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.

I stayed.

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.

Fresh Chapati in Mukono, on my way to Jinja while in Uganda.

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.

 

Read more:

  1. Street Food In Developing Countries: Lessons From Asia, F.G. Winarno and A. Allain
  2. The spicy taste of entrepreneurship: street food sellers and economic development, International Labour Organization
  3. Access to Opportunity: A Case Study of Street Food Vendors in Ghana’s Urban Informal Economy

 

 

 

21 COMMENTS

  1. I always love to eat food street wherever I go. I’ve never felt it like poor people’s food. It is rather an opportunity to taste some local flavors. I’d go for street food rather than eating at McDonalds any time, but I can understand the point of view of your friends. Some people are afraid to step out of their comfort zone.

  2. Unfortunately that is true… street food doesn’t get its due recognition. As travel bloggers may be we can change the opinion. I always make it a point to taste street food which ever new city I go.

  3. Haha I’m sure if they actually “knew” what they were eating at McDonald’s they would be far more happy with the street food. I’ll admit I’ve had problems in the past eating everything I saw off the side of the road. I’m a bit more picky now but for me it’s one of the best parts about travelling. I love it so much. Just have to make sure to pick the ones all the locals are eating at!

  4. I can’t believe your friends went to McDonald’s, they definitely missed out. Street food is such an adventure, and yes, I can understand their perspective about health concerns. I feel like if you order from where the locals go, you have pretty good odds though 🙂

  5. You make some valid points here. Street food is sometimes associated with some diseases that you can catch while you’re traveling and that’s why so many people runs from it. Who wants to spend their holiday with a bad stomach or something worse? Myself, I always want to go and try local food. I think is part of the whole experience.

  6. Your friends ate McDonalds and I’m glad you didn’t! Street food isn’t for everyone and I can’t argue with the lack of hygiene. Those with weak stomachs or massive allergies should steer clear. But for you, me and everyone else that is an adventurous traveler street food is a place to revel in new tastes and meet locals

  7. Another wonderful post. Street foods in my book will always be preferable compared to McDs of the world. I like the ones in this site as they are often more pensive and detailed compared to usual touristy posts with superficial observations.

  8. I used to be hesitant on street food, simply because I always got sick due to a weak immune system. Now I love indulging in the same foods as the locals do!

  9. I love eating Street food whenever I travel. But the only problem for me is that sometimes there are not many vegetarian options to choose from. You should come to India to taste the array of street food available here.

  10. Really good read Celma and my thoughts completely resonate with you on this. To me food is perhaps one of to first steps to get into a place, and nothing is better than the street food to do this. In India, us locals also bond on it 🙂

  11. Can’t agree with you. I am from India. And I love the street food that we get here locally. It is beautiful, appetizing and tastes wonderful. I can’t imagine not eating these wonderful street foods.

    1. Hi Neha,
      My thought is not that street food isn’t delicious, I wrote about how some people I’ve met perceive it.

      That said street food is wonderful!

  12. I’ve only recently heard that street food was for the poor. I never thought of it that way. I saw it more as a convenience food, or reasonably priced meals. We always search out street carts where ever we travel. They often have the most delicious and filling meals.

  13. I love eating street food whenever I travel, especially in Southeast Asia.You are right, traveling and eating food bought on the street is an experience itself. There is such a rich culture involved in it and it makes me feel connected to the locals whenever I eat street food.

  14. Interesting viewpoint! I love to eat. Plain and simple. So when I travel I try to experience everything from hatted gourmet (when my budget allows lol) to street food and everything in between. I have never considered it a class divider or something only ‘poor’ people do. I do value my health and no one wants a stomach bug so I do try to pick as wisely as I can but if you never try anything because it might not be safe there is no point in living. And plus it’s delicious!

  15. Street food I think, gives you the best taste of the local flavors . I would ditch the high flying restaurants any day for a small bite out here. I would definitely recommend it to all.

  16. I tend to be a bit suspicious towards street food. It all comes down to trust and I know that I will have to try it at least once to be able to have an opinion. So while home it is easier to try the food trucks etc that is the closest to street food that we get in Sweden. Problem while traveling is that we are a bit more careful and might not try the food in the stalls along the street, just due to the risk of getting sick. Doesn’t matter if it is in Germany or The Gambia, a restaurant gives a bit more hope of a proper kitchen, even if that is not always the case. 🙂

  17. Street food is a whole world by itself. Especially in a country, like India, not only is the array vast but it is evolved into something of an art. Definitely street food wins over the antiseptic flavours of the bigger food chains.