Is good street food enough to make you consider a destination?

Published 2019-10-16 15:36

Street food is a common global phenomenon dating back over centuries. It is found in the wealthiest and poorest of countries and serve multiple purposes varying from feeding the masses to enticing foreigners and visitors to indulge in Michelin Star dishes like those served at Tsuta Ramen street food stall in Singapore (this should be on your bucket list!). Street food varies in accordance with country-specific cultures, habits, local economic situations, access and availability of food resources, climate, etc. Street food ranking, in comparison to the long existence of the street food practice, is relatively new, dating back merely one decade.

The ranking of street food

Over the last two years, Asia was ranked as one of the best street food destinations. Singapore is included among the top three in almost every ranking. Hong Kong, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and Tokyo are among the top ten, joined by Mexico City, Istanbul, Berlin, Durban, New York, and Istanbul. Global street food really is a smorgasbord!  

Today there are a multitude of media outlets, magazines, travel blogs, and agencies that do street food rankings. These include Forbes, CNN Travel, Netflix Food Series, Traveller24, and many more. They predominantly have a singular marketing purpose namely to encourage tourism and it seems to work – after all, who among us hasn’t conducted a search for the best places to eat when we go on holiday. Companies often do quarterly, bi-annual, or annual updates and rank cities or countries in terms of the best street food options. 

Rankings are based on comprehensive surveys involving foreign visitors, food experts, business travelers, and corporate travel agents. As an example, CEOWORLD magazine in partnership with Truthfulworld Hotels in September 2019 presented its list of the best destinations in the world based on data from an annual survey of 87,000 food enthusiasts and 9,000 gourmet experts in 92 countries. Its ranking was based only on the kind and taste of street dishes. 

Here are the top ranking destinations and their most popular food choice: 

  • USA: barbeque, sandwich, and hot dog options
  • India: kebabs, biryani, curry
  • Singapore: crab, oyster, duck rice
  • Jamaica: curry chicken, oxtail stew
  • Columbia: tortillas, empanadas, shrimp cocktail kebabs
  • South Africa: bunny chow, boerewors, biltong
  • Philippines: manok, pork sisig, halo-halo 
  • Poland: kielbasa, pierogo, golabi

A unique ranking exercise

My Late Deals, a renowned magazine, at the end of September 2019, presented its top street food destinations. Its ranking approach was unique compared to other ranking agencies because it did not limit its rankings to the single criteria of type and taste of food. It used four criteria: the number of street food vendors, affordability, frequency of street food experiences, and sanitation. It arrived at similar end-results than other ranking agencies but only because its four criteria weighed the same. Yet the incorporation of the quality criteria of hygiene is an important development. Hong Kong was ranked first because of its food (dim sum, curry fish balls), sanitation, and high number of street food stalls. Bangkok was ranked second because it has the cheapest street food, yet scored low on sanitation. Ho Chi Minh City was ranked third but also scored low on hygiene. Singapore was ranked fourth and scored high on sanitation and hygiene but low on affordability with the average cost of street food being USD13.00. All the other cities included in the ranking, like Mumbai, scored low on hygiene. If hygiene weighed the most in the ranking approach, Singapore would have been first despite the higher cost of food.

Street food for the win!

Despite the need to develop formal hygienic standards for street food, it remains a key part of many cultures worldwide. Street food is one of the best ways to experience the food scene like a local. If you are a foodie, the culture of dining out every evening on delicious and inexpensive street food might just become an important consideration in your decision to settle abroad. Expatriates who come from countries where the street food scene is very active might consider it a bigger factor than expats from countries where formal dining establishments are the top choice.  

If you want to enjoy street food, here are a few tips for getting the tastiest meals that are also the safest to eat:

  • Keep an eye out for fresh ingredients
  • Ask locals for recommendations
  • Look for carts with lots of customers – busy carts are a good indication of success and return customers
  • Watch how the food is made before ordering. This helps you check that you are fine with the ingredients being used and happy with the cooking process

Importance of street food for expatriate choices

There are very little indications and/or examples of expatriates attaching value to street food rankings when deciding to settle in a new country. If greater attention was given to the criteria of hygiene and sanitation, things might change. In general, there is little governance of street food standards and not enough attention is given to hygiene. Relocation agencies often advise expatriates to avoid eating street food until accustomed to the country they live in, especially in developing countries like Mexico and India.

Happy dining!