Street food is slowly moving from sidewalks to hotel restaurants, with a little help from celebrity chefs and diners who love its honest, simple and intense flavours.
Last year, Fox News’ programme “Chew On This” reported that Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain labelled Singapore street food as “one of the hottest food trends of 2016”. Ahead of the curve, Australian Chef David Thomson brought Thai street food to high-end dining at his Singapore restaurant Long Chim, while TV chef Susan Feniger opened her South Hollywood restaurant, Street, in 2009 after being impressed by the food she had eaten on the streets of India.
Street food is increasing in popularity than fine dining as many diners are becoming disenchanted with nouvelle cuisine. Leslie Stronach, Executive Chef at the InterContinental Bangkok, has long sung the praises of the city’s street food, as has Martin Faist at Absolute Hotel Services in the Thai capital. And a stamp of approval came last year when Michelin launched a guide—but no stars—for Hong Kong and Macau street food.
Street food is all about variety and freshness served with little fuss. But while each street hawker specialises in just one recipe, professional kitchens can deliver exotic dishes from all over the world to the buffet table and even include exciting fusions as their creativity allows. For example, when Vietnamese cooking is merged with French baguettes, we get the banh mi (local sandwich), and today Mexican tacos can easily carry Asian spices.
Street food is particularly appealing because it’s associated with fun. Travellers feel adventurous eating with local people – squatting on plastic stools by hawker carts in Hanoi with a banh mi is almost a rite of passage for backpackers. So when diners find good street food served up in hotel buffets, they associate it with leisure, pleasure as well as adventure.
Bringing street food into the spotlight, Singapore has an annual World Street Food Congress, and the UK has its own food version of the ‘Oscars’, the Street Food Awards. The Bourdain Market, named after the globe-trotting TV chef, is looking for partners and investors to bring high quality street food to New York.
Street food was initially designed to feed large numbers cheaply and efficiently, but today it is loved by people from all walks of life. A 2007 study from the Food and Agriculture Association recorded the number of people eating street food every day as 2.5 billion. The fact that rich and poor alike enjoy it means it can be adapted very well in professional kitchens.
An additional appeal of a hotel introducing street food to their buffet menus is the higher level of hygiene in hotels as compared to food prepared on the streets. While in the olden days, vendors carried food on trays and baskets on their heads (where it could fall prey to passing birds), hygienically-prepared hawker fare has become a priority today. It’s another reason why the excitement of the street marries perfectly with the reassurance of the cleanliness of hotel kitchens.