I’m a food critic. But the best meals I’ve ever eaten weren’t in a Michelin-starred restaurant. They were on the streets. The streets of Bethlehem, with its hole-in-the-wall falafel shacks serving up fat pittas, stuffed with hummus, pickle and broad beans. And the streets of Mandalay, where I first had fishy noodles – for breakfast – still salty from the sea. Street food is exciting. But you wouldn’t say that of street food in Britain. Until now.
In the old days, British street food meant cheap sausages and overfried onions, served off rusty metal handcarts. But that’s changing. And about time too. For a nation that’s stacked with food magazines and food programmes, we’ve run out of excuses. Our food isn’t a joke any more – we’ve got more three-starred Michelin restaurants than Italy. So it’s about time we got our street food sorted too. And make every single one of us proud to be British.
The best street food is cheap and fresh. Unlike a lot of restaurant food, which is expensive and left standing on a hot-plate until some sniffy waiter deigns to pick it up and bring it to your table. And street food is all about offering the kind of food that the British people actually want to eat. Restaurants still seem to be hung up on some received notion of what constitutes ‘good food’. On the street isn’t the place for that kind of snobbery.
There are some real food heroes, out there working the streets of Britain. The best are specialists – they do a few dishes, and they do them very well. Their menu-not-so-fixe can change at a whim according to what looks good at the market that day. Which means that it’s seasonal and local. And they know that, if they ever let their standards slip, the public will just go to the mobiler next door. Only the strongest survive. Which is great news, now that the street is our dining room.
The new generation of mobilers have got none of the grit, or the grease, which used to authenticate the whole British street food experience. And their ingredients have changed too. Where you used to find limp white iceberg, you now find organic lamb’s ear. And where once you squeezed on an (unidentified) red sauce, you now find a rich, home-made tomato ketchup. That’s actually got tomatoes in it. The times are changing.
They say that our islands are too cold for street food. Rubbish. Korea gets snow in the winter, and there’s street food everywhere. With people queuing up to eat it. Admittedly, a bit of warm weather wouldn’t hurt. People would go out more, stay out more, and eat out more – the average Thai eats out 17 times a month. The best rice congee stalls in Bangkok only open up between 9pm and 4am. Is that the future for the street food sellers of Barnsley, Cardiff and Dundee?
I will always remember (excuse me while I dream a little) the main square in Marrakesh where, at sundown, hundreds of stalls strung with different coloured lightbulbs started to cook. Sellers pulled on your shirtsleeve, or sang God Save The Queen – whatever it took to get your attention. And any table you chose was “the best seat in the house”. Whether you ordered the sheep’s head or the couscous, it all came with a dose of theatre.
In America, street food is all about the razzle dazzle. The Elysburg lemon sells the sweetest sourest homemade lemonade I’ve ever tasted. From a 10-ft fruit made of bright yellow polyurethane. Or Maximum Minimus, that sells pulled pork sandwiches from a lunch wagon that’s been transformed into a giant silver pig. It’s got ears, snout and a tail – and even a giant pair of sunglasses if it turns sunny.
Let’s celebrate our big wide world of food. We love burgers and chicken, but that doesn’t mean we want to be colonised by McDonalds and KFC. That would be a shame. We’re all different. The popularity of vadai (fried savoury lentil cakes) in India and nasi lemak (rice with eggs and savoury sambal sauce) in Malaysia proves that people still want traditional street foods as well as the imported alternatives.
Food is an adventure. Ask a resident of Mumbai, and they’ll tell you – with pride – that the city’s restaurants are for tourists. They just can’t compare with the authentic Indian food served by the blind chaatwala beside the open drain behind the railway station. And they are probably right. There’s something about discovering real street food that makes it tastier.
Eat out of your comfort zone. If you’re in the Philippines and want to try pig’s blood (known as Betamax after its rectangular shape) and chicken feet (known as Adidas), you should head for the streets. And if you want to try balut and penoy – duck eggs with and without fetus – it’s the streets where you’ll get lucky. If lucky is the right word.
Street food is huge across Europe. In Berlin it’s rösti—plate-sized portions of fried potato, slathered with apple sauce. And, in Rome, it’s pizza. Although street pizza is very different from the pizzeria pizza. Unlike the 12” rounds you find in a restaurant, “pizza a taglio” is generally made on large square trays, and sold by the rectangle. It’s easy to hold, and leaves you one hand free to steer your Vespa.
Street food has to be portable. So whether it’s a bunny chow (a scooped out loaf of bread filled with a creamy curry) in South Africa, or a bing (a light, airy pancake) in China, it needs to be good-to-go. That’s why, in the days of Dickens, Brits used to eat little larks as a snack between meals. They were one-bite big, and didn’t make a mess of your frock coat.
As we get set to enter the golden age of British street food, those rules of thumb still hold true. With maybe a little less emphasis on the songbirds…