Where Creativity Lies: Street Food in Singapore

Author and chef Blake Beshore updates us on his travels through Asia
Anthony Bourdain was the event's keynote speaker.

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.

Blake Beshore is the co-author of the James Beard Award-winning book “Notes from A Kitchen: A Journey Inside Culinary Obsession,” and is the co-founder of Tatroux LLC, a growing culinary arts publishing company. Connect with Blake on Twitter and Google+.

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