Hardly a new trend, but apparently here to stay, street food has been increasing in popularity for the past several years, and food pundits are predicting that in the next few years it will go mainstream and even upscale. Street food can now be seen at catered events. at posh hotels, and in conference centers, offering stylish menu ideas that go beyond burgers and fries or soups and sandwiches. In addition, globally influenced street food is taking off, so that it’s easier than ever to find Belgian waffles in New York, Mexican Elote (roasted corn on the cob coated with mayo) in Kansas City, or lahmajun — a Turkish flatbread pizza – in Seattle. A permanent fixture on the culinary horizon, street food isn’t just a passing fancy. It’s a new way of experiencing the relationship between a society and its food; it has deep roots and is reinvented every day in new ways that are innovative, surprising, and, above all, delicious.
Street Food: Forever
Street food is a type of prepared food sold on the streets and other places. It is usually cheaper than the food sold in high-end restaurants and it is often sold from a kiosk, food cart, or food truck. Street food may have some local character, or it could be a universal type of food, such as hot dogs, hot pretzels, French fries, or burritos. It’s a sign of the times that travel website TripAdvisor, for instance, lists themed food trucks among the foremost dining venues in restaurant-heavy Milan, Italy.
Making and offering street food is a great opportunity for anyone who has the creativity and the desire to be innovative, who isn’t afraid of a challenge and who, perhaps, doesn’t have the funds to open a full-fledged restaurant. What you will need is the willingness to think out of the box and the ability to create unique food that will appeal to a wide range of tastes that doesn’t compromise on quality. The trend is undeniable and street food is succeeding, thanks in part to globalization and worldwide media attention on food, restaurants, chefs and cooking.
While street food is often sold in food trucks, many restaurants are adapting the street-food concept and calling it their own. The possibilities are practically endless, from designer panini to food from around the world, including traditional dishes reinterpreted in a “carry-out” format. All good street food has two things in common: the quality of the food, and a concept that taps into new market trends and the way that tastes are changing.
History of Street Food
The most ancient evidence of food prepared and cooked on the street dates back to the earliest civilizations. The ancient Greeks had a custom of frying fish and selling it in the street which spread to the ancient Romans who depended on street food for their nutrition since they didn’t have ovens. In excavations at Pompei, the remains of the typical “thermopolia” were found, and they are thought to be the forerunners of today’s food stalls. These were a kind of mini-kitchen facing directly onto the street used for selling all types of cooked food. At that time, less-wealthy city dwellers lived in apartments without kitchens, so the populace ate in the street, buying their food from the nearest vendor, who supplied tasty dishes that were affordable by all.
During the Middle Ages the trend continued, and big cities were bursting with stalls, huts and carts selling cheap, ready-cooked food on the streets of the poorer neighborhoods. Often servants were sent out to purchase street-food for the wealthier citizens. Every culture has food that is based on this type of cuisine. In North America, during the American Colonial period, the common street food was tripe, roasted corn ears, fruit and sweets. In Paris, there were the “pâstés,” which were pockets of pastry enclosed with a variety of fillings and sold for a few pennies to laborers so that they could eat while they worked, with no need for cutlery. Similarly, in Great Britain, the ages-old institution of fish and chips began as food sold on the street wrapped in newspaper, accessible to even the poorest traveler.
But while street food may have once been used as a way to feed the general population cheaply, and therefore once largely looked down upon, it is now viewed as a legitimate representation of a locale’s traditions and identity. Consider pizza – perhaps the ultimate street food. It is the emblem of popular and widely accepted Italian cuisine, although it too arose from the need to feed the poor in the streets. In other words, despite its lowly origins, street food identifies and distinguishes people and traditions, keeping alive one of the most important aspects of local culture and populations: the eating habits. Simply put, street is an expression of culinary civilization.
Street Food for All
Street food is renowned for being at the forefront of food innovation and its popularity has exploded in recent years. Its very nature means it can keep up with ever-changing consumer demand for new flavors, textures, and combinations. Now, street food is set to get more sophisticated. People are looking for cuisine that is specific to regions and subcultures. So, for instance, when it comes to Asian flavors, discerning diners now understand that there is a difference between Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese food, and they want food that accurately represents those different countries. “People’s thirst for knowledge is huge – they want to know the history of the dish, what’s in it and how you make it,” says Jonathan Downey, chief executive of the popular Street Feast markets across London.
Around the World
Street food is popular all over the world, enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. Trying street food is an integral component of traveling to new places, and it’s a delicious window into new cultures. In many countries, if you skip what’s being served on the street, you miss out on more than just a quick, cheap lunch – you’re ignoring a taste of society.
In Indonesia, street food is sold from carts and bicycles, while the street vendors of Bangkok, Thailand, feed 40% of the population of that city. In Italy, pizza sold by street vendors has a thicker base than pizza from a pizzeria and it is sold in square or rectangular portions. Mumbai, India, has more than half a million street food vendors, and in Poland you can find zapiekankas, which are halved baguettes grilled with mushrooms, cheese and some type of other filling. Street vendors in Brazil sell cheese buns called chipá, which are small, baked, cheese-flavored rolls. And, although, “taco” is the most searched street food on the Internet, the most common street food in the United States is still the omnipresent hot dog.
So You Want to Open a Street Food Stand/Truck/Restaurant
While opinions may differ, some of the most popular street foods in the U.S. (besides hot dogs) may be bbq, burgers, crepes, doughnuts, falafel, grilled cheese, tacos, waffles, and pizza. But that doesn’t mean you can’t borrow from other localities; street food can represent any region you want and the sky is the limit. The Rough Guides website talks about “The Best Street Foods Around the World,” and the article may inspire you to open a restaurant, food truck, or food cart that specializes in street food from another region.
Consider offering the ultimate Jamaican street food: jerk chicken. While there are numerous recipes, the basic jerk chicken is chicken on the bone slathered in a marinade of allspice, thyme, scotch bonnet chilies, ginger and spring onions. The meat is left overnight to absorb the flavors before being grilled over pimento wood. Another popular street food – albeit not in the U.S. at the moment – is Arepas, a mainstay of the Colombian diet. Arepas are the equivalent of tortillas in Mexico and bread in Italy. They are round corn cakes that are usually grilled or baked before being stuffed or topped with cheese.
Another possibility is a South African favorite known as bunny chow, which may conjure gruesome images, but is actually quite delicious. Bunny chow is essentially a kind of bread bowl. You take a loaf of white bread, hollow out the middle and fill it with a curry, either vegetarian beans or some type of meat. Bunny chow has its origins in India, the name “bunny” is a corrupted form of an Indian word for merchants, but the dish has its origins in Durban, South Africa.
Spanish churros are a type of street food that has the potential to vie with American donuts. Eaten plain, rolled in cinnamon sugar or dipped in hot chocolate, churros are sweet and crunchy deep-fried sticks of dough. They’re particularly popular as an end-of-night snack in Madrid, where some street-food stands offer them 24 hours a day.
America Discovers Poutine
If you want to take your inspiration from a locale a little closer to home, you need go no further than Quebec, Canada, where the best-selling street food is poutine – chunky potatoes smothered in cheese curds and gravy. Poutine is a French-Canadian classic and several towns claim to be the birthplace of this beloved Canadian street specialty. Legend has it that at the request of a truck driver who wanted something hot to go, chef Fernand Lachance combined hot French fries and cheese curds and proclaimed “Ça va faire une maudite poutine!” or, in English, “It will make a big mess!”
Freshly made French fries cooked until perfectly crisp and cubes of fresh cheese curds swimming in seasoned gravy combine beautifully in poutine. The hot fries and steaming gravy melt the cheese a bit, and, as you get deeper into the bowl, the three elements meld together and change textures and flavors along the way. If you do choose to offer this most-Canadian street food in the U.S., you can play with the basic recipe and offer optional ingredients like different types of cheese, various sauces, and even sweet potato fries.
Street Food is Here to Stay
Street food has always been around – do you even remember a time when you couldn’t get a hot dog smothered in sauerkraut and relish on the street? – but now it is having a renaissance of sorts and expanding into areas previously unexplored, both foreign and local. Street food offers the possibility of delicious, high-quality food that is available at a fraction of the cost of high-end restaurant food. Look into the possibility of opening an operation that offers street food – a diner, a food truck, a casual restaurant, a food stand – and explore the possibilities that hale from foreign countries and exotic locales. You will discover that people who usually restrict themselves to local tastes and flavors suddenly have a yen for Spanish, South American, South African and Canadian street specialties. And, if you’re lucky, they’ll keep wanting more.