With the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering restaurants around the world, it’s easy to forget that for billions of people, “eating out” means just that: ready-to-eat snacks, meals and beverages prepared by vendors and hawkers in street-side carts and stalls. In developing countries, street foods constitute a significant source of daily caloric intake — as much as 50 per cent in some places — and aren’t easily substituted. They’re not just the only way most people dine out, but also often the most affordable way to buy food, period.
COVID-19 threatens the survival of this way of life. Even before the pandemic, some of the world’s most beloved street food-cultures, including Thailand’s, were fading as growing affluence rendered them unwelcome and unviable. The pandemic will accelerate those changes. The costs of complying with public-health regulations will be unsustainable for many vendors. Those that survive will increasingly be found in sanitised food halls catering to middle-class diners. The world’s street-food industry will transform into something much more professional — and less accessible to the people who most need it.
Street food is tied to the growth of cities. As individuals migrate from spacious countryside to tighter urban living, they have less time to cook. Savvy entrepreneurs find ways to supply meals to them, ideally using ingredients and variations on dishes known back home.
No modern, emerging-market city can function without affordable options for eating out. Ensuring access to that affordable food will require governments to ease stringent regulations on street-side dining.
For example, generations of farmers in Peninsular Malaysia have eaten rice cooked in coconut milk, and served with anchovies and chili sauce, as a filling breakfast. As Malaysia’s cities expanded during the late 19th century, rural migrants brought the dish with them. Some made it at home, and others leveraged their connections back in the countryside, or in the new urban wet markets, to buy sufficient ingredients to make it in commercial quantities. By the 1930s, newspapers recommended the best places in Kuala Lumpur to find what became known as nasi lemak.
By 1991, Malaysia had as many as 100,000 street-food vendors with collective annual sales exceeding $2 billion. These days, mobile nasi lemak stands arrive at workplaces long before workers. In my suburban Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood, servings sell for less than $1 from the backs of motorcycles next to a busy train station.
The story of nasi lemak is the story of street food and urban development everywhere. In rapidly urbanising Indonesia, the percentage of food budgets devoted to dining out increased from 29.6 per cent in 2016 to 34 per cent in 2018, with much of that growth coming on the streets, where a diverse variety of cuisines feeds everyone from the working classes to food tourists to office workers.
Social distancing has made street vendors vulnerable
That expanding, upscaling market hasn’t benefited all of the world’s urban street vendors. As cities become more affluent, the pressure to clear vendors off streets increases. In Bangkok, a government crackdown has reduced the areas designated for street food, from 683 in 2016 to 175 today.
Around the world, the consequence is an increasingly stratified street-food scene. Those vendors who are capable of upgrading their products and prices have shifted into sanitised food courts that compete directly with restaurants — and rarely serve the working classes for whom street-side dining was first created.
The age of social distancing and empty urban cores has made street vendors even more vulnerable. Governments that long sought to remove food vendors from their streets aren’t going to go out of their way to rescue small-scale noodle carts.
The resulting changes will be more incremental than dramatic. In more affluent places, such as central Bangkok, COVID-19 is accelerating the shift to a more sanitised and upmarket street-based dining experience, due to regulations intended to promote the health and safety of vendors and customers. Bangkok street vendors are discouraged from offering seating at all. Social distancing standards that pose a challenge for traditional restaurants will be even harder to meet for small vendors accustomed to packing customers at outdoor tables.
Those rising costs will be difficult for many street food vendors to recoup, and many will go under. Those carts that survive in more affluent countries will be increasingly concentrated in hawker centres and other food “districts” like the highly regulated, somewhat homogenised ones for which Singapore has become famous. That’s not a total loss. Singapore is filled with great “street food” that appeals to the city’s vast middle class and attracts food tourists from around the world.
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At the same time, the disappearance of traditional street food will have real social costs. Singapore’s economy depends on hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers who work in construction and other industries. They’re Singapore’s modern working class, and they’re almost never found in the city’s hawker centres, where a typical meal can exceed their daily wage. Instead, migrant workers have largely given up on street food, and now rely upon low-cost caterers who deliver marginally nutritious food to their dormitories.
Singapore’s stratified street-side dining scene is an extreme preview of what’s coming in other countries. In upwardly mobile societies, COVID-19 is putting a definitive end to an era in which workers and their bosses could be found eating at the same street-side stalls. The tragedy is that different classes won’t just be enjoying different foods; they’ll likely be enjoying different levels of safety, too.
No modern, emerging-market city can function without affordable options for eating out. Ensuring access to that affordable food will require governments to ease stringent regulations on street-side dining. Inevitably, such an approach will place working-class street-side diners at greater risk of COVID-19 than those who can afford restaurants.
The future isn’t totally bleak for working-class diners, though. COVID-19 has already highlighted weaknesses in the food supply chain — especially wild animal markets — in China and other countries. Long-term, that attention will create pressure to improve food safety in regions where it’s often been overlooked in the interests of affordability. That attention won’t necessarily result in food that’s more delicious than what was available pre-COVID-19. But it will improve the health and well-being of billions of people around the world seeking a nice meal out.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and ‘Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.’