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.