Why You Should Skip the Sit-Down and Dine on the Street
The very first time I encountered real street food culture was when I arrived in Bangkok in my mid-20s. Walking to my modest hotel from the sky train, my jet-lagged eyes adjusting to the morning light, I was struck by the abundance of vendors everywhere—lining sidewalks, peppering the alleys between buildings, and even parked on transit platforms—all selling a miraculous range of delicious and exotic fare, from mango sticky rice and green curry to oyster omelettes and deep-fried chicken. For a kid from Toronto, whose idea of street food was shamefully French fry-centric, this place was a culinary wonderland.
I spent that month in Thailand snacking and sampling across the country. And as I moved on to Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, my thesis was easily confirmed: the best way to experience real food culture is to bypass sit-down restaurants and get in line behind a local at any given street stall. It’s advice I’ve followed as I’ve travelled and feasted around the world, savouring egg tarts in Hong Kong; crunching freshly fried potato chips in Mexico City; and sampling tacos from a Seattle food truck. When you eat on the street, you’re tapping into rich local food culture that is fun, authentic and remarkably cheap.
While street food has always been more abundant in certain parts of the world (e.g. East Asia), most cultures offer some version of this adventure. In Nice, France you can snack on a savoury and satisfying chickpea crepe as you stroll the central market just off the lovely Promenade des Anglais. In Lima you can buy small portions of ceviche on the sidewalk just outside the central produce market. And even in Toronto there are now mobile smoked meat trucks and quesadilla stands that reflect the multicultural contributions to our food culture. One of my favourite Toronto haunts, Gushi, serves up Japanese fried chicken on purple rice.
So the next time you hit the road, be sure to try eating on the streets. Just follow these simple rules for a safe, tasty and budget-friendly time:
Do Your Research
Street food quality can vary dramatically, and you want to make sure that you’re hitting the best spots. Before you travel, check out some local food blogs and recent reviews to get a sense of which street stalls are worth trying. As they’ve enhanced their presence in Asia, the Michelin Guide has awarded stars to cheap street food stalls, including a chicken-rice stand in Singapore and a crab-curry joint in Bangkok.
Of course, not all food vendors will be reviewed by Michelin. Some travellers might be wary about the quality of street food, but it’s easy to take some precautions to minimize the likelihood of having a bad experience. Essentially, food should appear fresh and recently prepared. In countries where the tap water isn’t safe to consume, consider only purchasing items that have been thoroughly cooked.
Look for the Lineups
Although it might be human nature to avoid lineups, this is one instance where you want to follow the crowd. In addition to the local consensus that the food is worth lining up for, a lineup also reduces the odds that food has been left sitting around.
Find a Local Guide
Some of the best street food in any given place will be off the conventional tourist path, so look into a local expert (or food tour) who can give you some insight into the most delicious options. More and more tour companies, cruise lines and even hotels/hostels are adding street food tours to their cultural programming. Spending an evening on a walking tour of a new place, stopping to sample a range of local delicacies, is a great way to pass the time.
As the world gradually abandons its paper currency, even the smallest street stalls are starting to accept credit cards. The Square Reader—which enables merchants to take credit card payments on a smart phone—has revolutionized payment for small businesses around the world, including street stalls. In China, mobile transactions—even for buying a basket of steaming dumplings or sweet, creamy egg tarts—are rapidly becoming more common than cash.
And while cash used to be considered handy for small transactions, the increasing ability to go cashless and pay for almost anything—including street food—with a credit card means that you’ll never have to worry about losing your irreplaceable paper money, forking over a percentage of your funds at currency exchange stands, or getting hit by both your own bank and a foreign ATM when you withdraw overseas.
Stretch Your Travel Budget
It’s easy to buy meals with a credit card rather than cash, but it’s not very easy on your budget to get hit with a 2.5% foreign transaction fee every time your card is processed outside of Canada. There are, however, a select few Canadian credit cards that waive or subsidize foreign transaction fees. Some of the cards are more basic, without an annual fee and with relatively few perks aside from the waived foreign transaction fees. Others credit cards have an annual fee and are loaded with additional travel perks, like insurance coverage and rewards points. Here are a few of our top recommended travel cards:
|Credit Card||Special Card Feature||Annual Fee||Card Review||Apply for Card|
|Home Trust Preferred Visa||No foreign transaction fees||$0||Read review||Apply here|
|Rogers World Elite Mastercard||1.5% cash back on foreign transactions||$0||Read review||Apply here|
|Rogers Platinum Mastercard||0.5% cash back on foreign transactions||$0||Read review||Apply here|
|Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite||No foreign transaction fees|
|$139||Read review||Apply here|
|The American Express Gold Rewards Card||25,000 Amex rewards pts||$150||Read review||Apply here|
|BMO Air Miles Mastercard||500 bonus Air Miles||$0||Read review||Apply here|
Get the Word Out
Which street food joints have you given four stars to in your travels? Leave a comment and let me (and GreedyRates’ travel-obsessed readers) know. Have an upcoming trip that you want a good street food recommendation for? Tell me and I’ll give you my tips, from one foodie to another!