Street Food

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Editors: Brenda Wilmoth Lerner and K. Lee Lerner
Date: 2011
Food: In Context
From: Food: In Context(Vol. 2. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Series: In Context Series
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Street Food


Street food is quick, easy-to-eat food sold by street vendors. Many street foods are finger foods, intended for eating by hand because often there is no dedicated place to sit down near the food vendor stand. Street food plays a large role in the cuisine of many countries, particularly in urban areas, and street food is deeply tied in with the local culture. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that street food provides up to half of all daily calories consumed by people living in cities in the developing world. Street food can be as simple as fresh fruit sold from a cart, or it can include complete hot dishes served from small stalls on the sidewalk. It exists in almost endless variety in many different countries; some originating from old traditions, whereas others are the result of commingling culinary traditions due to immigration.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Street foods can be traced to the development of urban areas around the globe. As population density grew, enterprising cooks made local dishes that were both easy to eat while standing, and easy to prepare and sell on the streets. Deeply rooted in tradition, some street foods have changed little as time has progressed. However, as people emigrated from one country to another, they would often bring some street food traditions with them, such as the Middle-Eastern immigrants introducing falafel from street carts in New York City.

There are a wide variety of dishes that can be made and sold as street food. Some classic examples are Vietnam's pho, which is made by pouring boiling broth over thinly shaved meat, vegetables, and noodles. Pho varies between Northern and Southern Vietnam: Southern pho is offered with a wide variety of garnishes such as freshly chopped herbs, spice pastes, and lime, whereas Northern pho ordinarily is served plain. Germany, with its large Turkish population, has many Turkish-inspired street foods; one of the most popular is the Döner kebab, which is roasted and sliced lamb served folded into a flatbread sandwich with various toppings and sauces. India is renowned for its diversity of street foods, an example of which is Pani Puri, a hollow ball of dough filled with a spicy or sweet chutney. Japan's udon and ramen dishes are well known street foods, consisting of rice noodles in various broths served at small street stalls. Empanadas, which are made from fried dough flour filled with meat or vegetables, though originally from Spain, are a popular street food in Latin America and various countries in the Caribbean. Many of these street foods are well-known dishes that can be found all over the world, but what makes them traditional street food of a certain country is the prevalence of cart or stall vendors that one can find. In order to survive as a street food stand, the food being sold must be familiar to most of the pedestrian traffic likely to walk by the stall. In that regard, common street food can be indicative of the culinary traditions of the population of a given neighborhood.

Impacts and Issues

A primary difficulty for street food is ensuring sanitary standards. Many street vendor stands lack refrigeration and need to access fresh ingredients almost every day in order to serve safe food. In industrialized nations, governmental agencies enact regulations and monitor street food vendors. The Food Standards Agency, for example, controls the sanitation standards of all street food vendors in the United Kingdom. In the United States, street food vendors are regulated and licensed by state health departments. Unfortunately, there are some street food health issues that cannot be controlled by regulation. Water in different areas of the world contains different microorganisms, and oftentimes visitors from different regions can get sick by ingesting microbes to which they Page 737  |  Top of Articleare not accustomed. Many varieties of street food include water in their preparation, and travelers can ingest the local water unknowingly by eating street food. This even effects expatriates: People who spend long periods of time in countries different than their home country may become acclimated to the water in the new areas, and cannot eat the street food when they visit their home countries without becoming ill.

In the crowded conditions prevalent in parts of the developing world, other diseases such as salmonellosis, hepatitis A, and amebiasis are often spread by the contaminated hands of street food vendors, who have few facilities for washing their hands while preparing food and handling money. In addition, street foods prepared close to the ground are susceptible to contaminants from dust and emissions from vehicle traffic. Fruits, vegetables, and meats used in street preparations are often obtained from unregulated sources, and are sometimes contaminated with pesticide residues, heavy metals, or even textile dyes when harvested from polluted soil or raised on refuse or contaminated feed. While recognizing the vital role street food plays in the economies of developing countries, agencies such as the World Health Organization are working to make street food safer. In one area of Pakistan, for example, helping street food vendors to elevate their cookstoves, increase their workspace, providing access to clean water, and educating vendors on food safety dramatically reduced the number of contaminated foods and resulting illnesses from street food.

Sidebar: HideShow


CHUTNEY: A type of sauce originating from India with many different styles of preparation. Traditionally, a chutney is made by blending vegetables, spices, and oil. Chutneys were originally made with a mortar and pestle, and currently most often with a blender.

FALAFEL: Ground chickpeas formed into a ball or patty and fried, sometimes served in a pita sandwich.

SATAY: Marinated, grilled meat on a kabob skewer often served with a dipping sauce, which originated in Indonesia and Thailand.

A street food vendor in Xian, China, prepares a popular sweet rice and nut confection. A street food vendor in Xi'an, China, prepares a popular sweet rice and nut confection. Adrienne Lerner/Lerner & Lerner/LernerMedia Global Photos.

An additional health issue arising from street food is the switch in some countries from street food to fast food. One of the attributes of street food is that it cheap and quick. In some countries, street food vendors have been replaced by fast food restaurants, which often offer more food for about the same amount of money. Page 738  |  Top of ArticleHowever, as opposed to buying a fresh chicken satay kabob, the diner is buying a hamburger and fries made by industrial process and containing preservatives. The cumulative health impact of fast food versus traditional street food can be enormous, because a healthy street population increases the demand for local ingredients and agriculture. Street food may not always be healthier than fast food, but it is usually made with fresh ingredients as opposed to processed ingredients. Additionally, the popularity of fast food restaurants makes it difficult for street food vendors to stay in business, reducing their numbers in some cities.

One of the the biggest health risks in India is infection by hepatitis B and typhoid, the main source being contaminated unclean food, such food made, sold, and eaten in unhygienic conditions. One of the the biggest health risks in India is infection by hepatitis B and typhoid, the main source being contaminated unclean food, such food made, sold, and eaten in unhygienic conditions. Travelfile/Alamy.

Despite concerns of health issues and increasing competition from fast food restaurants, street food has a long history and remains quite popular in its respective countries. Street food is tied in closely with national culture, and is still a quick and inexpensive meal. Additionally, in keeping with the current renewed interest in food and cuisine there are certain niche street food vendors with high-end, artisanal street food such as the gourmet ice cream trucks and South American barbeque stands that are starting to appear in New York City and are popular destinations in Los Angeles, Austin, and other cities. With both the new high-end vendors and continued traditional recipes, the street food model of quick food sold from stands or trucks is gaining in popularity in the developed world, while remaining an urban staple for quick, inexpensive nutrition in developing nations.

Primary Source Connection

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has its headquarters in Rome, Italy. The organization's charter is to reduce and eliminate world hunger. It works in four main areas: to provide information; to share policy expertise; to provide meeting places for nations; and to provide knowledge to the projects around the world aimed at reducing hunger. The FAO also prepares studies on the interaction and impacts of food policy on economies and culture. The following is an excerpt from the final report of an FAO technical meeting on street foods held in Calcutta, India, in November 1995.

Socio-economic Aspects of Street Foods

While reviewing the information from various street food projects and activities carried out in Asia, Latin Page 739  |  Top of ArticleAmerica and Africa, the meeting recognized the socioeconomic, nutritional and cultural significance of street foods. The meeting reiterated that street food vending provided food at the work place as well as at other important locations in the city; and its variety and form depended upon local eating habits, socio-economic environment and trends in style of living.

Street foods, defined as “ready-to eat foods and beverages prepared and/or sold by vendors and hawkers especially in street and other similar public places”, can be found in clusters around places of work, schools, hospitals, railway stations, bus terminals etc. They are inexpensive when compared to food from the formal sector and in fact are often less expensive when compared to home cooked food. They also fill the need of providing food at places where people work or otherwise congregate. A major concern is that while they play an important socio-economic role, their tremendous unlimited and unregulated growth has placed a severe strain on city resources and through congestion and littering adversely affected daily life.

The meeting recognized that setting up as a street food vendor involved a low-cost investment. Further, it required no special training other than the domestic experience of preparing food and provided employment. Street food operations often involved entire families in the procurement of raw materials, preparation and cooking of meals and their sale. The role of women in the street food sector and the potential for their employment in this sector was most significant. The overall economic implications of street foods were immense. It was recognized that in many cities of the world, the equivalent of millions of US dollars exchanged hands each day as a result of the vending of street foods. The impact on local agricultural production is in many cases immense.

The meeting discussed how cultural, ethnic and religious differences had influenced the variety and nature of street foods around the world. The food might be cooked at home and distributed or alternately prepared on the spot depending upon the space available. There are fixed stalls, a variety of types of push-carts, road side stands, hawkers with head-loads, and other arrangements depending upon the ingenuity of the individual, resources available, the type of food sold, and the availability of other facilities either acquired officially or appropriated from the city.

The meeting reaffirmed that street foods have significant nutritional implications for consumers, particularly for middle and low income sectors of the population who depend heavily on street foods. In this, a number of factors that influence the consumer's choice play an important role. These include cost, convenience and type of food available, the individual's taste and the organoleptic qualities of the food (smell, texture, colour, appearance). The nutritional value of street foods depends upon the ingredients used and how they are prepared, stored and sold. The meeting urged the development and use of proper technologies in order to preserve the nutritional value of street foods. On the basis of the information so far available, the meeting was of the opinion that the eating of a combination of street foods did provide the consumer adequate opportunity to meet his or her daily nutritional requirements at an affordable pace.

The meeting pointed out that an important aspect of street foods that deserved particular attention related to their safety. It was recognized that street foods raise concern with respect to their potential for serious food poisoning outbreaks due to microbiological contamination, improper use of additives (in particular the use of unapproved colourings) and the presence of other adulterants and environmental contaminants. Surveys in Africa, Asia, and Latin America suggested that these concerns were real and needed to be addressed to protect consumers. Improper food handling practices could be a serious cause of contamination. There were also problems with potable water supply, the quality of raw materials used (for example rotten vegetables or spoiled meat) and unsuitable environments for street food operations (such as proximity to sewers and garbage dumps). Inadequate facilities for garbage disposal posed further hazards.




Hester, Elliott. Adventures of a Continental Drifter: An Around-the-World Excursion into Weirdness, Danger, Lust, and the Perils of Street Food. New York: st. Martin's Press, 2005.

Kime, Tom. Street Food: Exploring the World's Most Authentic Tastes. New York: DK Publishing, 2007.

Menzel, Peter, and Faith D'Aluisio. What the World Eats. Berkeley, CA: Tricycle Press, 2008.


Afele, Mawusi. “Street Food Boom in Ghana Spurs Calls for Better Hygiene.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 84, no. 10 (2006): 772–773.

“Family of Man—Street Food.” National Geographic 211, no. 2 (2007): 14.

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“Food: Street Food Comes in from the Cold.” Newsweek (March 29, 2010): 54.

Gurbaxani, M. M. “Street Food Activism.” Ecologist 37, no. 10 (2007).

Web Sites

Consumers International. “Streetfood.” (accessed September 29, 2010).

Food for the Cities: Ensuring the Quality and Safety of Street Foods.” Food Quality and Standards Service, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). (accessed September 29, 2010).

International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN). “Basic Steps to Improve Safety of Street-Vended Food.” World Health Organization (WHO). (accessed September 29, 2010).

David Brennan Tilove

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1918600222