Political scientist Irene Tinker is known in academic circles as the doyenne of street-food studies. In 1997, she published the seminal Street Foods: Urban Food and Employment in Developing Countries (Oxford University Press), the result of 15 years of research in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh, Egypt, Senegal, and Nigeria. Professor Tinker continues to actively monitor trends in the field; for gourmet.com’s Street-Food Week she spoke with research chief Marisa Robertson-Textor about the symbiotic relationship of urbanization and street food, gender dynamics in food preparation and purchase, and some of the hazards—and joys—of the trade for vendor and consumer alike.
Marisa Robertson-Textor: How did you first become interested in street food?
Irene Tinker: In the late 1970s, I was running the Equity Policy Center (EPOC) in Washington, D.C., which focused on women’s issues in developing countries. At the time, there was a great deal of attention being paid to helping women in these countries make money by teaching them to sew and knit. That could get pretty silly when projects were set up in countries where men traditionally do all the sewing. But even when these programs were successful, like in Kenya, the women making the goods—in this case, bags—were earning about 5 cents an hour. So I decided I wanted to study an enterprise where I knew women were actually making money. I had spent three years living in Indonesia, another three in India, lots of time in Africa—and in all these places, women were selling food on the streets.
MRT: I understand you were actually responsible for coining the term street food?
IT: Yes. At the time, street food was thought of as snack food, and people were asking me why on earth I wanted to study snacks. But I had eaten food on the street, and what I’d seen, and eaten, was far more than just snacks. We’re talking about lunch, breakfast, a light dinner—food. Hence, street food. And while we were interested primarily in how women were using street food to earn a living, you don’t know what the women are doing if you don’t know what the men are doing, and there are children involved, too. So we studied everyone.
MRT: Why wasn’t street food considered a topic worth researching?
IT: Well, at that time, women- and family-run enterprises hadn’t been studied by anyone. And selling food was definitely a family strategy, meaning it was a mechanism for helping people survive and support themselves and their dependents. The thinking in the academic community back then was that small-scale efforts like these were inefficient and backward, and since, to paraphrase Marx, they were part of the informal sector, they would disappear as modernization took hold.
MRT: But the decline of street food never took place?
IT: No. In fact, street food has become increasingly important with expanding urbanization. In 1900, only one out of eight people worldwide lived in a city. By 2000, the figure was one in two. And about 20 percent of the world’s citizens currently live in megacities, which are defined as agglomerations, or metropolitan areas, of over 4 million people: places like São Paolo, Lagos, Dhaka. So the expansion of street foods is directly related to urbanization, because it’s very clear that when you begin to have more people in any place, even if they’re working just a short distance from home, they can’t go home for lunch. There’s also increasing pressure in urban areas to educate children, who also can’t go home for lunch. In fact, over a third of the customers we studied were children, who would eat on their way to school.
MRT: How else has urbanization affected street food—and vice versa?
IT: People are adjusting to a whole new food system. In Indonesia, schools have ended up vetting a few vendors and letting them into the schoolyard, so kids can eat on the premises. In the Philippines and Thailand, school cafeterias have bought food from vendors and sold it inside. In Bangkok, at least two universities have hired vendors to come in and cook for students on the premises.
Street food has also affected meals in the home. When a cuisine requires many courses, like, say, Indian or Thai cooking, you’ll find that a lot of women will buy street food, take it home, and serve it to their families, because no one who works has time to prepare that kind of complicated meal. In addition, in Thailand, where 23 percent of new apartment houses don’t have kitchens, some 18 percent of people we interviewed never cook at all. There’s an electrical outlet for a rice cooker, and you can also steam fish in the cooker, but presumably everything else is bought on the street and taken home. It’s interesting to contrast this to the whole supermarket concept, which is full of hidden costs and really very unsustainable in comparison.
MRT: So street food is providing an important service?
IT: The question is, who eats this food, and who needs it? Street food is the fast food of developing countries—it serves the same kind of need for inexpensive, available food. It also provides a service for people who can’t afford the time or money—and the hard-working poor have little of either—for a big sit-down meal. There’s a word in Tagalog, merienda—it translates as “all-day snacking”—in other words, eating a bit whenever you have time or money. And by the way, according to the medical establishment, that’s not a bad approach.
MRT: Back to women and food preparation: You’ve found that female vendors dominate the trade in Nigeria and Thailand, but in Bangladesh it’s all men. Why?
IT: It’s a question of expectations. Basically, when there’s a cultural expectation that women will contribute a lot to household income, they’re often the main breadwinners in the family. In Southeast Asia, higher status is afforded to the monarchy, the bureaucracy, and the military, and trading is low on the social scale. So women run many commercial concerns. In Nigeria, which is highly polygamous, you have the phenomenon of separate budgets. Women still do almost all of the agriculture, therefore women are valuable, and therefore they’re purchased with a bride price, which buys their labor and their fertility. You buy a wife if you have a farm, and the more women you buy, the more you can farm. And if a woman happens to be barren, then she has an excess of production because she doesn’t have to use her crops to feed her children, and she herself is in a position to buy a wife. Often, older wives are able to go out and become street vendors because they get the younger wives to stay home with all the children.
Bangladesh, unlike Nigeria, is a conservative Muslim society, which has something to do with why men are the vendors. But I should add that even though the men are selling the food, we discovered that much of this food was actually made at home by women, so unpaid female labor accounted for over a third of the average enterprise. Which raises interesting questions—is all of this still considered street food? Some of these terms are fungible: The food made to sell on the street is made at home, and sometimes people who make food at home have it packaged and served at other venues, so home-based work for women and street-food vending become almost exchangeable in a certain sense.
MRT: It’s interesting to think about this here in New York, where the street-food scene, like the restaurant business in general, is remarkably male-dominated. Last year, our web contributor Laura Shapiro wrote a thought-provoking article comparing the culinary scene in New York to that in the Bay Area, where female chefs and street-food vendors have a much greater presence. This is also true of Portland, Oregon, where you live. What are some of the cultural factors at play here?