Archive for the Food category

September 24th, 2013

How Bangkok Does Street Food

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


As a corollary to last week’s post about street food in Canada, I thought I’d look at how it’s done in Bangkok, where food vendors can be found on every street at just about every hour of the day. Though it suffers from capital city syndrome, which means the food isn’t quite as good as you’d find in more provincial cities like Chiang Mai — “What’s served on the city’s streets does not generally dazzle, and you really have to pick and choose carefully,” writes Robyn Eckhart on Eating Asia — it’s an impressive spread if you consider numbers alone. There must be tens of thousands of food hawkers in Bangkok, which puts the 27 recently licenced by Montreal into perspective.

Like many small entrepreneurs in Bangkok, street food vendors occupy a grey zone between formal and informal, legal and illegal. Unlike in Chinese cities, where street vending is entirely illegal and hawkers risk being fined (or worse) by the notorious chengguan, Bangkok makes allowances for vendors by setting aside certain areas for hawking at certain times of day. It’s a humane approach that has allowed a diverse range of vendors to flourish, most of them focusing on just one or two specialties — satay, beef noodles, roast meats, durian, fruit juices.

So far, there’s nobody shunting them into food courts, like in Hong Kong or Singapore, and there’s no committee of culinary experts who vet every menu for healthiness or cultural value, like in Canada. As Eckhart writes in the Wall Street Journal, “Street food is diffuse and hyper-local by its very nature. So there can be no one-size-fits-all formula for the growth and change of its cultures.” And Bangkok, with its countless varieties of street stalls — from quasi-permanent stalls to itinerant pushcarts — embodies that principle very nicely.


September 18th, 2013

Food Trucks in Five Cities

Posted in Canada, Food, Public Space, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher DeWolf

It was one of my most memorable meals in Canada: fried, profoundly sweet local beets; a spicy stir-fried mélange of brussel sprouts and cauliflower; and British Columbia haddock served with naan and rice in a coconut curry. And it all came from a truck — actually, two trucks, to be precise, Le Tigre and Vij’s Railway Express, both of which were parked in a vacant lot just off Vancouver’s False Creek, where around 20 food stalls assemble each Sunday for the Food Cart Fest.

It was one of those impossibly clear, sunny days that make BC summers so spectacular, and as I sat on a curb, plastic fork plunging into styrofoam container, I thought about how improbable these trucks really were. Like most Canadian cities, street food in Vancouver was for years limited to precooked sausages reheated on a barbecue. Serviceable enough, but this was food to fill your belly, not stimulate your appetite, the unfortunate byproduct of health regulations that saw sodium-packed, industrially-processed cylinders of beef as somehow safer than freshly-prepared meats and vegetables. Then came the first sign of innovation, in 2007, when recent Japanese transplant Noriki Tamura began serving seaweed-laden hot dogs at his Burrard Street stall, Japadog. At the time, Vancouver had 120 street food carts, all of which were restricted to selling hot dogs, ice cream and soft drinks. Japadog pushed the limits of that regime as far as they would go. In 2010, they finally gave way. Following in the footsteps of the gourmet food truck boom in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Vancouver opened its streets to a panoply of delights normally reserved for bricks-and-mortar restaurants: Taiwanese pork belly sliders, fresh Pacific seafood, Australian meat pies.

I spent most of the past month in Canada, travelling not quite from coast to coast, but at least from the Georgia Strait to the shores of the St. Lawrence. (“What are you, on a fucking grand tour of Canada?” asked Steve Welch when I walked into his bookstore last week.) Food trucks followed me wherever I went. In Parksville, a small beach town on Vancouver Island, I passed by a wood-fired pizza truck. I got a milkshake from the dubiously-named Mr. Soft and Delight in downtown Toronto. And I scouted out the new fleet of food trucks that are cruising the streets of Montreal, the first time in 66 years that street food has been allowed in the city.


January 23rd, 2013

The Sacred Food Court


Seats of imperial power are often regarded with a certain reverence — they provoke admiration, astonishment, even fear. That’s certainly the case in New Delhi, where British colonialists built a series of massive, belittling monuments to their rule, or in Washington, DC, where the Mall is increasingly seen by its National Park Service administrators not as a civic gathering place but as a kind of “semi-sacred site of national, secular religion.”

Ancient Rome wasn’t like that. One of the points underlined in Mary Beard’s review of Clare Holleran’s new book Shopping in Ancient Rome is “the ubiquity of buying and selling in Roman towns and cities beyond designated shops or markets, or in areas where you might not quite expect it.” That includes the Forum, which was “buzzing with trade as much as with law and politics,” but also “some of the very grandest buildings in Rome,” which “were built specially to accommodate retail alongside their ceremonial function.”

The Temple of Castor included a series of bars and shops built right into its podium, which evidence suggests included, at some point, a shoemaker’s shop and a barber-cum-dentist’s shop (“as we can tell from the large number of extracted teeth found in its drain”). “The religious and ceremonial life of the temple obviously went on against a backdrop of ravens squawking, cobblers hammering and the screams of those having their teeth pulled,” writes Beard.

There’s a similar (though much tamer) scene on the edge of the Wufenpu clothing market in the east end of Taipei, where a row of hawker stalls is integrated into a Chinese temple. A number of stalls serve food and they use the interior courtyard of the temple as a dining area. As I munched on minced-pork noodles beneath red lanterns and a list of temple donors pasted on the wall, a couple of old men set off a string of firecrackers behind me. None of the other diners paid much heed. A man walked his dog through the courtyard.


August 22nd, 2012

What is Street Food?

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food, Latin America, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


Robyn Eckhardt asks a deceptively simple question today on Eating Asia: what is street food? The answer seems obvious, because street food is food that is bought and consumed on the street. Pretzels? Okay. Noodle soups? Sure. Satay? Of course. But there’s more to it. Eckhart writes that, beyond location, the essence of street food comes from three crucial elements: “immediacy, proximity and specialization.”

It’s an interesting argument because it upends traditional notions of street food. Hong Kong’s dai pai dong are generally seen as street food, but when they serve two dozen tables with a menu of 50 dishes, they fail to meet any one of Eckhardt’s criteria. They’re outdoor restaurants more than anything else. By the same token, the hawker centres of Singapore and kopi tiam of Malaysia serve street food even if they are technically off-street food courts.

Last March, I found myself in Puerto Vallarta, a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which is where tequila and mariachi music come from. Vallarta is a balneario — a seaside resort town — and it was little more than an obscure fishing village until tourists began arriving in the middle of the twentieth century. But it’s a surprisingly pleasant place, without too much of the spring break tackiness associated with resorts like Cancun or Cabo San Lucas. It doesn’t take much effort to stray into neighbourhoods that feel pretty normal, and this being Mexico, normal means an abundance of street food. So much of what makes Mexican cuisine great — slow-cooked meats, hand-pressed tortillas, fresh herbs and condiments — lends itself to the immediacy, proximity and specialization of street food.


January 30th, 2012

Rebuilding the Market Economy

It used to be routine: wake up, walk to the wet market and buy the day’s fresh ingredients for dinner. Markets have always been a part of Hong Kong life, but these days, they are losing ground to supermarkets, whose numbers have grown exponentially over the past two decades.

Chain supermarkets Wellcome and Park’n’Shop now control more than 70 percent of the grocery sector, while the number of independent grocery stores and wet market stalls has declined by more than half since 1996. Tofu merchant Cheung Ching-loi says business at his stall in Tai Yuen Market declined by 60 percent over the past decade.

Other market vendors tell a similar story: fewer customers, quieter markets. In the government’s 102 public markets, one out of every seven stalls is vacant. The vacancy rate is similar in markets run by the Housing Authority and The Link Reit, a publicly-traded corporation that bought 96 markets from the government in 2005.

The situation became so bad at some markets they were simply shut down. Before it closed last year, the government-run Mong Kok Market was more than 60 percent empty. Vendors placed the blame not only on changing consumption habits, but on the market environment: wet, dirty, cluttered and poorly-ventilated.

That was certainly the case at Tai Yuen, which is located near the heart of the Tai Wo shopping district in the suburban town of Tai Po. Thirty years after its construction in 1980, half its stalls stood empty. Customers were so sparse that merchants took the afternoon as an opportunity to nap. There was no natural light, little ventilation and no air conditioning. The roof leaked when it rained.


June 26th, 2011

Morning Coffee: Navarino

Posted in Canada, Food, Interior Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


Eight years ago, I was an undergraduate student in Montreal, living in a two-room apartment that had nice wood floors but no natural light. One morning in early December, I awoke with my girlfriend, who had an end-of-semester exam, and as we left my building we discovered a thick blanket of fresh show that had been deposited on the city overnight. I remember a few things from that day. The first was my fatigue — getting up before eleven o’clock has never been one of my strengths. The second was the sunshine, which was brilliant in a way that it can only be on a cold day immediately after a snowstorm. The third was where we went after we left my apartment and trudged north up Park Avenue: Navarino.

Wedged between a former Banque Nationale and Lipa Klein’s kosher supermarket, Navarino is a Greek bakery-café that has been run by the Tsatoumas family since the early 1960s. Originally, it was just a bakery, but in the economic doldrums of the mid-1990s, when Montreal was still reeling from Quebec’s second referendum on national sovereignty, the younger generation of the Tsatoumas clan installed some tables and started selling coffee. That appealed to the layabout bohemians drawn into the neighbourhood by the cheap rent and good food left behind by departing Jewish, Greek, Portuguese and Italian immigrants.

By the time I moved to the neighbourhood, Navarino had taken on the appearance of a well-worn dive, with a rusted 60s-style sign in French and Greek, on which stood a comely waitress holding up a cake. For years, the staff behind the counter consisted only of young women who were called Les déesses de Navarino, according to a sign taped to the tip jar.

New Navarino


April 28th, 2011

The Mysterious Origins of Hong Kong Cuisine

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food, History, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Hong Kong-style pastries for sale in Mongkok

Every day for more than 60 years, the ovens of the Mido Café have churned out dozens of crispy pineapple buns for breakfast tea. Better known by their Chinese name, bolo bau, pineapple buns are the most emblematic of Hong Kong snacks: light, fluffy and filling, with sweet, crunchy crust on top.

But when Mido’s third-generation owner, 59-year-old Wong Sing-fan, is asked where the bolo bau comes from, she looks nonplussed. “It’s from the British,” she says hesitantly, before adding, “They have them in England, right?”

Hong Kong-style cuisine, known for its peculiar marriage of Western and Chinese tastes, is perhaps the city’s most beloved contribution to the world, Cantopop aside. Local staples like bolo bau, milk tea and macaroni soup have followed Hong Kong people wherever they go, from the suburbs of Vancouver to the streets of Shanghai. But for all their notoriety, the origins of these pastries, drinks and dishes are unclear.

“It’s a bit of a mystery,” says Lingnan University historian Lau Chi-pang while nibbling on an egg tart at Honolulu Café in Wan Chai. “Some of us scholars are very interested in knowing where they came from, but it’s quite tricky because their origins are not documented. Basically, we have no idea where to start.”

A large part of the problem is that few bakers or cooks in the past bothered to write down their original recipes. That is especially true in the case of popular cuisine meant for everyday dining. With no food-obsessed TV shows or websites like OpenRice to document their creation, the story of how most dishes came to be has been lost to the fog of time.


April 12th, 2011

Hanoi’s Sunflower Youth

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food, Public Space, Society and Culture by Patrick Donovan

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

There’s something different going on next to Saint Joseph Cathedral in Hanoi. This is a popular gathering place for middle-class youth, but they’re not sitting around drinking beer like the kids in the old city. Nor are these western-influenced young Vietnamese sitting around drinking tall mochachino lattés.

Hanoi, Vietnam


February 16th, 2011

Hong Kong Tastes Like Honey

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Food, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

I’ve always liked honey. Who doesn’t? But I never really understood it. Back in Canada, when I ventured into the supermarket and gazed at the various kinds of honey for sale, I was mystified by the clover honey and blueberry honey, which I bought and tried, only to find it had the same musty sweetness as any kind of honey.

That changed last month when I visited the Wing Wo Bee Farm in Hong Kong. To get there, my girlfriend Laine and I took the train to Shatin MTR station, trudged through the crowds heading to IKEA, and walked up the hilly paths that lead through the village of Pai Tau. After ten minutes, as houses gave way to thick woods, we found ourselves in front of a collection of wood boxes. Wind rustled through the leaves of the trees overhead. The warbly sound of a horn floated down from the monastery. I barely noticed the thousands of bees buzzing around.

We were greeted by the farm’s owner, Yip Ki-hok, a slight, ruddy-skinned man who spoke with the accent of his native Wai Yeung, a small town about 100 kilometres north of where we were standing. (Hong Kong, which is pronounced Heung Gong in standard Cantonese, came out as Hiong Gong when Yip spoke).

“These are Chinese bees — foreign bees need more space, they like big open fields, so they aren’t suitable for Hong Kong,” Yip said as he gestured towards the boxes, which each contain more than 10,000 bees. “They extract liquid from mountain trees. In the winter they go to ap geuk mok, these trees right above here. The flowers bloom after the winter solstice until mid-February.”


February 10th, 2011

Bees in the City

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Environment, Food, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Photo by Nelson Chan

It’s late on a sunny morning and Michael Leung is skulking around on the roof of an old factory building, tending to the potted flowers that feed his hungry workers: an army of 30,000 bees.

“Right now this roof is just used for smoking, but eventually we want to cover at least half of it with beehives,” he says, gathering dead plants that he was too busy to water while participating in the Detour art and design festival last December.

The hives are housed in three wooden boxes, each with a small entrance giving bees access inside. As hundreds bees pour out of the boxes, new bees arrive with bundles of pollen tucked under their appendages.

“Look,” says Leung. “Some of the pollen is yellow, some is orange.” He looked around at the surrounding walls and rooftops. His withered plants were the only green things in sight. “I’m not sure where they’re getting it. Maybe it’s one of the parks nearby.”

Leung, a 27-year-old product designer, is an unlikely beekeeper. For one thing, he didn’t know anything about bees more than a year ago. “I used to be really scared of them,” he says. Now he is the brain behind HK Honey, a new project that aims to promote local food and urban agriculture by uniting Hong Kong beekeepers and designers.

“It’s unclear where our food actually comes from,” says Leung. “The goal is to introduce local food through a creative medium.”


January 16th, 2011

Hong Kong’s Dai Pai Dong: Uncertain Future

This is the second part of a two-part series on the future of Hong Kong’s dai pai dong street eateries. Read the first part here.

Steaming hot chicken in Yiu Tung Street, Sham Shui Po

While the dai pai dong in Central have been given a new lease on life, it’s another story in Sham Shui Po, where the survival of 14 dai pai dong remains uncertain.

In 2009, the Central and Western District Council accepted the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department’s proposal to loosen dai pai dong licence restrictions, but the Sham Shui Po District Council rejected the offer.

“The current mode of operation of dai pai dong in the district had given rise to environmental nuisances such as street obstruction, noise, littering, waste water and greasy fumes, resulting in a number of complaints from nearby residents,” said a spokesman for the FEHD.

As a result, the spokesman said, the district council refused to support any change to the status quo until these hygiene problems were dealt with.

But the district council’s vice-chairman, Tam Kwok-kiu, said that the council’s position on dai pai dong was actually more nuanced. “Some types of dai pai dong just provide breakfast, night meals, coffee or toast, and they’re quite welcomed by the residents of the district,” he said. “On the other hand, there are some that operate like restaurants with fried food and Chinese dishes, and they really cause much nuisance.”


January 16th, 2011

Hong Kong’s Dai Pai Dong: A Bitter Taste

Toy dai pai dong model in the G.O.D. Street Culture Gallery

When six dai pai dong vanished from Hong Kong’s Central district last year, fans of wok hei street food were worried that the street food stalls had disappeared for good.

Now they’re back, shiner than ever after five months of renovations. New gas lines, sewers and electric cables have been installed, and the old green dai pai dong stalls have given way to custom-built stainless steel booths.

Dai pai dong are an emblem of Hong Kong street food; their names literally mean “big plate stall,” referring to the special licence plates issued for the stalls in the 1950s. New change of rules by the government allows dai pai dong licences to be passed down to the owner’s offspring, meaning that, for the first time since the 1970s, dai pai dong can outlive their licence holders.

But dai pai dong owners are far from happy. They say the renovation process was hampered by red tape and bureaucratic indifference, leaving them penniless and seething with anger.

“I’m very frustrated,” said the owner of Yue Hing, a Stanley Street tea stall, who asked to be identified by his nickname, Ah Fei. “The government dropped the ball and now we’re suffering because of it. It shouldn’t have had to be like this.”


December 14th, 2010

Fighting Food Inflation in Shanghai

While their boats were moored along the Huangpu River, southwest of the Bund, Shanghai’s Shangchuan Huiguan (商船会馆), or Merchant Shipping Hall, accommodated traders both wheeling and dealing and seeking to rest for the night.

While the Hall itself is authorized for preservation, all the surrounding living quarters have fallen to the wrecking ball. A family from Anhui currently lives on the site, responsible for organizing the razing. On my last trip, I noticed many plots of vegetables surrounding the Hall, on what had been rubble only months ago. Any leftover vegetables were laid out to dry in various parts of the house.


November 25th, 2010

How a Roast Duck Sees Chinatown

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Food by Christopher DeWolf

Melbourne’s Chinatown as shot with a camera made from a duck

Earlier this week, I paid a visit to Martin Cheung‘s studio in the Cattle Depot Artists’ Village in To Kwa Wan. I was there to speak to him about his work with pinhole photography, a medium that uses crude, handmade cameras to record images that often look as rough as the devices that made them.

We spoke for awhile about Cheung’s fascination with pinhole photography. It’s meditative and not as aggressive as conventional photography, he told me, and it forces you to consider the process of taking a photo rather than the result. He showed me how to make a simple pinhole camera with paper and tape. Then the conversation turned to ducks.

Cheung studied art in Melbourne, where he also worked in a Chinese restaurant as a waiter and kitchenhand. Nine years ago, in his final year of study, Cheung had a thought: “Roast duck is such a symbol of Chinese cooking, so I wanted to see how the duck saw Chinatown.” So he bought a roast duck and turned it into a pinhole camera.