Street bites

Roadside cuisine is the current darling of the foodie world. Vision investigates the renaissance of informal cuisine and asks, what’s next?

Steaming pho noodles in Hanoi, crunchy falafels in Dubai. Hot dogs in New York, samosas in Shoreditch.

Street food is many things to many people. Ancient Romans indulged in it and billions continue to partake – from London hipsters in skinny jeans to Californian senior citizens, or international celebrity chefs on the hunt for inspiration. From its humble beginnings, street food has taken the culinary world by storm.

Just ask Google. Searches for “street food” have multiplied over the past decade, while related topics like “restaurant” remain flat. But you don’t need to rely on the online oracle to draw the same conclusion – follow the crowds in any big city and chances are you’ll encounter huddles of urbanites queuing up for a bite cooked up by someone in a van parked down the street.

Street food
A food truck in New York

But why, with so many restaurants on their doorsteps, have so many city dwellers become street-food converts?

“Street food was not something people used to look up to,” says Argentinian-born Ariel Barbouth, who opened his empanada restaurant, Nuchas, in New York’s Times Square in 2011. “Then a few guys, mainly in California, set up a few interesting food trucks and it took off,” Barbouth adds. “People love to try new things, innovative things that you wouldn’t necessarily find in a restaurant.”

Novelty is certainly a factor, but many dishes with street roots have gone on to emerge as global classics. New York’s hot dogs are known the world over, but not everyone associates the all-American classic with German immigrants who brought the frankfurter sausages across the Atlantic. What it took was someone with an idea of serving them in a novel way on the streets of Manhattan.

The business of roadside eating

Street food is big business. Business intelligence analyst IBISWorld estimates that in the US, the street vendor sector now gene-rates around US$1bn in annual revenues.

But estimates of the global street food industry’s value are harder to come across, in part because keeping track of countless small vendors is challenging – an aspect that has resulted in regulatory pressures across many markets to modernise the industry. In some countries, measures to ban outdoor barbecuing have also been taken in a bid to address pollution and air-quality issues.

Small vendors have been disappearing from prime spots in many cities. In London, the scene has been moving east to cheaper parts of town, while in Hong Kong street food has been giving way to more upmarket restaurants.

Street food, it seems, is caught in a twist between regulation, increasing rents and a simultaneous global desire for authentic cooking. So what’s the answer? Singapore’s hawker model is one possibility. Street vendors have all but disappeared from the Lion City following the introduction of government-owned hawker centres but Singaporeans seem just as happy tucking into their favourites like mee goreng under one, hygiene-approved ceiling.

But while the hawker model has been hugely successful in Singapore, some see it as less spontaneous and authentic than the traditional street-side variety. There’s
a certain appeal to stumbling on a culinary gem at a random spot, be it a tiny creperie on a backstreet of Paris or a pop-up restaurant on Dubai’s Jumeirah beach.

That said, the Singapore model has some big-name cheerleaders. “I believe street food is the salvation of the human race,” Anthony Bourdain proclaimed at last year’s inaugural World Street Food Congress in Singapore. The American chef, broadcaster and author has thrown his weight behind street food in the past. And now, Bourdain seems to think hawkers are the way forward. In January this year, he announced that he wanted to create a huge Singapore-style hawker centre in New York. The plans received an enthusiastic response from food bloggers, many of whom say the city’s regulations have deprived New Yorkers from the food truck feasts available elsewhere in the country.

As ever, the street food scene continues to evolve. Whether the future for street food is in a new generation of food trucks, novel hawkers or something entirely different remains to be seen. But judging by the past decade, chances are the world’s street vendors will cook up something to respond to novelty-hungry foodies in New York, Dubai and beyond.