My Asian Street Food Odyssey

I can pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with street food. It was a few months into an English teaching job in South Korea. I was at a market stall, squeezed between hungry shoppers over a plate of freshly cooked green onion and octopus pancake. Bumbling and inexperienced with chopsticks, I was already feeling self-conscious when the woman to my right reached over and deposited a huge ladle of chilli sauce on to my plate. Thinking this was a joke at my expense, I was ready to leave when I noticed the knowing smiles and nods of encouragement from my fellow diners. Gingerly, I picked up a piece of sauce smothered pancake and put it in my mouth. From then on I was hooked.

Over the next few months I pursued Korean street food religiously. Emboldened by perceptions of authenticity, I resolved to leave no stone unturned in my quest for the best, cheapest food I could find. It was more than just flavour, street food appealed to the subversive within me, the part that put up Che Guevara posters as a teenager, grew a mowhawk at University and took up the contrary side of an argument just for the sake of it.

Street food felt liberating. At home, good food was something that filtered from the top of society down. Street food on the contrary, was cheap, unpretentious and diverse – and anyone could become a gourmand. I half-jokingly swore never to eat at an expensive restaurant again, and declared when drunk that the best food was enjoyed “shoulder to shoulder with the proles.” I even started a blog to reflect my burgeoning obsession, choosing the name “Street Foodie” to express this juxtaposition of high and low.

And despite all the bluster, my zeal was rewarded. I enjoyed fresh sashimi, killed and prepared on the market floor; live octopus, fresh from the ocean and served pier-side; and all manners of warming pastries filled with honey, cinnamon and sweet bean paste. I ate food that was deep fried, steamed and boiled alive. I dined from the back of trucks, inside tents and on the move. Some was good, some was bad, but I never paid more than a couple of quid and more often than not my fumblings were endured with indulgent smiles and expressions of encouragement.

But I wanted more. Ever since arriving in Korea my girlfriend and I had been putting money aside for an end of contract fling around China and South East Asia. Covertly at first, I began to subsume this trip into my thirst for new street food experiences, suggesting itineraries and destinations with the biggest possible street food potential. I devoured travel books and blogs, and had soon sketched in my mind a five month journey that would take us from the Takoyaki grills of Japan, to the kebab barbecues of China and finally through the pestles and mortars of South East Asia. At the end of my journey was Singapore With its acres of hawker centres and international reputation, the city was a gleaming ideal of street food culture at its most valued and diverse.

The early stages of my trip appeared to support my idea of street food as grassroots gourmet. Tokyo, for all its department store depachikas and Michelin stars, turned out to be a virtual street food desert. Beijing, on the other hand seemed like a street food paradise. One of my first experiences there involved sheltering from torrential rain in a hutong doorway, eating what I presumed to be pork spine covered in a sticky sweet and sour sauce while the vendor looked on approvingly.

It was also in Beijing that my opinion on street food started to get a bit more realistic. For ages I’d been looking forward to visiting the famed Donghuamen Market, but when I finally got there I was disappointed. The market is probably the most cliched expression of Chinese food there is. It’s there that the adventurous can try all manner of scorpions, seahorses, and other photo opportunities on sticks. The vendors fight for your business at vastly inflated prices and the food is generally no more than mediocre fare. The whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth.

The rest of my street food experience in China held surprise and disappointment in equal measure. In Shanghai, street food was virtually non-existent. In Chengdu, the centre of Sichuan cookery, street food had been sanitised, anglicised and limited to a small row of purpose built booths in a major tourist area. Elsewhere, however, the human aspect of street food shone through. In Xian, staging post for a visit to the Terracotta Warriors, a lively Muslim quarter conjured the smells and tastes of the silk road with dishes of cured meat and lamb, spiked with cumin and chili and served by efficient teams of friendly young Chinese Muslims. In Lijiang, a town creaking underneath a tourism boom, the best experiences were to be found away from the main drag down alleys and backstreets and at the bottom of bowls of noodles.

As we snaked through South East Asia I saw this picture repeated again and again. Where there was happiness and pride, good street food prevailed. Where the excesses of tourism or government misrule were abundant, there was listlessness and genericism. In Vietnam I traded banter with elderly cooks while shovelling chicken rice from plastic plates. In Lao I ate vegetarian curries whilst dodging scooters in a drive-thru market. In Thailand I avoided the backpacker bars and instead sought refuge inside a bowl of hot and sour soup. In Cambodia, an amazing country in many ways but one which remains fractured by history and inequality, I almost lost my appetite entirely.

I was beginning to get a picture of street food that went beyond cheapness and accessibility. Everywhere I went, good street food was synonymous with people  and community. Nowhere seemed to exemplify this more than Penang, on the west coast of Malaysia. A crumbling colonial town with significant Chinese, Malay and Indian populations, street food there is part of the cultural threads of the city, overlapping and weaving communities together in co-existence. I’ll never forget being bombarded with advice on where to eat from friendly locals over a bowl of Mee Curry. Or the old Chinese gent who was the picture of congeniality as he prepared thick slices of toast and coconut jam with steaming cups of butter roasted Malaysian coffee from his antique shed on the roadside.

Just as my understanding was beginning to peak however, disaster struck. I ate a bad oyster from a street cart on my last night in Penang and was put out of action for days. Although I was only physically sick for 48 hours, I felt weak for sometime afterwards and developed a new apathy for Asian food and street food – a feeling I unfortunately carried with me across the border into Singapore.

At a time when I should have been in my element, I was at my lowest ebb. I felt disheartened and foolish for investing so much in something that had made meviolently sick, and all I wanted to do was eat burgers and chips. Spurred on by words of encouragement from the blogosphere however, I made a good attempt at fulfilling my street food dreams. I dined well on chicken rice, lamb biriyani and chili crab, but in reality I was just going through the motions.

It wasn’t until Kuala Lumpur, where we stayed for a few days before our flight home, that my enthusiasm returned. In a closing market in the shadow of the Petronas Towers, a girl was tending to a huge pan of fried flat noodles. The noodles were cooked in soy sauce, chili and garlic, and exuded a wonderful flavour and texture. The best part of them, however, was the cook. Beaming a huge smile, she instantly made me feel at ease and graciously permitted my request for photographs.

And that’s when it hit me. The best thing about street food isn’t the price, accessibility or even really the taste.  It’s not about high versus low, or sticking two fingers up to fine dining. Instead, the strength of street food lies in the people who make it. It’s about having a connection with the person who cooked your food, showing them how much you enjoy it, and sharing the experience with others around you. Looking back, I think I knew this all along. It was there when that first plate of pancake was invaded, it was there sheltering with me from the rain in Beijing and in the coffee and toast lovingly prepared in Penang. Where the connection wasn’t made, the experience felt meaningless and depressing.

Food can be an expression of creativity and individuality. With good street food, that creativity becomes condensed and concentrated in the form of one person – doing one thing – the best they possibly can. There is hard work and struggle, but there is also pride, self-reliance and pleasure in making someone else happy. This is the type of people I met through street food, and this is the type of person I want to be.