Monday, 14 May 2012

Skeptical about Street Food

When I used to hear the term ‘street food’, I would have thought of eating from a tiny stall in Bangkok, or a taco from the side of the road in Mexico. What I didn’t really think of was a hot dog, or a burger. That, to me, is more fast food. “What did they used to call hot dog stands?” a friend mused. “Er, a hot dog stand?” I reasoned. Well, it’s true, they weren’t given another name because they fitted in with the literal meaning of the current trend. I was under the impression that food like hot dogs and burgers were simply called ‘fast food’ not so long ago. London at the moment seems to be obsessed with categorising the all of the food styles and restaurants into neat little boxes, and there are the little cliques: The burger bunch, the rib brigade, the kimchi kids and now the street food posse.

Street food from
One of the most popular foods in London’s latest love-affair is the ambiguously named ‘Street Food’. I mean, it could mean literally anything. As far as I can discern, people will call something street food if they've eaten it on the street these days. Not a specific style of cooking, although originally it was something of a delicacy. It still is in some places. But it seems that streetfood can merely mean ‘food that is sold on the street’. Hot dogs, tacos, burgers… it just seems a bit lazy. What is the point, really? Will food (not cooked at home) just fall into one of just two groups? – that is, Streetfood and Restaurant food?

Perhaps this latest embracing of street food is a product of our culture – England and America are really one of the few cultures where it is acceptable to eat food in the street. I was in Spain a few years ago and went to Burger King. I took it outside to eat it and looked around for somewhere to eat it but I was too ashamed to take it out of the bag… because not a single person was eating on the street… whereas in the UK and America, people will eat, well, wherever they can.

Festivals might be a contributor, too. The bigger and more elaborate they have got, the more supplying them with food has become an extremely lucrative business. A far cry from just burgers now, there are countless ‘gourmet’ and ‘artisan’ stores, including huge vats of paella and more types of chorizo than you can shake a stick at, and with the amount of people who greedily embrace this food al fresco, someone must have thought ‘hang on! I could make a living in real life out of this!’

And it's even made it to the dizzy heights of Hollyoaks! 'We'll sell pizza, er, in this courtyard, it'll be like, uh, streetfood or somefin.' I mean, come on! And then recently The Apprentice have a pop at it which makes it seem a bit… cheap and desperate. Well, the contestants definitely did, anyway. Not that it did it any favours anyway.

What's bad about Street Food 
'Street food' kiosk
But the real thing that bothers me is the mindless-ness of the whole thing. People can call everything anything. As much as I like Wahaca, can it really legitimately call itself streetfood when it is an actual restaurant which doesn't even, slightly ironically, provide a take-away service (except in one branch)? Streetfood inspired perhaps, would be a more accurate description. And now everything and everything is being called street food, it's sort of lost all of its meaning.

And on the other end of the spectrum, where can we draw the line? If you sell it on the street, is it automatically street food? You could merely say the phrase 'street food' on Twitter and immediately be the centre of attention. 'Oh my GOD, I must be first in line to eat the newest street food.' 'What is it?' 'Well, it's toasted brioche, with melted cheese and and Lea & Perrin's on it'. 'So, like cheese on toast.' 'Well, yeah, I suppose technically. But apparently you have to taste it for yourself. On the street, because they've got a cart.' 'Convenient, that…'.

What's good about Street Food 
Though what is great about street food for the vendors is that it is far lower risk than opening up a restaurant. It is therefore possible for anyone with a promising idea to start out with low overheads. If the idea tanks, it is disappointing but not potentially devastating to the individuals/business. It could even be a one-week pop-up. If it does well, and there are a decent amount of people talking about them, they could simply extend their pop-up to run for longer and if it does really well, like the Meatliquor guys did, and Pitt Cue Co. They're massively popular right now. Whilst I sometimes tire of the endless 'street food' evangelism, I certainly admire them for being so enterprising.

I think what ties them all together is that they're so anti-chain, ultra-independant... all in-this-together. But I wonder... If McDonald's opened a van in Whitecross St Market, it would probably be the most successful store. Coming up: McDonald's at Glastonbury selling artisan goat's cheese burgers...

If you'd like to know how to open up your own street food truck, click here.


  1. Finally, someone has come out and said it! In countries where there is an inherent culture of street food, such as Syria, Lebanon, India etc., it is usually borne out of necessity. However, that isn't the case anymore in this country and, too often, people are using the ambiguously termed 'street food', which is so in vogue now, as a means to start a restaurant with ready made clientele rather than a passion for what they are doing. The saddest thing is that there are a lot of great places in London serving fantastic ethnic 'street food.' Unfortunately, they don't have the social media presence or don't self-promote as much as others doing something altogether less interesting, less authentic and more generic.

  2. Exactly my thoughts - and thanks for the insight. I don't really know loads about streetfood but I do know that it is a term that is being bandied about far too much.

  3. Wow . . . Can Street Food really transcend the limitations of being portable and local to having its own genre. I already have a Florida Fashion Outlet Mall contemplating not a food court . . . but a food truck court. That begs the question. . . is it street food when you don't have to chase it like dog to car or can it be positioned as an upscale choice? Great Insight / Fun Read!



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