It's the new phrase for authenticity on the hip food scene—restaurants from the Asian Mott St to the South American La Sirena Clandestina call their food "street food." The irony is that we live in one of the cities where actual street food is least likely to exist, especially legally. So what is street food, really, and why does being sold on the street affect the character of food enough to make it its own category?
Trying to answer questions like that is a new book, Street Food Around the World, An Encyclopedia of Food and Culture (ABC-CLIO, $100), which was primarily created in Chicago: editors Bruce Kraig (a professor at Roosevelt University) and Colleen Taylor Sen (author of books on Indian food) are both Chicagoans, as are many of the contributors (including the Reader's Mike Sula, who wrote the section on Korean food). At the moment the comprehensive book is a pricy hardcover, but when I spoke with Dr. Kraig at his Oak Park home, he and Sen had just been trying to convince the publisher that the subject was popular enough to deserve a street-priced edition. But even at the current price, it's a vast and comprehensive work that will reward dipping into for a bite or two for years. Here's our interview.
Michael Gebert: How do you define what street food is? Is it a 'know it when you see it' kind of thing?
Dr. Bruce Kraig: Well, we do have a definition in the book, which is, food served on the street! But it's also food served in markets, so if you go to, say, Mexico, where there are many markets, inside are fondas, and we regard those as street food also, because it's basically food on the go.
Also, we thought street food should be food trucks, everything from the fancy ones you see now to 'roach coaches' that you see at factories all over the place. And we also looked at vending machines, which we regard as a street food—there, it's out on the street. We looked at state fairs and county fairs as also being street food, because it is food that you eat walking around, even if it's in a special location. So what it is is, walking around food.
In most of America, it's probably only the vending machines. But then you've got the food trucks, and beyond that—what do we have? Pushcarts in New York?
If you're in Chicago it's kind of skewed, because all of our pushcarts have gone indoors because of city ordinances, especially finishing up in the 1960s when they took all the pushcarts off the streets.
Once upon a time it was mainly hot dogs, but nowadays there's everything else. If you look at the food scene all across the country, tacos are big, burritos, other Mexican preparations. And then, on the streets of New York, it's not just hot dogs any more. This depends really on the vendor, and with a large immigrant population vendors change over time, the ethnicity of them. So many of the vendors are now Bangladeshi, where they used to be Italians, Greeks, Jews and other things. So the food [immigrants] are going to make is what they're familiar with, and now Americans are familiar with it. So it would be falafel, lots of skewers, lots of shawarmas and shish kebabs.
Now let's talk about the rest of the world, and the huge variety of foods in your book. One thing I noticed was how many foods in the book don't seem particularly street friendly. I noticed this years ago, reading about bhel puri, which is an Indian snack that you toss like a salad on the street. And there's pork loin in Scandinavia, and hot porridge in much of Asia and so on. So again, what makes it a street food and how are things like that feasible as food you walk around with?
There are a couple of ways to do street foods. Most street foods, in the less developed countries, are made by people at home. So they're taking their recipes—which is one of the attractions for tourism, of course, that you're eating local food—and it's locally sourced ingredients, made almost exclusively by women and vended by either women or men.
But you don't have to walk down the street with it; a lot of these stands have a seating area. If you go to the night markets in Asia, there's plenty of seating. There's lots of soups—just go to Shanghai or the most famous, Xi'an, with the twin market of Chinese and Muslims, and there are two different kinds of food side by side and you'll find all sorts of wonderful soups and stews.
In the developed countries, much of these are industrialized foods, like a hot dog. They're sourced from a factory, but then made on the spot. The pork loin is like that, and it's served on a roll. Sandwiches are a street food. They may not be American sandwiches, but they're sandwiches.
So why does street food matter? Is it because it's the most inexpensive kind of food business to go into, so it's an entry point into business for immigrants?
Street food is an entry point for immigrants in North America. It's cheap to source—the markup on a hot dog is very great—so it is that way in the developed countries. It's a step up, though many don't make it, this is not just a Horatio Alger story. But it's a way to get into the market in North America.
In places like Africa, this might be the only income for a family, the woman doing street food. It's not an entryway into the market, it is the market. It is the food scene. And furthermore, in places like West Africa, half of peoples' calories come from street food, it's a major source of nourishment.
And that's because in cities, there are so many young men who've gone there to work and send money back, who don't have anybody to cook for them?
Yes, that's the case, but there are also many just plain poor people. The food is so cheap that they can afford it. In fact, this is the story of street food from the beginning. It's food for poor folks, and now it's become all gentrified and chef-ized and everything else that we rich Americans, relatively speaking, do to everything.
Let's go around the world and talk about what you find in different areas.
In Latin America you'll find wraps and encased foods, from empanadas to tacos, which is basically a kind of wrap. They come in different names, with different fillings, and they're different depending on where you are—they're different on the coast of South America than they are in central Mexico. And even within a country, like Mexico, there are regional styles, so a taco you find in Guerrero is not going to be the same as you find elsewhere.
Pupusas, which are from El Salvador and are now found all over, are also very popular—you see them in the new Maxwell Street market, there's a vendor selling pupusas and there's always a line. Or arepas, from the northern part of Venezuela. There's a restaurant selling arepas in Oak Park, and they're quite good. But they're all basically the same kind of thing. A corn or, depending on the country you're in, flour casing with a filling, that's either fried or could be baked.
If you're in China, it's an unbelievably stunning, varied scene—everything is for sale in China on the street and in markets. The food varies regionally—we put that in the book, some of the basic regional styles but they're infinite, you can't get your mind around how many there are. We did the north, south, east and talked about the kinds of food you'd find in Shanghai versus Beijing and places like that. But I can't begin to go through them all. I will say, probably the ones Americans would be most familiar with would be dumplings. And in the north, the baozi, which are the steamed dumplings which you find in Chinatown here and which are great, fabulous, and they'll have meats in them like lamb or beef, as opposed to the shumai, which you find on the street in Guangdong.
You know, one thing that you find in a lot of Asian cultures that people eat a lot of, is insects. Fried insects, toasted insects are just a feature of street food all over the place, and they're really good. So people who want to travel, try them. In Korea, silkworms are popular, but don't make the mistake of eating them raw. Toasted, they're fabulous. They taste like veal. Koreans will tell you silkworms are for children, because they're so nutritious.
I'm not sure being compared to veal is going to be better or worse for some people. What else?
In Africa, many stews. And based on manioc, a starchy vegetable imported from the New World back in the 16th century. Lot of starchy foods, beans and greens—in fact, it sort of sounds like soul food. But there are lots of relations, because it is a more substantial food meant to keep people going.
The thing about Europe is, they've been invaded by American corporations. And so has China. But there are lots of indigenous foods—in Hungary, for instance, langos, which is fried dough and is fabulous, absolutely great. Or in Russia, lots of sausages and dumplings, especially on holidays, like pelmeny. Same in Poland where you can expect to find pierogi, how could you not?
So Europe has a vibrant street food scene all over the place. One interesting thing is, in Denmark, the major street food is called polser, and those are red hots. They're sausages which are dyed red. They're everywhere.