What Street Food Looks Like in 30 Countries Around the World

And why it’s so important for the liveliness of our cities

By Allie Wist

Published on April 26, 2017

“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.

A Palenque woman sells traditional sweets in Cartagena, Colombia.

"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, Entebbe, Uganda
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 Bahru Hawker Center-Singapore

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

chinese street food
Beijing, China

A woman griddles quail eggs with crisp fried pancakes.

Madagascar street food
Antananarivo, Madagascar

Boys selling fried snacks.

Noodles, Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo, Japan

An udon stall at the Tsukiji Market.

hong kong street vendor
Hong Kong

Streetside roast meat from a barbecue vendor.

Ice cream, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

An ice cream break on the beach.

Noodles, Savor Fusion Food Court, NYC, USA
New York, USA

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

Bread, street, Perú
Lima, Perú

An outdoor bread basket.

Street vendors, Thailand
Bangkok, Thailand

Fresh pineapple from a produce vendor.

Kebab stand, Taipei, Taiwan
Taipei, Taiwan

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

Snack cart, Bogotá, Colombia
Bogotá, Colombia

Roving snack carts are common on the streets of Bogotá.

Hot dog cart, Tulum, Mexico
Tulum, Mexico

Late night hot dogs post-tacos.

Women selling street food, Burma
Yangon, Myanmar

A group of women sell snacks at a crowded intersection.

Fruit vendor, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Your daily fruit intake on a hybrid cart-bike.

Halal street food cart outside of the Whitney Museum
New York, USA

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

street food, Ghana
Accra, Ghana

Ladies deliver food head-first.

Chicken satay skewers with spicy peanut sauce (sate ayam)
Jakarta: Chicken Satay Skewers (Sate Ayam)

Sata Ayam

Woman selling fish, China
Beijing, China

A woman sells freshly grilled fish.

Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto, Japan

A grape ice stall for hot summer days.

corn, street food, Guanajuato, Mexico
Guanajuato, Mexico

Grilled corn with assorted fixings.

Banh khot, Vietnam
Can Tho, Vietnam

Minitature egg pancakes stuffed with shrimp.

Sausage, street market in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai, Thailand

Sausage, street market in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Juice vendor, Colombia
Barranquilla, Colombia

Freshly squeezed juices, pre-juice boom.

A shopping cart grill in Queens, New York
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.

Shirmal Vendor in Lucknow, India

Selling the saffron-splashed bread shirmal in Lucknow.

Burmese street food
Yangon, Myanmar

Low-slung tables and chairs outside a street stall.

Kerala, India
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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