Experimenting with street food is a culinary rite of passage. Whether it’s devouring a tamale at an outdoor market or slurping up noodles in a narrow alleyway, eating on the street is an opportunity to step into another culture in an honest, authentic way. In these 10 cities, street food is not just about discovering mind-blowing dishes; it is an integral part of the social fabric.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai may be smaller than Bangkok, but its street food scene is just as prominent. Chiang Mai’s massive tented markets are a second home to the city’s inhabitants, who eat out for almost every meal. Dining includes juicy mangoes and sticky rice for breakfast, lip-numbing papaya salads for lunch, and snacks like deep-fried bananas and tender pork skewers slathered in a honey-like glaze.
Where to go: Somphet Market, Moon Muang Road, north of Tha Phae Gate; Chiang Mai Gate Market at the Chiang Mai Gate in the southwest corner of the moat; and Intawarorot Road near the Three Kings Monument.
New York City, United States
New York’s street food is seemingly without limits. On one corner, you can get a gourmet bowl of shakshuka, baked with of halumi cheese and chunks of roasted garlic. On the next, there’s authentic Salvadoran pupusas, or corn tortillas stuffed with pork, chicken, shrimp, veggies or cheese. Yet the beauty of New York lies in its age-old institutions, like the quintessential New York hot dog, which, despite more than a century of change, is always just how you remember it.
Where to go: The Shuka Truck , El Olomega , Nathan’s Famous, Korilla BBQ.
At meal time, businessmen, shopkeepers and laborers crowd around the same vendors along Mumbai’s long stretches of food stalls. The majority of food is vegetarian, as most people are practicing Hindus. Popular dishes include potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and peas in a fragrant curry sauce, scooped up with naan; and vada pav, a deep-fried potato cutlet made with fresh coriander and green chilies, served on a bun. Every meal is finished off with a shot-size cup of chai, and occasionally paan—a triangle-shaped digestive, stuffed with candied fruit, cardamom, saffron, roasted coconut and lime paste and wrapped in betel leaf.
Where to go: Vendors along Juhu Beach and Chowpatty Beach; Elco Market in the Bandra neighborhood; Crawford Market near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station; Badhshah Snacks int the Crawford Market; Ashok Vada Pav in Dadar West neighborhood.
Souks (markets) have been the hotbed of Moroccan culture for centuries. At night, the city’s main squares transform into an army of food vendors wrapped in spiced clouds of smoke coming off of piping hot tagine and shawarma. The chaotic but thrilling Jemaa el-Fna, the city’s largest souk and a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been in action for nearly 900 years. This is the prime spot for dinner for locals and tourists alike. You’ll find dishes like tender lamb roasted in cumin and salt and escargot dripping with garlic sauce alongside snake charmers and tarot card readers.
Where to go: Jemaa el-Fna, Medina Quarterin the Old City.
In Singapore, hawker markets (massive dining centers made up of food stalls) are the equalizer between foreign wealth and local-wage earners. The vendors, which used to operate individually on streets, are required by law to be a part of these larger markets. Some comprise more than 200 food stalls The food is a mix of Singapore’s Chinese, Indian and Malay influences, including char kway teow, a stir fry of flat rice noodles cooked on high heat with dark soy sauce, egg, Chinese sausage, prawns, cockles and sliced fish cake; and roti, the soft and crisp Indian flatbread served with curry; and barbecue stingray.
Where to go: Old Airport Road Food Centre Old Airport Road; Singapore Flyer, 30 Raffles Avenue; East Coast Lagoon Food Centre, 1220 East Coast Parkway.
Mexico City, Mexico
When the Spanish conquistadors landed in Mexico City, the Aztecs had already been selling food at street-side stands near the Tlatelolco Market. Though the variety of food being sold has widened since the 16th century, the basic ingredients are the same: maize, beans, squash and chile peppers. While tacos are still the most common street food in Mexico—tacos al pastor (thinly-sliced pork, roasted on a revolving spit) being one of the only dishes to truly originate in Mexico City—some of the best discoveries come from otherwise hard-to-find dishes like pambazo. Made by soaking hard, white rolls in guajillo chili sauce, the sandwich is stuffed with potatoes, chorizo, lettuce, sour cream and queso fresco.
Where to go: Mercado Coyoacán, Calle Malintzin, between Aguayo and Allende; El Huequito, Gante No.1 Col., Centro; Ayuntamiento 2, near Plaza de la Constitucion.
In Catania, Arab and North African influences converge with mainland Italian roots to create a unique dialect and cuisine. Markets serve Sicilian specialties like arancini, deep fried rice balls stuffed with various meats, vegetables and cheeses (the traditional Catanese version contains prosciutto and peas). There is also cartocciate, a folded pizza, most commonly stuffed with ham, cheese and tomato sauce. However, for one of the best windows into Sicilian life, visit the raucous Pescheria (fish market), where exceptionally fresh fish is bought and sold every morning. The market itself is a sight: gritty fishmongers—arms flailing—shout at passersby to buy their fresh catch of the day, which might include octopus, clams, swordfish and eel.
Where to go: Pescheria, Piazza del Fontana dell’Elefante extending along Via Gemelli Zappalà; l’Etoilr d’or, Via Dusmet 7/9, next to the B&B Globetrotter; Piazza Carlo Alberto market, near Via Umberto and Corso Sicilia.
Tel Aviv, Israel
Go to just about any city in Europe and the U.S., and shwarma and falafel are staple foods. But actual street food in Tel Aviv is as diverse as the immigrants that make up the growing city. That concept comes together best at Levinsky Market, a five-block stretch of gourmet food purveyors such as bakeries, spice shops and delicatessens. Founded by Greek and Turkish immigrants in the late 1920s, this was a go-to for rare cheeses or spices from Europe. Today the market is the foundation of Tel Aviv’s gourmet food culture. Choices here include Burekas, parcels of phyllo dough that can be stuffed with spinach, leeks or cheese, and gundi, Persian chicken and chickpea-flour meatballs.
Where to go: Levinsky Market, Levinsky Street starting at Haaliya Street; Yom Tov Deli, 43 Levinsky Street; Alla Rampa, 21 Ha’Amal Street; Beer Bazar, 1 Rambam Street, Carmel Market; Shlomo v’ Doron, 29 Yishkon Street, Carmel Market.
Japanese are known for efficiency and sushi. So it’s no surprise that in Tokyo vending machines are parked on nearly every corner and can satisfy just about any craving (including sushi) 24 hours a day. Though the convenience is irresistible, you’ll want to experience street food served by people, too. Below ground, roam the depachikas, subterranean food halls, for hot yakitori (skewers of grilled chicken, fish, vegetables or beef) and bowls of ramen. Shop and eat elbow-to-elbow with locals at the buzzing Tsukiji Market, one of the world’s largest fish markets. Open 24 hours, this a favorite of locals and tourists for its tuna auction—where people line up at 5:30 a.m. for a chance to bid on 100-pound tuna—and fresh catches of the day.
Where to go: Tsukiji Market, 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo; Ikebukuro Tobu, Toshima-ku, Nishi-Ikebukuro; Ginza Mitsukoshi, Chuo-ku, Ginza 4-6-16; Shibuya Tokyu Toyoko-ten, Shibuya-ku, Shibuya 2-24-1.
Los Angeles, California
The U.S. food truck craze got its start in Los Angeles. Since Roy Choi’s popular Korean taco truck, Kogi, took off in 2009, it has become something of a traveling landmark for Angelenos. Part of Kogi’s success is undoubtedly its relevance to the city’s food culture: Korean barbecue meets homemade Mexican tortillas, which Choi artfully blends in Korean tacos made with spicy pork and hot-and-sour kimchi quesadillas with the perfect amount of crunch. Following Kogi’s success, food trucks seemed to be everywhere, touting everything from gourmet macaroni and cheese to artisanal ice cream sandwiches. Without Los Angeles, the most popular food truck in America might still be Mister Softee.
Where to go: Kogi BBQ; The Grilled Cheese Truck; El Matador.
Christina is a beach kid living in Brooklyn and a world traveler on a budget. She writes about food, style, travel—and the occasional short story.