“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.

Kitala, Uganda

Rolex, Entebbe, 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.Allie Wist

Singapore

Tiong Bahru Hawker Center-Singapore
A hawker cuts meat for the afternoon rush at the Tiong Bahru Hawker Center.Max Falkowitz

Beijing, China

chinese street food
A woman griddles quail eggs with crisp fried pancakes.David See

Antananarivo, Madagascar

Madagascar street food
Boys selling fried snacks.Michael Sale

Tokyo, Japan

Noodles, Tokyo, Japan
An udon stall at the Tsukiji Market.Max Falkowitz

Hong Kong

hong kong street vendor
Streetside roast meat from a barbecue vendor.Allie Wist

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Ice cream, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
An ice cream break on the beach.Allie WIst

New York, USA

Noodles, Savor Fusion Food Court, NYC, USA
Hand-pulling noodles at a food court in Flushing, Queens.Max Falkowitz

Lima, Perú

Bread, street, Perú
An outdoor bread basket.Carsten ten Brink

Bangkok, Thailand

Street vendors, Thailand
Fresh pineapple from a produce vendor.Cayla Zahoran

Taipei, Taiwan

Kebab stand, Taipei, Taiwan
A pick-your-own grilled skewer stand at a neighborhood night market.Max Falkowitz

Bogotá, Colombia

Snack cart, Bogotá, Colombia
Roving snack carts are common on the streets of Bogotá.Allie Wist

Tulum, Mexico

Hot dog cart, Tulum, Mexico
Late night hot dogs post-tacos.Allie Wist

Yangon, Myanmar

Women selling street food, Burma
A group of women sell snacks at a crowded intersection.Aditi Mittal

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Fruit vendor, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Your daily fruit intake on a hybrid cart-bike.Allie WIst

New York, USA

Halal street food cart outside of the Whitney Museum
Halal chicken and lamb over rice is the new New York mainstay.Allie Wist

Accra, Ghana

street food, Ghana
Ladies deliver food head-first.Dan Dao

Jakarta, Indonesia

Chicken satay skewers with spicy peanut sauce (sate ayam)
Grilling sate skewers over coals.Street Food Asia

Beijing, China

Woman selling fish, China
A woman sells freshly grilled fish.Dave See

Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto, Japan
A grape ice stall for hot summer days.Allie Wist

Guanajuato, Mexico

corn, street food, Guanajuato, Mexico
Grilled corn with assorted fixings.Russ Bowling

Can Tho, Vietnam

Banh khot, Vietnam
Minitature egg pancakes stuffed with shrimp.Dan Dao

Chiang Mai, Thailand

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

Barranquilla, Colombia

Juice vendor, Colombia
Freshly squeezed juices, pre-juice boom.Allie Wist

Queens, USA

A shopping cart grill in Queens, New York
Necessity is the mother of invention. See: Shopping carts turned into grills, a staple of the Latin American strip of Roosevelt Avenue in Queens.Matt Taylor-Gross

Lucknow, India

north-india-lucknow-breakfast
Selling shirmal, a saffron-splashed bread.Ariana Lindquist

Yangon, Myanmar

Burmese street food
Low-slung tables and chairs outside a street stall.Ally-Jane Grossan

Kerala, India

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

Tel Aviv, Israel

Buenos Aires, Argentina