What is street food?

1 Sep

That is the question.

I was interested to see what a vitriolic response Richard Johnson‘s ‘neocolonialist’ Guardian article on the subject incited the other day.

It seems that the subject of eating on the curbside carries with it all sorts of strong beliefs about food, culture and the rest of society at large. A longer conversation between Johnson and I ensued. He was mystified by how people could feel so strongly against some of his slicker British Street Food Award finalists. “I just believe in good food” he offered. “Me too”, I replied, “and I don’t believe that a stall/van/cart needs to be cutesy and twee-ified in order to be great”. “But I like pretty”, he argued, “I think a bit of bunting goes a long way”.

But a long way to what? And for whom?

Similarly, a journalist expressed an interest in my take on what street food is last week. Upon telling him, he seemed surprised. ‘That’s not a take I’ve yet heard from the others I’ve been speaking to”. I asked to know what the others had said, whereupon he quoted the following statement:

Street food is about bringing restaurant quality food to the masses.

Oof! I floated this theory on Twitter and people were by turns, confused, horrified, incredulous.

Honestly, I don’t give a damn about bunting. Nothing wrong with the stuff and we even have some of our own eat.st branded, but it plays absolutely no part in my appreciation for the food or the stories behind that of those I consider to be truly flying the flag for its outside slinging. And to think that the twee needs to be implemented in order to soften the blow of the undeniable ‘challenge’ of street food to certain paletes is worrying. Johnson has coined this the ‘street food revolution’, full of pioneers pushing the boundaries of taste and adventure. My fear is that his may be a manicured revolution that, far from being about pushing the limits of what exists, must conform to all that is already accepted and safe.

But it’s important, during these high times of ‘street-food’ mania where the very term is threatened by parody and tokenism, that we advance in a useful way. Then we can talk about progression in Britain’s food culture and a possible revolt of that which has been before. Good food being made available to any and everyone – however it comes – by appearing more consistently on our streets and in our public spaces. Now that would be a move towards the radical for Britain’s rather blurry foodscape.

For me, this is about the battle against the bland, about a dismissal of the exclusive and how food served in public contributes to the mental well-being of a city. And it’s also about the amazing traders who slog their guts out to bring the public something worth queuing for. Take Mark here…

A Hammer-loving ex-butcher from Hornchurch who was the fastest de-boner on his team. Then an accident prevented him from continuing, and so he turned to cooking meat and slinging it just down the road on Brick Lane.

The guy is on the strip from 3am every Sunday, slow-cooking those ribs and serving them until he sells out. He smothers those suckers with a homemade scotch bonnet sauce and hands them over in a foil-lined bag.

When I ploughed through mine I became so wrapped up in them that they were gone before I’d clocked it. Lips singing with BBQ sauce heat and fingers sticky with pork shrapnel, after that I became a Rib Man fan and signed him up to the eat.st family. Off he went to the football…

…and off I went to explore Stratford (Brother in the Land-of a place), glad that London has Mark.

I resist the temptation to define, categorically, what street food is and welcome the opposing views on it. Are we growing this thing or what? If you have anything to say, I want to hear it – so that it might stop being called a ‘trend’ and start being thought of as an integral part of our urban fabric and important evolution in our food culture.

Find The Rib Man HERE

Look for him at The Thames Festival (10-11 Sept) by St Katherine’s Dock

The British Street Food Awards take place at Harvest at Jimmys, 9-12 Sept – Here’s wishing all the finalists the very best of luck.


2 Responses to “What is street food?”

  1. mark gevaux September 1, 2011 at 6:38 pm #

    i personally have always thought that food (well meat in my case) was all about the quality of the product , the taste and how it makes you feel! if the food is served from a lovely trailer with pretty bunting ,does it make the food taste any better ? i work from a stall and i am close to my customers and that is just how i like it! i often look at the traders working from trailers and yes they look lovely but all i can think is that if i worked from one i would just end up with a bad back from leaning down to talk to my customers! i LOVE getting to the market early to start cooking ! i love hearing comments about how good my food is not if my bunting is straight (i don’t have bunting) isn’t street food just about great food that makes you feel good served on the street by people who love what they do ??anyway a great blog and thanks for the very kind words

  2. Cristiano Meneghin September 3, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    You get my vote !
    I believe that now a days the point regarding street food and food culture in general is concerning more the quality of the food served then the make up also I think that is quite reductive and no sense to state boundaries and definitions and I personally welcome any new idea that comes on street wherever this is promoted and served either from a silver shining chariot, a piggy looking van or a wrecked stall, served on a roll, wrap, plates, cup or paper cone as the means depend a lot from the resources, the persons and the personality, the type of food and the aim of the entrepreneur as well as the market opportunities.
    Regarding the idea of quality it would be quite interesting to understand what defines the quality in street food and what not, for instance the first words that I do connect with the idea of quality are passion, sustainability, information (ingredients and so on), pleasure and least but not last the balance between price and what is prepared, this just to state few, but you could add service, embedment and so on.
    Thinking back to my London life experience between 1996 and 1999 it’s easy to spot that the today street food scene in London is amazingly good and getting better day by day, thanks to people that put on stake dreams, ideas, passion, personality and own beliefs. All of these energies and ideas will make any difference on the general food culture in the near future? This is the question and I trust WE will as long as the street food scene is managed and empowered by PEOPLE and not by trends.

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