Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips, where we break down some facet of food culture to harvest the succulent marrow of meaning from its bones. Today’s skeleton of discourse is Street Food. What is it, where can you find it, and why is it so rare in America? All this and more shall be explored. Hopefully without too much more rhyming.
Forgive Title Jon, He’s drunk. So, what exactly is street food? Well, it’s food served and eaten on the street. Typically small meals or snacks, things like a quick lunch or something to tide you over right after work until you get home for dinner. Almost always something that can be made and eaten quickly, many times something you can eat with just your hands, though not always. It’s a very big thing in many Asian countries, as well as Europe, Africa, South America, Mexico…almost everywhere that isn’t the United States.
Do YOU know where this is? Could be anywhere that isn’t America.
The reason for this is…fairly complicated, but we can condense it down into three big things: firstly, that the US covers a much larger land-mass than most countries. Secondly, that much of our cities were built not too long before the automobile was invented and shortly afterward the Interstate system was developed, and thirdly, governmental shit we’ll get to in a bit. (Damnit, the rhyming’s back.)
The first two points go hand-in-hand, because a central answer to “why doesn’t America eat much street food” is “Because Americans don’t walk in the street”. Which sounds almost like a racist joke, but it’s actually touching on another point: urban planning.
That’s right, folks. Today we’re talking about the exciting details of URBAN PLANNING.
Do you even HEAR YOURSELF, O’Guin?!
Shut up, Caption Jon. The point I’m making is that many of the big cities of Europe and Asia in particular were built with a very different set of goals. America, as Americans are quite quick to forget, is impressively large. We have a TON of space. Last year, I went on a 5 day road trip, driving with my brother for 11 hours, to a small town in Montana. I started in Washington, cross through Idaho, and got to Montana. 11 hours of driving, 700 miles of road. By comparison, the drive from London, England, to Berlin, Germany, is 11 and a HALF hours, over 680 miles. It goes from England through France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and across almost all of Germany. That’s five total countries involved to my 3 states.
Because of the amount of space, our cities are more sprawling: we take up more room. And a large part of that sprawl is devoted to roads, particularly highways and interstates, and parking garages, and so on, because a lot of the Western United States were settled as we were inventing trains and automobiles. Our cities were built around roads made for cars. By comparison, the older cities in Europe were built for CARTS. They’re narrower, more compact. There’s not a clean distinction in many places between where vehicles are meant to go, and where pedestrians are meant to go, because the roads were built long before such distinctions were common.
This is one of the BETTER streets in terms of Sidewalks to street, and those sidewalks are still like, less than 2 feet wide.
And this is important, because Street Food needs people ON the street to survive. The shops, stalls, or carts where they sell the food rely on foot traffic. So cities where more people are walking are more likely to sustain them. That naturally selects for cities with higher population density and more robust public transit systems.
America, by contrast, built their cities around the car…and therefore developed their parallel to street food: fast food. The drive-thru restaurant is the American equivalent of the same ideas as Street Food, a quick, cheap, not-super-healthy spot you can hit for a quick small meal or large snack. The last part is the one most damaged in the American system: Street Food, being purchased by a pedestrian or commuter, can be consumed on-the-go, or during the down-time of transit. Waiting 20 minutes for the train to go home? Grab a vada pav! Waiting for the bus? Grab a kebab! You WANT a reasonable portion size, because you know this ISN’T dinner, or, if it is, you can just buy multiple. Meanwhile, the drive-thru requires that you be, well, DRIVING, and thus at least moderately restricted in terms of using your hands, meaning you’re aiming not at how hungry you are now, but how hungry you’ll be when you get home.
It’s hard to eat and keep your car in the street.
Damnit, now I’M rhyming.
This wasn’t always the case, though: many different regions of the US have long supported various street food vendors. Once upon a time, New York streets were filled with Oyster hawkers instead of Hot Dog Carts. The Southwest has Chili Queens and Tamale vendors. The South became known for Fried Chicken because it was one of the foods slaves could sell on the street to earn money to buy their freedom. (Not all street food stories have feel-good origins.)
But, as cities grew up, and sit-down restaurants and indoor shopping markets grew, they felt threatened by competition from street vendors. Many cities banned or restricted where vendors could sell. This, combined with the expanding cities and nation, led to the decline of American street food. But not its extinction.
Keep on Truckin’
Yes, nowadays, America is starting to embrace a new pseudo-street-food vendor: the Food Truck. It addresses a lot of the problems that were built up by the differences in American city planning: road space becomes potential locations, where the truck can park alongside the road. Since the truck moves more readily than a stall, it can go to where the foot traffic is, mitigating lost population density. It can especially deliver itself to regions where there’s a lot of “enforced pedestrians”: rolling up into the Downtown area at lunch to get the people who have a limited time for lunch, or after the bars close to get people who can’t legally drive.
Also, Drunk people LOVE to spend their money on food, so it’s a great business niche to fill.
It’s not a perfect solution, as the same complaints and legal actions I noted before can wreak havoc on food truck owners: Cities that ban food-trucks within so many feet of brick-and-mortar restaurants, or require a truck move between every sale (a real law made by one city, though rarely enforced) , there’s legal issues food trucks run into. And that’s the last reason it’s harder for street food in America: our laws.
In addition to zoning laws, loitering laws, business laws, etc, there’s a sort of invisible addendum: American food safety laws are written with the assumption that you have a facility. I say this as a man who has earned his food safety card multiple times, they’re MOSTLY about when and how to store foods in the refrigerator, and when your hands are allowed to touch food. Meanwhile, tons of street vendors in other countries don’t have ANY refrigeration. And our temporary food location laws can get a little wild: according to one man who sells food at a county fair annually, his kitchen has to meet a 17 point equipment checklist that included 4 sinks in order to sell slices of pizza at the fair. He is in essence forced to contain an entire professional indoor kitchen in his fair booth.
Which is great, in theory: we certainly would all prefer safer food. The thrown-together spur-of-the moment street stalls can be places for illness to breed if completely unmonitored. But, it’s worth noting that the incidence of illness from street foods in many of the locations I mentioned is no more frequent than illnesses from restaurants, so it’s obvious that there are other ways to keep people safe. I don’t know what they ARE, because “studying multiple nations’ food safety laws” is too niche even for MY interest, but I’m sure there’s a way.
But enough on the nitty-gritty details (he said, long after everyone else had BEGGED him to stop with the legalistic details), let’s get a little more celebratory! Here’s a list of some popular street foods around the World!
Around the World in Eight Street Foods
So we’re going to close out with a celebration of several interesting dishes based on interational street foods. Dishes that, TOTALLY BY COINCIDENCE, I’ve already MADE.
Jamaican Beef Patties are a common street food on the island, sheltering spiced meat mixture in a curry-laden dough.
Several Mexican foods of renown are actually street foods, Tacos being the biggest example. But why settle for simple, when you can whip up Taquitos? This international fusion taquitos (or, If you want something simpler, just replace the filling) are a heck of a twist.
Apparently we started in the Caribbean and started heading west which is now paradoxically crossing the interational dateline, putting us in the East? Anyway, speaking of, why not make an eastern-inspired Hawaiian classic, SPAM MUSUBI!
I get it, the Musubi wasn’t Japanese enough for you, and it’s a little dull. Why not pep things up with whatever you want, in Okonomiyaki!
I don’t know if Thailand is actually West of Japan or not. I’d have to check the Longitude. ( It is. Very much so. Like “As far west of Japan as Seattle is of St Louis”.) LOOK, JUST MAKE THE FRICKING STEAMED BUNS.
Wait, Australia is definitely East of Thailand. It might even be east of Japan. (It is, but not by as much). So this one is out of order! Damn it! Anyway, this Pulled Pork Sandwich recipe is from a farmer’s market in Sydney, which is a type of street vendor.
I mean, I already referenced it once this post, so if you thought we were covering this section without mentioning Gyros, I don’t know how to help you. (in case you forgot, when the British say “a kebab”, they’re referring to what we call Gyros. It’s a because we had different immigrants who made the dish and called it different things)
In honor of my current recreation in Leavenworth, let’s close with Germany’s go-to street food: Bratwurst. (Well, wurst in general, but brats are the one we know.
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