The Wondrous World of Street Food

By Julia Burgi

Street vendors have probably existed as long as urban areas have - as people begin living together in denser areas, many start working outside of the home, perhaps even several hours away. And when that happens, workers still need to eat! For example, Joe's parents are farmers and grow all their own food and spent all their time working on their land. Joe moves to the city and gets a job in construction. Joe leaves the house every day for several hours and needs something to eat when he's hungry, so Joe goes to a street food vendor.

For an entrepreneur, there might not be a better place to capitalize upon the needs of those workers than the street (or other main artery of transportation and communication, there are vendors on boats in some places, such as Curacao).

If you find it hard to believe that such businesses existed before hot dogs were peddled on the streets of New York, consider the following:

* The famous city of Pompeii, Italy that was buried by a volcanic eruption in 79AD was home to mobile food vendors who sold deep-fried crickets * Japanese bento box meals have been associated with attending Kabuki theater performances since the 1600s * In New York City, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were 25,000 mobile vendors in Manhattan

Today, street food provides about 40% of the daily diet of urbanites in the developing world . Sambusas are a spiced meat-filled pastry popular on the streets of Kenya, fried plantains are a street-food favorite of Peruvians, while vendors of the Phillipines sell pork adobo. However, in the Western world, there is the stigma that there is something "dirty" inherent to street food. One of the attributes that I like best about street food is that you can peek into where the food is being cooked and judge for yourself whether or not it's clean - I absolutely trust the vendors I frequent, between one and seven times a week!

In New York alone, there are 3,000 licensed mobile food vendors and possibly thousands more unlicensed ones . In the United States, Austin, Portland, and Los Angeles all have lively street food cultures, with street food cultures emerging in cities such as Atlanta and Chicago as well. The offerings of street food, traditionally, have been extremely diverse in their offerings.

This column, in ten parts, seeks to introduce you to the world of mobile food vendors from my perspective, as a senior at Barnard College doing a thesis project on the mobile food vendors and urban infrastructure of New York City. My studies are focused in Architectural History and Theory and in an attempt to learn about the dynamics of restaurant spaces, I began with mobile food vendors. Through a chance encounter, I ended up driving around for several days with Hani, an Egyptian immigrant who delivers food carts from the Commissary Garages that carts spend their nights at, to their various day locations throughout the city. I fell hard for the world of mobile food vending and hope you do too!