At Dalston Yard, one of three night food markets run by Street Feast, we are hailed by ‘Join London Union’ posters. This ‘union’ between Street Feast owner Jonathon Downey and Leon co-founder Henry Dimbleby is backed by everyone from Jamie Oliver to Gizzi Erskine, and aims to support entrepreneurship and employment by filling London’s disused spaces with food markets. Designed with entertainment in mind, these markets will be very different to the largely functional kerbside dining of Vietnam, where I first fell in love with street food culture.
Daily life in Vietnam is lived on the pavement, whether one is running a business, getting a hair cut or playing board games. In particular, most food is bought, cooked and eaten in public. Every street corner accommodates a vendor equipped with portable cart and wok; on every stretch of road you encounter a woman balancing two food-laden baskets on either end of a wooden pole. Peer inside the wok, lift the basket lid and you’ll discover a treasure – perhaps Bánh xèo, rice flour pancakes stuffed with pork, shrimp and fragrant herbs, or Tau Hu Nuoc Duong, silken tofu with sweet ginger sauce. These are not chefs, but ordinary cooks who specialise in one particular dish. In a country where the political system is corrupt and propaganda rife, the street and its food has become a site of democratisation, self-sufficiency and communal gathering.
With its power as both a societal leveller and outlet for creativity, it seems appropriate that London’s disillusioned workers have increasingly turned to street food as a form of rebellion against routine career paths. In the last decade, bankers, marketers and professional chefs have requisitioned burger trucks or ice-cream vans and tuned into the marketing tools of social media, another site of democratisation and personal expression. Soon, Londoners were venturing far from their usual bus route or tube line to queue for gourmet morsels served on cardboard trays.
Today many of London’s original vendors, think Meat Liquor or Pizza Pilgrims, have built restaurant empires, whilst those who remain on the pavement operate largely through collectives such as Kerb or Street Feast (now absorbed into the larger London Union). In doing so, have London’s street food vendors lost their independence? The cynic may think so upon arrival at Street Feast, a post-industrial space where cleverly branded food stalls come complete with neon signage, chains of exposed light bulbs and, in one case, even a wine garden. It is a far cry from Vietnam, or indeed London’s earliest street food stalls, where you would be lucky to perch on a plastic chair of primary school proportions. Evidently, the street food scene is now as much about style as function.
Yet such attention to stylish surroundings and a vibrant atmosphere ensures that street food is now viewed as a day out or evening entertainment, rather than simply a quick, cheap feed. Moreover, at Street Feast many of the best characteristics of traditional street food remain intact. With customers able to see exactly what is being cooked and how, Street Feast’s vendors must source fresh, sustainable and, where possible, local ingredients. And with vendors looking back to their own multi-cultural roots or learning the culinary techniques of other cultures, London’s street food scene offers punchy, exotic, fusion flavours. Aside from the food itself, the charmingly chatty servers, the shared tables and the hum of several hundred satisfied diners creates a sense of community.
I recommend you pay at least two visits to a Street Feast venue so that you can sample as many stalls as your appetite allows. My favourite? Breddos Tacos, where the owners aren’t constrained by adhering to ‘authentic’ Mexican flavours and instead play with more modern combinations. Try the Baja Fish taco: encased in a light batter, the gently flaking morsels of fish dance in the heat from fiery jalapenos and peppery radish, before being cooled by an ever-so-slightly sour lime aioli. Or head to Yum Bun for a soft, spongy bun bursting with unctuous pork belly or thick, almost-meaty mushrooms, a slick of sweet hoisin sauce and fresh greens for a much-needed crunch.
As part of collectives such as Kerb or Street Feast, now absorbed by London Union, I hope that vendors such as Breddos and Yum Bun are protected by permanent employment and a steady stream of customers, without losing their personality. As well as providing security for established food stalls, these overseeing companies also have a duty to nurture up and coming entrepreneurs. If they balance these responsibilities, an exciting time for London’s growing street food culture lies ahead.