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Jul 22, 2012 07:12 PM

Top Street Food Destinations

Bangkok, Singapore & Penang snared the top 3 places in Virtual Tourist's global survey on the top street food dining cities around the globe:

Interesting article from the Star Malaysia today predicting another "food fight" between Singapore & Penang: both multi-ethnic/mainly-Chinese island-states with similar British-colonial history:

Personally, I thought Singapore & Penang are almost indistinguishable in terms of socio-cultural and culinary history. Some things Penang do well (Assam laksa, char koay teow, koay teow t'ng, oh chien, sar hor fun, curry mee, lor bak, orh kueh, Indian rojak/pasembor, koay chiap), and some things Singapore does so much better (Hainanese chicken rice, chye tow kueh, Nyonya curry laksa, lor mee, chwee kueh, fruit rojak, chilli crab, soon kueh, kaya toast).

Anyway, the top 10 street food cities as per Virtual's list published last week:

1. Bangkok
2. Singapore
3. Penang
4. Marrakech
5. Palermo
6. Ho Chi Minh City
7. Istanbul
8. Mexico City
9. Brussels
10. Ambergris Caye, Belize

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  1. "Compiled by members". "Surprised" by members' enthusiasm for Penang. That's all I need to know about this list. I could of course ask "what about Ipoh" but that would be giving the compilers way too much credit.

    I think Singapore owes its high ranking to a lot of visitors who are drawn by its safe, clean image and want an "Asia 101" experience. Waxing on about Hainanese chicken rice and chilli crab (is that even regarded as street food anymore?).

    Another thing I've noticed is that Singapore does not have a "minimum" standard of quality. Of course, there are highs comparable to anywhere, but a lot of hawker food here is simply vile. In Ipoh and Penang, from my experience anyway, there is a baseline of quality such that you are almost guaranteed not to have a bad meal. Here, you puts your money down and you takes your chances.

    14 Replies
    1. re: Julian Teoh

      Julian, if the members have not even heard about Penang, I doubt if they even know of Ipoh's existence!!
      But on the same token, I know of Penang people who go to Ipoh and Haatyai for street food, and Haatyai will also not figure in the list even if its Thai street food is a regional variant of Bangkok's.
      At the end of the day, it's the city's overall packaging which will make it a street food dining destination, combining food, bars, drinks, side-attractions like beaches or cultural sights, etc.

      1. re: M_Gomez

        The exact point I made in my third sentence, indeed!

        1. re: M_Gomez

          Ipoh? I don't recall seeing that much street food, rather enough to be mentioned on this top-10 list. Besides, there's a big Cantonese influence (as opposed to Penang's more diverse mix), although I did see a few Burmese places around town too. Not necessarily on the streets though.

          @Julian Teoh-- the street food that the VTers seem to refer to are not "on the street" per se. The one thing I remember getting somewhere on a Singaporean street was an ice cream sandwich wrapped in tri-colored Wonder bread...who thought of that one? That was by the Merlion anyhow. If Jakarta actually received enough "tourists," I'd reckon they definitely deserve to be on those banal lists. Ditto much of China...

          1. re: BuildingMyBento

            BMB, my "street food" comment was directed to the fact that a significant number of chilli crab and chicken rice purveyors are now air-conditioned restaurants with tablecloths and table service. Food courts are one thing, but closed restaurants that levy service charge and GST are another. Sure you still have your hawker stall practitioners, but they are not common these days especially for chilli crab.

            There is a bucketload of "street food" in Ipoh, and great quality it is too. Almost every corner coffee shop is home to good food, and while it may not be "on the street" (on that criterion, Singapore has no street food at all!), it does also also have good street vendors (lok lok, satay, char kuay (not teow), popiah - the list goes on).

            I should also add that there are also significant Hokkien, Hakka and of course Indian and Malay influences coming into play. Cantonese is the lingua franca, but that belies the fact that Ipoh is also home to very active populations who speak other dialects.

            1. re: Julian Teoh

              As I said, not much in terms of "street food" in Ipoh, and barely any in Singapore.
              I'd like to comment about New York City, not because it deserves to be on the list (it sure as heck doesn't), but due to the Mexican and Chinese street vendors hawking their own bites, be them ices, tamales or noodles. Escaping the self-involved grasp of Manhattan to the outer boroughs (in case the reader isn't familiar, NYC has five boroughs) to understand the score.

            2. re: BuildingMyBento

              @BuildingMyBento: most tourists are too afraid to try street food in Jakarta. But I do agree with your comment.
              And most tourists do not know anything about street food of Macau since they spend most of the time in casino. I would not care about all those surveys because there are just too many hidden gems that tourists are unaware of.

              1. re: FourSeasons

                @FourSeasons-- Afraid is one part of it, lack of awareness another, and qualms about hygiene another. If Indonesia promoted food more in it's tourism ads (do they do so already in the food-crazed ASEAN states?), could that help? Jakarta also doesn't have quite the transit infrastructure that the accursed Bangkok does, but honestly, what DO tourists know about Jakarta besides years-old bombings??

                As for Macao, can't say that's much of a street food place either. But if the egg tarts were sold right after immigration...

                1. re: BuildingMyBento

                  Language may be a barrier to foreigners getting to know more about Indonesian food: there are many foodie/restaurant guides for every major Indonesian city, but most of these publications are in Bahasa Indonesia, e.g. "Monggo Mampir - Tempat Makan Legendaris di Jogja", "Waroeng Legendaris Soerabaja", etc., and the numerous food blogs and discussion forums on the Web which used Bahasa Indonesia or Bahasa Jawa.

                  But Bondan Winarno's very entertaining & informative English language "Taste of Indonesia" on the Food Channel is fantastic, highlighting popular local eateries & dishes in various Indonesian cities.

                  1. re: klyeoh

                    Those are part of the reasons but I think there are even more other reasons. First, Jakarta does not attract many tourists, most visitors come for business reasons anyway so the hosts likely bring them to nice places, just like the experience of Gomez. Then there is traffic problem as well so most avoid that issue by being close to where they live. And of course, most street food in Jakarta are not very refined and hygiene so there is not much promotion to outsiders. Even in Bali, you can see that the domestic tourists (from Jakarta, Surabaya) and foreign tourists end up dining in different locations as well as the street food there is never promoted to foreign tourists.

                    As fro Macau, that's because you have not discovered the street food. Most tourists are there for just 1 day on average so will end up eating Portugese food or dine in casino.

                2. re: FourSeasons

                  Some Asian cities not mentioned here, but where I'd really enjoyed their street foods:
                  - Seoul: the "pojangmachas" offered some of the most delicious "tteokbogi", "soondae", "gimbap" and "odeng" ever.
                  - Mumbai: marvelous, unmissable "vada pao" and chaats - look for those with a queue. Chowpatty Beach and the area near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus are goldmines for street-eats.
                  - Beijing and Shanghai
                  - Tokyo and Osaka
                  - even Kuala Lumpur - its street food paled in comparison to Penang's but, heck, I'd posted more than 160 threads on this board about Kuala Lumpur's food in the past 18 months alone!

                  1. re: klyeoh

                    Tokyo? When/where? The noodle/oden dudes late at night? Tokyo is definitely not a street food location. Beyond the older vendors that I already mentioned (that aren't everywhere either), the closest things would be what, trucks in the fall that sell sweet potatoes, or the Indian restaurants with their beloved naan? Heck, I've seen more döner kebabı places sprout up in Roppongi and Ameyoko, but...clearly those last two aren't even Japanese.

                    Osaka, a little easier to understand, but still. Dotonbori is what you are alluding to, right?

                    1. re: BuildingMyBento

                      There is a fair amount of street food in Tokyo actually but it's not concentrated at all and there's no outdoor seating like in SE Asia. Many resi neighborhoods have street facing yakitori, unagi, taiyaki, takoyaki, yakisoba, dango (Tokyo specialty), sembei, or other foods meant for street consumption. The post-war U.S. Occupation Authority put a ban on most of Tokyo's street dining culture though. Prior to the war, Tokyo was well-known for street food within Japan.

                      Recently though, the tachi-nomiya craze (standing drinking spot) is trying to drill into downmarket, street style eating . And divey, homey yokocho places, which are really the morphed versions of former street food concessions, have become popular. There are a couple of retro yokocho alleys that have opened in Ebisu and Shibuya the last few years that concentrate them indoors. For outside dining, Ameyokocho has a decent amount of concentrated places- for Tokyo anyway.

                      Still, it's Fukuoka City in Kyushu that is known for street stall dining in outdoor shacks and stools and such. Fukuoka would probably be the best possible contender to come out of Japan.

            3. re: Julian Teoh

              The fact that tiny Georgetown even made it on the list is a testament to the greatness of that food city. Should absolutely be #1 (and Istanbul should be a few spots higher ... Ho Chi Minh's street food scene is really dying out on account of gov't regs and high rent), but #3 isn't too shabby next to the traffic Bangkok and Singapore sees.

              1. re: ebrench

                I visited Istanbul last year and had a great time and ate great food. I was all over the city in many different neighborhoods. I had street food like kokorec and those wonderful stuffed mussels and some other things. But I didn't come away with the impression that Istanbul was any sort of street food Mecca of sorts. There were a lot of take out counters or simple sidewalk seating from regular shops. Even most kebab places were sit down establishments. This all didn't seem any different than other large cities such as New York or even Tokyo.

            4. Yay, go Singapore! Admittedly, the Singapore Tourism Board's big $$$ marketing campaign and slick packaging play a big role for its higher ranking than Penang or even Ho Chi Minh City amongt the Asia cities.
              Of course, Bangkok still wins because of its great attraction for backpackers and the Khao San crowd.

              1. I didn't spend that much time wandering Singapore's streets, but I didn't notice an abundance of street food.

                10 Replies
                1. re: Curt the Soi Hound

                  That's because the Singapore Govt, or should I say Lee Kuan Yew, decided to clean out Singapore's streets of itinerant hawkers, so he herded ALL of them into what we call food centres:- Maxwell Road FC, Amoy Street FC, Old Airport Road FC, Newton Circus FC, Serangoon Gardens FC, Adam Road FC, Bukit Timah 5th Mile FC, People's Park FC, etc. That's why Singapore's streets look so sterile, compared to the bustling streets of Bangkok, Penang and Ho Chi Minh City.

                  1. re: M_Gomez

                    And that in turn suggests the question of why one should even call the stuff in Singapore "Street Food". Even in KL with the food-court-syndrome in play too there are still places here and there (like Jalan Alor) where "Street Food" operates, as I understand it.

                    1. re: huiray

                      >>And that in turn suggests the question of why one should even call the stuff in Singapore "Street Food". Even in KL with the food-court-syndrome in play too...<<

                      I was thinking the same thing. As much as I enjoy the food in Malaysia and Singapore, the idea that these two are on this list is questionable. Singapore mandated the "street hawker to food centres" long ago, and KL followed suit probably around 2000. Issues of sanitation, running hot water, etc were them main pushes. Most of what people refer to as street food in these two areas are in reference to the kinds of foods traditionally considered street food, but the points that serve it are no longer "street," at least from my POV. They are indoor or outdoor food courts. And as already mentioned upstream, as great as the reputation that Singapore and KL have, one has to know where to get the better examples of food - much of it for many reasons has slipped way down over the past 15 years or so...

                      1. re: bulavinaka

                        Some disjointed thoughts: Unfortunately this push to "sanitize" street food will eventually lead to it's demise. In Singapore they have moved the street food "hawkers" into "hawker" stands, which I still consider good "street" food.... but the current generation is likely it's last since the younger generation of Singaporean's have "better" opportunities - which means as the current generation retires.... there is no-one to replace them. Street food is not by it's nature unsanitary -- it is the lack of enforcement -- and the lack of "bins" in which to place refuse that cause issues with rats. If refuse is placed in large bins instead of bags, then the food source would not be available to rodents. I find it actually funny that in America there is a "new" craze.... food trucks.... where aspiring or established chefs are delivering food at street level.... Street food by it's very nature is allowing entrepreneurs to sell (potentially) good food at reasonable prices.... Opening a restaurant typically involves 100's of not millions of dollars which can only be recouped by overcharging patrons for food.

                        1. re: cacruden

                          >>Some disjointed thoughts:<<

                          ?? Seems fine to me... Singapore is becoming a victim of its own success. The generations that worked so hard in building Singapore into what it is today hand it over to a generation that refuses to roll up its collective sleeves. I can't blame them, as the social stigma of doing so is heavy, and the years of studies that are now paying off with white-collar careers for so many makes the idea of hawking even the best of street food so unappealing. Filling jobs that require basic labor is getting very tough.

                          The food truck craze has a lot to do with the relative low start-up and overhead costs vis-a-vis brick&mortars. Combine this with a youngish crowd that gets mesmerized with catchy names and cartoonish images and a new segment is created.

                          1. re: bulavinaka

                            "The food truck craze has a lot to do with the relative low start-up and overhead costs vis-a-vis brick&mortars" -- Same with opening a stand with one table at street level. Higher overhead costs result in higher prices, not necessarily better food.

                            BTW. "Disjointed thoughts" = "I was not completely sober <understated>"

                            1. re: cacruden

                              "I was not completely sober <understated>"

                              Being sober is overrated - as long as one knows one's own limits...

                            2. re: bulavinaka

                              ...and hence the filling of those positions with Myanmarese and other folks, who botch the execution of the dishes and seriously degrade the food in "outlets" of the original stalls especially when they are not overseen by the originator of the dish. I understand Hutong Lot 10 in KL has become a bad example of this.

                              1. re: huiray

                                Yup - my father-in-law has been complaining about this trend for years now. A given hawker develops a great reputation, opens more places with reputation in tow, but does little or no quality control, and the help screws it all up.

                                1. re: bulavinaka

                                  I was under the understanding that in many cases it was not the original proprietor that opens more places with the same name, but another corporate entity buying up the original proprietor (with a good reputation) then trying to create a chain out of it.... which often leads to disaster taste-wise. It would be better if they did not buy a stall from the original proprietor (with and replace with foreign staff), but open new stalls with the new people and have them cook food that they like, and give them an incentive -- where if it is successful they have an ownership stake etc. You could bring people from different countries in the region (Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, Malay, Burma, etc.). If you have people cook/prep food for which they do not have a taste/like then the food will never be as good. You would open many different stalls in partnership, some would fail, some would succeed. For the ones that succeed, you can have them recommend others that would be interested in a similar relationship with a "finder's fee" if they are successful (usually once you find someone with good taste, they will be more likely be able to recommend other's with good taste/cooking skills).

                  2. I think in terms of freshness of ingredients, and the street hawkers' commitment towards food preparation, Bangkok and Penang are STREETS ahead of Singapore! (pun intended)

                    In terms of ambience, I liked Marrakech the best - very exotic for me. I also liked Mexico City, besides Puerta Vallarta and the 2 culinary capitals, Puebla and Oaxaca (I had not seen much else of Mexico, unfortunately).

                    I also liked Istanbul, but too much lamb for my taste.

                    I'm not too sure about Brussels, but then I had not been there since 1992, so much will have changed.

                    Never visited Palermo or Ambergris Caye so cannot comment.

                    As for the ranking, well, Singapore hawkers get a lot of support from their government. In Penang, it was a struggle even for Penang's char koay teow or other non-halal Chinese food to get recognition from the Malaysian government which at one point did not even want to list them under its 100 traditional foods of Malaysia. Many Penang hawkers get recognition with help from international travel programs and TV hosts like Samantha Brown, Anthony Bourdain, Keith Floyd, Bobby Chinn, etc. but no help from the Malaysian federal government which prefers to project a Malay, Muslim image for the country.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: penang_rojak

                      To be perfectly honest, calling Singapore a "street food" destination is a bit questionable. It guess it depends on your definition of street food. Most of the "street food" in Singapore are in the hawker stalls... Havent been to Penang but I've heard good things about the street food there. Bangkok is a true street food city and the quality of the street food there does indeed best Singapores. Im surprise Taipei didnt make the list. Im guessing its because its alot less known internationally than Singapore is but Taipei's countless night markets have endless amounts of great street food. Some night markets like Ningxia are more or less completely dedicated to street food alone. Picture a whole street lined with just food stalls!

                    2. These lists are always pretty funny.
                      They didn't say what the definition of "street food" is and we can't agree either.
                      It's hard to argue against many cities in SE Asia but if Istanbul, Palermo, and Brussels are included, there's no way New York couldn't make the list.