British Street Food

A History of British Street Food, as seen by The Taster. This article appeared in our Winter 2013 issue

British Street Food

Signs that something was happening to British streetfood first appeared in the 2000s, when the Nationwide Caterers Association set up streetfood.org.uk to support street vendors and hawkers. Since then, interest has exploded. 2009 saw the first British Street Food Awards; this September, aided by Boris Johnson, they attracted 4500 visitors, and competitors from across Europe. Night markets have set up to rival those in the developing worlds; and inspiration taken from the American trend for turning old trailers into mobile food-stalls. In terms of popular culture, it was significant that, in June,The Sunday Times Style Magazine (not known for its grassroots feel) ran a spoofy article noting the emergence of ‘Chicken Shoppers.’ According to Style, these upper-class gourmets, having never eaten anything less constructed than an expensive salad, are now addicted to the slop and savour of streetfood; their children want to be burger-van men when they grow up. Less spoofily, a provider of luxury suites in Kensington is arranging streetfood tours to show its clients the ‘secret’ London.

The revolution was always lurking. Cheap air fares (especially for long-haul journeys), rich baby-boomer parents and the normalisation of gap years have enabled many young Britons to spend time in countries where streetfood is part of the national diet. Out of necessity, streetfood ingredients in developing countries are typically fresh, seasonal, local and nutritious — a far cry from our tradition of dubious hot-dogs and plastic icecream. Many British streetfood stalls are a) manned by very young people; and b)  sell Asian and Eastern fare. Where British tourists once returned with straw hats, they now bear jars of kimchi.

Food at home also began to show up the deficiencies of British streetfood. Restaurants had undergone their own revolution in the 1980s, when the notion arose that the quality and freshness of ingredients mattered as much as, or possibly even more than, elaborate methods of preparation. In the 1990s these ideas transformed pubs into gastropubs. Many of these recreated British classics — pies made with the choicest steak and handmade pastry, say. Ultimately this led to enterprises such as Bubbledogs (the bar which pairs  Champagne and top-end hot dogs.) In retrospect, such ideas were bound eventually to filter on and into the street.

Social media and mobile communications have played a part. The logistics of contacting and organising vendors and venues for pop-up and mobile food events would, in the past, have been a Herculean labour, involving hours of telephoning and typing. Part of the appeal of streetfood markets is their apparent spontaneity (even if, in fact, an awful lot of planning has taken place beforehand — all hail Health & Safety!)

An unexpected boost for streetfood came from the 2008 economic crisis. The backlash has varied in tone — from Banker Hatred to Retro Thrift, to new respect for the environment and for ethics in general. The message now is that lunch is no longer for wimps: chasing profit for its own sake is mindless and boring; social responsibility is cool and exciting. Streetfood fits right into this mindset; it is tempting to range current streetfood buzzwords — ‘artisan,’ ‘authentic’ and ‘passionate’ (passionate vendors, passionate customers) against those of big business: ‘efficient,’ ‘synthetic’ and ‘commercial.’ The market organiser KERB is very clear that its markets are not just about their food (delicious though that is); it also lays great emphasis on its social idealism (see box, left).

The Taster suspects that at least part of the charm and success of streetfood is due to its loudly-proclaimed ethos. Streetfood is thrifty. It is chilled-out (no table manners! no washing-up! eat from a bag and throw it in the recycling bin!). And it is stunningly unpretentious and democratic: anyone suffering from career envy or facelift envy or celebrity-overload or any of the old, toxic values, can find an instant antidote in the fun, judgement-free environment of a streetfood market. No wonder they’re gaining popularity. Vive la Revolution!