Street Food: History, Culture, Society

Let’s assume the “street food” we know is hawker centre food, an evolution from the original street food pushcarts and stalls next to drains, with foldable tables and stools in old distant Singapore. This reflection on the state of hawker fare has been overcooked in recent times e.g. the demise of hawker food as hawking is long hard work and few inspiring ultra-rich success cases.

Everyone knows the ingredients on how hawkers are fading away. The hawker industry is dying out literally as the younger generation do not want to takeover the wok of their hawker parents as the job is not rewarding enough. The government charged high rents for hawker stalls, putting off aspiring hawkers and it sounds easier and better to be a taxi driver than a hawker. There  are no new hawker centres so there are not enough opportunities for those who want to try it out anyway. Hawking street food were honest means of livelihood for the uneducated but Singaporeans are more educated now so there is already a resistance to take up the trade since the stereotype is only the uneducated are hawkers.

However, there are more food courts now so some can argue convincingly that street food is still around just set in a different environment from before e.g. from pushcarts to hawker centres to food courts, char kway teow is still char kway teow. Also, more and more foreign-born are becoming hawkers as migrants have less hangups about any hawker stigma so there are new hawkers entering the industry, just that they might be more comfortable speaking in Thai, Vietnamese or with a strong China accent. Food stalls in hawker centres are more ecletic than before to cater to a more diverse customer base interested in choices from pasta, to muffins, to cuppaccino, to Vietnamese beef noodles, to pad Thai. So there is in fact a renaissance in hawker fare and street food is being redefined as the customers are more international in origin and taste.

Still, as we do not want the romanticised memory of the old hawker aunty and uncle to fade away, the government is trying to revitalise the craft in little encouraging ways by opening up 5 new hawker centres by 2016. Nonetheless, I doubt that infrastructure per se can bring back the street food we remember. We just have to accept that adapt to changing times. “Street food” will always be around, just maybe not the price and way we remember it when we were younger.


Where Creativity Lies: Street Food in Singapore
By Blake Beshore, Special Contributor
Blake Beshore’s picture

You would be hard-pressed to find a more diverse and creative food scene than at the inaugural World Street Food Congress in Singapore. The Congress featured 10 days of education, recognition, and celebration of the street food world and hosted some of the most influential movers and shakers in the food industry. Host KF Seetoh, Anthony Bourdain, Claus Meyer, Daniel Wang, Johnny Chan, James Oseland, Vo Quoc, and Brett Burmeister were there, to name a few.

But it wasn’t just the novelty of unique, traditional food sold streetside that brought the event to life. Singapore’s street food culture is one that all countries could benefit from following. Here’s what I learned after spending a few days in the midst of 37 different food stalls with cuisines originating from 10 different countries.

The Need for Street

The conference was divided into two components: the Jamboree, which allowed visitors to experience many different types of street food through its 37 different stalls, and a two-day dialogue with many of the prominent speakers in attendance. Anthony Bourdain, the host of CNN’s culinary experience show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, was the keynote speaker. I had seen Bourdain speak once before, but not with this much passion in his voice. He spoke of the origins of street food and expressed that this type of food did not spawn from abundance, but rather from necessity, poverty, oppression, and deprivation.

Street food originated from the twin problems of vendors needing an income and customers looking for low-cost, on-the-go food options. Vendors and individuals found ways to use every part of an animal for consumption and implemented many techniques to make the food last longer and taste better.

Bourdain followed this part of his presentation by explaining that street food is also about storytelling: telling an intimate story of family heritage. Love of street food runs through family lines, and the tradition is passed down to the next generation, keeping the entire industry alive.

This family tradition aspect of street food is what differs most from food in America. Bourdain blamed the fast-food culture in the States for a lot of problems — even pointing to the surge in popularity of McDonald’s and KFC in China. Their popularity has begun to weaken the importance of traditional cuisine because younger generations are taking a less active role in preserving their cultures’ cuisine and comfort food.

Keeping the Business Alive

Street food is a way into — not a way out of — the food industry. It allows countless people to share their passion and showcases the entrepreneurial spirit of many of the vendors. The investment or barrier to entry is low for many cooks, so it’s an appealing business opportunity with large growth potential.

However, increased regulations have put street food vendors on the defensive and made it difficult for them to earn a living. Many people have called into question the sanitary aspects of street food. To put it in perspective, we have to consider the consumers of street food. Vendors and cooks selling the food are most likely selling it to their neighbors — not tourists. It’s a local business. Their neighbors will always be there to judge good food from bad, and because they’re cooking for their neighbors, many of the vendors take pride in providing quality, sanitary food to their friends and families.

The way street food is served in Singapore is also changing. It still remains street food at heart, but it’s now served in a more Western-style setting, with stalls and booths lined up in a warehouse. It’s reminiscent of a mall food court, and each vendor is rated for sanitation quality. The cuisine is becoming more accessible and cleaner in an effort to preserve street food’s existence.

Street Food in America

Could this model of Asian street food be replicated and maintained in the U.S.? Possibly. With proper regulation, active and curious eaters, and food vendors in each major city, there’s a chance that street food could be the future of food sales in America if we use the Singapore model. But it would risk being trashed and propagandized by the uninformed and uneducated.

Street food isn’t just a food sale service. It’s an industry born of tradition and heritage that once strived to soften the blows of poverty and deprivation. It might be a new and unique way to eat a meal in a foreign country, but it has a bigger story behind it than just that — one that needs to be preserved.


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