Street food has always had a special place in my affections. My earliest and most vivid food memories are of hawker stalls and night markets from my time as a child in Singapore – hungrily watching the satay man fan the flames as he grilled skewers of beef satay, watching the roti canai man deftly stretch and spin out the dough to form a flatbread, served with a side of curry sauce, crunching into freshly deep-fried pisang goreng (batter-coated fried bananas) . . .
The rise of street food in Britain, therefore – witnessed by the Eat Street collective and the sudden presence of stalls selling interesting, tasty food at food markets – is to be celebrated. This weekend sees the British Street Food Awards taking place in London for the first time, in the cobbled street outside Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant, so I went along to see what was going on. The sun was shining, the music was blaring and the place was heaving with people who were either about to eat, eating or had eaten an assortment of food from the street food traders there. Mexican burritos, kedgeree, artisan ice cream, bhel puri, mussels, rendang . .. the choice was huge and the queues were long.
Journalist Richard Johnson, founder of the British Street Food Awards, explained to me how about nine years ago how, following a heavy night’s drinking session with Marco Pierre White in New York, he and Marco “in the need for serious sustenance” had come across “the best burger I’d ever had in a park in Manhattan” and wondered why there was no equivalent good street food in Britain. “I started looking into it and there was the beginnings of something coming out of the farmers’ markets’ movement, where people were selling foods like sausages from rare breed pigs. The idea of presenting food in interesting trucks and trailers came over from America. I thought ‘Hang on, let’s get some awards going as a benchmark, a line in the sand to say this is what can be done.” Now in their third year, this is the first time the British Street Food Awards have taken place in London. “The easy thing to do would have been to make it a London fad, so at the beginning we went to Ludlow Food Festival, which is rooted in the community, in local produce, that felt important. The second year we were in Suffolk at Harvest at Jimmy’s. Next year we won’t be in London – I want to take the Awards up north.”
As Richard talks about the traders taking part in the Awards – explaining why what the food they are offering tastes so good, one can hear the relish in his voice. “There’s been a huge upturn in street food. People are getting more imaginative, mixing flavours, trying extraordinary ways to sell their street food. I think the next Jamie, the next Gordon, the next Heston will as likely come out of street food as from a restaurant. These people have to be costmongers, have to be big mouths, have to be enthusiasts – miserable gits don’t do terribly well in street food.”
At Fish Hut from Southwold, Suffolk, Nick Attfield is doing a roaring business in his trademark fish and chips, using day boat, line-caught cod freshly fished from off the Suffolk coast, coated in a melt-in-the-mouth crisp batter. “I started selling fish and chips from a beach hut to publicise the run-down pub I’d bought” explains Nick, “and it’s taken off! Why do I do this? It’s fun!”
Over at Lullabelles, keen baker Cathy McConaghy is serving cakes and cups of tea to an appreciative crowd. “We’d only been going for 3-4 months when we were nominated for Street Food Awards in the first year they started. We were absolutely over the moon just to be nominated and we thrilled when we won.” Summer is Lullabelles’ busy season, with Cathy touring the festivals. “Winter is quieter, which is fine, because we work so hard in the summer. It’s long days, long weekends in the summer, but it’s fun. You have to be tough. To be honest, nothing stresses me out any more. This VW van is 53 years old and breaks down every two minutes – you just have to go with it and get on with it.”
The judging panel will be served “a banquet of street food” from which to pick the category winners and the overall winner. “The winner gets a sit down with Marks and Spencer and a sit down with Wahaca,” explains Richard, “They want to be of help, whether it’s putting something in their stores for M & S or something on the menu at Wahaca, they’re hugely experienced and can offer a lot.”
As the turn-out for the British Street Food Awards demonstrates – with long queues at each and every stall there – the public appetite for good street food in Britain is certainly there.