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A new culinary creed: Street food and the revival of ‘Made in the UK’

Interview with Evening Standard journalist Victoria Stewart

Street food has always been part of London’s culinary landscape, but in the past decade it has taken on a new and exciting character of its own. To find out a little more about why, we sat down for a chat with our new food Insider, Victoria Stewart.

Victoria Stewart

Perhaps it was something to do with the economic downturn, but there has been a kind of entrepreneurial spirit since. 

Street food has gone from being almost functional to being a really on-trend and dynamic part of London’s food culture – how do you account for this change?

Food culture has undergone something of a revolution in the past decade. Prior to the recession, there was a good deal less variety in the kinds of places you could go to eat out. Although there were obviously huge differences amongst restaurants both in terms of menus and prices, there wasn’t really much to challenge the basic restaurant paradigm.

Perhaps it was something to do with the economic downturn, but there has been a kind of entrepreneurial spirit since. This is something you really notice in the food sector. In some cases, chefs who had been working in busy kitchens wanted to try something new and strike out on their own. In others, people were bringing back the ideas of food and street food they’d encountered in the Americas and south-east Asia. Suddenly all this new energy was generated around the idea of eating out. Street food outlets – like food trucks and market stalls – are the perfect way to try out ideas without the massive overhead associated with restaurants.

New British Food Street FoodPeering into the window of the iconic St. John Bakery, known for its fantastic doughnuts. 

The idea of doing one or two things really well works both in terms of the business model and from a socializing point of view

The idea of a food truck is not unfamiliar to the world of festivals and markets, and it must lend itself well to people wanting to sell a specific range of dishes…

It’s funny that you mention festivals because KERB (the indie street food collective with markets all over the city) was started by Petra Barran following her experience running a food truck for those events. She and a few others saw that the ambience and ethos would work well in the capital, and I think that spirit really embodies what the food scene is all about now: it’s fun, informal, exciting and often cutting edge too.

There’s something undeniably dynamic about food made in this way, isn’t there?

The idea of using a van to sell food felt fresh at the time, and it was picked up very quickly. A portable outlet is really well-suited to markets and pop-up events, which are now such an important part of London’s social calendar – especially when it comes to eating.

The other important difference is that street food vendors usually focus on a small range of foods, so they might become known for producing their version of dumplings, a vegan burger or jerk chicken skewers. The idea of doing one or two things really well works both in terms of the business model and from a socializing point of view: it enables people to meet, pick a few dishes and socialise without being tied to a table or a menu.

Street Food UKSharing some freshly made meat snacks with a side of hot sauce at Billy Frank’s. 

So the way we now think about food and socialise with food has really changed?

Absolutely. The way we talk about food has changed – and I mean across the board. This applies not only to people who dine in restaurants but also those who cook at home. There’s culinary inspiration whichever way you look now – from TV to Instagram and the world of food blogs, right down to the one-to-one interactions with producers and chefs you might find at markets and in these street food hubs.

It’s as much about learning to speak about what you’re eating as it is about the eating itself. That’s definitely changed.

There’s a very long tradition of regional food in the UK, but it isn’t always lauded – why do you think that is?

I think some of it comes down to the British propensity for modesty – we have amazing regional produce, most of which has a very long history and tradition, but we’ve not always been brilliant at celebrating that. People are more open to talking about it now, and there have been some fantastic new artisan makers coming up who can share what they do on platforms like social media as well.

A lot of this I found when I was at the Evening Standard: food trends were coming from America and there was a language, a way of talking about food – we’ve picked up on both, which is fun. It’s as much about learning to speak about what you’re eating as it is about the eating itself. That’s definitely changed.

Victoria Stewart Street Food

London seems to have a more fluid sense of communities and cultures than some other cities – is that reflected in the food world too?

I think it’s a very fluid thing: there’s a noticeable change in food culture with each wave of immigration that we see, and although it might not quite be contained in certain areas as it is in other cities, you do get pockets of it. I live in Brixton where there is food from the Caribbean but also incredible Ethiopian and Eritrean food. It’s mad that it isn’t more popular really, but I’ve no doubt it will become so at some point.

What we do see is an interesting melding of food cultures across the city, in terms of how people mix their idea of traditional British food with flavours or techniques from other countries. We’ve all heard how curry is one of our national dishes, but the mainstream version of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi curries don’t really represent the enormous range from those places. Then just think of Italian food, which is now so widespread that we probably don’t even think of it as having once being novel.

British Food tapasA sharing plate of Padrón peppers at Josē Pizarro. 

Food is a great leveller: we’re all united by this need to eat, but now we’re enthused about what we’re eating too.

What about that balance between authenticity and creativity?

Well, one example is a place in Peckham called Mr Bao which does Taiwanese bao buns (among other things) and it’s brilliant. They mix up a lot of different culinary traditions and one of their signature dishes is a bao bun with a kind of eggs Benedict filling, which is hugely popular.

Someone who’s only ever eaten the authentic kind of bao might think it is a terrible idea, but they’re really popular and people love the combination. Of course, it’s always a bit political to get into fusion and traditional foods, but I think it can be exciting. We share space in this city with so many people, it would be a shame if we didn’t mix ideas.

That’s why markets and street food events are so vibrant. They’re full of all kinds of people from all kinds of places, selling all kinds of food. There’s loud music, long queues, warm cosy corners and big shared tables. It’s grubbier than a restaurant experience and much more low key, yet dynamic at the same time. Food is a great leveller: we’re all united by this need to eat, but now we’re enthused about what we’re eating too.

Victoria is one of our food & drink Insiders and leads a New British Foods Experience in Bermondsey. Join Victoria to go behind the scenes of the London food scenes, meet the makers, and taste some of the best bites the city has to offer.