I stood still, and refused to move, as my travel companions insisted on eating at the nearest MacDonald’s. At the time, I wasn’t able to articulate, or provide a minimally substantive argument as to why we should settle for the street dumplings, let alone that couple’s generous offer of local beer.
Their argument was valid.
We know MacDonald’s. We know what it tastes like. We know how it’s made.
Or perhaps it’s just the opposite, the fact that at a conventional food chain, you don’t really need to know how your food is manufactured. Your lack of information is nicely packaged in convenience and supposed hygiene. Street food is different — you see and experience everything. You observe, meticulously, the making of what you will ingest. You calculate the amount of times the bacteria have multiplied, and the dripping sweat off the vendor’s forehead that adds just enough salt to your bread.
They didn’t want to deal with that. They went to Macdonald’s.
Can Food Taste Like Poverty?
There is a certain disdain towards street food. Maybe its semantics betrays its very essence; maybe the union of “street” and “food” is less than convenient, softly accommodating all the myths that surround it.
But there is no excuse for ignorance. Street Food is not simply “food on the street”, it’s, in fact, an indication that we need to reinvent the way we think about food.
Perhaps the biggest perception of street food is that it is made for a certain kind, or class of consumer. Undeniably, street food constitutes 15 to 50% out of the food budget of many low-income families, but to think that it serves only the lower classes is not entirely accurate. Several studies have found that class is not necessarily a determinant of consumer behaviour.
How many times have I exchanged some ingenuine laughter with others who proudly stated that “they didn’t come here to eat on the streets”?
It makes sense. If you are a traveller, a tourist no less, why would you cross an ocean to have such a local experience? Indeed, local is trendy, but not that local I guess. This is not even about wanting to be a local abroad, or the opposite, but seeing street food as a stamp of poverty on the streets.
You Are What You Eat
Consider the food stalls that have always been at the corner of your house, the ones with a scent that has practically raised you.
You may have tasted its food. In fact, you probably have, and you’ve done so in secrecy, because who brags about these things? Who stands up to share an amazing meal one had at a stall, a kiosk, from a lady who sat on a piece of wet-cornered cardboard and an improvised pan?
Before you even get to the it’s-so-delicious part, someone is already telling you off for all the hygienic mishaps the vendor might have unconsciously displayed.
You are in a tough situation. How do you convince your partner to partake in this amazing, heavenly experience, without completely brushing off the very real danger of disease?
It’s an unfortunate conundrum. In a world where all things food are Instagram and gourmet, with unidentifiable herbs to the ordinary palate, and an odd Pollock-like concoction of sauces, how do we convince ourselves that even the most un-instagrammable snacks are worth our time?
That’s it. That’s the thing. These things, street foods, aren’t necessarily something we publicize.
We don’t want to associate ourselves with the belief that this kind of food is only for these kind of people, your construction workers and commuters.
So while street food may not necessarily “taste like poverty”, it surely looks like it — apparently.
- Street Food In Developing Countries: Lessons From Asia, F.G. Winarno and A. Allain
- The spicy taste of entrepreneurship: street food sellers and economic development, International Labour Organization
- Access to Opportunity: A Case Study of Street Food Vendors in Ghana’s Urban Informal Economy