Matters of taste: Street food

A group of culinary pioneers is raising the quality of British street food. Make mine a burger
April 20, 2011
On the Meatwagon: Yianni Papoutsis’s venture was a huge hit—but then his van was stolen

“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 become fashionable, as have “pop-up” restaurants. Quality fast-food outlets have appeared, such as the Mexican chain Barburrito in the north of England. The popularity of street food goes along with this desire for value, speed and quality, and the wish to eat in unusual settings.

For the traders themselves, a depressed job market has made starting a food stall an attractive option. But it also reflects something else: the growing number of keen amateur cooks in Britain. For people who love cooking and want a professional outlet for their passion, setting up a stall or buying a van is a sensible way to get started—certainly much cheaper than opening a café or restaurant. It’s a means of becoming a chef of sorts without submitting to the rigours of a professional kitchen.

A typical case is 30-year-old Simon Luardos, who runs a burrito stall at Whitecross Street market. Always a keen cook, he did some work for Barran, a family friend. Not really being “able to think of any other job to do,” he bought a lime green Citroën H van (the vehicle of choice for the modern mobile food purveyor), took a crash course in Mexican chillies, and set up his stall. Every weekday he pitches up at 7am to prepare his salsa, carnitas and guacomole. In the summer, he cooks at festivals. He relishes the life of a modern-day street hawker, although one of his colleagues, John, admits that preparing the same food every day can be monotonous.

Another of the new breed of street food chefs is Yianni Papoutsis, creator of the infamous Meatwagon, a van selling burgers and other types of southern American barbecue food. Until December last year, Papoutsis would pitch up at short notice in grimy south London locations: a car park in Peckham, or by the towpath in Hackney. He built up a devoted following, who justly described his burgers in rapturous terms. Then disaster struck: the van was stolen and never recovered. In February, Papoutsis set up a pop-up restaurant—the Meateasy—on the first floor of a New Cross pub. This venture proved a huge success, attracting hundreds of customers every night before closing in mid-April. Papoutsis plans to use the money from the venture to buy a new wagon.

Papoutsis, who attended the London public school Dulwich College, is an odd combination of food nerd and ideologue. He speaks of the Meatwagon as a “guerilla dining operation,” and there is something radical about his dedication to finding novel ways to serve food. But this is true, in a way, of all street food, which, as Barran observes, is a kind of protest against the modern tendency for urban space to be mapped out and accounted. “Street food is all about the quest for unaccountability, creating the potential for chance,” she says. Either that, or it’s just a great way to sample good food on the hoof, without paying too much or waiting too long.

Luardos, Choc Star and the Meatwagon will be at the Real Street Food Festival, 29th April-2nd May, South Bank;