Street food is ready-to-eat food or drink sold by a hawker, or vendor, in a street or other public place, such as at a market or fair. It is often sold from a portable food booth, food cart, or food truck and meant for immediate consumption. Some street foods are regional, but many have spread beyond their region of origin. Most street foods are classed as both finger food and fast food, and are cheaper on average than restaurant meals. According to a 2007 study from the Food and Agriculture Organization, 2.5 billion people eat street food every day.
Small fried fish were a street food in ancient Greece; however, Theophrastus held the custom of street food in low regard. Evidence of a large number of street food vendors was discovered during the excavation of Pompeii. Street food was widely consumed by poor urban residents of ancient Rome whose tenement homes did not have ovens or hearths. Here, chickpea soup with bread and grain paste were common meals. In ancient China, street food generally catered to the poor, however, wealthy residents would send servants to buy street food and bring it back for them to eat in their homes.
A traveling Florentine reported in the late 14th century that in Cairo, people brought picnic cloths made of rawhide to spread on the streets and sit on while they ate their meals of lamb kebabs, rice, and fritters that they had purchased from street vendors. In Renaissance Turkey, many crossroads had vendors selling "fragrant bites of hot meat", including chicken and lamb that had been spit-roasted. In 1502, Ottoman Turkey became the first country to legislate and standardize street food.
Aztec marketplaces had vendors who sold beverages such as atolli ("a gruel made from maize dough"), almost 50 types of tamales (with ingredients that ranged from the meat of turkey, rabbit, gopher, frog and fish to fruits, eggs and maize flowers), as well as insects and stews. Spanish colonization brought European food stocks like wheat, sugarcane and livestock to Peru, however, most commoners continued to primarily eat their traditional diets. Imports were only accepted at the margins of their diet, for example, grilled beef hearts sold by street vendors. Some of Lima's 19th-century street vendors such as "Erasmo, the 'negro' sango vendor" and Na Aguedita are still remembered today.
During the American Colonial period, "street vendors sold oysters, roasted corn ears, fruit, and sweets at low prices to all classes." Oysters, in particular, were a cheap and popular street food until around 1910 when overfishing and pollution caused prices to rise. Street vendors in New York City faced a lot of opposition. After previous restrictions had limited their operating hours, street food vendors were completely banned in New York City by 1707. Many women of African descent made their living selling street foods in America in the 18th and 19th centuries, with products ranging from fruit, cakes, and nuts in Savannah, to coffee, biscuits, pralines, and other sweets in New Orleans. Cracker Jack started as one of many street food exhibits at the Columbian Exposition.
In the 19th century, street food vendors in Transylvania sold gingerbread-nuts, cream mixed with corn, as well as bacon and other meat fried on top of ceramic vessels with hot coals inside. French fries, consisting of fried strips of potato, probably originated as a street food in Paris in the 1840s. Street foods in Victorian London included tripe, pea soup, pea pods in butter, whelk, prawns, and jellied eels.
Ramen, originally brought to Japan by Chinese immigrants about 100 years ago, began as a street food for laborers and students. However, it soon became a "national dish" and even acquired regional variations. The street food culture of Southeast Asia today was heavily influenced by coolie workers imported from China during the late 19th century.
In Thailand, although street food did not become popular among native Thai people until the early 1960s, because of rapid urban population growth, by the 1970s it had "displaced home-cooking." The rise of the country's tourism industry is also contributed to the popularity of Thai street food.
In Indonesia — especially Java, travelling food and drink vendor has a long history, as they were described in temples bas reliefs dated from 9th century, as well as mentioned in 14th century inscription as a line of work. During colonial Dutch East Indies period circa 19th century, several street food were developed and documented, including satay and dawet (cendol) street vendors. The current proliferation of Indonesia's vigorous street food culture is contributed by the massive urbanization in recent decades that has opened opportunities in food service sectors. This took place in the country's rapidly expanding urban agglomerations, especially in Greater Jakarta, Bandung and Surabaya.
Street food vending is found all around the world, but varies greatly between regions and cultures. For example, Dorling Kindersley describes the street food of Vietnam as being "fresh and lighter than many of the cuisines in the area" and "draw[ing] heavily on herbs, chile peppers and lime", while street food of Thailand is "fiery" and "pungent with shrimp paste ... and fish sauce." New York City's signature street food is the hot dog, however, New York street food also includes everything from "spicy Middle Eastern falafel or Jamaican jerk chicken to Belgian waffles"
Street food in Thailand offers various selection of ready-to-eat meals, snacks, fruits and drinks sold by hawkers or vendors at food stalls or food carts on the street side. Bangkok is often mentioned as one of the best place for street food. Popular street offerings includes pad thai (stir fried rice noodle), som tam (green papaya salad), sour tom yum soup, various selection of Thai curries, to sticky rice mango
Indonesian street food is a diverse mix of local Indonesian, Chinese, and Dutch influences. Indonesian street food often tastes rather strong and spicy. A lot of street food in Indonesia are fried, such as local gorengan (fritters), also nasi goreng and ayam goreng, while bakso meatball soup, skewered chicken satay and gado-gado vegetable salad served in peanut sauce are also popular.
Indian street food is as diverse as Indian cuisine. Every region has its own specialties to offer. Some of the more popular street food dishes are Vada Pav, Cholle Bhature, Parathas, Rolls, Bhel Puri, Sev Puri, Gol Gappa, Aloo tikki, Kebabs, Tandoori chicken, Samosa, Bread omelette, Pav bhaji and Pakora. In India, street food is popularly known as nukkadwala food. There are several restaurants and QSRs in India that have also taken their inspiration from the vibrant street food of India.
In Hawaii, the local street food tradition of "plate lunch" (rice, macaroni salad, and a portion of meat) was inspired by the bento of the Japanese who had been brought to Hawaii as plantation workers. In Denmark, sausage wagons allow passersby to purchase sausages and hot dogs.
Because of differences in culture, social stratification and history, the ways in which family street vendor enterprises are traditionally created and run vary in different areas of the world. For example, few women are street vendors in Bangladesh, but women predominate in the trade in Nigeria and Thailand. Doreen Fernandez says that Filipino cultural attitudes towards meals is one "cultural factor operating in the street food phenomenon" in the Philippines because eating "food out in the open, in the market or street or field" is "not at odds with the meal indoors or at home" where "there is no special room for dining".
Walking on the street while eating is considered rude in some cultures, such as Japan or Swahili cultures, although it is acceptable for children. In India, Henrike Donner wrote about a "marked distinction between food that could be eaten outside, especially by women," and the food prepared and eaten at home, with some non-Indian food being too "strange" or tied too closely to non-vegetarian preparation methods to be made at home.
In Tanzania's Dar es Salaam region, street food vendors produce economic benefits beyond their families. Because street food vendors purchase local fresh foods, urban gardens and small-scale farms in the area have expanded. In the United States, street food vendors are credited with supporting New York City's rapid growth by supplying meals for the city's merchants and workers. Proprietors of street food in the United States have had a goal of upward mobility, moving from selling on the street to their own shops. However, in Mexico, an increase in street vendors has been seen as a sign of deteriorating economic conditions in which food vending is the only employment opportunity that unskilled labor who have migrated from rural areas to urban areas are able to find.
In 2002, Coca-Cola reported that China, India, and Nigeria were some of its fastest-growing markets: markets where the company's expansion efforts included training and equipping mobile street vendors to sell its products.
As early as the 14th century, government officials oversaw street food vendor activities. With the increasing pace of globalization and tourism, the safety of street food has become one of the major concerns of public health, and a focus for governments and scientists to raise public awareness. However, despite concerns about contamination at street food vendors, the incidence of such is low, with studies showing rates comparable to restaurants.
In 2002, a sampling of 511 street foods in Ghana by the World Health Organization showed that most had microbial counts within the accepted limits, and a different sampling of 15 street foods in Calcutta showed that they were "nutritionally well balanced", providing roughly 200 kcal (Cal) of energy per rupee of cost.
In the United Kingdom, the Food Standards Agency provides comprehensive guidance of food safety for the vendors, traders and retailers of the street food sector. Other effective ways of enhancing the safety of street foods include: mystery shopping programs, training, rewarding programs to vendors, regulatory governing and membership management programs, and technical testing programs.
Despite knowledge of the risk factors, actual harm to consumers’ health is yet to be fully proven and understood. Due to difficulties in tracking cases and the lack of disease-reporting systems, follow-up studies proving actual connections between street food consumption and food-borne diseases are still very few. Little attention has been devoted to consumers and their eating habits, behaviors and awareness. The fact that social and geographical origins largely determine consumers’ physiological adaptation and reaction to foods—whether contaminated or not—is neglected in the literature.
In the late 1990s, the United Nations and other organizations began to recognize that street vendors had been an underused method of delivering fortified foods to populations, and in 2007, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization recommended considering methods of adding nutrients and supplements to street foods that are commonly consumed by the particular culture.
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