From food trucks to hot dog stands to county fair favorites, "street food" has enjoyed a rich and storied history in American cuisine. However, street food has been around for thousands of years. In fact, street food is believed to have originated as far back as Ancient Rome. Only wealthy and middle-class urban dwellers could afford kitchens in their homes, so the urban poor had no way to prepare fresh, hot foods in their own dwellings.
Hence, street food arose as a way to fill this need. It was the first "fast food" concept in existence, although ancient Romans probably weren't doling out chicken nuggets and French fries! However, it is believed that French fries actually did originate as street food in Paris, as did cotton candy at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 (although it used to be called "fairy floss").
In fact, many of the beloved foods that we think of as classically American (hamburgers, ice cream, hot dogs, club sandwiches, peanut butter, and even iced tea) actually started out as street food and became popular staples thanks to festivals and fairs such as the World's Fair. These foods were simple to prepare in mass quantities and with limited space and resources, which made them ideal to feed hundreds and hundreds of hungry fair-goers.
In time, foods such as hamburgers and ice cream became more than just meals. They became part of American history and culture, touchstones that are almost immediately nostalgic and sentimental no matter how old you are or what part of the country you are from. That is the very essence of street food--it is more than just a hot dog, it is a unique sensory experience that has the ability to tell you the story of a country's culture and give insight into how the people there really live.
That's why street food is always a good way for travelers to learn more about the city they are visiting. Whether it's a lobster roll in Cape Cod or elotes in Mexico, street food can often be a more enriching (and delicious) experience when compared to the typical tourist restaurants.
However, in recent years, street food has become more than just simple basics like fried fare and ice cream. Food trucks have taken over the nation in almost every major city, and they are offering everything from Middle-Eastern favorites to empanadas to meatballs to couture cupcakes. Food trucks give creative entrepreneurs the ability to cook with freedom and make they love, meaning that they can create highly specialized meals without having the high overhead costs of running a restaurant. It also allows diners to eat out and enjoy new foods without at a lower cost and with more convenience. It's not just street food anymore--it's gourmet dining on the go.
Many restaurants are joining in on the street food trend as well. At iNG, we took inspiration from street food and created a menu featuring street food from a variety of different areas of the world, including Thailand, Mexico, the Middle East, the U.S. and China. It's a way to enjoy street food and have a culinary tour without having to worry about using plastic silverware and without having to eat on a park bench. From Ancient Rome to fine dining, street food is a trend that's not going away any time soon!