Street food: a confusing concept
26 MAI 2017 | PAR ANNEKE GEYZEN
Street food as a notion has become ubiquitous all over the world. It has acquired a place in various vernacular languages, in written and audiovisual media and on numerous restaurant menus. Italians no longer speak of cibo di strada, but use street food to refer to the selling and eating of traditional dishes in the street1; Saveur, a food magazine, recently published the piece ‘What street food looks like in 30 countries around the world’, writing about street food’s economic and cultural value for global cities2; and in 2015, a pop-up restaurant in Brussels drew large crowds with their street-food style dishes3. A quantitative analysis of English newspapers, magazines, journals and reports published between 1900 and 20164 confirms that the notion of street food has increasingly attracted scholarly attention and media coverage. Although the steep increase should be relativized in a context of expanding academic and media output, the graph below indicates that street food as a linguistic category has gained in importance since the 1980s.
The literature does not provide a clear definition of what street food means. In her chapter on street food hospitality in Calcutta, Manpreet Kaur Janeja justly states that “[s]tudies of street hawkers and vendors that focus on the urban ‘informal’ economy, labour protection policies, street vending regulations, and gender, ethnicity and geographies of urban food distribution tend not to problematize the processual delineations of street food.”5 According to M. Shahrim Abdul Karim and Nurhasmilaalisa Abdul Halim, scholars’ unclear definition of street food results in many different interpretations and can be seen as a limitation for future research6. Martina Kaller, John Kear and Markus Mayer go even further in their latest book, Delicious migration, and state that “the topic scarcely receives mention in food studies7,” let alone that the notion is clearly defined. This essay builds on these observations and investigates the meaning of street food; it provides a birds-eye exploration of the food practices scholars and media refer to when they speak of or write about street food.
First, most studies approach the notion of street food from the perspective of its location. On the one hand, we find publications stating that what makes street food street food is that it is “a global urban practice8” at “street level9”. However, I did not find an answer to the question as to how “street” or “street level” should be interpreted. Are these characteristics demarcated very narrowly, referring only to the actual street, or do they encompass the sidewalk or the curb as well? And are food stands in train or subway stations included? Or food vendors on moving trains10? It is worth asking if “street” is a suitable predicate for the notion of street food to build on. On the other hand, several studies overcome a narrow street view by stating that street food vending takes place in public space11, including parks, squares and subway stations12. This delineation, however, raises questions about how to categorize food truck festivals that often take place on private property, pushcarts that are relocated to market buildings, or restaurants offering street-food style dishes. Should the notion of street food encompass these practices as well?
Second, publications about street food do not only characterize the notion through the lens of the trade’s location, they focus on the foods that are sold as well. Many studies give a generic definition stating that vendors sell fruit and vegetables or prepared meals13, but they rarely give specifics or mention street drinks. Development studies, in turn, generally build on the definition provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), stating that “street foods are ready-to-eat foods and beverages prepared and/or sold by vendors and hawkers especially in streets and other similar public spaces14.” The FAO thus focuses on prepared foods and drinks and only includes fruit and vegetables if they are cut or cooked up into snacks or dishes. The report subsequently gives a list per developing or newly industrialized country of the street foods that can typically be found there. Which brings me to studies that define street food from the perspective of typical foods. They refrain from generic definitions and approach the notion of street food from the viewpoint of signature dishes that play an important role in a city or country’s identity. Mumbai’s vada pao15, for example, is inextricably linked with the city’s identity and its street foodscape16, while the Parisian crêpes are increasingly appropriated as a popular street food in France17.
A third way the literature latently gives meaning to street food is based on its materiality. Publications seem to agree that street food is sold form mobile arrangements that are either temporary carts that can be moved around such as pushcarts, or portable arrangements that can be carried from one place to the next such as bags or baskets18. In his presentation for The New School’s street food panel in 2016, photographer Dave Cook showed several photographs he had taken of street food vendors in present-day New York City. He showed that besides pushcarts, baskets or rugs, materialities of street food vending also included supermarket carts, trolleys, and plastic bags attached to rear-view mirrors19. However, the mobility aspect does raise questions in relation to fixed stands in public space. In Belgium, frietkoten (fries shacks) are fixed stands in parks, squares and train stations and could be described as part of the Belgian street foodscape20. The same goes for the Würstelstand in Vienna21 that is similar to the Belgian frietkot. And how should the selling of pizza, ice-cream or waffles from a store or shop window be categorized? Does the transaction take place on the street or in the store? Is it street food?
Finally, a minority of studies refer to vocabulary and language when developing their definition of street food. In their introduction to the edited volume Street vending in the neoliberal city, Kristina Graaff and Noah Ha make mention of the academic and everyday language actors use to describe the selling of goods and food in the street. While scholars most commonly use street vending as umbrella notion, interested local actors resort to a wealth of words that describe a plurality of practices specific to local contexts22. The same applies to street food as covering concept and the many context-specific labels it comprises. In present-day New York City, for example, the term street food refers to food trucks that are owned by chefs and offer gourmet meals, but it also includes pushcarts that serve cheap lunches or green carts that sell produce in the city’s food deserts23. In turn, the National Association of Street Vendors in India (NASVI) distinguishes between pheriwallas who handle eggs and produce, rehri-patri wallas who sell prepared dishes and snacks on the street, and hawkers, footpath vendors and sidewalk traders24.
This birds-eye overview article shows that the global use of the notion of street food hides a wealth of local practices. Additionally, it raises a number of awkward questions that currently cannot be answered. The state of the field appears to be somewhat confused and that is probably because street food is a confusing concept25. A question I miss in the literature is how contemporaries think of street food in any given society at any given time26. Instead of forcing a concept on certain practices, it might be worth scholars’ while to investigate how contemporaries gave/give meaning to street food in order to alleviate some of the confusion.