05 | Sep | 13

Richard Johnson

Tomorrow Belongs To Me?

Do we want our street food safe and sanitised? Or chaotic and anarchic? This Sunday, Richard Johnson — the founder of British Street Food — takes to BBC Radio 4 at 12.30pm to look at the future. Featuring contributions from Roy Choi, the man behind the Kogi barbecue truck, and Petra Barran, the founder of Kerb, Johnson suggests a Third Way informed by his invitation to the World Street Food Congress in Singapore. Below he writes about his impressions of the place voted the world’s number one country for street food.

If there’s one thing I take from the works of Anthony Bourdain, it’s that you only live once – eat out of your comfort zone. If you want to try a slab of congealed pig’s blood (known as Betamax in the Philippines because of its shape), head for the street markets. And if you want to try balut – incubated duck eggs complete with embryo – it’s the streets where you’ll get lucky. If ‘lucky’ is the word. That’s why Bourdain was invited to speak at the World Street Food Congress in Singapore. Just one problem – Singapore doesn’t have street food.

Singapore took street food off its streets 20 years ago. Because of health and safety, the traders (or hawkers) were moved to large warehouses with electricity and running water. The chestnut seller I photographed (above) was hawking illegally. And now, if you want Wee Nam Kee – the delicately poached chicken served on top of rice glistening with chicken fat – you’ll have to visit one of the country’s 107 ‘hawker centres’.  Odd then for Singapore to host a Congress of World Street Food. And odd to invite a man who’s all about life off the beaten track to make the keynote address.

Bourdain took the opportunity to bemoan the state of fine dining. In London, New York or Paris, he said the food in restaurants was unlikely to have a sense of place. “But on the streets of Mexico” he said, “you know where you are.”  He raved about pho on the streets of Vietnam, and how it tasted better on a low plastic stool amid the durian and diesel fumes. But he didn’t take the chance to rubbish the hawker centres. He knows they have a lot to recommend them.

The 107 centres – with 10 more planned in the next five years – are like Western food courts, lined with avenues of uniform little boxes serving food. In the middle of avenues are plastic tables and wipe-clean seating. The set-up is hygienic, and each stall is given a government cleanliness rating which is displayed at eye level – the difference between an A and a B can be a month’s salary. All of the food is good. Some of it is great. But something is missing — the individuality that we prize so highly in British street food.

To see the lunchtime queues at Maxwell Road, a hawker centre in Singapore’s central business district, you wonder if that really matters. Business types queue for their chilli crab or fish head curry next to schoolchildren and taxi drivers – street food in Singapore seems democratic in a way that street food in Britain can only dream of.  It’s not just for the cool kids. With several British retail projects underway to put street food indoors — with Trinity Kitchen in Leeds and SSP in Manchester Airport — is this the way forward? Should Britain copy the Singapore model? What do you reckon? Please post your thoughts below.