Stuff On Chips: Street food brands in the UK and our quest for authenticity
It’s an all too familiar sight now, walking around a street food festival looking for something exciting, something real and authentic or even just TASTY, to be confronted with an ‘Asian street food’ stand with the same old items, gimmicky business name and the obligatory something on chips option. The UK street food scene (think craft beer, DJs, small dogs) has gone in a certain direction in the last few years – it’s become very fashionable to set up a little food business, the industry is growing very quickly and is hugely popular now – but quality and authenticity seem to be getting lost somewhere along the line. A lot of the time just being in the ‘scene’ seems to be the only thing that matters. Pop something in a box, zigzag with 3 to 48 different sauces and hey presto you’ve got street food!
In a country with no real street food culture of its own, it seems strange nobody is really trying to recreate one and it’s almost become a hobby for amateurs that are into food, just pick a culture or cuisine, and give catering a bash. In countries with rich street food cultures, the owners of these businesses are masters of their trade, sometimes just perfecting one dish and cooking it their entire life before passing on the knowledge to the next generation. I love street food and I want that in this country. It’s hard to not feel a bit cheated when you are served food claiming to be ‘authentic street food’ when in fact it’s been cooked by someone with no connection to that culture, food knowledge, or even any proper skills. I’m not saying these people should not set up a food business, but it should be authentic to them. Sometimes it feels traders are indulging themselves and not the customer. There are some excellent street food businesses out there with amazing authentic food, but these days they seem to be few and far between.
Over the last year, I’ve been working along with my partner Hannah on, ‘Little Yellow Rice Co’, a supper club/street food brand that will showcase food from Penang, Nyonya and Peranakan culture, and be as authentic as possible. LYRCo is a celebration of Hannah’s heritage and family history, telling a story through the food she remembers as a child growing up in Penang. It’s a project she has always wanted to pursue, to tell the story of her history, share the amazing food and preserve the culture. This cultural link to the food, for me, is key to the business, and although I’m a trained chef and it’s a cuisine I love; would not have felt comfortable starting without that connection to the culture through Hannah and her family history.
Part of the process of setting up the business involved a two week trip to Penang to eat and experience as much of the food as possible, to learn how the food was cooked, how it was served, and even to buy and use the same plates and bowls they use. Our signature dish is Hainanese chicken rice – skin-on poached chicken served with rice and chilli sauce and served on a neon melamine plate. Many people will not have seen anything like this before and may even be put off by it (until they try it!) but keeping it authentic is the goal, this is about discovery and experience. We want every aspect of the business to be as true to the subject food and culture as possible. The name of the business originated as the ‘Yellow’ in the name comes from Hannah’s mother’s family name ‘Ooi’ which translates to yellow. The branding was created by Lucas Jubb of Turtle and Hare Studio who has even spent a few months living in Penang himself, so he understands the food and culture very well. He has a shared passion for authentic food, especially street food and has worked on other well respected food brands, so we couldn’t have found a better designer.
I have thought for a long time now that food claiming to be ‘street food’ with a region, culture or certain cuisine attached to it could have some sort of certification, kind of like a street food version of ‘protected designation of origin’ so people know they are getting the real deal. There’s no need to dumb down street food in this country, the customers aren’t stupid. It’s time for the scene to up its game, let’s have real street food, food we’ve never seen or eaten before, one menu item cooked perfectly, authentic vegetarian and vegan food – not just tokenistic efforts…… and unless it’s poutine, currywurst or classic British battered fish – less of the stuff on chips please!