Street Food – Poor or Sexy?

I’m standing in front of a food truck. Between me and the food truck are an estimated 50 people,  the waft of slow-cooked pork shoulder (15 hours according to the blackboard and marinated much longer) leading us by our noses to the source. As the full-bearded young man in a black chef jacket takes my order, I answer rapid-fire — after all, I had had enough time to study the three dishes on offer and weigh out the pros and cons to avoid disappointment. It was hard not hear my hunger. Proudly, I hold my bánh mì with pulled pork in sesame wasabi sauce in my hands as if having culled the pig myself before all the others filing in behind me. As for the setting: any city that currently counts itself among the culinarily hip. Street food is booming, and it’s sprouting right out of the ground in every city — so much so that the Brits have an award for it.

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Street Food Is Old Skool Partying — And Much More

But back to my bánh mì. It has very little to do with classic Vietnamese bánh mì. No matter: it is exquisite. The pig was certainly happier than one that gets processed into ch la, the Vietnamese sausage that usually tops off bánh mì. For 80 cents, you can’t expect 15-hour slow-cooked meat. Converted that’s what bánh mì costs in Vietnam, and you find it on almost every street corner in every little podunk town. In such a country, street food isn’t a trend; it has been a part of everyday life for centuries.

A large German newspaper once proclaimed food the new party. In southeast Asia food has always been a celebration. Not least because of the sweltering heat of the tropics and a lack of refined club culture, locals tend to run into one another outside on the street. They sit on small plastic chairs and let the good times roll with cold beer, fruit smoothies and all kinds of street food. Clubs and parties? Sure, but only for tourists.

According to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN), in 2007 2.5 billion people subsisted daily on street food.1 In Bangkok, street food vendors meet 40% of inhabitants’ dietary needs. For these people street food is not a new thrill; it’s an existential staple. Whoever works, commutes or doesn’t have time to cook at home is reliant on street food — that goes for children, too, who head off on their long journey to school without having eaten and buy something along the way. Equally reliant are the vendors themselves, for street food offers the women and the uneducated one of the only ways to earn their keep.

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Bangkok’s plan of cleansing the inner city of rogue vendors for a more tourist-friendly appearance seems even more absurd. Ultimately, tourists are also a customer base for street food cuisine. Night markets are teeming with them. And non-Thai speakers are happy to be able to look into a sizzling pot at a street food stand and make a choice with their eyes and nose instead of going to a Thai restaurant with schnitzel on the English menu.

As it is, life in developing nations transpires almost entirely on the street, and the same goes for food. Very few live so comfortably that they enjoy staying at home. Well-equipped kitchens are scarce as is the necessary seating. In this vein, it is not surprising why street food would be more present in South America or southeast Asia than, say, in highly industrialized, cold Norway. Some typical street food dishes are not even meant to be served under a roof. Jamaican jerk chicken, for instance, which is traditionally grilled in repurposed oil barrels, would be unthinkable in a closed space, unless you want to smoke yourself, too. So it is made, sold for little money and eaten all outside.

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Food for the Poor

While we’re on the topic of money: an important feature of street food is its affordability. Street food is for poor people — and always has been. On digs in Pompeii archaeologists found traces of street food stands, including a series of “thermopolia,” a kind of fast food booth. Legumes such as beans and lentils were sold in particular, pointing to a simple, healthy cuisine. Even the wine was mixed with water. As a source of sustenance for common people, street food has a long tradition with roots going back to antiquity.

Still today classic street food packs a punch with its simplicity, which is indicative of its corresponding clientele. As a rule, street food is comprised of traditional dishes. Thanks to regionally abundant ingredients (grilled sardines, sardinhas assadas from Portugal or Brazil) it’s cheap and extremely nutritious (akume from Togo, consisting of corn and manioc dough) and fills you up! It may be possible that tourists looking for the “true, authentic” cuisine of their vacation destination contribute to the preservation of many traditional dishes. And because travel has never been as affordable as it is now, the culinary ken is reaping the profits. This is also making itself felt in the Western street food movement, which is breathing new life into many a dusty recipe (bánh mì with pulled pork is a case in point).

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However, among those who dislike traditional fare is the young generation of these newly industrializing countries. For them McDonald’s means affluence and coolness. What we have written off as cheap junk food is often an aspirational “Westernism.” In these countries American fast food is by comparison not cheap at all. Yet when given a choice they prefer the highly industrial branded cheeseburger to the rice dumpling wrapped in old newspaper.4 More ironically, the burger, the assembly-line food par excellence, has become a phenomenon of the Western street food movement.

Better Burger

“Do something good for yourself while doing good” — nothing instantly gratifies that maxim more than sustainable food. For some years now high-quality, accountable street food has been all the rage. In metropolises around the world there is currently a large demand for alternatives to industrial fast food. Better Burger, as it were. Not Burger King. What started as a couple of food trucks in New York for foodies who excel in having money but no time, has progressed into downright hype, a movement even. A healthy, ecologically sound diet without any complicated restaurant etiquette (although by all means make the truck swanky) — this is the new Western street food.

“Of all daily cultural practices, the transformation of European culture could not be more apparent in its daily diet,” and that’s why street food and our contemporary moment are two peas in a pod. Street food means mobility, flexibility, variability, in the best case scenario a clear conscience at no loss of enjoyment. Food has always been a mark of social distinction and now street food has become more a mark of hipness. If bánh mì doesn’t mean anything to you, you’re out of touch. It’s no surprise that many street food restaurateurs don’t come from classical gastronomy at all, but rather as the cliché would have it from the creative start-up scene. That is, the kind who has touched her Mac more than her stove and knows what grabs people.

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One Bánh Mì, Two Agendas

The “new” Western street food arose from wholly other motivations as its older counterpart. While bánh mì in Vietnam fills the tummies of those who can’t afford more, its Western version is more on par with pricey gourmet burgers promising good taste and a clean conscience. Once a quick and easy “meat and potatoes” for the poor, street food is for the West a quick and easy, necessarily green spin on better-tasting fast food.

One often reads of how Western street food makers want to do their part to ensure more reflection upon food and its consequences.

The exchange between growers and consumers should be more visible in order to increase awareness of what enters our bodies. After devouring my bánh mì – standing up because I couldn’t find a seat – I was ashamed to realize that I had only exchanged a total of two syllables and a “thank you” (at least) with the food truck owner. Those starving behind me would have never forgiven me had I asked about the origin of the rolls. Perhaps street food in the West is still too new for critical dialogue. Perhaps it will remain but a short-lived hype until the next thing comes along. In the near future I would welcome snacking nonchalantly and talking about God and food on the street like in Vietnam. There a plastic chair low to the ground puts me on eye level with the vendor, who stuffs rolls day in and day out and tells me in graphic detail where her rolls are from: the French, who brought the baguette to the country during the colonial period.

Images: street food in Hanoi and Saigon, Vietnam by Dieu/Thanh Hoang

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