September 29, 2014

The Social Context Behind Street Food: Authenticity, Culture and Ethnicity

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

This weekend I went to go see the Jon Favreau movie, Chef. The film chronicles a chef’s fall from a gig at a high-end restaurant to rekindling his passion for food by operating a lowly food truck specializing in Cubanos and other Caribbean treats. Drawing from the explosion of interest in food trucks—due in part to the film’s co-producer, Roy Choi, owner of the real-life Korean-Mexican mash-up Kogi-BBQ trucks—the film is a love letter for simple, working class food as “authentic cuisine.”

Favreau’s chef, however, doesn’t offer the same kind of inventive spin on the Cubano as Choi does with his tacos, but instead adopts the common ”white folks do it better” film trope as he embraces, honest and authentic Cuban cuisine. But what is authentic, anyway? The chef, doesn’t speak Spanish yet capitalizes off of Caribbean food culture. Can a white guy like Favreau really make better cuisine? But what is Caribbean cuisine anyway, since it is, itself, a mixture of Native American Taino, French, African, and Mexican influences?

The film reminds me of a great essay by Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann, “Democracy Versus Distinction,” wherein the sociologists note that authenticity and ”exoticism” serve as frames that replace high brow cuisine and allowing for more “low brow” or working class food to gain status, mirroring character’s trajectory in Favreau’s film.

Thinking about public spaces and supposedly authentic foods made me reflect on my time in Istanbul earlier in the summer differently: about the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the supposedly authentic cuisine I tried myself.

As it is in most countries, in Istanbul street food is usually affordable and not necessarily nutritious, and often serves working class folk, people on the go, and tourists looking for a taste of the local,  culture. It might also be an entrepreneurial opportunity for those who find it hard to gain other employment (see here).

For example, one of the first things I did was test out the midye dolmasi—mussels stuffed with spiced rice and saffron, squeezed with lemon—a very typical street food found in different parts of the city, but often at harbor fronts and high-traffic plazas.

Arriving on the Asian side of the city, in Kadiköy, I approached a man with a white tray of mussels atop a folding stand. He automatically started the process of preparing one when we made eye contact: he pried the shell apart, used the top half to partially dislodge up the mussel and rice, and squeezed a lemon over it. As I scooped the treat into my mouth, he had already prepared another one to hand to me. After five, I had to wave him off.

Eating unrefrigerated seafood in the midday sun certainly seems dodgy—and indeed, eaters risk E. Coli, Salmonella, and high heavy metals in the unregulated food—but they are incredibly addictive. (Caveat emptor: The National Institutes of Health doesn’t recommend it, finding in 2011 that about half of all the street mussels sold are not suitable for consumption.) When in Constantinople, as they say. I had to try it.

These men—and they are usually men—play hide and seek with authorities, quickly packing up their stand at the first sign of police (read more about it here). Street food licenses, called işgaliyes, are hard to come by in Istanbul, and yet people hit the streets trying to make a lira anyway, taking their own risk of fines from patrolling officers who regularly scan public squares to inspect food carts and illegal vendors.


One such vendor, in Kadiköy, positioning himself at a corner, looking to see if an officer is coming

Photo courtesy of the author

It seems like it is an authentic part of Turkish Istanbul street culture, but the practice actually comes from smaller Aegean coastal towns, the recipe—it is argued—is Armenian (one of the largest ethnic minorities in Turkey), and the practice is largely conducted by a Kurdish community (the largest ethnic group in the country) whose roots are in the eastern highland mountains. An Atlantic article has more on this, including a reference to a documentary by a social scientist, Güliz Saglam, that details how landlocked Kurdish migrants had to learn how to swim for mussels in order to survive in the trade in their new seaside home.

On the European side of the city, in the plaza outside the spice bazaar and Suleymaniye mosque, three boats float atop the river serving basic sandwiches of mackerel fillet, lettuce and onions to hundreds of tourists and workers, called balik ekmek (literally: fish bread). Fishing boat operators realized that they could sell fresh fish, but if they installed a grill on their boat they could sell basic sandwiches to hungry lunchtime crowds as well. They’re sort of food trucks on water.


Although they tell a bigger story of how status still works, even when we are talking about more working class cuisine, Johnston and Baumann’s essay is also a warning against thinking too swiftly over the perceptions of authenticity in food culture. And, indeed, the ethnic and regulative backgrounds of these street-level food practices can be surprising and even counterintuitive.

Just as there was an ethnic story behind mussel vendors, there was a bigger story behind this little fish sandwich too. Because of Turkey’s slow-building bid to join the European Union, food safety standards had to be improved and these food boats had to come under compliance or close down. Furthermore, due to increased pollution in the Black Sea and overfishing due to demand, the boney and filleted mackerel in my sandwich wasn’t fresh at all: the fish is actually now imported frozen from Norway. (Read more here.)


Istanbul has a lot of amazing street foods. Really good and cheap prices.

Thanks for sharing really good article.

Excellent Post, Spot on Keep up the good work, I bookmarked your website.

street food

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