“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.
“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.