A group of culinary pioneers is raising the quality of British street food. Make mine a burgerby William Skidelsky / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
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“Why don’t we do it in the road?” the Beatles sang in 1968. Today in Britain, that question is being posed by a group of culinary pioneers who are bringing gourmet food to the outdoors. The “street food revolution” (as some are calling it) is still in its infancy, and largely confined to a few trendy, predominantly east London locations, such as Broadway Market in Hackney, Exmouth Market in Farringdon, and Whitecross Street in the City. But even if talk of revolution is overblown, this is more than a hipsterish fad. For much of the last century, it has been almost axiomatic in Britain that food bought outdoors must be greasy, cheap and tasteless. Finally, we are realising that on-the-hoof urban dining can be genuinely enjoyable.
But what exactly are we talking about here? Street food has a long history, and its newest incarnation should be distinguished from what has gone before. According to Petra Barran, the owner of Choc Star (a van specialising in unusual chocolate products), Britain last had a vibrant street food scene in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when hawkers in city streets would sell dishes to the poor. But in the 1920s, licensing laws were tightened and food traders were confined to markets. At a stroke, the kind of riotous street food gathering that you find in much of Asia was made impossible. For most of the 20th century, burger and kebab vans were as good as it got.
Now, local councils are becoming more relaxed about street food, and something of the old tradition is reviving. Yet as Barran notes, this scene is a “romanticised and reimagined” version of its predecessor. “It’s not serving people who are too poor to have their own kitchens,” she says. “Instead it’s catering primarily to culinary adventurers, people who want something more exciting, more authentic and personal.” She also points out that it’s different from the mobile dining scene that has existed in America since the 1970s, and which springs primarily from immigrant communities.
Most street food traders agree the new interest has a lot to do with the recession. Britain was becoming more relaxed in its attitude to food before the crash, but since then there has been even more of an emphasis on informality and simplicity. Supper clubs have…