai, Thailand
"Juice

Barranquilla, Colombia

Freshly squeezed juices, pre-juice boom.
"A

Queens, USA

Necessity is the mother of invention. See: Shopping carts turned into grills, a staple of the Latin American strip of Roosevelt Avenue in Queens.
"north-india-lucknow-breakfast"

Shirmal Vendor in Lucknow, India

Selling the saffron-splashed bread shirmal in Lucknow.
"Burmese

Yangon, Myanmar

Low-slung tables and chairs outside a street stall.
"Kerala,

Kerala, India

Chaiwallahs are everywhere in Indian cities, selling steaming-hot milk tea from clay cups.

Tel Aviv, Israel

Buenos Aires, Argentina

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