For the well-heeled tourist, the thought of sweating it out at a roadside stall eating food off paper plates may not be a savoury one, but often, it is such simple fare that bring out the best of a country’s flavour.
Affectionately termed “comfort” food by K.F. Seetoh, founder of Makansutra, the ubiquitous street food differs from country to country, and this uniqueness has made such cuisine become an integral part of national identity and heritage.
“Many years ago, it was ‘desperate food’ — people had no choice but to bring their heritage and take it out to the street in exchange for money. From desperation it became a culture,” explained Seetoh during a media exchange at the recently concluded World Street Food Congress.
The inaugural event, aimed at promoting and recognising the cultural value of hawker fare, was held in Singapore from 31st May to 9th June 2013. Organised by Makansutra, it comprised The World Street Food Dialogue, a two-day conference featuring talks by famous culinary experts and The World Street Food Jamboree, a 10-day food carnival with more than 35 of the best street food stalls from all over the world. Makansutra is a Singapore-based organisation that seeks to promote food culture in Southeast Asia.
Intertwine of food and culture
Indeed, street food’s inseparable relationship with culture is evident with the inclusion of French cuisine in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list back in 2010. Closer to home, the governments of Malaysia and Singapore have in recent years been embroiled in a war of words over the ownership of ‘local’ dishes such as laksa (rice vermicelli in spicy broth typically served with cockles, fishcake, hard-boiled egg and beansprouts) and nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk accompanied by items such as kuning fish and thinly fried egg).
Just like how UNESCO World Heritage sites have special cultural significance, street food can be said to bear the authentic flavours of culture.
Driving home this point was Claus Meyer, co-founder of Copenhagen’s Noma, world’s best restaurant for three consecutive years, who pointed out the lack of street offerings in the region where he hails from is a case for concern.
“It is very sad that in Scandinavia we have almost no street food…the only real street food is the hot dog stall. It is run like a monopoly…they use the same sausages made by industrial kitchens,” lamented Meyer.
From improvised ingredients to hailed hits
Many of the street stalls featured at the Jamboree started out as a means of livelihood for their owners, and have a long history behind them. Some iconic street delicacies dished out over the 10 days included chuoi nuong (banana sticky rice) from Vietnam, bao luo fen (rice noodles) from the seaside town of San Ya in China, and roast pork sandwich from Denmark.
Niphone Ittimonchai, the owner of the Hoy Tod Chao Lay stall selling hoy tod (crispy oyster omelette), has operated along the busy streets of Bangkok for 40 years — long enough to see the unassuming city grow into the busy metropolitan of today.
Similarly, Sabina Bandera Gonzalez and her family have been delighting the taste buds of patrons to La Guerrerense, her humble food cart in Mexico, for 37 years with her seafood tostadas (corn tortilla).
While a street stall may not offer the same level of comfort as compared to a luxurious, air-conditioned restaurant, this does not mean the food is less palatable.
In fact, La Guerrerense is touted as one of the “101 best places to eat in the world” by CNN and has been given the thumbs-up by many renowned chefs and food critics.
Even for stalls who may not have garnered awards, partly due to the general lack of recognition for street food, their popularity among the locals back home bear testament to the food’s excellence.
“In Portland, you can get (an) amazing pasta dish that rivals some of the best Italian pasta in the city…I think (street food) is what people will eat, what people will like,” said Brett Burmeister, co-owner of Food Carts Portland.
Perhaps it is time tourists who truly wish to experience a country venture out of fine dining indulgence to sample the hidden gems on the street. After all, Noma’s Meyer stressed that the street class of food is the real deal.
“(Street food) is food without bullshit,” he said “It’s food without pretension, calculation, manipulation, branding and consideration.
“If restaurant food is a conversation, then street food is sex.”