Cooking Up A Storm: The Importance Of Migrants and Street Food

Upon my arrival in Bavaria as part of my Erasmus programme, I was met with many nuances which were wholly expected. Namely, würst, brezel and plenty of beer from the many breweries dotting Germany’s largest Bundesland. One thing I didn’t expect were the many cultural cuisines scattered across nearly every city in Germany and the rich variety of dishes offered at great prices. Döner and Falafel have become cornerstones of youth culture within Germany and further afield too. In Dublin one is prone to find themselves enjoying a burrito or spicebag among many other dishes, which certainly do not have their routes in traditional Irish cooking. Immigrant workers have long established take outs and restaurants as a means to plant their roots in their new homeland. In appreciating the wealth of food and culture stemming from this practice, it does raise the question as to why immigrants so often turn to this practice, and how important are such businesses to a country’s economy?

A brief history lesson

Street food vending was first legalized in renaissance-era Turkey, with the selling of kebab meat being a long-established practice in the country. With Istanbul acting as a gateway between Europe and Asia, many cultures had the opportunity to try new dishes and furthermore bring tales of these tastes back home. Street food had been long been a central pillar of society within China, the Middle East and African communities. Through the emergence of mass migration across the globe by many populaces, the recipes and pallets brought along with these migrants added further depth to the cultural melting pots beginning to brew.

The backbone of the fast-food industry

Work within the catering industry has long been a source of income for migrants. With work opportunities often limited through a combination of lack of qualifications, language and sadly discrimination, many newcomers find work in the fields picking crops, cleaning dishes in a kitchen, or working as chefs also. In the United States alone, 10% of the catering industry’s workforce consists of foreign-born workers. Often this work is unappealing and lowly paid, but with few chances many migrant workers seize upon the opportunity to establish a foothold on the work ladder. This is best represented with the United States’ agricultural workforce, which consists of over 50% of undocumented immigrants.

Rising above poverty

After gaining experience within the sector, it’s easy to see why migrants would build upon their knowledge and endeavour to establish their own chains and restaurants, specializing in dishes from their homelands. These ventures present a fantastic opportunity through the combination of skills and specific culinary knowledge passed from generation to generation, along with the ability to appeal to niche markets of consumers who can’t often access such tastes within their domestic market. For many people, street food is not only a tasty treat, but also a healthy cheap source of nutrition, helping to reduce poverty in cities such as Bangkok and in turn raise ‘cultural capital’, enabling for easier mobility of people through social classes, allowing for many to escape the clutches of poverty and secure a future for their children.

Creating a springboard

All of these factors combined with the convergence effects of globalization have allowed for many of these once street vendors to establish themselves as restaurateurs and even go as far as to establish food chains. In Berlin alone there are over four thousand Döner sellers. This large density of competitors is a result of a labour agreement with the Turkish republic in 1961, allowing workers into West Germany. These numbers rose in 1974-1978, with worker’s families allowed to follow their breadwinners to the DDR (West Germany). The proximity of California to its southern neighbour, Mexico, allowed for a large influx of immigrants. The introduction of the residents of Los Angeles to foods such as Tacos as early as the 1890’s highlights how foreign food can become synonymous with a new city, with Mexican food being a core element of Los Angeles’ food culture. The introduction of the hibachi restaurant concept to New York in 1964 by Hiroaki Aoki sparked a thirst for Japanese cuisine within the United States. The restaurant grew in popularity before expanding due to increased demand. This has culminated in the Benihana franchise, with over one hundred franchised restaurants around the world.

Breaking bread with strangers

While many of these operations are still small family owned operations, operating on street corners or out of kiosks in busy train stations, they play a massive role collectively. Over 20,000 people are employed within German Döner shops, helping to support thousands of families and livelihoods. Their success also stands as a testament to the integration of the Turkish people into German culture, with the love for great street-food being a unifying factor. As globalization continues to induce effects around the world, different cuisine can often act as a bridge in allowing for a start in a new country, so too can it help to create a wider and more diverse society in the world we live in.

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