If there's one thing that every culture has in common it's a love of eating delicious food for little money. As food trucks and stands have proliferated across the United States during the past decade, many vendors are taking inspiration from low-cost snacks and street foods from around the globe -- and customers are eating it up. Here are 20 of the tastiest and least expensive items you'll find in cities far and wide, many of which are now found on stateside streets. (Prices gleaned from personal travel experience, friendly sources, and online reviews; all prices given in U.S. dollar equivalences.)
The Best International Street Foods Under $5
A cheap Middle Eastern delight, falafel is well ingrained in the late-night culture of major American cities. Fried chickpea balls are stuffed into a pita pocket with a variety of toppings, from fresh cucumber and tomato to pickled cabbage and tahini, a creamy sesame seed sauce. Munch on this filling vegetarian meal for as little as $3, about the same price you'd pay in its original home.
This classic Mexican sandwich combines avocado, jalapenos, mayonnaise, cheese, beans, and a choice of meat -- all grilled to perfection. A large sandwich that easily passes for a meal, costs around $2 in Mexico; north of the border the price edges closer to $5.
Istanbul, Turkey is an ancient city where many cultures coalesce, creating a rich diversity of culinary offerings. One of the most famous cheap street foods is the fried fish sandwich, doled out near the city's seven bridges. Light, fresh, and crispy, with fish straight from the sea, these lemon-spiked sandwiches cost about $2 each.
The big soft pretzel studded with large salt crystals is a German classic turned New York City staple. You can find them, served with spicy brown mustard, on countless street corners in Manhattan for just $1.
Hailing from China, these little satchels of luciousness are an irresistible and easy-to-eat snack. Plenty of classic and fusion examples are available at quick-serve stalls and carts all over the world for about $2 for a half dozen, or 35 cents each.
Falafel's meaty cousin, shawarma is the original spit-roasted meat sandwich. Roasted on an upright, rotating spit and liberally seasoned, the meat is sliced off into tender and crispy bits and served in flatbread with sauces and vegetables (or atop rice as a platter), often accompanied by creamy white sauce and fiery chili sauce. Another cheap street food from the Middle East, shawarma costs about $5 in the U.S. and $3 abroad.
These Mexican donut-like pastries are crisp on the outside yet soft and chewy on the inside. Popular throughout the Americas and Europe, churros often pop up in the subways where food is permitted and fetch $1 or so for three pieces.
After a night of drinking and dancing at the many clubs and bars near Taksim Square in Istanbul, you'll stumble on a vendor nearly every 50 feet offering large trays of stuffed and roasted mussels. The seasoned rice and fresh seafood are the perfect snack for soaking up the alcohol and sell for about 50 cents apiece. If you're feeling brave, try negotiating a lower price for a larger portion.
From German beginnings comes a now-American standard: the hot dog. Many cities boast their own take on the dog. Top one off with sauerkraut, onions, sweet relish, and mustard on the sidewalks of New York for just $1; head to Chicago and enjoy toppings such as pickles, hot peppers, and tomato wedges for about $3; add chili, onions, and cheddar cheese for about the same price and you'll know you're in Cincinnati.
Taking a back seat in popularity, but not in deliciousness, to other Middle Eastern standards, sabich is another cheap street food now finding its way in this country. Sabich is a pita sandwich filled with tender fried eggplant, boiled egg, and amba, a tangy and savory mango sauce. It sells for about $3 in its native environs and $4 in the States.
Perhaps the ultimate street food, tacos in both classic and fusion form are experiencing a huge boom in demand all over the world. Conceived to be cheap, quick, and tasty, traditional tacos cost about $2 each in the U.S. and Mexico. Their fusion cousins are often served in larger tortillas and can hit the $5 mark.
A Belgian classic, waffles have become increasingly popular as a sweet street snack across Europe and in the U.S. Priced at about $4 in both regions, the crispy yet tender and vaguely sweet waffle, crowned with whipped cream and strawberries or decadent chocolate sauce, is bound to satisfy those sugar cravings.
Mexico's answer to the pizza, this Oaxacan specialty is an oversized tortilla grilled with cheese, tomato, avocado, optional meat, and plenty of salsas. Spicy, cheesy, and available nearly all night long, there's no better deal than a tlayuda -- especially at the bargain price of $3.
An Eastern European mainstay, the street food version of a knish is fried dough encasing a filling, usually potato or buckwheat, both hearty and indulgent. Often overlooked at the carts selling hot dogs and pretzels in New York City, knishes cost $1 and are even cheaper in the Ukraine and Russia.
Another Belgian specialty that's been adopted by many cultures worldwide is the frite -- because who doesn't love fried potatoes? Often available in different sizes, a $5 serving of double-fried crispy potatoes with a variety of dipping sauces (mayonnaise and onions is the thing in Belgium, malt vinegar does it in England) is enough for two.
Hand pulled, chewy, and as long as possible, this Asian pasta signifying long life is a cheap street-food staple all over the world. A bowl of noodles, often served in a savory broth with herbs and vegetables, costs as little as $2 in Asian countries and about $4 in the States.
While the French are better known for elaborate full-on dining, the light and oversized pancake makes a fine meal-on-the-go for as little as $4. Offered with a variety of sweet and savory fillings, from apricot jam to mushrooms and cream, it's no wonder that crepe stands appear on city streets worldwide.
This Indian flatbread is layered with butter and often stuffed with spicy potatoes, meat, and herbs. A filling and delicious snack, it costs about $1 in India and triple that in many American cities. While not always featured on the menu of quick-serve Indian food stalls, paratha is often available if requested.
Available year round in Mexico, but more of a summer treat in the U.S. and increasingly around the world, elote is corn on the cob rolled in mayonnaise, cheese, and chili powder. A full-flavored snack that often costs less than $1 in Mexico, it usually costs about $2 up north.
The dollar-a-slice phenomenon has taken root in the U.S., with offerings of the bare-bones version of this southern Italian street food available in major cities, particularly on the coasts. Pricier slices abound (truffle and goat cheese pizza, anyone?), but the dollar slice is a variety that's likely to stick around.