There is something that crêpes, pork satay and jerk chicken have in common— they are all street foods and a delicious gateway into new cultures and histories. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, 2.5 billion people eat street food daily, cementing its place as a staple food source around the world (The Economist, “South-East Asian cities are waging war on street food,” 02.28.2017).
Street food, however, is not a new phenomenon: Small, fried fish were commonplace in marketplaces of ancient Greece (Cathy K. Kaufman, “Cooking in Ancient Civilisations,” 2006). In ancient Rome, poor urban residents ate street food, usually consisting of chickpea soup, bread and grain paste. Similarly, in ancient China, street food was consumed by the poor, although wealthier members of society would buy street food to eat in their own homes (B. W. Higman, “How Food Made History,” 2011).
There is a clear pattern within street food history where this type of food catered to the poor and was absent from the culture of the wealthy. However, the connotations of street food are slowly changing.
In August of this year, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that Singapore will nominate its food hawker culture for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (Coconuts Singapore, “Singapore Plans to Get Hawker Culture Officially Recognised in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List,” 08.28.2018). Singapore natives are passionate about their street food; Alvin Pang, a renowned author and editor from Singapore, says that the taste of Singaporean food reflects the rich history of the country and adds that hawker food is a distinctively Singaporean art form (South China Morning Post, “Singaporeans explain why their food hawker culture merits Unesco listing, hits back at Malaysian critics,” 09.28.2018).
It is not just the Singaporean locals who praise their street food. In 2016, two street vendors in Singapore, “Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle” and “Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle,” were among 29 dining venues in the country to be featured in the Michelin Guide. These examples suggest that street food in Singapore is more than a cultural staple—it also places the island city-state on the map when it comes to food (The Telegraph, “Singapore street food stalls get Michelin stars,” 07.25.2016).
Unfortunately, street food vendors in other countries do not seem to enjoy the same support. In Bangkok, a city famous for its street food, authorities announced that as of April 2017, street vendors would no longer be allowed on the footpath, citing impeding pedestrians, having an unsightly appearance and attracting vermin (The Economist, “South-East Asian cities are waging war on street food,” 02.28.2017). The ban received a huge outcry from tourists and locals alike. Chawadee Nualkhair, author of “Thailand’s Best Street Food” argued, “[S]treet food makes all the inner workings of Bangkok possible.” Many office workers buy street food and eat on the streets because it is cheap and convenient, and such street food serves as a glue that brings together people from all walks of life (The Guardian, “Will Bangkok’s street food ban hold?” 08.27.2017). Furthermore, Bangkok’s 20,000 street food vendors provide food for about 40 percent of the population, meaning that such a ban would affect a large part of the city’s population (The Economist).
Bangkok’s government is not the only one seeking to clear its streets of food vendors. Authorities in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City are advising street vendors on more stable ways to make a living. The government plans to move those who continue to work as vendors into less congested areas of the city. Jakarta’s government is taking similar actions to reduce street food vendor activity. (The Economist).
Even in New York, street food vendors, of which there are over 10,000, must jump through many hoops in order to make their living. Food sellers face 54 pages of rules, including policies on health, selling location and even the practice of tucking their licenses inside their shirts.
Mohammad Omar, a kebab cart vendor who immigrated to America from Egypt, recalls how on his second day as a street food vendor, a policeman gave him five tickets that he was unable to pay, and with little knowledge of English, he was unable to protest (The Guardian, “Inside the impossible life of a New York street vendor,” 10.22.2016).
Not only do street food vendors around the world fulfill the role of providing cheap and flavourful food for locals and tourists alike, but they also provide culture and history to a country, a group of people brought together by a love for delicious food. If the vendors disappear, hungry customers may find somewhere else to eat, but they will struggle to find a community as valuable as the one provided by this historically disparaged form of cuisine.