If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? What came first, the chicken or the egg? If my grandfather’s axe had its handle replaced by my father, and its head replaced by me, is it still my grandfather’s axe?
To these ancient puzzles, I add one more.
Is street food still street food if neither sold nor eaten on the streets?
This deep philosophical question was running through my head as I wandered through the dark, smoky party that was Street Feast at Hawker House. Ten food stalls and four bars, housed in a old factory now full of cheap tables and chairs, this was the first winter market put on by the Street Feast team.
It felt like an underground warehouse rave for middle class hipster foodies. And it was fabulous. From the sticky, smoked pork ribs to the luxury of a lobster roll, the food was all pretty excellent, and the whisky bar really knew how to make a Boulvadier. I was in my element.
But the entire event was inside, under a roof. Bao, tacos and chicken wings may be thought of as street food, but here the closest you could get to the street was to head out for a smoke. You were more likely to be sitting up in a rickety little loft than seeing anything resembling a road. In that case, does it still count as street food?
Perhaps my idea of street food is a little too romantic, though. Maybe it’s too proscriptive to think that the street is a major part of it. No longer do we have the tiny little cart selling oysters or smoked fish on the corner. That’s an image of the long past, kept in my head from books and movies.
Even the food truck culture seems to have moved on, though. You read about the early days of Kogi, Roi Choi’s Korean taco truck from LA that was one of the first big stars in the field, and they talk about pulling up to a parking lot alone until someone saw the cops and they fled. There was something special about that, and if you kept an eye on Twitter you could really get an experience. That was only in 2008, too!
Here in London, I’ve seen many food trucks, but none of them by themselves. They seem to live in clusters, forming little market squares on a set day in a set location, the same few options every week. In a little square off Brick Lane that had some great little vans, some of them looked like they weren’t able to move at all.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The street food markets and convoys are great fun. You get to choose between a number of different options, all at reasonable prices, all generally pretty good quality. It’s just that it feels like a food court more than a street stall. An exceptionally good food court, for sure, but still.
Which brings me back to my question. Is the term “street food” even useful in a city like London? This is a city where nearly every food is sold from a van or a stall somewhere, but also served on a white tablecloth. When you can get roast chicken by the roadside and fried chicken at fine dining it makes the distinction a little meaningless.
So I don’t know if the sliders and sorbets and Hot Toddies being sold at Hawker House really are street food. What I do know is that it is really, really good food. This is a group of businesses at the top of their game, coming together to create an atmosphere of celebration. It’s worth the smoke and crowds and hipsters.
They have two more weeks before they pack up shop. If anyone is in London, you should get yourself there. Take the party off the streets.