Fine dining or polystyrene?

Street food is by no means a new phenomenon. Small fried fish were commonly served on the streets of Ancient Greece and it is thought that the Hot Dog was born at a traditional farmers market where a sausage vendor and an organic roll stall both also happened to be intelligent entrepreneurs. Deciding to join forces, frying the sausages and stuffing the rolls there and then, they sold twice as many goods at four times the price. Winner, winner, (hot dog dinner?). But fast forwarding to the 21st century, neighbourhoods around the country are starting to come fully equipped with the stench of fried onions and overt enthusiasm as consumer eating habits change and street food is more ubiquitous than ever.

By definition, street food means eating from disposable crockery huddled on a roadside somewhere trendy with a team of other hipster friends. But looking beyond that, street food is unpretentious, down to earth, and offers consumers immediacy, spontaneity and an ability to choose from a whole host of cuisines or even have several at once. It is estimated that 2.5 billion people around the world eat street food every day with 50% of consumers claiming to eat it at least once a week, and 81% of those eating it for lunch.

The world’s most famous street food cities are in Asia (Sinagpore, Bangkok and Hanoi), but if you were to just take London alone, it would be hard not to find a cuisine from every continent. The sheer number of vendors popping up on every corner of the capital leaves the likes of Pret, Eat and Itsu without a second glance. Walk the length of Shoreditch High Street and first up you’ll find the social enterprise, using minimal start up costs to sell cheap hot food for people on low incomes. Walk a little further and you’ll no doubt find the gourmet vendors (e.g. Wild Rover and their organic pigeon wrap). Incidentally, owing to the intrinsic diversity which comes naturally with street food, Shoreditch High Street, like many, will find itself abundant in workers between the hours of 12 and 2, each scoffing their way through a burrito with a smile on their face and a “slaw” stain on their collar, be it blue or white.

Dishes known for being wrapped in foil or served out the back of a van are now finding themselves at home on menus across the country, burritos and Pad Thais up against the more familiar coq-au-vins and fish pies. But beyond just having a line or two on a menu, street food is the foundation upon which some of the nation’s favourite eateries were built, taking Pho and Wahaca as examples, with franchises spreading through the city like wildfire. And it doesn’t stop there – the most successful street food vendors have seen evolution through to the end and have become some of our beloved restaurant chains, MEATliquor being one of many.

But, through deception, street food is encouraging people to spend more. Service from a twee vintage VW immediately warrants a premium and the post-gap-yah-come-entrepreneur, aka the mastermind behind the street food company, has the last laugh as the opportunity for cash appears to be high while the overheads are minimal. Serve up something a little more attention grabbing than the next person and you’ve got yourself an easy sell, to both the public and the bank manager. Do your job well, and you could be in for a chance of winning at the British Street Food Awards. Don’t consider yourself an award-winner just yet? Never mind, all you need is to be recognised by self-proclaimed street food expert and co-founder of street food members club, ‘Eat St’, Petra Barran, and you could appear in her ever changing list of Top 10 street food vendors.

But, if you’re not in it for the profit, you’ll join a whole host of other vendors who exist with the ambition to help solve a social mission and offer cheap eats to those with limited access to food. The struggle is real however – with the immense popularity of street food comes the ever increasing demand for pitches, and believe it or not, empty spaces are few and far between. Prices for said pitches are subsequently rising and these community welfare ventures are struggling to find even the tiniest bit of cash to set camp.

So, there are still those people who have beef, not with the food as such, but with the street part. With mealtimes meant to be relaxing and enjoyable affairs, having a pigeon poo two inches from your head and struggling to hold a wallet, an umbrella and a taco all in one hand, some find the experience more worst-nightmare than fun affair. They refuse to pay the premium and are most probably the kinds of people who also find restaurant pop-ups as annoying as those on Putlocker. But the scrooges of the foodie world must be few and far between because the phenomenon just keeps spreading wider and wider. It’s not unusual to find a festival-esque food van at a wedding these days and with queues sometimes as bad as the M25, food festivals are only going to get bigger and better.

Ultimately street food is added value. It provides restaurant quality outside the confinements of tables, chairs and silver service, but also adds theatre and offers an eating experience that the public have learnt to love and the restaurants have endeavoured to mimic. The very fact that street food inspired dishes have begun to creep onto the menus of well-renowned restaurants, shows that not only is it the ‘street‘ part that is adored by London’s masses, but also the dishes themselves are gaining immense appreciation. Gone are the days of cheesy chips and quarter-pounders as street food becomes a means of showcasing the delicacies of the world. Competition is fierce but the undeniable scope for success leaves street food advocates with far more than just greasy fingers.

Pictures are not my own.

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