Give me a street cart over a fine dining meal any day of the week, twice on Tuesdays and three times after the bar. Something delicious in my hand for a few dollars or less, a thin square of single ply paper guarding against the inevitability of sauce dripping onto my clothing. In those moments, the air of thick pretension found in an expensive, white tablecloth restaurant is replaced with nothing but the thick, stifling humidity in the air. Does all of the best street food come from hot, humid environments? Evidence points to yes, but perhaps we’ll trace that theory on another day.
Street food is representative of the place it comes from and the people who make it, and that’s who should be lined up next to you. The fewer people who look like you or speak your language, the better. Locals grabbing a quick snack on the run, having a bite of breakfast, taking their lunch break, joining family for dinner or soaking up a night of drinks on the way home, ideally with something spicy and greasy and free of frills, should be your company.
You’ll leave with more than a full belly, but an enriched, satiated soul, perhaps even a better understanding of where you are in the world. That’s what street food can do for you. It’s a vibe, an energy, an encapsulation not only of its myriad bold flavors — always bold, there’s no bland in street food, no daintiness or subtlety — but of the forces that brought those ingredients together, served on a paper plate or tucked into a piece of aluminum to be at once devoured and savored. It will forevermore be recalled as the definitive sensory experience and memory you have of a particular place and moment in time.
Visit the following destinations with an open stomach and an open mind, and hit the streets and the night markets for a rare taste of happiness and satisfaction the likes of which cannot and never will be delivered via the environs of a stuffy, formal restaurant.
Hong Kong is loaded with different street food hot spots, from popular walking streets and night markets, to entire neighborhoods lined with an endless succession of vendors and stalls. A guide with Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tours once joked with me that they offered beginner, intermediate and advanced street food tours; the eats becoming more “advanced,” as in local-centric and perhaps more unusual or challenging to westerners unaccustomed to it, the farther you moved from the Central district.
In Central, visit Graham Street, and then keep heading out to Sham Shui Po, where you’ll find a greater concentration of locals. In Kowloon, there’s Mongkok as well as the Temple Street night market. Start with classics like handmade dumplings and egg noodles, pineapple buns and milk tea, and ju cheung fun rice rolls topped with hoisin and chili sauces.
Try a smattering of Chinese sausages and fish balls, find a whole fried fish, siu mai dumplings and egg tarts — to name but a few more noted dishes. Be sure to save room for two of the stars of the Hong Kong street food show: hot pot and roast goose. There’s no eating your way through Hong Kong without them.
India: Delhi and Mumbai
India’s street vendors have elevated the craftsmanship of the street food arts, becoming known for some showmanship in the form of extravagant, sauce-laden servings and enormous preparations. There’s a need to stand out from the crowd in a country of some 1.4 billion residents, after all. Both Delhi and Mumbai offer a sweeping assortment of street foods, and each has its own specialties.
In Delhi, head to Paranthe Wali Gali for paratha plates lined with half a dozen accompaniments. Seek out fried, puffy chikora, and wash it down with freshly prepared mango lassi. Don’t forget to load up on all manners of chaat, with noted vendors in Chandni Chowk and across the city.
In Mumbai, street food is no game or hobby, but rather a citywide way of life. Snag plates of pav bhaji, pani puri, sev puri and bhel puri, and a wide array of sandwiches, dosas and egg and omelet dishes. Seek out Zaveri Bazaar, Mohammad Ali Road, Colaba Causeway and Crawford market, to name a few thriving districts.
Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur and Penang
I know a number of food-obsessed travelers who tout Penang as the planet’s preeminent street food destination. It’s a compelling argument. The best and boldest, richest and most intense dishes often stem from a merging of culinary and cultural traditions, and Malaysia’s history and cuisine exemplifies it.
A bowl of laksa slaps you upside the head, leaving you with an unforgettable impression, and you’re only just getting started. Expect stir fried noodles of all forms that are near-magical for their curative potency. Dig into roti canai, nasi lemak, Hokkien mee, char kuey teow, and then take a nap and do it again.
The bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur must be included as well, and given you’ll at least be passing through en route to other destinations, it more than makes sense. Head to Jalan Alor night market, Changkat Bukit Bintang and Tapak Urban Street Dining, a more modern-skewed collection of food trucks.
Are you a first-time caller to the world of street food? Book your next trip to Mexico City before jumping into the deep end with other destinations on this list. CDMX offers curious American eaters a chance to see for themselves how the food they think they know is superior to a near infinite degree when served where it comes from by the people who know it best and enjoy it the most.
You’re here for the tacos, right? Right. But that’s only the beginning. Tortas. Chorizo. Carnitas. Churros. Tostadas. Empanadas. Pozole. Atole. On and on the list goes. Mercado de la Merced is an obvious destination, but there are myriad markets to explore, and uncountable collections of street carts huddled together, lurking around particular intersections and streets. Find the smoke in the air, listen for the sizzling, follow your nose and line up in the crowd.
Mexico City might be your street food gateway drug, but the allure of another hit of the good stuff will keep you coming back time and again regardless of how far you’ve chased the same thrill. Trust me.
Sicily picks up the slack for an entire continent by earning Europe’s only slot on this list. It’s fitting, as the food, culture and history are different enough from mainland Italy to make you think that, perhaps, you’re not in Europe after all.
From Palermo to Catania and at all points in-between, a quick bite to-go for lunch, or when en route to the bar and back home again, will set you up for success. Sicilian street food is available in affordable abundance. Its roots are as hearty fare made for the working man to fill up and get back to it. It’s handheld. It’s fried, carb heavy and rustic. It’s damn near perfect.
Arancini, panelle chickpea fritters, sfincione, panzarotti and, of course, pani câ meusa, or spleen sandwiches. Are you still awake? Still conscious? Then don’t forget to take the cannoli on your way home.
Seoul, South Korea
South Korea is a culinary wonderland. And before you ever sit down to a raucous Korean barbecue feast, Makgeolli-fueled dinner, incredible bibimbap or real KFC, Korean Fried Chicken, you must hit the streets and the markets. The place to start is with the famous Gwangjang Market. “It’s a chaotic paradise of food,” says Daniel Gray, a tour guide leading a culinary expedition across South Korea with Intrepid Travel.
Chow down on rice rolls, kimchi, dumplings, mung bean pancakes and then kimchi dumplings and kimchi pancakes. Spicy kimchi soup, too. Don’t forget the banchan, pickled everything, knife-cut noodles, rice cake buns and grilled meat skewers. Wash it down with repeated rounds of soju. Then head to Namdaemun Market where you’ll find another lineup of vendors running in the thousands. It’s enough to keep you busy for the next few years, so you may as well get started now.
It’s as if the entire city state of Singapore was designed with food in mind. Ask any Singaporean, and they’ll tell you it’s no fluke. Food is a passion and a pastime, and the pursuit of culinary-induced happiness is an essential right. And sure, the city is stacked with some of the world’s fanciest and finest restaurants, but ask any Singaporean one more question, and they’ll tell you they’d trade the whole lot of them if it meant preserving just one of the dozens of beloved, epic hawker centers that play a crucial role in their daily life. “Street food is our culture,” says Maureen Ow, a high-powered food blogger known as Miss Tam Chiak. “It’s the passion of the makers and the eaters that keeps them going.”
There’s a good deal of overlap with the Malaysian eats described above, as a good portion of Singaporean food is Malaysian in origin. But there are also Chinese influences, Indian, Indonesian and the myriad combinations thereof, such as Peranakan, all with Singapore’s own unique take. Think char siu, laksa, roti, nasi lemak, char kuey teow, satay, curry puffs, rojak, tulang merah, salted egg, kaya toast, chili crabs, sambal and durian, because why not?
A few hawker centers to get started with include Old Airport Road, Amoy Street, Tiong Bahru and Maxwell Food Centre. But you’ll only just be scratching the surface.
Taiwan is most often in the news for the wrong reasons, ones that its citizens have no control over or voice in, for that matter. A story that more Taiwanese people may want to talk to you about? Their world-class whisky, for one, as well as how craveable and delectable their food is, as best displayed in the capital’s abundant and diverse street food offerings.
Stinky tofu — that’s named with love, not distaste, because the stinkier the better — oyster omelets, scallion pancakes, boba tea, fried taro balls, popcorn chicken and beef noodle soup are all worthy ventures. At the tippy top of the list is the black pepper bun found at Raohe Street Night Market, which is where your adventure should begin. Other markets to consider include Ningxia Night Market and Linjiang Night Market, and there are scores of others scattered across the city.
Thailand: Bangkok and Beyond
The whole of Thailand is obsessed with street food. It’s not an every now and again type of thing, either. It’s the way many Thais eat their food, every meal, every day. When you see a busy stall, whether it’s first thing in the morning, during a lunchtime rush or in the wee hours of the evening, you can count on the local experts having decreed that particular vendor a standout they have in their regular rotation. Go check it out.
Wherever you are in the country, there’s sure to be a night market or walking street to explore, or perhaps many of them, from Bangkok and Chiang Mai to the beaches of Koh Samui. Different regions have different specialties — different ingredients, sauces and even different spice levels, for a country whose baseline spice is already pretty damn high — though many of the best eats are universal in the form of every imaginable riff on noodles, soups and curries, som tam, mango sticky rice, satay, sour sausages, pad Thai and fried rice, fresh fruits, roti and more.
Vietnam: Hanoi and Saigon
Vietnam’s street food culture plays second fiddle to no country. Bun cha, beef and crab noodles, spring rolls, banh mi, banh xeo, pork noodles, chili crabs, grilled meats and fish, stir fried noodles, bamboo sticky rice and, of course, the pho — an earth-shattering quality and breadth of pho.
It should come as no surprise that there are significant variations in the foods of northern and southern Vietnam, with entirely divergent specialties and mainstays and stark differences between what Americans think of as essentially a universal dish, such as pho. There’s no single “American barbecue,” right? Well, pho ain’t all the same either, friends.
“In the South, we combine the pho with a lot of things,” says tour guide Khoa Nguyen over a gigantic bowl from his favorite spot in Saigon, Pho Hung, where they serve a rich beef broth that cooks overnight for 10 hours. Next to your pho might be a basket stuffed to the brim with herbs, vegetables and sprouts, along with lime and sauces to douse it with. Pho hails from the north though, and in Hanoi, expect a bowl adorned with fewer add-ons and a cleaner style of broth.
In Hanoi, plop yourself down at a plastic streetside table for bia hoi, the cold, crushable draft beer service that’s the perfect antidote to the weather and ideal accompaniment for the onrush of food you’re about to devour. In Saigon, start somewhere such as Ben Thanh Market or Hanh Thong Tay Market. Or wherever you are, hop on the back of a local’s moped and ask where their favorite noodle soup is. Hang on tight and enjoy the ride.
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