Dish of the Day: Street food – what is it really?

Dan Doherty

street food Dish of the Day: Street food   what is it really?I’ve been lucky enough to visit a few places – Hong Kong, Bangkok, Dhaka and a few more – and feel I have experienced the very essence of what street food is in many places around the world.

Street food is essentially people making their way with what they have, be it a talent for dumplings or skills in roasting frogs. Street food vendors are not rich, and as they don’t have the opportunity to own a bistro or restaurant, they operate on the street. If any rent is paid, it is small; wheelbarrows, oil drums and all the rest are put into action in place of a proper kitchen. It is about eking out a living.

This style of cooking (slightly poshed-up) has, in recent years, made the journey to the UK, probably via NYC like most things, and what a wonderful addition it was to our food scene. Talented cooks finally had the opportunity to showcase their talents and sell their goods in a way they never would have been able to before, wherever it may be. Happy days, low rent and low outgoings for the vendors meant us lot got amazing food, which was affordable. The scene was cool, music was important, cocktails started appearing in old tins cans and everyone was happy.

That’s until business minds started sticking their noses in and taking advantage of what they saw as cool vibe.

There are some places that celebrate street food, inviting most of the prominent street food vendors along, so all were in one accessible place, almost like an American tailgate party, with foodies being able to have multiple food-gasms all within a hop and a skip of each other. Sounds great, right? Like a London Hawker Centre, except for the fact that these places are asking for £400 per night per vendor, or 30% of their takings. £400 per night is £146,000 per year. 146k. What a number.

The result? The only people that can afford it are either backed by someone to help with the financial load, aren’t street food people at all, just people wanting to get in on a scene, or they simply don’t make any money, which defeats the whole object, providing they are relying on it to make a living.

If they are doing it for a hobby and are happy to barely break even, then good for them, but we must remember that the real street food people, the people who sweat blood to make a living from it, are now not able to be a part of it, and sadly, lose all the positive PR that gets thrown around on social media about it.

That’s the way of the world I guess, but it doesn’t make it right, and I hope this little post helps raise awareness so these people can still do what they do, because, simply put, the British food scene is a better place with proper street fooders, than it is without them.

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  • gaxza

    If you’ve only ‘visited’ Bangkok then you don’t have much idea about the street food there!

  • Heathbar

    Street food should be far more reasonably priced than it is in London. It’s become too fashionable and blogged about and so prices have been climbing. To stand around and eat standing up shouldn’t cost the same as eating inside with plates, cutlery and a seat.

  • Chris Edmunds

    Get over it, street food is a market in transition. Previously one stall on its own had no collective voice, support or true crowd selling power. In London today many traders working together can grow as a collective with the best of their peers in a competitive and positive environment. Many traders often moving to bricks and mortar and a permanent site after growing from a paid residency to a festival circuit – do you think anyone will look back and grumble at the support they paid for to get them started?

  • Nostradamus_1

    Dan, You make a valid point, but the fact is that we live in the first world, where money and greed are the order of the day. The street vendors you talk about prepare cheap food for frugal people. Most street vendors in the UK (not you old school burger vans or roast chestnut cart), claim to use premium ingredients, however that “premium” is usually the costs incurred, as a result of importing the ingredients from the countries where street food is in our eyes, very cheap.

    Not all street vendors in the UK have gone corporate, however the individuals providing licences or renting trading space have. As a result, some items sell for the same price you would pay in a bricks and mortar establishment.

    And finally. Aren’t cupcakes, fairy cakes in disguise?

  • Mike S

    Around where I live, the saying is that you know spring has officially arrived when the corner hot dog guy sets up shop. Two well-known chefs, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, known to many as the Two Hot Tamales, opened their first restaurant with nothing more than a single hibachi grill situated outside a back door. Since then, Feniger has opened Street, a restaurant featuring street foods as you’ve described. So it is true that some have taken street fare into the mainstream as some sort of collective for the “in crowd”, which serves to take business away from “the little guy”.

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