Street food isn’t a cuisine: it’s food that happens to be outside

Just because you barbecued that tongue next to a road doesn’t make it a cuisine

I didn’t attend the World Street Food Congress a fortnight ago in Singapore but the outcomes from it seem to have devolved into the basest discussion of street food: name-calling, jingoism and fear of foreigners at once romanticising and ruining otherwise “authentic” food cultures. Some foreigners points of view seemed to be valid simply because they get parachuted into a cuisine courtesy of a television show, others invalidated despite decades of experience in the field and most likely, being the fixers for those same television shows. While I wasn’t at the conference, I’m no stranger to being accused of both creating nostalgia for and wrecking for foreigners and locals alike.

Singapore is a strange place to hold a street food conference given that most of its street food has been moved to malls and hawker centres. Conference founder KF Seetoh conflates the two. Bon Appetit’s Jenny Miller, covering the conference interviews him:

. “Street food is a cuisine, not a physicality,” he insisted. When I approached him after a panel to press the question, “Isn’t something lost when you move street food off the streets?,” he seemed impatient: “You are romanticizing it. Do you want to get food poisoning?”

Street food isn’t a cuisine: it’s food that happens to be outside. Food that is served on the street is a subset of the wider regional cuisine. The elements that link street foods together across different cuisines and cultures have little to with the food itself and more to do with local conditions that drive vendors into the outdoors. Mostly, that condition is poverty and lack of regulation which adds an awful irony to a conference that costs $750 in a nation ridiculed for its regulations. Additionally, there is a body of research demonstrating that the risk of street food contamination is low and not any higher than in restaurants.

What is lost when a street food moves indoors is transparency. When the food is served outside, you have an often far too intimate and transparent relationship with the food preparation. One of my favourite stories of this intimacy is from Austin Bush, eating the Burmese pickled tea leaf salad, lephet thoke:

Once several years ago I ordered the dish at a street stall in downtown Yangon. The woman mixed the dish, in the traditional manner, with her bare hand, squeezing and squelching the mixture thoroughly. After serving me the lephet thoke, she then stared at me while I ate it, licking her fingers the entire time.

On the street, there is generally nothing to hide: you can immediately pick a popular stall from an unpopular one, you can eyeball the chef, see the ingredients and preparation. In a mall, this doesn’t happen. So what’s the value in rolling together food that is served on the street and food from the mall?

My guess: billions of tourism dollars. Food tourism is gigantic business. In 2003, Tourism Queensland estimated that 22% of international visitor expenditure is food. If this held true for Singapore, whose GDP is ~10% tourism, this would be worth SGD$7.7 billion. The international fight to be perceived as having the world’s best street food is a high stakes game.

5 Comments Street food isn’t a cuisine: it’s food that happens to be outside

  1. Robyn

    Will you too now be run up a flagpole for daring to disagree with Singapore’s street food ambassador? I’m biased, obviously — but nice, on-point piece.

  2. Alison

    Hear, hear. While our blog is called ‘Street Food’ we write about mostly indoor foods that may or may not have been originally from street sellers and seek out the real deal when we can. In many ways we wish we had named it differently.

    What we hate is seeing the term used in upmarket restos as if it gives it some authentication and justifies a high price. Big name chefs selling dishes that you know are a cash in to the street food/ hawker trend, and making big bucks from it. That is when it becomes a ‘cuisine’, when it can be packaged and promoted to make money.

    There’s also a fetishisation about this food which has been driven by tourism and food marketing (blogging, TV, magazines) which has changed how people see street food and where they want to eat it. While in some ways this helps record and preserve some of the fast disappearing traditions, you can’t help but think it might be contributing to its demise by watering it down to a marketable experience. The conference itself was a fine example of the commodification of traditional food experiences.

  3. Allan Wilson

    Hawker food, shop house cooking. These days I tend to just say cheap eats. Most originating from a kitchen at some point only later to be sold on streets for convenience. To me meat barbecues are the closest to actual street foods. The only foods to be found (almost) exclusively outside and on streets due to excessive smoke. In Thailand for example; moo ping (grilled pork), isaan sausages, pla pao (grilled fish) and kai yang (grilled chicken). Again all likely prepared indoors before grilling outdoors. Hot Dogs and Burgers the equivalent to western street foods? As more and more street foods move indoors the terminology will only become more ambiguous. The more I use the term street food the more it feels wrong. Same goes for calling chilli pepper laced dishes spicy.

  4. Fong Yee

    One of my earliest memories of my grandmother is sitting at her stall along Temple Street in Singapore while she kneaded and fried ‘yau char kwai’ and ‘ham chin peng’ (dough fritters and Chinese doughnuts). I remembered when the news came in the early 1980’s that all street vendors will be moved to the then newly built Chinatown Complex. Everyone was concerned that business will decline as their ‘regulars’ may not be able to find them anymore. Business may have declined for some hawker life was better for my grandmother. The rain no longer affected sales and she didn’t have to push the cart down 3 streets to a shophouse where she parked the cart.

    Did moving to the complex changed the fact that she was selling street food? I don’t think so. She made it the same way she had always done.

    Given the opportunity, do you think that street vendors would not want to be indoors where they will be sheltered from the rain and the scorching heat and not to mention not having to breathe in the fumes of the constant traffic?

    I do agree with KF Seetoh that ‘street food’ is romantasised, and in my opinion, more so by westerners. It may not be a ‘cuisine’ but its definitely our culture, and squabbling over whether street food should be street food if it’s indoors does nothing to preserve the food nor the culture.

  5. Fong Yee

    Apologies for the grammatical errors. Submitting comments on your mobile device is probably not the best (error-free) way to do it.


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