Street food is one of the great joys of traveling for me. There’s nothing quite like wandering the bustling lanes of a local market, inhaling enticing aromas emanating from sizzling grills and bubbling pots as vendors hawk their wares. My senses come alive as I weave through the lively chaos, scanning the stalls for that perfect snack – perhaps a steaming meat pie or a fresh tropical fruit I’ve never tried.
When I spot something tempting, I love striking up a conversation with the vendor to get the story behind the dish and the best way to eat it. These friendly cooks are masters of their craft, preparing cherished recipes passed down through generations. As a self-proclaimed street food connoisseur, I’ve learned so much about local cultures by tasting my way through night markets, hawker centers, food trucks, and roadside stands around the globe.
Singapore’s chilli crab, Tokyo’s okonomiyaki, Mumbai’s vada pav – I’ve savored them all. After years of delicious exploration guided by recommendations from locals and fellow foodies, I’ve discovered some seriously scrumptious bites.
Keep reading for my picks of the world’s best street foods that I just had to share. With flavors that dance on your tongue and aromas that linger long after finishing the last bite, these dishes offer an edible escape to some of my favorite cities.
Trying them straight from the sizzling grill or griddle transports me back to those memorable meals and the people and places associated with them. So join me on this tasty trip around the world via street food.
Tacos al Pastor in Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico City is a bustling metropolis that seamlessly blends historical sites like the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan with modern cosmopolitan amenities. But to me, the heart of any city is its street food scene. And Mexico City’s streets sizzle with top-notch tacos al pastor. The aromas of sizzling pork and hot griddles draw you in before you’ve even seen the taqueros slicing thin strips of marinated pork onto tiny corn tortillas.
Al pastor, meaning “in the style of the shepherd,” refers to the Middle Eastern shawarma roots of this Mexican street food. Pork is marinated overnight in a blend of dried guajillo and ancho chiles, spices, vinegar, and pineapple juice, then stacked and roasted on a vertical rotisserie called a trompo. As the outer layer crisps, the taquero slices it off with a sharp knife in one fluid motion and serves it in warmed corn tortillas with onion, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime.
With so many taquerias and street stalls to choose from, I asked my Airbnb host for recommendations and headed to El Tizoncito in the hip Condesa neighborhood per her suggestion. Bright red chili pepper lights strung overhead marked my destination. Their tacos al pastor burst with juicy, thinly sliced pork shoulder peppered with crispy bits from the trompo.
With my first bite, the marinade’s tartness from the pineapple and kick from the chili peppers came through. I added a dash of their house-made green salsa for even more zing. After polishing off a few street tacos and chatting with the friendly vendor, I was already planning my next visit.
Banh Mi in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The streets of Ho Chi Minh City buzz with motorbikes and tantalize with mouthwatering aromas. Vietnam’s largest metropolis is divided into districts, each with its own vibe and personality. I explored the city by foot, wandering tree-lined boulevards past French colonial buildings, then plunged into chaotic markets. There I found banh mi – this Vietnamese street food of baguette stuffed with meats, pâté, pickled veggies, cilantro and chili mayo.
Though it seems like a sandwich clash – Eastern ingredients tucked into a French baguette – the combo works deliciously. Banh mi emerged under French colonial rule when local bakers substituted rice flour for some of the wheat flour to create a lighter, fluffier baguette. Once street vendors got hold of it, the banh mi developed into a Vietnamese staple.
Eager to try my first authentic banh mi, I headed to Ben Thanh Market, a sprawling indoor/outdoor market and Ho Chi Minh City institution since the early 1900s. Vendors at individual food stalls held out samples to entice me as I passed. I chose a busy stall where locals were crowding around and ordered the grilled pork banh mi.
The bread crunched when I bit in, giving way to the sweet and salty pork, crunchy pickled carrot and daikon radish, cilantro, and chili sauce. For less than $2, it was one of the most delicious sandwiches I’d ever eaten. I ended up grabbing a second to enjoy later as I wandered the market’s maze of stalls.
Isi Ewu in Lagos, Nigeria
Lagos, Nigeria is Africa’s largest city, a high-energy megalopolis on the Atlantic known for its legendary traffic jams. But I discovered that some of the best finds are at the city’s busy intersections. When traffic is gridlocked, vendors touting trays of food weave between cars peddling homemade snacks and drinks to idle drivers. That’s where I first encountered isi ewu, a Nigerian street food specialty of spicy grilled goat heads originating in the Eastern region.
I was hesitant when my guide Ade suggested trying isi ewu from a vendor at a choked intersection. But trusting his recommendation, I followed him out of the air-conditioned car into the humid Lagos air. The scent of spices and smoke drew me in despite my initial reservations.
We ordered takeaway boxes with generous chunks of tender meat drizzled in a peppery, peanutty sauce. Ade showed me how to scoop up bites with eba, a stiff dough made from cassava flour that soaks up the bold flavors. Each bite revealed new layers of spice and juices from the perfectly cooked meat. I polished off the entire box, grateful that Ade had nudged me out of my comfort zone to try this Nigerian specialty.
Arepa de Huevo in Medellín, Colombia
Medellín, once plagued by a notorious drug cartel, has transformed itself into a vibrant cosmopolitan city perfect for sampling street food. One morning, I headed to Parque Poblado, an upscale commercial district filled with cafes and parks.
When I spotted a street cart with a line of businessmen grabbing quick breakfasts, I knew I had found a local favorite. This Colombian street food features arepas, corn cakes that are slit open and stuffed with savory fillings. The cart was serving arepa de huevo – arepas filled with egg, cheese, and a meat like chorizo or ham.
I watched eagerly as the cook split partially-cooked arepas open with a wedge, cracked an egg inside each one, then griddled them again to set the egg. The edges of the corn cake toasted to a crisp while the cheese melted over the hot egg, making for a perfect breakfast sandwich.
I customized mine with a dash of hogao, a zesty tomato and onion sauce, and a squeeze of lime. As I ate, I watched the vendor swiftly assemble arepas for a line of hungry locals. The rich egg with the sweet corn cake proved to be the most satisfying grab-and-go breakfast during my time in Medellín.
Som Tam in Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok’s streets buzz with tuk-tuks, vendors shout out their wares, and aromas of chili and garlic fill the air. This frenzied metropolis is home to some of the best street food in the world. Markets range from upscale food halls to crowded open-air bazaars.
One dish I couldn’t miss trying was som tam, Thailand’s take on papaya salad. Vendors across Bangkok finely shred unripened papaya then pound it in a mortar and pestle with tomatoes, long beans, chilies, lime, fish sauce, sugar, and peanuts. The sweet, sour, spicy, salty medley explodes in your mouth. Locals customarily eat som tam with sticky rice, but I loved grabbing a takeaway box to munch throughout an afternoon of sightseeing.
I still dream about the som tam from my favorite vendor outside of Chatuchak Market. Watching her deftly extract chili seeds to customize spice levels showed true mastery of her craft. She mixed up a combination of flavors that highlighted the crunch of peanuts and burst of chili heat rather than overwhelming the mellow shredded papaya. The platter was gone in minutes. When I needed a break from the market’s chaos, I sat on a curb relishing the memories as I licked every last drop of tangy sauce from the box.
One of the magical things about street food is stumbling upon authentic dishes you’ve never encountered before, served up at bustling market stalls or humble food carts tucked down side alleys. These street vendors have perfected fast, affordable bites from time-honored family recipes passed down through generations. Their use of fresh, local ingredients like herbs pulled straight from the garden that morning puts a unique regional twist on traditional dishes.
For me as a passionate traveler and food-lover, wandering a new city and sampling its street food specialties is one of my favorite ways to gain insight into local cultures and flavors.Street food gives you a tasty glimpse into everyday life. You can chat with vendors and regulars, observe cooking techniques, and watch culinary customs like dipping sauces or eating with hands versus utensils. These everyday meals offer a lens into what people across the globe love to eat.
The five street foods I shared represent just a small taste of the incredible fare I’ve discovered over years of travel. I think back fondly on the sights, sounds, and smells that accompanied each dish—the symphony of sizzling grills at El Tizoncito taqueria in Mexico City, Thai pop music blaring as I devoured green papaya salad on a Bangkok curb.
Those vivid sense memories make me eager to get back on the road again soon and continue my delicious explorations. There are so many more authentic street foods still to be tried from Ethiopia’s spicy stews to Argentina’s empanadas to India’s chaat snacks. I can’t wait to experience more of the world’s diverse, mouthwatering street food and the cultures and stories behind each incredible bite.