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Q&A: The Global Resurgence of Street Food

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Food is the new rock ’n’ roll – this much has now become a banal truism. And it’s street food that is really rocking now. From farmers’ markets to food trucks, from Portland, Oregon to Mönchen-Gladbach via London and Seoul, eating take-away portable snacks freshly cooked on a stall or a truck is where most current trends and interesting fusions are happening.  Or, as a reviewer of recent food truck movie ‘Chef’ says:  “Out with Eat Pray Love, in with Eat Eat Eat”.

What is street food and where did it emerge?

  • Street food had its origins in fast food for working men. The bunnychow, a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with curry, which originated in South Africa in the 1940s, allowed Indian workers to eat home-cooked curries on the job. Fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, were the original fast food for British working class families. The most basic street food is the sandwich, variations of bread plus filling, from burgers in New York to croque Monsieur in Paris, sabich in Tel Aviv to doner in Istanbul, a bánh mì in Saigon, a hotdog in Reykjavik and currywurst in Berlin. According to the MY3 Streetfood channel on YouTube, roasted palm sprouts are the oldest authentic street food in India, and a South Indian steamed rice cake called idli is “a very healthy Indian Fast Food”. Italy gave us the pizza and Japan added the yakisoba pan (a fried-noodle sandwich). Sicilians brought the muffaletta to America, and India added the vada pav, a potato fritter in a bun – almost as delicious as another British workers’ classic, the chip butty;
  • Street and fast food is fast becoming global. Now, office workers in London can have a Bombay Burrito in Islington, German teenagers can feast on Mexican enchiladas, and Japanese businessmen enjoy their korokke (croquettes). Throughout the United States, trucks and vans that are converted into moving kitchens are selling imaginative fusion food, bringing together dishes and ingredients from different cultures and creating a new global cuisine. The new food truck movement started with the legendary “Kogi BBQ To-Go” in Los Angeles, a Korean Taco Truck, where chef Roy Choi served fusion dishes such as kimchi quesadillas and Korean burritos.Social media made him a star, and fans followed him to his changing locations. The rest is history.

Why is street food so popular?

  • It’s cheap, it’s cheerful, often delicious and, at least in Europe, enjoys novelty value. One visitor at a German street food festival enthuses: “I’ve come here for all the new tastes and styles of food”. It opens up new food horizons for people who can’t afford to eat in restaurants. Former investment banker Ritesh Doshi returned to Nairobi with his family in 2011 and set up Pizza Village, helping to transform pizza from a luxury to a mass-market item. It operates a food truck, which it claims to be the first in East Africa. Doshi told Forbes magazine: “For years, only rich people ate pizza. We didn’t even know what it tasted like. Now, taxi drivers can afford pizza, even if it’s just once a month”, a local consumer commented;
  • Since it is comparatively cheap to start up your own food truck, it gives would-be restaurateurs a chance to try out fresh ideas. With names such as Bacon Bomber, Burrito Bandito, Bunsmobile, Wild Thyme and Grillin Me Softly, the “meals on wheels” have a pioneer feel about them. The – mostly young – entrepreneurs in this burgeoning scene work within a community that feels supportive rather than competitive, with a global outlook;
  • Richard Johnson, in UK newspaper the Guardian, reports how he “tried Japanese Hot Dogs, smothered in soy mayo, teriyaki sauce and nori. I tried Korean tacos. And I tried Viking soul food… street food is now some of the most exciting food in the world”.

Who are the consumers flocking to the food vans and market stalls?

  • The street food experience has been met with great enthusiasm. Travellers were the first to bring back the idea of street food from the Asian continent, wanting to recreate the delicious dishes they had tasted there: vada pav, pav bhaji, pani puri or tandoori chicken from vibrant Indian streets, wontons and tom ka gai from Chiang Mai in Thailand, cendol from Malaysia, spring rolls, pho ga, bánh mì from Vietnam, or the Ugandan ‘Rolex’, an omelette with fried cabbage, onions, tomatoes, green peppers, rolled into a chapatti or a roti, are now making an appearance in food stalls everywhere;
  • Bloggers publish their favourite places to eat take-away and street food. According to blog.forbestravelguide.com, Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city in Vietnam, is one of the best 10 places to have traditional street food. Meanwhile, YouTube contributor ‘Nomadicsamuel’ enthuses: “There is no place on earth that offers better street food than South Korea… called 'pojangmacha' some of my favorites include tteokbokki and hotteok. If you're in Seoul consider checking out Insadong and Namdaemun for a diverse selection of delights”. According to YouTube user Shai Sarfati “The best Shawarma in the world” is to be found in Aqaba, Jordan, another user claims he ate his in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Where is the street food trend going?

  • Many former food truckers are taking the street out of the street food and turning the vibrant new food concepts into brick-and-mortar restaurants, with the popular film “Chef” illustrating this trend most entertainingly. In New Orleans, Booty’s Street Food in Bywater offers small plates with a street food focus from around the world, such as a Vietnamese style ‘poor boy’ stuffed with pork belly, paté and meatballs. Street food franchises are moving into major train stations such as Munich Central and Euston Station in London. Some airports, such as Milan, Munich and Singapore’s Changi now boast street food franchises;
  • In Europe, street food is becoming increasingly event based, with the Food Truck Thursday in Berlin’s Markthalle Neun a fixed date on the foodie calendar. Street food festivals are regularly being held in many cities across Germany. The ‘Street Food Parade’ in Turin, Italy features many local cuisines. In the UK, the annual Street Food Awards have turned into local festivals that attract the best of the mobile chefs. This summer’s sixth annual Stockholm Street Festival is featuring a special ‘Street Food Court’ for the first time. Street food apps and Facebook are enabling consumers to follow their favourite trucks and stalls;
  • One of the stranger street food events, showing that shows that street food has finally embraced all strata of society has to be the ladies of the Somerset branch of the Women’s Institute setting up a stall (one among 400) at this year’s Glastonbury Festival. Here they provide tea and cake – in china crockery and on tartan-clad tables no less – to festival goers. This illustrates one of the most interesting dichotomies in current street food styles: on the one hand, consumers love the fusion of different ethnic foods into a new cuisine, while food trucks and stalls are also reviving traditional national dishes. Food festivals serve up spätzle (a type of pasta) in Southern Germany, arepas, stuffed tortillas, in Colombia or, in Palermo, the Sicilian stigghiola sandwich (roasted lamb intestines);
  • Stockholm's latest unusual start-up is believed to be the world's first posh food truck for pets, created by Magnus Rosengren, who believes that pets in health-conscious Sweden are not being offered the same variety of ecological foods as their discerning owners. His products are made of fresh Swedish beef with added vitamins and calcium. “I want to help owners to give their pets the best conditions for a long and healthy life while making it convenient”, he said. However, one customer decided that there was “no way” he would visit the food truck due to the cost of the products, which range from SEK32 to SEK45 (US$4-5). According to Euromonitor International data, the volume of sales of premium dog food in Sweden increased from SEK 405.2 million in 2010 to SEK500 million in 2015;
  • Gourmet burgers with ramen, wagyu beef and duck meat are one of the major growth sectors, with new franchises springing up everywhere. The formerly notorious “roach coaches” have become the new gourmets, shaking up the fast food business.
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