When asked what your favorite street food is are your first thought of crepes or pretzels? Any world traveller worth half their passport stamps can tell you that street food is not just a simple snack – in many countries, it is a storied tradition and a celebration of a collective national heritage.
From Bangkok to Brussels, we’ve collected the best cities for street food, with both the ‘target rich’ spots for hawkers and the local delicacies you can’t miss.
1. Bangkok, Thailand
Few places in the world, if any, are as synonymous with street food as Thailand. For the variety of locations and abundance of options, we selected Bangkok, Thailand, as our number one spot for street food. Bangkok is notable for both its variety of offerings and the city’s abundance of street hawkers. Soi Rambuttri, a U-shaped lane off of Khao San Raod and near Wat Chana Songkhram, is a great spot in the old district of Bangkok.
Another highly recommended spot is Soi 38 near Sukumvit, which is almost like an evening food market, running until about 3am, and very close to much of the city’s best nightlife. Green Papaya salad bruised on a stone pestle, mango sticky rice, pad thai (stir-fried noodles with egg, fish sauce, tamarind juice, red chili pepper, and a combination of meat, garnished with crushed peanuts and lime), and chicken with green curry are all some of the Thai specialties you can find in Bangkok.
2. Singapore, Singapore
The undisputed up-and-coming spot for street food in south east Asia is Singapore, though street food already has a long history in the city. In the 1950s and 60s, ‘street hawking’ was an incredibly popular trade, however, the abundance of street hawkers eventually created sanitation and public health issues. In 1968 and 1969, all street hawkers were forced to register, and for the next 15 years, the government relocated hawkers to ‘hawker centres’. These centres can be described as a hybrid of a food court and an organized market with street food stalls. While this structure lacks the spontaneity and theatrics of say, Mexico City, it has led Singapore to gain the reputation as having one of the safest and most reliable street food cultures in the world.
Singapore’s cuisine is reflective of its interesting position in south east Asia and the multi-cultured mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese that intermarried with Malays) citizens who call the island home. The city’s specialties include Hainanese Chicken Rice, comprised of steamed chicken with a jelly-like layer with rice, cucumbers, chillies, and pounded ginger; chile crabs, which come slathered in a garlicky and fiery paste; laksa, a spicy Peranakan (Chinese & Malaysian) noodle soup; and satay, skewers of marinated and grilled meats served with a peanut sauce. Photo courtesy of the Singapore Tourism Board
3. Penang, Malaysia
Penang is a small state and island on the north west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, as one of the best street food spots in Asia. The three large ethnic groups in Penang (Malay, Chinese, and Indian) are credited with creating both a great variety of street food, but also a multicultural influence on the cuisine as a whole. The Little India and Chinatown areas of Georgetown, on Penang Island, are noted for their hawkers and cuisine. Char koay teow (stir-fried rice noodles), assam laksa (a tart, hot and sour fish soup), roti (Indian-influenced flatbread), and satays of beef, chicken, or even pork are all suggested.
4. Marrakech, Morocco
Marrakech’s main square, Djemaa el Fna, is the spot to find your street food snack while in Morocco. Located in the city’s medina quarter (old city), the square contains close to a hundred food stalls serving a variety of Moroccan cuisine that can be eaten at nearby wooden tables on the square. The options range from the standard Moroccan fare of roasted lamb and couscous, to more exotic fare like sheep’s testicle and escargots, and they change as the
day goes on.
5. Palermo, Sicily
Italian cuisine is world-renowned, but the country’s culture appreciates sitting and lounging over a meal, so though their pizza and gelato have a serious corner on the ‘To Go’ food market, the Italian street food scene is surprisingly lacking. However, in Palermo, Sicily among the city’s fried delicacies worth trying is arancini (fried rice balls stuffed with meat sauce and cheese), crocche (Fried potato balls), panelle (friend chick peas pancake), and cardoni (fried cardoon), with panelle and cardoni as favorites for their sour aftertaste.
6. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Vietnamese cuisine has received some major street cred in recent memory and a quick visit to Ho Chi Minh City’s Ben Thanh or Binh Tay Markets explains why. Similar to the other south east Asian destinations listed, the street food in Saigon embraces a mix of cultures, primarily the city’s French colonial background with Vietnamese spices and ingredients.
In addition to Vietnamese standards of pho and bánh mì, some other notable dishes include cơm tấm (cooked broken rice) with a fried egg on the top, Bo La Lot (seasoned beef in a leaf), and spring rolls. Better off noting that since hawker registration and street food health standards aren’t as stringent in Vietnam, you should be careful to always choose popular, crowded stalls with high turnover.
7. Istanbul, Turkey
It’s not hard to imagine why a city that straddles two continents is a must-see stop for street food. From the visually-striking stalls selling döner (lamb, chicken, or beef on a vertical skewer) to the balik ekmek (fish sandwiches) sold off of boats, one of the greatest attributes of Istanbul’s street food is the variety of options. Mornings can start with simit, a ring-shaped bread topped with toasted sesame seeds and akin to a crisper bagel, afternoons begin with a kebab, and a snack of midye dolma (stuffed mussels) is a great break from site-seeing. Two locations noted for their street food are the beginning of Istikal Caddesi in Taksim, and near the Galata Bridge in the Eminonu area if you’re hankering for a fresh fish sandwich. Courtesy of Turkish Tourist Office, NY, NY
8. Mexico City, Mexico
While Mexican cuisine in other countries has sadly been oversimplified to the taco and quesadilla, a quick stroll around the Mercado San Juan, the La Merced, or Centro Histórico in Mexico City will open your eyes to a variety of antojitos (street snacks) available. Some aspects of Mexico City’s street food are well-known, like tacos al pastor, made with pork and pineapple and served on small corn tortillas, but other treats have been adopted in so many places that it’s surprising to find out they originated in Mexico. A perfect example of this is elote, or roasted corn on the cob, which is typically served with mayonnaise, cotija cheese, chili powder or flakes, and a squeeze of lime.
One street food that may not have originated in Mexico, but was certainly perfected here, is the churro, a tube of fried dough then powered with cinnamon. In Mexico City, churros are often filled with chocolate or dulce de leche, but can also be known to include fruits such as guava. It’s important to remember that the street food scene in Mexico City is not very well regulated so we recommend that you play it safe, go to a spot that has been recommended to you or join one of the street food tours offered throughout the city.
9. Brussels, Flanders
While we promised an article free of French crepes, we certainly can’t compile an article on street food sans frites! Two stands vying for top spot in French-influenced Brussels are Frit’ Flagey in Place Flagey and Maison Friterie Antoine in Place Jourdan, which is also famous for its variety of sauces, from the traditional Flemish topping of mayonnaise to a Brazilian take on ketchup and quatre poivres. One final treat not to miss are Brussels’ shellfish specialties of moules frites (mussels served with fries) and caricolles (small snails boiled in broth). Photo courtesy of Visit Belgium
10. Beachside Ceviche in Ambergris Caye, Belize
While most street food involves a cart or a hawker center, isn’t the definition of street food supposed to be fresh, on the go, and not in a formal restaurant? If we define it that way, it’s impossible for us to not mention how great food can taste on a beach, freshly caught in salt water and prepared in front of you. While recouping from a snorkel or sail in Ambergris Caye, Belize, you might be offered red snapper or barracuda, but lucky travellers who visit Belize between September and April will be able to have conch ceviche, a seafood dish comprised of raw fish marinated in acidic citrus such as lemon or lime and spiced with chili peppers, cilantro, or regional spices. This specialty, at least the conch variety, must be enjoyed while it can, since conch recently became an endangered species and the season has actually been cut two months short for the time being in Belize.
This list was created by the members and editors of travel website VirtualTourist.com, which is a resource for travellers seeking an insider’s perspective. Real travel tips, reviews and photos from real people who have actually been there and done that.