The story behind some of Asia’s cheap street eats

Asia’s cheap street eats is part of the destination appeal for tourists. There’s an infinite choice of great dishes and snacks  but it’s not all healthy and behind the sizzling oil is a dire reality of poor nutrition for millions. In the shantytowns of Asian megacities, a kitchen to prepare fresh food is becoming a luxury. There’s not the space any more. So adults and children routinely eat the street food too – it’s so cheap even the poor can afford it and it’s high in sugar and fat and deficient in just about everything that’s good for you.

In an opinion piece for The New York Times, writer Tina Rosenberg tells of a Mercy Corps scheme to get people eating healthy food in the slums of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia and home to 9.6 million people.

In Jakarta, 17 per cent of children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition, while 12 per cent are overweight. Development agency Mercy Corps went from NGO to for-profit company development – starting a healthy street food business.

“Overcrowded, kitchenless housing has given rise to a culture of street food that has done wonders for tourism … But it has also condemned tens or hundreds of millions of people to an almost nutrition-free diet. A family cramming six people into one room has nowhere to cook or eat. When women do cook, they must set up stoves in alleyways behind their houses; they use water they haul in buckets, which may or may not be clean. It’s heroic. But its not conducive to healthy eating,” writes Rosenberg.

“Instead of eating home-cooked food, people in these neighborhoods buy the cheapest meals they can: food from street vendors,” she writes. “The equivalent of 20 cents in Jakarta can buy a meal of rice fried with soy sauce and a little chicken, or deep fried fish cakes. Ten cents will buy a snack.”

American-based Mercy Corps fosters market-driven economic development in some of the world’s most challenging places. It has a worldwide team in 36 of the most desperate countries on earth, helping improve the lives of 19 million people.

Over 32 years, “our work has touched families and communities in more than 107 nations across the world. We have delivered more than $US1.95 billion in relief and development assistance, including food, shelter, health care, agriculture, water and sanitation, education and small business loans”, the organisation’s website says.

Mercy Corps started My Child’s Cafe in the slums of Jakarta, or Kedai Balitaku (KEBAL) in the Indonesian language. The most recently-launched food cart in Tegal Alur is an expansion from KEBAL’s previous pilot project in Tugu Utara, a poor neighborhood in North Jakarta. KEBAL provides nutritious and affordable meals and snacks for areas where families cannot often afford to eat heathy food. There is an emphasis on more fresh vegetables and fruit, a balance of carbohydrates and good portions of protein.

Indonesia’s Mercy Corps told Taste for Travel that KEBAL “aims to reduce malnutrition among children under five by providing access to healthy street foods and a stable income for urban poor entrepreneurs”.

The program encourages local entrepreneurship opportunities such as operating a food cart or preparing food in a neighborhood kitchen. There is a need for more vendors in order to fulfill the needs and already-high demand of the community for affordable, nutritious ready-made food. It also has a souvenir project using recycled plastics.

“We have a project that deals with plastic garbage and recycling it into bags, wallets, backpacks and key chains made by shampoo sachets, coffee sachets,” says Cut Sevka Sachrul of Mercy Corps. “They are good souvenirs for travellers.”

Next time you buy a cheap snack at a street stall on the crowded streets of Asia, think about it for a second. That may be all that the throngs around you can afford, day in, day out, year after year.


Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer prize for her book The Haunted Land: facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism. She is a former editorial writer for The New York Times and now a contributing writer. Her new book is Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.

Read more of Rosenberg’s article at

More info on Mercy Corps:

5 thoughts on “The story behind some of Asia’s cheap street eats

    1. Thank you Kristin, it does my heart good to know organizations such as Mercy Corps are out there doing such great work.


  1. In Jakarta, 17 per cent of children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition, while 12 per cent are overweight. That is a stunning statistic. Stunning, as in, problematic, puzzling… I wonder how many other mega Asian cities have such a big gap betwen obesity and malnutrition.


  2. This reminds me of my trip to Chile when I had the opportunity to visit an organization called Hogar de Cristo who did much the same thing that Mercy Corps does…one of those things was helping the poor secure micro loans to begin street v…ending operations that not only supported them and their families but also helped sustain those around them living in the streets with an available meal once per day or every other day…it was heart wrenching but it is a reality that many people live with across the world…one thing that spoke volumes was their pride, they didnt want your pity or a handout only an opportunity to help themselves…BRAVO Heather, well done…


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