Street food is ready-to-eat food or drink sold in a street or other public place, such as a market or fair, by a hawker or vendor, often from a portable food booth, food cart, or food truck. While some street foods are regional, many are not, having spread beyond their region of origin. Most street foods are also 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, although Theophrastus held the custom of street food in low regard. Evidence of a large number of street food vendors were 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, with chickpea soup being one of the common meals, along with bread and grain paste. In ancient China, where street foods generally catered to the poor, wealthy residents would send servants to buy street foods and bring meals back for their masters to eat in their homes.
A traveling Florentine reported in the late 14th century that in Cairo, people carried picnic cloths made of rawhide to spread on the streets and eat 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. Ottoman Turkey has also been the first country to legislate on and regularize street food standards, in 1502.
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. After Spanish colonization of Peru and importation of European food stocks like wheat, sugarcane, and livestock, most commoners continued primarily to eat their traditional diets, but did add 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 "pepper pot soup" (tripe) "oysters, roasted corn ears, fruit and sweets," with oysters being a low-priced commodity until the 1910s when overfishing caused prices to rise. As of 1707, after previous restrictions had limited their operating hours, street food vendors had been banned in New York City. 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. In the 19th century, street food vendors in Transylvania sold gingerbread-nuts, cream mixed with corn, and bacon and other meat fried on tops of ceramic vessels with hot coals inside.
French fries probably originated as a street food consisting of fried strips of potato in Paris in the 1840s. Cracker Jack started as one of many street food exhibits at the Columbian Exposition. Street foods in Victorian London included tripe, pea soup, pea pods in butter, whelk, prawns, and jellied eels.
Originally brought to Japan by Chinese immigrants about 100 years ago, ramen began as a street food for laborers and students, but 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 when the urban population began to grow rapidly, by the 1970s it had "displaced home-cooking."
Around the world
Street food vending is found around the world, but has variations within both 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" with New York City's signature street food being the hot dog, although the offerings in New York also range from "spicy Middle Eastern falafel or Jamaican jerk chicken to Belgian waffles" 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 passers-by to purchase sausages and hot dogs.
Cultural and economic aspects
Differences in culture, social stratification, and history have resulted in different patterns for how family street vendor enterprises are traditionally created and run 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 nonvegetarian preparation methods to be made at home.
In Tanzania's Dar es Salaam region, street-food vendors produce economic benefits beyond their families by purchasing local fresh foods, which has led to a proliferation of urban gardens and small-scale farms. 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.
Health and safety
Despite concerns about contamination at street food vendors, the incidence of such is low, with studies showing rates comparable to restaurants.
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. In the United Kingdom, the Food Standards Agency provides comprehensive guidances of food safety for the vendors, traders, and retailers of the street-food sector. Other effective ways of enhancing the safety of street foods are through mystery shopping programs, through training, and rewarding programs to vendors, through regulatory governing and membership management programs, or through technical testing programs. 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.
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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