Amazing Window into Learning a Culture
Street food has a special place in cultures around the
world. It’s often some of the cheapest, tastiest food in an area, which means it usually
represents what the locals eat on a day-to-day basis. That makes it a great representation of
popular flavor profiles in an area.
And, if we take a closer look at what we’re eating, street food can also teach us a great deal about the culture and values of the area as a whole.
Economics encompasses a whole host of interesting
facts. It’s not just about how much money a country brings in overall, but also about how it
brings it in and how it is shared out among the people.
Food won’t tell you everything you need to know about how a country’s economics works, but it can tell you a good bit. For instance, while street food pretty much anywhere is some of the cheapest food you’ll find in that country, the prices can tell you how poor or rich an area is.
Another easy one to spot is figuring out what kinds of jobs are typical in an area. If the street foods are all seafood-based, there’s likely a lot of fishermen in the area. Likewise, if lamb seems to be pretty prevalent, there’s probably a lot of shepherds. But what if an area’s main industry is tourism?
In Mexico, there were places where a gringa, essentially a quesadilla, was more than twice the price of the tacos! Because they’re “tourist food” they got a tourist price, while “non-tourist food” remained cheap.
And by agriculture, I mean looking at how the
availability of ingredients inspired the culinary direction of the culture. It’s interesting
that in today’s world, where so many ingredients available cheaply no matter where you are
in the world, local ingredients are still the preferred ones.
For instance, the humble corn tortilla. While corn grows all over the world at this point, it is still in North and Central America where you see it as the main staple. As such, if you get a taco in Mexico you will almost certainly be getting corn tortillas. Compare that with places like China where rice originated. You can grow corn in China, but, as the local ingredient, rice is king.
Tropical cuisines are more likely to use tropical ingredients, like plantains or pineapple. Colder climates focus on sturdier vegetables, like potatoes or wheat.
Interactions between cultures often bring about
new things, and food is one of the places where this is most easily seen.
You can see the effects of colonial conquest in street foods like the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich which is traditionally served on a baguette, which was introduced when the French colonized Viet Nam. You can see how major world events shaped the popularity of dishes like the British fish and chips, which was one of the few foods that weren’t rationed during World War 2.
Foods like these are great examples of how history has affected different regions’ preferences for them. Often the best foods come out of the creativity of people living through hard times, as they pour their hearts and souls into what they cook as an escape from their hardships. The flavors that come out of those hardships end up sticking around as a reminder of the times for generations to come.