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Food trucks offer food for thought

By Chen Weihua | China Daily | Updated: 2017-12-01 08:01

In New York, including glitzy downtown and midtown Manhattan, thousands of food trucks sell delicacies from around the world, from jianbing (Chinese crepe), hot dog, falafel, tacos, sushi and waffles to steaks, burgers, juices and desserts.

The tasty and affordable culinary delights they offer draw large crowds of people from the nearby high-rise office buildings.

Besides sidewalks, food trucks in New York can also be found at concerts, and they are also hired for wedding ceremonies, birthday parties, anniversaries and reunions.

Online maps tell people how to find different kinds of food trucks and carts nearby. And regular food-truck rallies are held in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. There are also annual awards for the best food truck and pushcart chefs.

"What's more appetizing than a Grammy, more mouth-watering than an Emmy? Yes, it's The Vendy-symbolic of culinary supremacy among New York's 10,000 sidewalk chefs," exclaimed the New York Daily News.

Ji Chen "Peter" Wang, who originally came from Kaifeng in Central China's Henan province, was among the finalists for the 2017 New York City Vendy Awards announced in September. He serves up Chinese-style barbecue skewers on Main Street in downtown Flushing, Queens.

The Great Food Truck Race, a reality TV and cooking series, has produced 51 episodes in eight seasons, showing the fantastic food truck and pushcart culture in the city.

The Lonely Planet also has a section introducing food truck culture as a new way to bite into the Big Apple. And organized tours are provided for people to taste their way through the best food trucks in Downtown and Midtown Manhattan.

Pushcart vending in New York dates to 1691, when the Dutch first settled in what was then New Amsterdam. In fact, the area near Hanover Square, not far from Wall Street, was one of those areas in the early days. Today, many food trucks and pushcarts can still be found there.

Some Chinese friends wonder why New York, often regarded as the greatest city in the world, would tolerate food trucks and pushcarts everywhere in the city, including on the sidewalks of Times Square and Fifth Avenue. Some describe the scene as messy, and some complain about the heavy smoke.

I have heard that complaint from some New Yorkers as well. But New York City has very strict regulations to ensure food safety and cleanliness. And overall, most New Yorkers I talked to believe those street vendors should stay rather than be kicked out.

Chinese cities that regard getting rid of street vendors as a step toward modernity could learn much from the rich and vibrant food truck-and-pushcart scene in New York City.

In my hometown city of Shanghai, for example, the number of street vendors has plunged over the past two decades, as the municipal government outlawed them from many streets. As a result, it's hard for locals to get their favorite breakfast-pie, fritters, soy milk, sticky rice rolls.

Many Chinese cities have learned lessons the hard way. They tore down many old buildings in the past decades in a rush to build skyscrapers before realizing they were an invaluable part of the city's history.

China boasts a civilization of 5,000 years. Its street vendors also boast a history much longer than New York City's. It would be nice to keep and revive that rich and vibrant culture.

The author is deputy editor of China Daily USA.


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