In Asia, street food is still delivered by door to door vendors, but most of it is sold by less mobile sellers. They can have simply a cart or a portable grill, some have a few plastic table and chairs. The chairs are usually only 12 to 18 inches off the ground, uncomfortable for larger, less flexible westerners, but perfect for smaller Asians, who often seem more comfortable squatting on their haunches than they do sitting. Other vendors may have a tarp or even a roof to keep their patrons shielded form the elements. How can street food be delivered by a small business with a roof? Isn't that a restaurant some may ask? While they may have a roof, they often lack walls and they are still only enclosures for the small carts, grills or other types a small areas necessary for preparing food rapidly. What none of these places have is an actual kitchen were food is prepared out of the sight of the customer. Food courts in Asia, even some very nice ones in upscale shopping malls in Singapore are just an area that contain a variety of small stalls that rapidly prepare very tasty food from a limited menu.
Street vendors abound where pedestrian traffic is the heaviest. Some vendors are out early in the morning and close by early afternoon. Others will not open until the early evening, closing well after midnight. One thing that most vendors have in common is a roll of toilet paper in lieu of napkins. One American ex-pat living in Thailand, wrote that you know you have been in Thailand too long, when you keep toilet paper on the dining table rather than in the bathroom.
The food offered by Asian vendors is of a variety unimagined by the typical foreigner. Most of it will be types of foods and spices that we might know but have little or no experience with the local combinations and methods of preparation. A most obvious example of this is traditional toast served in many places in Malaysia. It is thickly sliced bread, toasted over an open fire, slathered in butter then sprinkled with sugar. Simple, delicious, but slightly different. The toast is usually served with Malaysian kopi or coffee, which is strong, sugary with condensed milk. A great way to start off your day. Noodles in all themes and variations are ubiquitous. Pho in Vietnam. Rice and what noodles everywhere with a wide array of sauces or toppings that you will not see in your neighborhood Italian trattoria.
On the other end of the spectrum are things that we would rather step on than put in our mouths. Insects and worms are commonly eaten in most parts of Asia. Thailand, Cambodia, and China in my experience. Although I would guess that they are not alone. Grasshoppers, crickets, scorpions, spiders, water bugs are the bugs most often consumed. The worms tend to be various kinds of grubs and silkworms. Although, I find a worm more difficult to identify than bugs. I, also, find them more difficult to eat. Insects are crispy, salty, served usually with a little chili powder. No matter how well fried, the worms tend to remain liquid in the center and "pop" a flavor that I have not acquired into your mouth. I don't like chocolate covered cherries either. Insects are one of the few true "green" foods. They take few resources to grow and process. Bugs are high in protein, about 70%, compared to 15% for beef and low in fat. There is a never ending supply of them. Bugs are disgusting! But if you think about it so are lobsters, crabs, shrimp and other creatures we consume with relish.
Grasshoppers are my personal favorite. When deep fried, they are great with beer, like a healthy potato chip. Crickets are a close second. Small scorpions are okay, but the big ones are just for show. According to the locals, scorpions give a man "power". Asians describe many foods as "power foods" for men. Since there are 4 billion or so Asians, there may be something to this. Women don't need power foods. They always have the power except when they have a headache.
Thailand and Malaysia seem to have the most street food. Both countries take great pride in it. The Bangkok Post has a weekly column dedicated to the joys of eating at street stalls. In Malaysia, I found a book, The Star Guide to Malaysian Street Food. Both give are written for and by connoisseurs of street fare. They describe the food and give directions on where to find the vendors. Many local residents make a point of regularly seeking out the best that the street vendors have to offer. In Thailand, it is often a hot topic of conversation regarding who sells the best tom yam kung, a very spicy soup made from chilies, lime, ginger, lemon grass and shrimp or som tam, a fiery salad made from shredded papaya, chili, lemon, and dried shrimp.The Malaysians will look for the best nasi lemak, a sticky rice with an anchovy sauce, an egg and various meats wrapped in a pyramid shaped banana leaf, or lorbak, a variety of items, such as fish, squid, pork, chicken, vegetables of bean curd, flash fried in a very thin, spiced batter. If prepared correctly, it is light flavorful, crispy and not oily.
My own personal street food experience was great fun, usually a culinary adventure and often just an adventure finding a particular vendor. I tried all of the aforementioned foods. Not surprising, most of the time we were the only westerners eating in these places. Many of the local residents eat at a street vendor regularly because there apartments are so small that they don't have kitchens.
In Malaysia, Mike and I took a tri-shaw ( a three wheeled bicycle rickshaw) to a place called Line Clear. Their specialty is nasi kandar, which a large plate of rice with your choice of a dozen or more toppings. We chose chicken, beef, spicy lamb, a variety of veggies with a few kinds of curry sauce poured over the pile of already spicy, flavorful food. It was the only time in our street food experience that we ate too much and the cost of the meal was over $5.00, including beer, since you paid according to the toppings chosen. If we would have selected two or three, like the other patrons, rather than asking for the works, our cost would have been less than $3.00.
The ambience of Line Clear is typical of more "upscale" street food vendors. They had tables, chairs(plastic) and a partial roof, made from tin and cloth. Line Clear is in a small alley very near the local mosque. The people who worked their lived at the end of the alley. Their children played around us as we ate. During dinner the already exotic atmosphere was enhanced by the muezzin's call to the evening prayer. For those of you that have not traveled to a Moslem country, there is nothing quite like the sound, particularly when there are many mosques nearby and you can hear many versions of the call at the same time, but at various distances. For the full experience, try Cairo with hundreds of mosques or Istanbul near the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia were the muezzins of each regularly compete in an amplified "battle of the muezzins". After the muezzin serenade, we were entertained by two cats chasing one another across the tin roof. I think if one would have caught the other we would have had a different sort of music.
Most westerners are wary of eating at Asian street vendors because concerns about hygiene. My thinking is that at a vendor I can see everything. The food is cooked in front of me. In a restaurant kitchen, I have no idea about the state of cleanliness or the food storage and preparation. I never got sick after eating at a street vendor, but then I never got sick eating at a restaurant. The only negative experience I had eating at such places was in Beijing. I walked to a street known(at least in English) as the "Snack Street". It was just a street of food vendors in the middle of the city. The fare offered was interesting. There was spicy tofu, ribs with various sauces, various duck parts and one "bug" stand. The bugs and worms offered were fairly common, but fresh. For example, the scorpion stick had four or five live scorpions attached. They were active until placed on the grill when they became very active for a few seconds, then all activity ceased, other than some snapping and crackling. Having already sampled scorpions and the other live food, I opted for the seahorse on a stick. It wasn't alive, so not as fresh as the bugs, but how could I resist. I had never seen seahorse on a stick before and likely would not again. It would be an understatement to say that the little critter had a very strong fishy flavor. My brother complained for two days that my breathe smelled like a fish tank that hadn't been cleaned for a month.