Early morning phở and donuts gobbled greedily from a plastic stool in a moped-filled Hanoi alleyway. Mom-and-Pop operations serving freshly-caught ‘fish of the day’ from Thai beachside countertops. Steaming-hot takoyaki juggled precariously amidst the Dotonbori melee. Eating locally is always one of the best ways to discover how a destination ticks, and delving deeper into street food has become an essential element of enriching travel, particularly in Asia. But what exactly defines street food, and what makes it so special?
The term ‘street food’ might instantly bring to mind steaming pans being frantically stirred at the roadside, but it covers so much more. The broadest-brush interpretation takes you from down-to-earth vendors selling traditional fare, to energising pop-ups showcasing entrepreneurial edibles, with dozens of other iterations along the way. Street food can be rough-and-ready or more refined, traditional or fusion, quick fix or slow cooked, but it always has a few essential elements…
Street food is instant gratification, get-peckish-and-eat food. It’s on offer to all hungry punters who walk by; advance booking and formal attire not required. Street food isn’t always literally served on the streetside - it can be found in local markets, open shop fronts, flash venues, festivals and beyond. The list goes on, but if it can be on your mind one minute and in your hand and ready to eat the next, it’s a contender.
Two defining features of most street foods are freshness and individuality. Pre-packaged and mass produced eats usually sit in a different category, albeit a similarly convenient one. Street food doesn’t tend to keep for very long, for a start - munch it immediately or lose it!
It's all about the flavour. While it’s true that some street food dishes look incredible, many are served very simply and without ceremony. Street food isn’t a beauty contest - the central tenet is taste, which is always aiming to stand out from the crowd. Presentation needn’t even be an afterthought.
Though not necessarily ‘cheap’, as such, street food plays to the impulse purchase market and usually sits at the lower end of a destination’s price point spectrum. It often relies on drawing in potential eaters via irresistible aromas, before (hopefully) tempting them to taste, so any hesitation over cost is best avoided.
Street food connects people through shared experience. It’s unpretentious, tasty, comforting and filling, simultaneously evoking a sense of familiarity (especially for its local audience), a universal yearning for food that nurtures and satisfies, and a sensory window into a different world. From slow-cooked bone broths simmered for many hours, to flash-fried delicacies served crisp and scorching in a twist of paper, there’s a common thread running through it all: indulgence in simple pleasures. This is comfort food at its most essential, winning over the heart through the stomach.
Whatever the dish, wherever the eatery, street food always has a local connection at its core. From Bangkok to Bali, street food vendors across Asia (and, indeed, throughout the world) are locally anchored, and the very best can count a high percentage of local residents amongst their customers too. When you take a bite, you know you’re tasting a destination like the locals do.
As predominantly small-scale operations, street food eateries throughout Asia source many of their ingredients locally, especially the fresh fruit and veg, as it’s the most economical way for them to do so. This keeps the food miles of their fare relatively low, and keeps the income flowing locally too, which all contributes positively to sustainability.
Even within the same country, the range of street foods on offer can differ enormously from one city to another, north to south, coast to coast, or inland to shoreline. Each region’s street food profile reflects the terrain, the climate, the availability of ingredients, and the preferences of the local residents, giving you a deeper perspective on the area’s culture, history and culinary creativity.
Think you know Vietnam’s phở? Got India’s pani puri down pat? Experienced all of Sri Lanka’s short-eats? Think again! Whether you’ve had a dish many times before, or are venturing down an unfamiliar culinary path, every popular street food has as many different versions as there are cooks to create it. Each vendor has their own slight tweaks on the theme - a few different herbs and spices here, a secret dash of something there; a recipe passed down through the generations, or a totally new riff on a familiar tune. Try each iconic dish a dozen different ways.
When faced with an eye-widening array of street foods, and limited stomach capacity even amongst the most determined gourmandes, how do you make sure you narrow it down to the very best? We’ve been around the street food block once or twice, and know a few sure-fire ways to identify the top eats.
If you’re looking for a shortcut to the very best street food, quiz the locals. Find out where your guide goes for lunch, ask the hotel staff for their quick-snack recommendations, and chat with taxi drivers about their favourite hawkers. You’ll get honest, tried-and-true advice about which street foods you should make a beeline for (and, perhaps, which you should avoid).
Although it’s very tempting to walk up to an empty counter as soon as your stomach starts to rumble, we’d always recommend joining the longest queue, especially when it’s a line of locals. Ten to one they’re queuing for very good reasons, and those reasons probably include phenomenal flavours that are well worth the wait. Nowhere is this more true than in the lunchtime street food markets of Bangkok where you’ll discover multiple pad thai or papaya salad vendors standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
While there’s definitely joy to be found in eating your favourite dishes time and again, expanding your experience into unfamiliar territory broadens your taste horizons. Scope out a few street foods you’ve never tried before, perhaps even including ingredients beyond your ken, and take a leap. Yes, you might take one unenjoyable bite and chalk it up to experience, but equally, you might discover a new delicious dish to add to your top ten.
Taking a common sense approach to food safety and hygiene is always important. Those long queues and personal recommendations are good safeguards against eating something that disagrees with you, but other measures that can help you stay in fine fettle include having an eye on whether the food is fresh or has been sitting around for a while, favouring piping hot food over luke warm, and being careful with raw fruit and veg.
If our guide to street food in Asia has whet your appetite for a holiday in Asia, do get in touch with one of our Destination Specialists.