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The commercialisation of street food

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

“The passion, skill, innovation, and theatre of street food is what makes it special. Hopefully as the market hall sector grows, this will continue to flourish – otherwise punters will head back to the streets or elsewhere.” Harriet Sherwood - The Guardian

Two things started me off on street food. One was a passing comment from Simon Bryant in an old The Cook and the Chef show that I glimpsed briefly the other day. I'll deal with this first because, although it was where I thought I was going, inevitably I may well travel in a different direction as I tap away on my computer - actually out in the garden on what may well be the very last hot day this summer's end. Not that it's exactly hot. Warm yes, hot no.

But I ramble. I think Simon and Maggie Beer were about to do 'street food' - well their take on it - and it began with Simon wandering around one of those street food festivals that we have, quite often, here in Australia - like the one top right. He was complaining about the over heaped cardboard, or plastic plates which meant that you ended up dripping food all over yourself, if you tried to eat it whilst walking around, or you would have to find a seat - and there tend not to be enough of these at such events.

Like the one at the top of the page - although the ones he showed were even worse, No, for him it had to be something you could eat whilst holding it in your hand and wandering - like a samosa or something similar I guess. I agree with this I think, although if they provided enough seating - and I will come to this - it might not be a problem. Mind you I really don't like eating from paper or plastic plates with plastic, cutlery. Yes, I get that those biodegradable ones are good for the environment, but I still can't get over the idea that there is something tacky and sordid about it. And people don't necessarily dispose of them properly, and so you get a lot of mess - discarded plates, napkins and cutlery thrown carelessly on the ground. I really, really like the idea of such events but having been to a couple I still wasn't that attracted. What to choose, the queues, finding somewhere to eat it, by which time it was cold, the litter ...

But I rant. The other stimulus for this post was a line in an article in the AFR about how top world chef Magnus Nilsson, famous for experimental and very fashionable food in the Scandinavian style at his restaurant Fläviken, gave it all away to grow an orchard and other things. He has written a book about it in which there was this:

"You want sustainable? How about a street food stall in a nondescript alley in Bangkok serving a fragrant stir fry with noodles, vegetables and a sliver of steamed chicken to people who need a meal?" Magnus Nilsson - Fläviken

His customers had not needed a meal. And many had travelled from distant lands to partake of his labour intensive and costly 'perfect' experimental food.

But, yes indeed, around the world many buy their food from street vendors - when they can afford it. Like those men buying falafel in the street that I posted some time ago, and that street stall at the top of the page in Bangkok. These are tiny affairs on ingenious vehicles or carts, or sold out of a window in a wall, offering, usually just one thing. But that one thing will most likely be delicious - if, as a westerner, you are brave enough to risk Delhi belly to try it. Yes this is survival stuff. The ultimate city food - for it is mostly in the cities that such stalls flourish, although of course, you will find them in smaller settlements too. Just not as many.

"in most parts of the world, street food exists specifically for time - and cash-poor workers on the move." Dan Hancox - The Guardian

This is real street food. And it's food with a very long history. Ever since there have been cities people have been selling food in the street, as this Roman mosaic shows.

For a long time it may not have just been the very poor who bought food in the streets, as the kitchen facilities at home for the slightly better off may not have been up to much as far as cooking was concerned. So yes they took some of their food to the local baker to cook, but they would also, most likely, have bought from vendors who travelled around selling their specialities. The two nineteenth century London examples below are a crumpet/muffin man and a stall selling oysters - which used to be the food of the poor - and jellied eels.

Fairs were good times for such sellers, and it was at fairs that the food expanded into treats, rather than necessities.

So how has it evolved from there? Well let's start with Singapore which has just been awarded special Intangible Cultural Heritage status by UNESCO for its hawker food. But it's much more sophisticated and organised in Singapore. You need not fear Delhi belly here. Singapore is a highly regulated society. I remember eating at this street market on Orchard Road, many years ago on a stop-off in Singapore. There are lots of seats here and the stalls mostly cook more than one thing.

Since the time that I was there, specialist hawker centres have been set up like the Chinatown centre at left and this one even includes a Michelin starred hawker stand - Liao Fan Hawker Chan - shown above. Yes an actual Michelin star. Which is a pretty amazing thing. I believe there is one other Michelin starred street hawker - this time in Bangkok. Now that lady wants to give it back because of the attention. She just wants to get on with serving the food.

From there the street food culture has spread to the Western world in the form of those festivals - which are temporary affairs, but also the food courts that have proliferated in our cities and shopping malls. I'm guessing that the Singaporean street food markets are commercialised and highly regulated, but we know that they definitely are here and elsewhere in the western world.

"In most UK food markets, a developer will operate the venue, choose the independent food businesses for the hall, pay business rates, utilities and insurance, provide cutlery and crockery, hire uniformed staff to clear tables and clean toilets, and – critically – the developers run the lucrative bar. The independent food outlets either pay a fixed rent or a share of their turnover." Harriet Sherwood - The Guardian

So is this a good or a bad thing? I guess it's how we get the franchises like Roll'd that specialise in one thing, and shopping mall food courts are indeed filled with various franchises, including the big ones such as MacDonald's and Subway, but in there as well - especially in the larger ones you may well find more individual eateries. Is this a good or a bad thing? Are they:

"a sanitised smorgasbord of multiculturalism, available at an inflated price, with security guards on the door." Dan Hancox - The Guardian

Or to be more optimistic:

"Because the barrier to entry is drastically lower than an actual bricks-and-mortar opening, they give opportunities to would-be restaurateurs who are from less absurdly monied backgrounds. This can benefit cooks and entrepreneurs with a specific foreign cuisine to showcase, as well as those less likely to play it safe, or skew to a common denominator of whatever is most likely to sell. That is all good and delicious, when it happens. " Dan Hancox - The Guardian

I guess when it happens is the key thing. By adapting those foreign street foods to western tastes are we denigrating those things are are we merely evolving them into something new?

What you get in a food hall is probably more bowdlerised than what you get at a street food festival or a farmer's market. Although you would have to wonder whether even that supposed fact is true. As well as the food court at my local shopping mall - Westfield's Doncaster outpost - there are also other such places scattered around the centre. Doncaster has a large Chinese and Asian population and the specifically Chinese and Vietnamese 'stalls' seem to be heavily populated by, and run by, them. So surely they are authentic?

Then there are the food trucks and the regular street food markets that are popping up in the more culturally diverse suburbs such as Preston and Thornbury.

"For better or worse, price is a defining factor. It's different to eating in a restaurant because you don't pay the overheads of the table. But the way that I prefer to look at it is more about specialisation. When you go to somewhere that offers Aussie street food you don't choose from a large menu of dishes cooked to order. It's usually 'we make this one thing and we do it really, really well ...

They spring up in direct response to what people want to eat and where ... Vendors don't develop an amazing concept for a street food and then go out and set it up hoping people will come. They see a gap in the market first and they fill it. Which explains the wide variety of street food styles and offerings." Adam Liaw

I had a quick look at what were the most popular Melbourne Food trucks, and alongside the hamburgers there were also tacos, Taiwanese, Indonesian, Indian, Caribbean foods and even crème brulée and toasties. For yes the Australians have always had street food too. Some of it has reached cult status - think Bunnings sausage sizzles, and Adelaide's pie floaters.

"That's got to be Adelaide's most iconic street food. But we've always had pie-carts, and we must be the only country in the world where you can go and get a sausage in bread when you go to vote. That's our street food in a way." Adam Liaw

And here's a rather sad little bit of political correctness. Apparently the Bunnings sausage sizzlers have been ordered by Bunnings to put the onions underneath the sausages, because the onions were dropping off and potentially causing people to slip on them.

The protests have come thick and fast:

“A vital staple in the Australian diet is a snag on some fresh white bread, with a sprinkling of burnt, caramelised onion on top with a dollop of sauce. For some reason that basic, yet effective, recipe tastes better at your stores.

So why, why would you entertain the idea of bowing down to bureaucrats and safety officers to change the order of a recipe that doesn’t need to be fixed?” Ryan 'Fitzy' Fitzgerald - Nova Radio

And that sausage in bread can be found at many different venues as well - school fetes, community parties and so on. It's a recognised Aussie street food overseas. Adam Liaw goes so far as to call it our national dish. As are fish and chips, lamingtons, meat pies and chiko rolls. Not that any of them could be in any way considered gourmet foods or Michelin star potential. Mind you I haven't looked, so you never know.

But maybe that's the thing about street food. It's cheap and it tastes good. Yes sausages in a bun with onions on top are very tasty. If you put a gourmet sausage in there - charred of course, caramelised onions, perhaps with some kimchi and/or one of the fashionable hot sauces, all in a sourdough roll or a piece of ciabatta perhaps - then maybe it's gourmet.


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