THE FEEL-GOOD FACTOR
Street food kept us happy during lockdowns in a UK village where not much was available – food-trucks started coming to pub parking lots. It’s not the diversity one sees in cities like London [where] over 250 languages are spoken. Recently, when sitting in a freezing cold London restaurant cabin, a young waitress from Brittany served me small strips of panisse.
Street vendors in Manhattan are very diverse. Outside the Nigeria Mission to the UN there is always a food truck serving West African food. In parts of the US, theFood Truck has become quite fashionable: they seem to come to parties and events, as well as parking by brewpubs, etc. In late 80’s in Ensenada, Baja California, [there were many stands where] womenwere making fish tacos sold with their own salsas at three for a dollar – heaven! My husband was afraid of street food, so at first I didn’t have to share:unfortunately he soon saw the light.
In Andalucia, a popular street food in feria time was/is pinchitos – little kebabs flavoured with cumin threaded on steel knitting needles were cooked over a small oblong brazier by a man in a Moroccan caftan and Turkish fez. Harbourside snack food in Casablanca is/was fresh anchovies split, stuffed with lemon-zest. parsley and garlic, flipped through flour and deep-fried. Trade was brisk even through the food was priced at four times what it cost to buy the fish itself at the next door stall.
STREET FOOD & THE LAW
İn Istanbul it sounds as if new incomers can get a start by selling street food, but in some places there are real barriers to entry into street food vending.
[For instance] there has been a lot of controversy and conflict with NYC’s Open Streets Covid project [and the] cabins that restaurants have set up for ‘outdoor eating’. Dining cabins [aren’t] necessarily the problem: they have been essential to keeping restaurants afloat and employment for many. There has always been friction between vendors and bricks & mortar, whether inside restaurants or through cooked-food shops.
The challenges of opening a street kitchen are very local. [For instance in] Copenhagen, I had a tough time fighting the bureaucracy. Street food carts are illegal in Montréal: you can have a food truck only if you have a brick and mortar storefront as well – it’s a sad wasteland in such a great culinary city! [However] we revere Montreal for its active street-life: you’re allowed liquor consumption in public places while the rest of us are not.
From the perspective of the ancient world, do restrictions on street food have to do with limiting[public] assemblies for fear of public unrest? [For instance] the Sao Cristovao market in Rio was where migrant North Easterners traditionally congregated.
Bangkok is going to lose their street vendors – the official reason is public health. [It’s already] happened in Singapore where everyone has been coraled into vendor-courts – possible reflection of government attitudes. [The there’s the] business of the original Mumbai street food vendors, when a foreign delivery service wanted to take the business away from the locals. [It’s possible that] that inflation/hyperinflation will affect street vendors in Istanbul.
[There’s a trend towards] becoming chic and fashionable – chi-chi-fication – something I heard from food truckers (mainly white guys), while doing PhD research about food trucks in Germany: interviewees often distinguished themselves by saying they “were doing street food – but better”.
Street food in some countries can be a health risk – my mother had blood poisoning after eating her favourite soup from a Thai street vendor in Bangkok in the 60s.”You think you are safer (in a restaurant) but you just haven’t seen their kitchen”. [However], we all ate without uber health standards for years and survived – which is what my mother would say, despite her bout of ‘food poisoning’!
It’s obviously not in a street food vendor’s interest to poison their customers. People want to make a living – and for that you need returning customers. In Delhi, it seems, the origin of bacteria in street-food is not the food but the utensils rinsed in water. Same problem in Jakarta. Rule of thumb: if humans are eating it, it must be edible! Traveling in Laos in 2019, my guide was very specific about what street food foreigners could eat and what “was not for you—you’ll be sick”; presumably via the local microbes a transient touristwouldn’t be able to handle.
SKILL, PRIDE AND AUTHENTICIY
Talking about street food and cultural appropriation, isit better to get variety or authenticity? Power dynamicscome into play: the dominant power appropriates while the disenfranchised judge things differently.
Who decides what is authentically street-food? [Is it all about where and less about what?] In Montreal, Canada,Jean Talon and Atwater both have outdoor vendors onlyin the summer, though the cost of entry is prohibitive. Anyone who is cooking on the spot without a bricks and mortar space is a kind of street food vendor, which includes [rehoused] vendors all through Southeast Asia, etc.
Does it matter if the Italian ice cream vendor in Tregaron (mid-Wales) is Italian – actually they are – and even after four or five generations, it’s still a selling point. It’s a difficult question: I prefer to buy street food from people who seem to have a cultural connection with the food, but I also crave variety in an area with almost zero diversity. Street-food vendors are sometimes extensions of fancy restaurants: in London, there’s a van that sells lobster rolls at £20 each. What about Michelin-star street vendors in Asia – good or bad?
Skill-sets – embodied knowledge, doing things in an extraordinary way – does matter. During lockdown no 3, our local wonderful falafel/shawarma shop in Peckham [south London] lost their main maker – and his lack of skill was noticeable when everything took so much longer.
As well as skill and love, as Renni says, she puts love into the food she makes. Hopefully, skilled labour is becoming more noticeable. Perhaps the pandemic has made us more attentive to details? Pride in good food makes it much more attractive and will mean that people go to one vendor and not another, wait for the right one and tell each other where to go.
Innovation [is an additional element]: some street-foods – grilled rice paper, savoury/spicy rice paper ribbons – are maybe only a decade old invented by a street-food vendor but became popular because teeneagers/students enjoyed them.
Certain foods [and related sayings] are important because they speak to the historical record. For instance, ‘Tastiness is in the dirt’ is specifically about mutura, a type of blood sausage local to Kenya.
Cassava is eaten in West Africa as street food and comes with a palm oil sauce. Street vendors in Sierra Leone sell cassava (mhogo) wrapped in a banana leaf (aca): the vendors would often be under a baobab tree, and there would be fried mandazi (doughnuts) and sweetened baobab seeds as well. There are many cassava, spring rolls, tofu and tempeh street-vendors in Jakarta. In Mombasa, there were street vendors that sold batons of deep fried cassava (I still dream about them). In Bermuda, cassava is used to make a Christmas pie with pork and chicken. I had a really good cassava fritter, grated with chiles and cilantro, from a vendor in Saigon.
As prepared and sold from her own kitchen by Renni, one of Brazil’s favourite street foods is acaraje, a cousin of vada and felafel, prepared with regional pulses, local aromatics and deep-fried – the fryingmakes them frugal yet also luxurious.
Poet DorivalCaymmi’a A Preta de Acarajé (1940) tells the story of the fritter-vendor in Bahia: Dez horas da noite Na ruadeserta A preta mercando Parece um lamento Ê o abará Na sua gamela Tem molho e cheiroso Pimenta da costa Tem acarajé…. In (rough) translation: Ten o’clock at night In the deserted street Close to the market With a song of sorrow, Within your bowl The leaf-wrappedabara Is soft and fragrant With pepper from the coast. She has acarajé…